Egyptian women make progress despite pull for tradition

"In Egypt, there is no such thing as a women's problem: All problems concern the whole of society. If society desires progress and prosperity it should rid itself of its false notions of women." These forthright words were spoken by Jahan al- Sadat, the First Lady of Egypt, at the World Conference of the United Nations Decade for Women, held at Copenhagen last July.

What is the status of women in Egypt today, a troubled country undergoing rapid change? Some recent legislative changes have improved the condition of women, at least on paper -- especially the new family legislation that makes it possible for a woman to get a divorce. It also requires the consent of the first wife in front of a court before a man can take a second wife.

Polygamy, which may seem strange to one who knows the very busy, modern city center of Cairo, is legal in Egypt. Every man is free to have four wives, in keeping with the Muslim code. That few men have several wives is due to the fact that Egypt's population is 40 percent urban, and having several wives and families under urban living conditions is enormously expensive. Besides, the shortage of arable land makes it no longer desirable or necessary to have a large labor force in rural areas -- the compelling economic reason for polygamy in most of rural Africa.

But as with all legislation, especially where it affects women's lives, the new family laws have to be carried out. Most women in Egypt today are illiterate -- they have little opportunity to learn about any laws, let alone appeal for their enforcement. There is an increase in the enrollment of women at all educational levels. In Egypt, however -- as elsewhere (especially in Arab States) -- the gap between educational achievements of women and men is widening.

"Fourteen and a half percent of the total work force is comprised of women," Mrs. Sadat stated. This compares with over 40 percent in most Western countries. The statistic does not mean that 85 percent of Egypt's women are idle. On the contrary, much of the agricultural and subsistence farming, and all the child care, is the work of women -- without any pay, of course. Without the unpaid labor of women, Egypt's economy would instantly come to a halt. Young women return to tradition

Despite those challenging statements of Jahan al-Sadat, there seems to be a return to the past and tradition on the part of many of Egypt's young women. On a recent visit to Cairo and Alexandria, I was astonished to observe the many young women in the streets dressed in long cloaks, their hair completely covered. These young Egyptians are not village women but mainly students, protesting with their dress the "Westernization" of their culture.

ironically, these young women are at a university organized according to Western standards, teaching Western knowledge, Western science, and Western methods of research. Furthermore, they are contradicting their own Egyptian feminist leaders in a confusion of values. Hoda Shaarawi founds Egyptian Feminist Union

The struggle of Egyptian women for equality has a long history. It was under the rules of the Turks that Egyptian women, especially those of wealthy families , were segregated behind locked doors and veiled.

The Turkish system of harems prevailed in Egypt -- prohibiting education of women, who were usually married to their cousins in their early teens or even before -- until the 1920s. Then, one woman, hoda Shaarawi, rebelled. She founded, together with a few other courageous women, the Egyptian Feminist Union , which became a real political force. Hoda Shaarawi's first battle was to increase the marriage age. She herself had been given at 13 to her cousin without her consent, being told about her "marriage" half an hour before it took place.

In 1923, when she returned from a meeting of the International Feminist Union World Conference, Hoda Shaarawi, together with the other Egyptian delegate, Ceza Habarani, discarded their veils. She stepped off the train in Cairo unveiled to meet the government's reception party, with all the press present! Her picture appeared in all the Egyptian papers next day, causing an uproar. But she prevailed and gradually persuaded fathers and husbands to permit women to walk in the streets unveiled. Progress in education, fight for legal rights

This was only the beginning. In asking for equality between men and women, Hoda Shaarawi concentrated on education of women. At the time, there was only one Egyptian school for girls -- after primary education -- in all of Egypt, and this was a teachers' training college. In 1924, the first secondary school for girls was opened, and the first group of women graduated from Cairo University in 1933. Two years later, the first Egyptian women graduated from the Faculties of Law and Medicine. Since then, there has been a steady increase of women at all university faculties.

The Egyptian Feminist Union, led by Hoda Shaarawi, pushed for new legislation on polygamy, on divorce for women, and on raising the age of children's custody for girls until the time of marriage and for boys until puberty. Divorce, which could be effected by the husband's saying three times, "I divorce you," meant that not only was the discarded wife compelled to leave her home, but she was deprived of her children, without any rights.

But, except for the marriage age -- fixed at 16 for girls and 18 for boys -- King Fouad overruled her proposals because of the strong opposition of the Muslim clergymen.

Hoda Shaarawi was instrumental in the establishment of the Arab Feminist Union in 1944 -- long before the foundation of the Arab League.

She also founded a cultural club where women could meet and hold discussions with politicians. But it was not until 1956 that women got the vote -- four years after the revolution of 1952 and 30 years after Hoda Shaarawi and the Feminist Union had first asked for it in their Agenda.Women began to fill government posts, includng those of ministers and undersecretaries, in elected positions. Women's organizations sponsor social programs

In the 1950s and '60s many social programs and services were undertaken by the Feminist Union and other women's organizations concerned with education, skill training for girls, health improvements (such as filtered water for villages), nurseries, child care, nutrition, and family planning. The Egyptian Feminist Union, in memory of its founder, is now called the Hoda Shaarawi association and is headed by Hada Idriss. It sponsors many social programs, including a Youth Committee that works in the poor districts of Cairo.

The Cairo Women's Club, in turn, has concentrated its efforts on village development and rural women. It was founded in 1934 on a multinational basis. Today its membership is predominantly Egyptian, although it offers membership to the first lady of each embassy in Cairo. Under the leadership of Aziza Hussein, the club began in 1949 to cooperate with the Ministry of Social Affairs in a community-development program in the village Sandyoun.The first rural nursery school in Egypt was established and women were encouraged to meet in rural social centers to establish self- help community programs. The traditional village social norm is for women to stay isolated within their families. The first successful rural family-planning centre was established in Sandyoun in 1964. The Sandyoun village program served as an example to other villages, especially in the establishment of nursery schools -- which really serve as child development centers. Family planning moves ahead

The Cairo Women's Club, followed by other women's organizations, provided the leadership in Egypt's Family Planning Movement, beginning in the early 1960s under the guidance of Aziza Hussein.

The population problem was officially acknowledged in the mid-1960s. After 1965, family planning became a government activity. The economic and social problems of a rapidly growing population, in view of limited agricultural land, were finally acted on.

Egypt's population, which is now more than 42 million, lives on only 4 percent of the land -- mostly in the Nile River Valley and Delta; the rest is desert. While the population is growing at the rate of about 1 million a year, the arable land is shrinking. As a result, rural people are streaming into the cities -- especially Cairo. With a population of more than 13 million, the Cairo metropolitan area has become strangled in traffic and so overcrowded that city services are breaking down.

Despite vast amounts of international assistance -- the United States alone has spent more than $60 million on family planning in Egypt -- there is little change in the trend of population growth. One reason is that for the vast majority of women who are still illiterate, the only way to gain recognition and status is by producing large families, especially sons. To have a large number of children means security and is regarded as a woman's chief purpose in life. These attitudes have hardly changed, nor has education reached most women who live segregated, traditional lives of poverty and hard work, resigned to their inferior status.

The status of women is critical for Egypt's future. Unless women are educated in much larger numbers so that they can constructively participate in Egypt's development, they will continue to have large numbers of children in a country that lives on food imports. To turn the clock back and take the veil is not the answer, though it may seem an easy way out to the young women students overwhelmed by the necessity to make decisions.

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