Women and Islam in Egypt

Cairo is a huge, sprawling expanse of people and traffic: noisy, dusty, constantly moving. Surging down its multi-lane avenues and winding back alleys, drivers use their horns every few seconds -- their brakes rarely. You have to be very brave to cross the street in Cairo. You also have to be patient, resilient, and resourceful -- particularly if you are a working woman with a family at home. Modernization, urban migration, and economic necessity have propelled women into the work force. At the same time, increasingly vocal Islamic fundamentalists are urging them to stay home -- to devote their energies exclusively to the traditional roles of wife and mother.

Nehad Gad has been observing and writing about the challenges facing women in Cairo for many years. She became the first female Egyptian dramatist when her first play was produced some 10 years ago. She is a senior editor of the influential political and art magazine Sabbah-El-Kheir (``Good Morning''). Married to Egypt's vice minister of culture, Dr. Semir Sahan -- they met while attending the University of Indiana -- she has three sons, one from a previous marriage.

The dusty, dingy offices of Sabbah-El-Kheir, where she has worked for 25 years, are typical of many throughout the city. Stark, grimy institutionality is the prevailing style. In contrast, Nehad Gad, tall and slim in a shimmering blue silk dress, is typical of the emancipated women of Cairo -- the very sort of woman of whom fundamentalists disapprove.

Ms. Gad is particularly concerned that the women of Cairo are being pulled in opposite directions by two opposing forces seeking to redefine their role. In a recent interview, she spoke about the problems facing the women of Cairo today. What are the challenges faced by a woman in Cairo, if she wants to have a career?

Being a career woman means overcoming a lot of obstacles. I think this is true all over the world. People always make snide remarks about a woman working, and if she meets with any failures, they are exaggerated.

Everything is changing in this country. There used to be grandmothers taking care of children. There used to be lots of servants. Now the city is so crowded, and there are not enough schools, not enough nurseries [day-care facilities], not enough public transportation. Everything in Egypt is at a shortage. Only the crowds are increasing. And the increase in population is too much for the capacity of all the services.

What we are facing now is a lot of reactionary, conservative religious trends trying to put a stop to the developing of women's education and work. There are lots of fundamentalist voices in Egypt today saying that women should go back home where they belong -- that the family has lots of troubles since women went to work. Maybe they think that if women left the work force and stayed home with their children, you wouldn't need all these day-care facilities?

All right. But what about money matters? The husband's salary is not enough. Women have to work. The problem is worst for the working-class woman. She has to stop working because she can't find anyone to take care of her children. She has to stay home because it's becoming a hell to work. Why? Transportation problems. Crowding. Her salary is not enough for day care. So the only way is to stay home and take care of her child. But this means there is not enough income for the family. In the West, where many women work, some people believe it is bad for children for their mothers to be out of the home. What is your feeling about this?

Being a career woman -- who can afford a housekeeper to look after my children when I'm working -- I can give my children more chances in everything. My husband's salary, even if he is a vice minister, is not enough for what we need now.

I think somehow that the children of a working woman are tougher. They do really find a way to do things, because they are not being smothered by care. This is the way to bring up children in this hectic world. What are some effects of the fundamentalist movement on women's work?

The diplomatic field is an example. Women were increasing in numbers in this field and I think they were fairly successful. There are a number of women ambassadors. But now there is -- you can't say a law, but there is a limit to the numbers of women who can enter the diplomatic service. I think this is a reactionary measure, it's not simply a question of not enough places for men.

You can see it in colleges and universities, too. The reactionaries say we should have special stairs for women and special stairs for men, things like that. The idea is to separate women -- keep them apart. It was never like this before. There has been equal education for women in Egypt since the turn of the century -- in universities since the 1930s. But now these reactionary trends are strong. I am against that. But as a Muslim, how can you be against it? Fundamentalists claim that what they preach is true Islam.

Well, it's not. It's one way of explaining a text. It's one interpretation. If you go back and think of the Prophet himself, he was always mentioning his wife and how he respected her, how he was always consulting her, taking her advice in everything. And there were women poets in Islam who were greatly respected. You can't say that there was any stepping over women in the real Islam, or minimizing their abilities.

Islam makes no separation between women and men. It always mentions both at the same time. If you really explain anything by real orthodox Islam, you won't find any separation or what they are trying to advocate now.

My opinion is that it's not religious, it's not being pious, it's a sort of escapism from lots of problems. They are not capable of facing economic problems or they have lost their pioneering spirit. They have found the easiest way to escape from the battle. Do you think there is a danger of their getting too much influence in Egypt?

No. I believe that Egyptians are balanced and tolerant. They don't like extremes. They are not violent by nature, so they wouldn't accept any violent trends. These Muslim reactionaries advocate violence sometimes. But this would never identify with the Egyptian character.

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