Egypt's changing career climate

At first glance, men seem to hold all the jobs in the crowded city of Cairo: They drive taxis, direct traffic, and iron clothing in steamy laundry shops. But behind the scenes, a quiet revolution is taking place.

Record numbers of Egyptian women are holding jobs, and the variety of careers open to them is rising. Women serve as bank CEOs, newspaper editors, university deans, and government ministers. One has been appointed a judge.

In 1996, 18 percent of Egyptian women worked outside the home. By 2004, 31 percent did, according to a United Nations report. Although there is no single explanation for the increase, experts do see some trends.

Relatively affluent women are marrying later than their mothers did, giving them an additional decade in the working world, says Hania Sholkamy, a professor at the American University of Cairo. Some university departments, such as medicine and humanities, now graduate as many women as men.

But most Egyptian women take jobs "in an effort to escape the cycle of poverty," Ms. Sholkamy says.

Forty-five percent of the country's women are illiterate, which limits their opportunities to low-wage labor. Still, working helps women raise their status at home. Ikram Hasem Hadifa, for example, sells fish to help her husband support their seven children. "We're no longer as we were in the old days, when women just sat at home and had nothing to do," she says. "Whoever can work can change her life."

Noha Khater, ophthalmologist

Ms. Khater grew up around doctors, including her father and many family friends. So her career choice came easily. After finishing medical school in Cairo, she traveled to the United States to complete a fellowship at the University of Texas.

"Getting ahead in medicine really depends on how clever you are, not your gender," she says. "Some women are achieving so much, but others in society - the conservative religious forces - want to put women back a million years."

Hala Khalil, filmmaker

Ms. Khalil, a film director, gave up her engineering studies to enroll at the Cairo Film Institute against the advice of her conservative family. She now has one successful feature film under her belt and another - called "Cut and Paste" - on the way.

Being true to your own vision is the hardest part of filmmaking for women and for men, she says. "Many women in our society are raised to be wives and mothers, not doctors or filmmakers. Job opportunities are available for women, but they haven't the same opportunity in education."

Esmat Mansour, weight lifter

Ms. Mansour, 19, began weight-lifting training at age 10 in the coastal city of Alexandria. At first, people made fun of her for developing muscles, but "they got used to it," she says. She is now on the Egyptian national team and ranked sixth in the world in her age group and weight class.

"For women weight lifters, there's a lot of pressure to quit by around age 23 so we can get married and start our lives," she says. "It makes it hard because in other countries, women compete until they're older. At the international competitions, we are like the children."

Tahani El-Gebali, judge

Ms. El-Gebali, a judge on the Supreme Constitutional Court, practiced commercial, civil, criminal, and family law during her 30-year career as a lawyer. There have been women lawyers in Egypt since the 1920s, but ascending to the bench has been all but impossible for them.

"I'm very sad that three years after I was appointed, I remain Egypt's only female judge," she says.

"It is a sign of social immaturity that women are being prevented from achieving in what is considered a man's field," she adds. "But eventually this immaturity will end."

Nora Salim, stockbroker

When she was studying commerce at Ain Shams University in Cairo, Ms. Salim, a stockbroker who's now in her mid-20s, dreamed of working on the floor of Egypt's stock exchange. Connections she made while working at an investment firm helped her get the position she wanted.

"Women [today] have better job opportunities than they had 10 years ago, because they've proved themselves to be very efficient," she says. "They've achieved real success in different fields of work."

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