CAIRO, EGYPT – Saadia Mohamed, 36, is married with three kids. As she shops for fruits and vegetables at a local market, she says she loves being a mother. But she says she also enjoys having a career as a high school Arabic teacher.
“If I didn’t have my job, I probably would have [gone] crazy,” Mohamed says as she continues to pick out vegetables. “My kids and my husband are my life, but sometimes it is nice to have a life of my own, even for only a few hours in the day.”
She says her education prepared her for a career.
“After all, I didn’t go to college to end up only changing diapers,” she says.
But she says many of her students disagree. She says she feels disgusted when she hears female high school students talk more about boys and their future husbands than their education.
“College should be the next thing on a 16-year-old’s mind, not marriage,” she says.
These days, most women attend college in Egypt. Grateful for gender equality when it comes to education, some say women should pursue careers after attaining their degrees. But others disagree, with many men and even many women saying that women belong in the home and not in the workplace. Those involved with government and nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, say they are working to make sure women are aware of their rights.
Although women make up half of the Egyptian general population and half of all university students, they constitute less than 25 percent of the labor force, according to the Egypt State Information Service, the government’s information, awareness and public relations agency. The agency attributes this to many women’s preference to take care of their families instead of work outside the home.
For decades, many Egyptian women were denied the right to attain an education. Mohamed says women were expected to learn household chores in order to find a husband, get married, have kids and dedicate the rest of their lives to serving that family.
Some say they are glad that women have more options now.
Sarah Ali and Khalid Rashed got engaged three years ago when they were in college. Ali, who works as a customer service representative, says women have the right to a career.
“The statistics speaks for itself,” she says. “If women are half of the society, then it is only fair for them to participate in half of it.”
Rashed, who works as an information technology specialist, agrees with his fiancee. He says that husbands and wives should split the work at home to enable women to have careers.
“If my wife-to-be will have a motherly duty, I will be sharing that duty as well by doing my fatherly part,” Rashed says. “It is all about sharing both of our lives together.”
But other women and men disagree, saying that it’s improper for women to work outside the home. They say a woman belongs in the house and should move directly from her father’s house to her husband’s house, leaving careers to the men.
Mohamed Adly, 30, a civil engineer, says women should not have careers. He rejects the influence of the West on Egyptian society when it comes to women and working.
“Women were never created to work and be equals to men,” he says. “Just because women in the West are doing it, doesn’t mean that our Arab women have to do the same. It is not in our religion, not in our traditions, and we shouldn’t allow the West to brainwash our culture.”
And it’s not only men who believe women belong in the home. Some women share the point of view that women don’t belong in the workplace, too.
Numerous college-aged women say higher education is not to prepare women for careers. Rather, they say it’s just a way to define their social status and a good way to meet men.
Newlywed Maya Al-Gabbry, 22, graduated from Cairo University two months before her wedding. She says she’s never worked a day in her life.
“And I never have to,” she says, despite her new degree. “It is not a women’s job to provide for a family. I do my part at home doing the housework and raising our future kids.”
She says a career would distract her from her primary role in the home.
“A job that will take me from my main responsibilities as a wife is not worth it,” she says.
She disagrees with Ali’s interpretation of the statistics reporting that women make up half of Egypt’s population.
“More reasons for women to stay home and give space for men to work,” she says. “There is no[t] enough jobs as it is.”
Another housewife, Rawia Al-Badrawy, 29, agrees. She says working isn’t natural for women.
“If God meant for women to work and be equals to men, he would have gave them strong bodies like he gave men,” Al-Badrawy says.
Al-Badrawy recites verses from the Quran as proof that men are superior to women.
But her younger sister, Sarah Al-Badrawy, 25, jumps into the conversation to condemn her sister’s theory.
“That’s your excuse for not doing a basic office job?” she asks. “Not being strong enough physically?”
The younger Al-Badrawy, who works as a pharmacist, says she disagrees.
“See, that’s exactly what frustrates me, things like what my sister said,” she says. “Some women all over the world prefer to do that, not only in Egypt.
She says she doesn’t have a problem with her sister’s – or any woman’s – decision to not work. But she says they shouldn’t speak for all women.
“I would support any woman’s decision to do so,” she says, referring to her sister’s decision to stay at home. “But when you spew your views about how all women shouldn’t work, that’s when we start having a problem.”
Women involved in government and NGOs say they are working to make sure women are aware of their rights.
Bothina Kamel says she is currently Egypt’s only woman presidential candidate running in the spring 2012 elections. She says that she is focusing her campaign on marginalized groups in Egyptian society, which include women.
Her run for presidency epitomizes her belief in women’s ability to have careers outside the home and, not only be equal to men, but also to take on the top leadership position in the country. She says that changing society’s expectations for when women must be married by has been another priority of hers.
“I used to be the media spokesperson for an organization called Maidens for Change, though,” she says. “We aimed for changing the definition of not being married until a late age.”
Laila Abaza, the chairwoman of Alliance for Arab Women, an NGO, says that the organization aims to spread awareness among women when it comes to their right to have careers, among other topics.
“Couple of years ago we had a project called ‘Work and Health,’ which focused on the work of girls in two Egyptian cities, Al Sharkia and Al Fayyum,” she says.
She says the organization is currently working on another project to empower women so that they are aware of their rights.
“Towards the time of the elections, we are working on other projects to make sure that women know their rights,” she says. “We start with one subject like political participation, for example, and then we find other problems and start working on it within the same project.”