We often talk about how society enforces harmful gender roles on young women pressuring them to succumb to a life at home with the kids and killing their ambitions of achieving more. We often talk about how society’s norms destroy the grand plans young women have for their dreams. We often label women as the victims of what an unequal society deems ‘the right path’. But how often do we ask ourselves: Do women in Egypt actually want equality?
The answer might seem fairly obvious. In a country where, according to The World Bank’s most recent gender statistics, women make up only 24.2 percent of the total labor force, it seems outrageous to suggest that women have a share in perpetrating this scale of inequality. But, how will gender equality be achieved in the labor market if the women themselves aren’t interested in pursuing successful careers in order to achieve higher goals?
A lot of people might say that women in Egypt are stopped from pursuing their ambitions because of society’s pressures. However, it’s important to understand that how women perceive their own social roles affects how much they are willing to conform to what society defines those roles to be, which inevitably affects that percentage. That percentage certainly won’t increase if the women themselves don’t have those ambitions in the first place because they’re convinced, on their own, of how society defines their purpose.
The Population Council’s data analysis of its nationally representative survey, that targeted the working-age youth population in Egypt, found that young women in Egypt perceive incompatibility between work and their social roles. It stated that marriage is strongly associated with low labor force participation of women in Egypt. It also stated that 66 percent of the female youth who were not in the labor market said it was because they were housewives, and that 87 percent of female youth with a university education who were not in the labor force listed the same reason.
The survey also found that most women in Egypt seek public sector employment, and are even likely to be unemployed waiting for such an opportunity, solely because this kind of employment is more likely to accommodate to their family roles. These results suggest good reason to believe that most young women in Egypt don’t dream of a life of climbing corporate ladders or participating in policy-making that changes lives.
Perhaps the majority of women in Egypt don’t want the kind of equality feminists dream of. I see many young women who will strongly advocate for the importance of getting a university education, but who tell me they plan to stay at home after graduating. I see many young women who speak about how important it is for a woman to have a career, but who say they plan to work for a few years just until they get married or have kids. And while these women have every right to freely choose how they want to live their lives and have their personal choices respected, it does have societal consequences.
It’s important to note that gender equality isn’t just a matter of who is working and who isn’t. True equality means that both women and men have the right to work just as they have the right not to work.
If a woman freely chooses not to work, that choice should be respected, just as a man’s choice should be respected if he freely chooses not to work. Gender equality is about protecting both the right of both genders to participate fully in the workforce, and the right of both genders to freely choose not to participate without being judged or discriminated against.
That’s why the issue of gender inequality is a multi-dimensional and complex one that is definitely affected by many different factors, but how are we going to have a chance to tackle those factors if women don’t even want to try in the first place? How are we ever going to achieve gender equality when our young women don’t aspire to become real leaders in our community?
So perhaps the solution lies in the inspiration department. Perhaps the solution is to raise awareness about the importance of gender equality and the importance of educating young women about their important roles in society, how much they can benefit society, and how much they can contribute to its better future. These efforts should be in hope of inspiring them and empowering them to engage in participating in their society.
“To Want and To Dare! To give one’s measure with all good faith, the rest will follow as a logical consequence.” That was Egyptian feminist Doria Shafik’s simple call of action, to want and to dare. So maybe we should think about targeting young women first. They need to understand that they are an underutilized and infinitely powerful source of potential for a country that needs them.
We need to inspire young women in Egypt, we need to inspire them to dream, and to dream a lot bigger than marrying the richest guy in the neighbourhood.
Edited by Enas El Masry