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The Hidden Struggle: Egyptian Women’s Unseen Labor at Home

June 8, 2024
Via Al-Monitor.

Women in Egypt often juggle careers, marriage, and motherhood while shouldering a significant amount of invisible labor. This term, coined by American sociologist Arlene Kaplan Daniels in 1987, refers to essential household and family tasks that frequently go unnoticed and unappreciated.

“The mental load is hard. I have to prepare breakfast, feed the kids, wash clothes and dishes, prepare lunch, wash dishes again, and put them back where I found them, do laundry, clean up the mess the kids made eating and playing,” Dina Abdelmonem, a 39-year-old pharmacist, full-time wife and mother of two, told Egyptian Streets. “All this while trying to prevent my kids and myself from having a meltdown.”

Invisible labor encompasses managing the house and taking care of children, organizing family schedules, and the emotional labor of managing relationships and providing support. It also includes the mental load of ensuring that the fridge is stocked, everyone is fed and safe, and the household is running smoothly.

“I feel like I’m constantly calculating many steps, while my husband just goes with the flow,” Abdelmonem said. “There’s no clear division of labor,” she added.

Hend Ahmed, a 37-year-old engineer, wife, and mother of two echoed this sentiment. She told us, “My children and husband appreciate my efforts and help as much as they can. However, there are times when it feels like it’s expected of me as the wife or the mother to do these things. It can feel like I live alone in that house and it’s solely my responsibility.”

Invisible labor falls disproportionately on women worldwide, even when both partners work outside the home. This is often referred to as the second shift, a term created by American sociologist, Arlie Russell Hochschild to describe the unpaid household work women undertake after their paid jobs.

Comparing her morning shift at the pharmacy to her second shift at home, Abdelmonem shared that housework is exhausting, tiring, and not enjoyable. Meanwhile, her job is much easier and more pleasant.

A 2017 survey conducted by United Nations Women and Promundo, a gender relations non-governmental organization (NGO), across Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Palestine revealed that 87 percent of Egyptian men believe a woman’s basic role is to be a housewife. Only one in four men in the Arab world and the Middle East believes in gender equality and equal opportunities for both men and women.

Additionally, women in Egypt primarily undertake unpaid care work, and marriage significantly influences the increase of time spent on unpaid work, according to a UN report on the Progress of Women in the Arab States in 2020.

“I do everything around the house,” Manar Abdelaziz, a 36-year-old full-time mother of three and wife, said. “My kids are too young to help or be considerate, but my husband shows appreciation all the time,” she added.

Abdelaziz explains that while her husband only helps on his one day off, striving to ease her workload. She said, “For our household, I think labor distribution is fair.”

The UN 2020 report also stated that in Egypt married women spend seven times more time on domestic work than married men; while unmarried women spend six times as much as unmarried men. 

“Mothers are teachers, doctors, nannies, cooks, cleaners, and project managers —some people see it as the greatest job, while others think it’s what women were made for,” Mariam Sallam, 44-year-old stay-at-home mother of three, told us. 

She emphasized that some people believe stay-at-home mothers have no value in society and that they simply could not establish themselves, thus being a homemaker is the only alternative.

Maintaining a home or caregiving is overlooked by the economy, as their unpaid nature makes it challenging to quantify in terms of market value. However, these services would cost money if outsourced; support provided at home by mothers, wives, and homemakers, also enables individuals to participate in the workforce, contributing to the economy’s productivity.

Despite this, the societal expectation for women to manage household responsibilities remains high. According to a 2019 study on unpaid work and gender equality by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), unpaid work’s economic significance is considerable, ranging worldwide from 10 to 60 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

In Egypt, women dedicate an average of 5.4 hours per day to unpaid work, while men contribute only 35 minutes, the IMF study shows.

“Our society expects too much and everything from women,” Sallam said, stating that successful and established female doctors could also be judged for going to work and leaving their house and children. She added that on the other hand, women who do stay at home full-time taking care of their houses and children would be looked down upon as failures.

Unmarried women work 15-17 hours per week in such responsibilities, for those who work. Married women face even longer hours of domestic responsibilities: 32-36 hours per week.

Economic Research Forum report in 2019 stated that married women work 32 to 36 hours per week on domestic responsibilities, a difficult responsibility to alight with job demands of 40-44 hours per week. On the contrary, men spend two to six hours per week on domestic work.

“Unfortunately, working inside the home becomes a burden when it falls on one person, be it the husband or the wife,” Abdelmonem stated, highlighting that dividing household tasks and responsibilities before establishing a married life is a cornerstone of building a family, as reliance on one person could be one of the destroyers of family harmony.

Ahmed emphasized the importance of accepting that not everything around the house has to be perfect, especially when everyone is tired from work and school.

“Mothers need at least an hour daily to clear their minds by reading, going out with friends, or even playing on their phones without having to take care of anyone,” Abdelaziz said. “Few fathers in our society give their wives the space to have some ‘me time’,” she added.

Invisible labor highlights the need for a fairer distribution of household duties, greater recognition of women’s contributions, and gender equality. Changes on societal levels are commencing, with Egypt’s Vision 2030 to ‘empower and promote the social, economic, and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status.’

According to the Minister of International Cooperation, Rania A. Al-Mashat, “The participation of women is macro-critical, it is no longer lip service.”

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