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The Rights of Women in Egypt

Throughout the history, women in the world lost their status and regained it again. From the era of matriarchate to nowadays, women’s roles in societies have differed drastically. In most countries of the world, females have much more rights and advantages now than they did not have before. But there are still quite many areas where women are considered to be inferior to men. This is predetermined by many factors, beginning from the religious beliefs and ending with very high family values, and the notion of “the queen of the hearth”.

I chose Egypt as my country for conducting this analysis, because I think that women are only starting to reach that level of personal freedom and independence which can help them to improve and broaden their rights. Besides, I find it more interesting to observe the progress of the Muslim females as their religion has a very strong impact on their behavior and even sense of self-acceptance. Their world view differs from ours so much that it is fascinating for me to trace their progress in gaining the equal rights and benefits with men. On the other hand, many scientists who work on the problems of parity state that the ladies in Egypt have almost equal rights with men. But, for me, it is difficult to believe; that is why I decided to conduct a deeper research on this problem on my own.


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In 2011, the independent organization Freedom House which supports the growth of freedom in the whole world “marked” Egypt as “not free”. The organization gave Egypt 6 as a Political Rights Score and 5 for Civil Liberties Score. The scale measures from 1 to 7, where 1 represents the highest level of freedom and 7 – the lowest (Freedom House, 2011). But let us trace the changes in women’s rights from the ancient times till the present days.

Women’s Rights in Different Epochs

Throughout the ages, especially dating back to the Ancient Egypt, women were supposed to avoid any communication with the men who were not their relatives. Similar to children, females were brought up to depend on their fathers and elder brothers. After marriage, women depended on their husbands who were entitled to make all decisions, while women had to do all the household chores, take care of children and preferably gave birth to boys and not girls. Most families supported a tradition to reproduce until there were born at least two sons. Infertility as well as inability to deliver a male child was considered to be a terrible mishap. Women who delivered only females were derogatorily named “mothers of brides”. An Egyptian lady was regarded very lucky when her sons got married as she automatically gained control over their new families.

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The only exceptions in the Ancient Egypt were Nefertiti, Cleopatra, Nefertari, and Queen Hatshepsut who had the major influence on the Egyptian society (Lewis, n.d.).

Despite the fact that very few women had the opportunity to become leaders in Egyptian society, they were considered to have equal rights along with men in status and legal opportunities. Females were even shown sometimes to have more rights than men in the society. They were allowed to take part in the economy, especially as merchants, even among the lower classes as happened during the Roman Empire. Women could divorce their husbands, have properties, live alone, and occupy main positions, mostly religious.

In the modern society, the Egyptian ladies limit their contacts with the other men by gender segregation at work, schools, and recreation and also by veiling. The practice of withdrawing girls from schools, especially in Upper-Egypt, when they reach puberty in order to limit their interaction with boys, is common. The men of the lower class usually prefer to marry those women who have lived a secluded life and not worked or attended high school.

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Most working positions which women hold are janitors, medical aides, domestic servants, street cleaners, and hotel servants. In 1990, females accounted only a bit more than 12 % as industrial workers, mostly in food processing, textiles, or pharmaceutics and even less amount of those engaged in such spheres as engineering, technology, and science (Lewis, n.d.). Nevertheless, job discrimination is clear even in the civil sector.

Marriage has always been an extremely important and private affair. That is why there are only a few records of marriage. Moreover, not all marriages are arranged, it is more about the daughters persuading their families to approve their future husbands.

For females, it is very common to get married after they start menstruating. The married women are usually highly acknowledged. Usually, daughters are considered married when they leave their father’s house. It is acknowledged that even when the woman is married, her husband is not her legal guardian, and she is independent to control her own assets.

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According to the Islamic law, the man can still have up to four wives while the woman may have only one husband. The Quranic text presupposes that this is done to protect the orphans.

To divorce a woman in Islam, the Muslim man should simply say “I divorce thee” three times with some witnesses. A woman can divorce a man when her husband fails to provide her maintenance, if he happens to get some contagious or very dangerous decease, if the man left the woman, and if he treated his wife in a bad way. This reform was accepted comparatively recently, in 1929. Earlier, the woman could divorce her husband only when he became impotent.

In 1971, other reforms were made but they are still not adopted. In 1979, some amendments were made known as “women’s rights law’”. They took the form of a presidential decree and were approved by the Egyptian People’s Assembly. Nonetheless, the Islamist groups opposed to them greatly stating that they were completely against the Islamic religious traditions. These amendments stated that the first wife’s husband’s polygamy had very negative effects on her and that is why she could divorce her husband. The husband could still divorce his wife without going to the court, but he had to file for the divorce in the presence of witnesses in a registrar’s office immediately telling about it to his wife. The divorced woman had the right to get the compensation in the size of two years’ maintenance; this amount of money could be increased by the court. The very important for women amendment stated that she could automatically gain custody of sons who were under the age of ten and daughters under the age of twelve. The court could even extend the custody by woman till her children turned eighteen.

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However, unfortunately, in 1985, the Egyptian authorities decided that those amendments were not constitutional, and women lost many of the acquired rights again. One of them is that females could not divorce their husbands if he married again.

In the Egyptian constitution of 1956, it was clearly stated that since that time, women had the right to vote forbidding any gender discrimination. In the same constitution, we can observe the change in the labor laws protecting maternity leave and ensuring women’s remaining in the work force. Nevertheless, the same constitution oppressed feminist independent organizations leaving very little of female political representation (Hatem, n.d.).

The unemployment rate for women which was 5.8 % in 1960 increased to 40.7 % in 1986. Women were encouraged to quit the job or work part-time when pregnant – this was an economic policy to support women.

With years, the situation only worsened. During the presidency of Mubarak, the amount of female seats in the Parliament became smaller, and a new law permitted less power for women in case of divorce.

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Only in 2002, the Supreme Constitutional Court accepted a progressive law which enabled Egyptian women to divorce their husbands. This successful law ended sufferings of over a million wives which were involved in unhappy marriages. Such a progress represents not only victory for the Egyptian females’ movement but also for those who support liberal and rational interpretation of Islam.

What terrified me the most about the situation in Egypt was the fact that according to the polls which took place in 2010-2011, 80 % of native women claim to be sexually harassed by their Egyptian husbands. The same happens to the 98 % of foreign women. What is even more striking is that the two-thirds of men admit that they harass women (Raman 2011).

The other unpleasant fact is that circumcision is still practiced in Egypt. The number of women who had this procedure done, fortunately, decline nowadays. The issue was first internationally brought up to the public eye when the CNN broadcasted one program which featured a young girl who was circumcised by an ordinary barber from Cairo. The waves of protests arouse which made the president of Egypt recognize that such an operation must be forbidden by the People’s Assembly. It was banned. But despite it, it is still conducted in the country. The Islamist groups oppose that if this operation is not practiced on women, then when she reaches puberty and is still not married, she will be sexually tempted. The same goes with spinsters. They say that if their daughters are not circumcised, not a single man will marry them.

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The worst from it all is that, usually, this practice is conducted by unprofessional people; as a result, a number of various medical problems and infections appear as the outcome (Kandela 1995).

The third fact which horrifies any person, especially a woman who is far from the laws of the Islam, is that Egyptian women have to wear the hijab – clothes which cover their whole body leaving open only the oval of the face and palms (which are covered by some women too). This is explained as the need to protect a woman from the harassment and violence which she can encounter in the streets. Many women cover even their whole faces leaving open only eyes which are sometimes also covered with the transparent or netted piece of fabric. Despite this, the harassment level is very high in Egypt.

The last fact that shocks is that the spousal rape is not considered to be illegal, and the law allows for so-called honor killings in sake for leniency.

 When talking about the political arena, we can observe some improvement. In 2003, President Mubarak appointed the first female judge at the Supreme Constitutional Court, following the debates over the women’s movement. This caused a lot of opposition from the Egyptian judiciary.

In June, 2004, one more improvement was implemented. The women were given the equal right with the father to give their nationality to children (in case when the father is a foreigner) (Zulficar, 2004). Females are also more active now in the press, and there are some prominent female writers whose works are published. The level of educated women also increases.

Despite some of these amendments of the constitution and general improvement of the women’s roles which state the equality of sexes, many traditional practices and a lot of aspects of the law discriminate women. Sexual harassment as well as domestic violence is still common.


Having made this shocking analysis, I opened for myself the entirely new world where people live according to them rules and laws which escape the mind of any American who has heard at least something about democracy.

If I had the opportunity to change at least something in the Egyptian society, I would recommend the ladies to continue to fight for their rights more actively through public oppositions. We can clearly see that most of the Egyptian women are not satisfied with the level of life they have and with the treatment they get from their husbands. Most of females are pregnant half of their lives and are not even asked whether they want it or not. That is why they should combine their efforts to protest against the way of life they are made to have.

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I think that women should try to reassert Islamic norms in order to get higher-paid jobs and to avoid doing undesirable work.

The increase in veiling also cannot be the way to show the females’ independence and equality as it shows that they are in need for their husbands’ support.

The fact that women do all the household chores is not the way out either. They should try to share the responsibilities with their husbands and find themselves better jobs in order to be able not to depend on men’s salaries only.

Women should demand better high education, and urban ladies should populate their ideas to the rural women as those are more conservative and obey their husbands more.



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