Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 March 2007
Issue No. 836
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A woman's vocation

Those who believe certain professions are out of bounds for women should think again. On the occasion of a British Council initiative to improve women's professional prospects, Amira El-Noshokaty interviews those who broke the mould

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Clockwise from top: Ibtisam negotiating with a worker; Zulficar; El-Gebali next to the Goddess Maat; Gihan working on her inventions

Last week, the British Council launched a regional project named Women and Work in the Near East North Africa (NENA) and the United Kingdom. It highlighted the achievement of women from Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia among seven other NENA countries who have proven outstanding in untraditional careers, with the aim of challenging the stereotypes. According to Amina Jaheen, British Council Egypt's youth programme manager, who acts as the initiative's country coordinator, "this project which extends for three years shall use video conferences, documentaries, seminars and various other tools to exchange experience, raise awareness and mostly encourage young girls and women to seek a broader horizon of occupations and career routes."

Representing Egypt are: Mona Zulficar, lawyer and human rights activist; Tahani El-Gebali, Egypt's first woman judge and is the one who has been in liaison with her UK counterparts, as well as Zahra Rachiq, the founder of an organisation that fights for quotas on women's employment in specific professions and amendments to relevant laws in Morocco, and Habiba Chaabouni, the Tunisian recipient of a UNESCO award for her achievements in medical genetics representing Africa and the Arab world for 2006. The discussion oscillated from Arab to Egyptian horizons.

"There is no doubt," El-Gebali told Al-Ahram Weekly, "that the appointment of woman judges in Egypt was delayed -- it happened in 15 Arab countries first, including Tunisia and Morocco. This amounts to a denial of cultural history, since Egypt's first ever woman judge was the ancient goddess Maat; sadly there's a gap of 7,000 years between us." El-Gebali believes Egyptian women did not deserve such exclusion: they have been in the legal field for over 100 years, she says, and they make up half of the law's educational labour force; besides, 52 per cent of forensic employees are women. It was the recent influence of conservative, religious cultures that resulted in women's exclusion -- something Egyptians should have fought against. "Still," she declared, on a more proactive note, "No one can stop progress."

Tunisia presents less of a problem: since the personal status law was passed in 1956, women have enjoyed full legal rights, something that has improved social conditions in general. "Still," Chaabouni explained, "there is a gap between what the law grants and what is socially acceptable -- household responsibilities, for example, constrain professional progress. Though we have some of the highest female enrolment rates at educational institutions, women seldom occupy high-profile or decision-making positions." In Morocco, as Rachiq points out, though parliamentary representation has risen from one to 10 per cent, female representation in city councils is practically nil, which is strange considering the role they play in local communities: "networking and solidarity within the Arab world remain key to empowerment."

Egyptian Women at Work, a photo exhibit by Jenny Mathews held at the same time of the discussion, gave the initiative added visual credibility by depicting successful women in various traditionally male fields of endevours.

Ibtisam Ibrahim: buildinÉg contractor in Al-Wadi Al-Gadid

Ibrahim is Egypt's first, if not only, female building contractor. The first-born, she benefited from the encouragement and support of a father who appreciated her academic aptitude. "I was the first girl in Al-Wadi Al-Gadid to enrol at the Faculty of Engineering in Assiut University back in 1970; my father trusted me enough to let me live by myself so far away from home. Then again, he was broad-minded and very appreciative of my intellectual abilities," she explains. "I have always taken the initiative; I knew how to deal with others."

Besides her success as a contractor, Ibrahim works with NGOs tackling women's issues; she has held many posts, including governorate representative of the National Council for Women and member of the City Council. Thanks to her example, many young women in Al-Wadi Al-Gadid have been able to study and practise medicine and engineering -- two fields that were exclusively male. There is, she boasts, zero illiteracy in Al-Wadi Al-Gadid now. She was also the first woman to drive; scolded by the mayor, she pointed out that it was her car and that it was her father who had taught her how to drive: "'You know what,' I said to him, 'the day will come when you ask me to teach your own daughters to drive.' And it did."

A local icon, many girls have been named after her -- something that still moves her deeply. She has been blessed with a husband as understanding as her father, she says, and is now the mother of three daughters. Ibrahim is optimistic about the social status of Egyptian women: "I think women are still torn between the call of the home and that of the workplace, even despite having come so far. But the women are coming -- there is no question about it. My advice to any young woman is to struggle, persist in her belief, then she will definitely reach her goal."

Gihan Ibrahim: inventor of electronic toys

This Ibrahim of Quwaisna, Monoufiya -- is just as unusual. "They call us the electronic family back home," she laughs, identifying her husband as the key to her success. "While studying at the Institute of Electronics, in Monoufiya, I realised that all our technical equipment was imported, making maintenance and spare parts a real challenge. So I thought, why not make our own models?" She had always been fascinated by technology, and during college, where she met him, her husband shared that passion; fondly, she remembers how they spent all their money on science books; he particularly supported her. But it wasn't until she started bringing up her youngest son, four years ago, that she came up with the do-it-yourself concept: rather than putting up with the tendency of two-and-a-half-year-olds to take a new toy apart, she decided to give hers a broken toy to put together -- with stunning results. She has since invented over 80 scientific products for children marketed in Cairo and Alexandria, and presides over a science magazine for children as well.

Because she was a woman, she says, she was often suspected of reproducing foreign models. "But I would argue that the inventions were my own, the photo on the cover that of my own children -- Egyptian, not Chinese." Nor were people convinced she could make money -- her close circle of friends and family discouraged her, insisting that the project was doomed to failure because of social attitudes and economic constraints. "But my husband and I persisted -- we took on the challenge. Even if we failed in the end, it would still be worth it for our own children. It's such a pity to waste a child's intelligence on PlayStation or computer games. Just think what an educational toy could do for a six-year-old. By the age of 17, they could well be inventors in their own right." And she believes in the production of knowledge: "the development of education should not be limited to colourful books. Practical experiments are of immense importance. Instead of importing a lab, one can be made here for less..."

Insurance fees have kept Ibrahim out of government bids, but she took the initiative to offer her Faculty of Engineering at Monoufiya a wholly Egyptian-made television set at a nominal price -- for study purposes. This Ibrahim is somewhat less optimistic though, believing that Egyptian women are still struggling for their rights: "I think there ought to be more concern with women in general, especially professionals, with technological and educational support. I mean, the traditional roles are fine, but they won't help much in building a nation."

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