With foreign images flowing in from satellite TV and globalization injecting new demands on the economy, Egyptian society, like others in transition, continues to depend on women to preserve its cultural authenticity.
By their everyday acts, they reinforce the country's social and religious conservatism as well as its primary commitment to the well-being of the whole community.
In and outside the home, they represent the values and status of their families. How they walk and talk, and with whom they walk and talk advertise their fathers', brothers' and husbands' social position. The length of their hems and the styling of their hair, their baubles and bangles place the family socially.
Egyptian family law code dates back to 1920 and, while changing, is still partriachal; its basic premise being that husbands will provide and wives will be subordinate.
Men have an unconditional right to divorce but women must have court approval. Usually it's granted only if they give up all financial claims - including their dowry - or prove that their husbands have been abusive, which is almost impossible.
This is not to say that a woman is unprotected in marriage. She has
- The right to be provided for by her husband if she meets her responsibilities as wife and mother.
- The right to keep her own income and money to use as she sees fit.
- The right for her children to be provided for by their father
But things are changing. As more urban men find themselves unemployed, more women work outside the home. Studies show that 40-50% of poor women earn money, typically in the informal economy where they sell bread, vegetables or small household goods. Some help in a small family business, like a repair shop, grocery shop of the ubiquitous cell-phone shops.
Women from affluent classes are lawyers, professors, doctors and businesswomen.
Galal Amin, in his 2000 book, Whatever Happened to the Egyptians, described "how his mother spent most of her life in the kitchen; his sister enjoyed more financial independence but remained at home; and his daughter opted for a full time job while studying for a higher educational degree. 'A woman’s essential functions have been… radically changed'" Amin concludes.
With more money and responsibility outside the home, womens' role inside tends to shift. This can lead to great equality between husband and wife as well as more shared responsibility; on the other hand, it can discourage a marginalized male.
While education remains a barrier to women's getting better work, women's literacy rates are improving, with a current rate of 59%. Furthermore, close to half of university students are women. Since girls are useful for childcare, cooking, cleaning and collecting water, they tend to drop out sooner and more often. And, according to the New York Times, in Egypt, women have 'Burdens but no Privileges.'
Furthermore girls from poor families may be encouraged to marry around 16 to help relieve the financial burden on the family.
Women were granted the right to divorce in 2002; Egyptian women married to non-Egyptians are allowed to pass on their nationality to their children; women can travel abroad alone without permission from their husband.
Public institutions including the Ministry of Justice and the National Democratic Party are gradually reforming personal status laws and family court procedures. Civil society organizations like the National Council of Women and other women's groups continue to demand the reinterpretation of shari'a (a legal framework based on Islamic principles) to liberalize the status of women.
During the last three years, campaigns against domestic violence against women and children have increased. Young women text one another in protest against sexual harrassment on the street.
In fact, in a recent case of harrassment - which the court usually dismisses with a wink and a nod - the offender found himself doing three years of hard labor.
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