Egyptian women defy bias, achieve success
Cairo - When she took over her deceased father’s place at what was a small petrochemicals factory outside Cairo, Hoda Galal Yassa said she was viewed lightly and sometimes ridiculed.
Twenty years later, Yassa is considered one of Egypt’s — and probably the African continent’s — most influential businesswomen.
“Most people thought that being a woman would be synonymous with business failure,” Yassa said. “But as time went by, everybody just saw that women are capable of making great successes.”
Women are gaining ground in Egyptian businesses at all levels.
Sanaa al-Sherif, a member of the state-run National Council for Women, said this is the time of economic empowerment for women in Egypt and Africa.
“We notice every day that more and more women want to start their own businesses or just take jobs — some of them were no-go areas for them in the past,” Sherif said. “This is why we work hard to help them become, not mere cogs in the economic machine but business leaders.”
The National Council for Women is inviting as many as 50,000 women to workshops it will organise across the country in the coming weeks to teach them how to be business leaders or start careers.
About 35% of Egypt’s households are supported by women, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics, the government’s research arm. These women, the agency said, have to earn a living for several reasons, including the absence or death of their husbands or because their spouses are ill.
But leading feminist Heba Zahran said women in Egypt face many challenges on the road to economic empowerment.
“This is a patriarchal society that looks down upon women and does not trust their abilities,” Zahran said. “Although women make up more than 50% of the population, they have not managed to occupy their deserved space on this country’s economic stage.”
According to the UN Human Development Report 2014, Egypt ranks 130th out of 187 countries on the Gender Inequality Index. The report said there were positive trends in gender equality in the country but areas of concern remain. The UN Population Fund cited access to education for women in Egypt as one of them.
“Illiteracy among women is almost twice as high as among men,” the fund said, noting that the most recent data available for domestic violence incidences are 2014 figures in which more than one-third (36%) of women of 15 to 49 years of age have experienced physical violence.
“The most commonly reported perpetrators are current husband (64%) but parents are also frequently listed (father/stepfather, 26%, mother/stepmother, 31%),” the fund said.
The UN Development Programme said there have been increases in women’s participation in the Egyptian labour force from 18% in 1996 to 22.4% in 2014.
Yassa is one of the 22.4%. Not content with what she has accomplished, she has formed a businesswomen’s association that functions as an incubator for entrepreneurs and seeks to bring businesswomen together to increase their chances of success.
“Women need to form their own economic groupings to ensure that they will not be alone in the field,” Yassa said. “Partnerships make for stronger economic entities that help women have their say in economic matters anywhere.”