Maya Morsi: Egyptian women face ‘male-dominated thinking’
Cairo - Although the role of women in Egypt is changing in politics — they hold 89 seats in the Egyptian parliament — business, industry and other fields, there is a long way to go, said Maya Morsi, president of Egypt’s National Council for Women.
“One of the biggest challenges preventing women from holding positions in authority is male-dominated thinking. Few women believe that they will be able to reach whatever position they want, regardless of their abilities,” Morsi said in an interview with The Arab Weekly.
Morsi is well-known across the Arab world as a women rights campaigner. She previously served as country programme manager of the UN Development Fund (UNDP) for Women in Egypt. She was the coordinator of the Arab Women Progress report published in 2004 by the UNDP. She has organised numerous workshops and conventions promoting women’s rights and was elected head of the National Council for Women in February.
Morsi said women faced a glass ceiling in Egypt limiting what they might achieve. She said women in neighbouring Arab countries enjoy far more freedoms and opportunities. There is no female Egyptian provincial governor, for example, although there are a few women deputy governors, while Sudan has no fewer than five female governors.
“This is why the National Council for Women and other women’s rights organisations have launched a campaign for equality between men and women, including even putting forward lawsuits to inform the highest authorities [about this],” Morsi said.
Combating sexual harassment and physical violence is one of the main missions of the National Council for Women. According to a UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women report published in 2013, 99.3% of Egyptian women surveyed reported some form of sexual harassment.
“The National Council for Women is exerting tremendous efforts to put an end to this phenomenon but success cannot take place without government action and effective social engagement,” Morsi said.
“We have succeeded in changing the understanding surrounding sexual harassment, so people understand this includes not just physical harassment but also mo’aksa [an Egyptian slang term encompassing sexual comments and gestures]. Girls are more aware of their rights and have the courage to submit complaints against harassers to the police.”
Even the term mo’aksa, which simply means “flirtation” and is used to indicate verbal rather than physical acts, shows how society has traditionally sugar-coated sexual harassment, using a different term of taharush (sexual harassment), which has far more negative connotations.
The Egyptian government has taken steps to confront physical violence against women, including approving harsher punishments for those found guilty of the crime. The state has also sought to clamp down on female genital mutilation, mandating 3-year to 5-year prison sentences on parents who force the procedure on their daughters.
“This was an unprecedented triumph for women and a huge turning point for women’s equality,” Morsi said.
The harsher punishment came following the death of 17-year-old Mayar Mohamed Mousa this year during the procedure. Despite Egypt’s official ban on genital mutilation, the practice is widespread, especially in rural areas. Rights organisations expressed hope that stricter penalties will end the practice.
“The latest figures from the Egypt Demographic and Health Survey show that we’re winning,” the UNDP said in a report in 2015. “Mothers’ attitudes are changing, too.”
The National Council for Women monitors the Egyptian media’s depiction of women and has criticised how popular movies and television dramas deal with issues such as divorce and sexual harassment.
Morsi said the council asked Egyptian youth to monitor Ramadan TV dramas for scenes or storylines that could be offensive to women. “All in all, there were more than 1,700 scenes that were clearly offensive to women, including some that incited violence against women,” she said.
Morsi said even television ads could be offensive, such as a well-known dairy product advertisement that could be misconstrued as promoting sexual harassment. The council was successful in having the ad removed but Morsi stressed that Egyptians must remain vigilant regarding depictions of women in the media.
She called on women to speak up against negative media portrayals. “Women must be a key partner in preventing the propagation of offensive stereotypes and views,” Morsi said.