Egyptian women face a sexist society – despite legally enshrined rights

For International Women’s Day, TML dives deep into the status of women in Egyptian society.

 Students wait in a lecture hall at Mansoura University. (photo credit: REUTERS/NASSER NURI)
Students wait in a lecture hall at Mansoura University.
(photo credit: REUTERS/NASSER NURI)

In the ninth episode of The Media Line’s Spanish-language podcast, Medio Oriente 123, host Debbie Mohnblatt is joined by Egyptian scholar and women’s rights activist Sara Kira.

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Today marks International Women’s Day, a day meant to call attention to the women’s rights movement and to celebrate the accomplishments of women. The Media Line sat down with Sara Kira, a 37-year-old Egyptian scholar and women’s rights activist to discuss her work and her analysis of the situation faced by Egyptian women.

Kira is the founder and director of the European North African Center for Research. Her advocacy for women’s rights earned her a nomination for the position of UN Women goodwill ambassador.

She traces her interest in women’s rights to the time she spent studying in Europe. “I see the huge gap there is between both worlds, on how a woman looks like, her rights, and her way of life,” she told The Media Line.

Nesma Nasr, an Egyptian textile engineer, works on her computer at her home in Cairo, Egypt March 26, 2021. Picture taken March 26, 2021.  (credit: REUTERS/HANAA HABIB)Nesma Nasr, an Egyptian textile engineer, works on her computer at her home in Cairo, Egypt March 26, 2021. Picture taken March 26, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/HANAA HABIB)

Inspired by the differences she noticed between women in Europe and women in Egypt, Kira founded the Happy Women of Egypt initiative. Since 2019, Kira, together with a group of women, has been working to study the happiness and productivity levels of Egyptian women and trying to understand how to make Egyptian women happier.

A woman who is unhappy will be unable to reach her full potential, Kira explained.

To address the issue of women’s happiness, Kira began giving lectures at companies where women work, distributing surveys, and speaking to the media.

Kira recounted one woman she met who worked at an oil company. “She was a poet, and she had this beautiful voice. She was eager to share her poetry with the world, but her husband was a chauvinist and did not let her go out, except to work at the same place he works in, nor share her poetry,” she said.

Thanks to Kira’s initiative promoting women’s happiness, the woman now has a website where she shares her poems. “She has millions of views,” Kira said.

Most of the women reached by the initiative are from outside of Cairo, Egypt’s largest and most developed city. Many of them are from more religious backgrounds, often wearing hijabs.

Women’s rights in Egypt often appear stronger on paper than they are in reality, Kira said. For example, women are allowed to seek divorce in Egypt. But even with that legal right enshrined, the outlook for a divorced woman is not promising. “What about the aftermath?” Kira asked. “How does society perceive you? How are you treated? And how do you live?”

In Egyptian society, she noted, a woman is not perceived as a complete human unless she is accompanied by a man.

She noted that a woman who goes to a government office without a man will be treated badly and will often have to pay more and wait longer than she would if a man came with her. A woman riding a cab alone will have to talk to a family member on the phone during the entire ride in order to feel safe.

“The sad thing is that most women here talk about it as if it was normal,” she said.

Kira is currently working on an initiative that will propose a legal codification of women’s rights in marriage. Egypt has a relatively high divorce rate, Kira explained, and the government is working on legislation to attempt to decrease the rate of divorce, much of which is unfriendly towards women. She sees her project as a pro-women’s rights alternative to the proposed legislation.

One of the proposed laws to decrease the divorce rate would require every woman to perform a virginity test before getting married. Kira described such a law as an affront to women’s right to privacy.

Her goal for the initiative is to develop a better legal framework for this type of legislation.

Kira noted that there is no opposition to her women’s rights activism from the current Egyptian government. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is seen as a supporter of women’s rights, in large part because women were an important factor in his rise to power. “This is because women were very afraid of the Islamist government,” Kira said. She recalled how threatened she felt as a woman in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, when Islamist President Mohamed Morsi ruled the country before being ousted in 2013.

The current government provides Egyptian women with all legal rights, Kira said, but in reality, many women are far from free. “Here, the laws clash with the chauvinist society,” she explained. Often the laws meant to protect women go unenforced.

Kira attributed Egypt’s interest in women’s rights to the state’s desire to be accepted in the international community. In the UN, Egypt’s delegates “are exposed to agreements on women's rights, and they have to sign them,” Kira said. “The state does not want trouble with the international community.”

Despite the legal protections, Egyptian women face a high rate of violence, most of which happens within domestic relationships. “There is not a lot of data about the crime rate against women in Egypt and we are working on that. We are collecting information on victims of domestic violence, and we will publish a report soon,” Kira said.

Many of the cases of femicide that Kira has studied could have been prevented if the police intervened, she explained. “The police did not see the need to defend women that were complaining of threats several times. The police do not apply the law, so here we have a problem of a sexist society.”