international analysis and commentary

Women’s role in Egypt and a changing society


Khulthum Odeh (1892-1965) is often regarded as the first Arab woman ever to be appointed professor. Born in Nazareth, Odeh immigrated to Russia in 1914 where, in the early 1930s, she founded an institute of Arabic studies at the University of Moscow. The role of Egyptian women in opposing the British occupation, as well as their involvement in the late 1919 public demonstrations, is often mentioned in her writings. Egyptian feminist Hoda Sha‘arawi (1879–1947), in particular, was regarded by Odeh as a role model for her successful commitment against mandatory public veiling of women and for her campaign aimed at providing them access to higher education institutions: “The Arabs”, Odeh noted in the late 20s, “have understood that without the liberation of women there cannot be freedom and progress. However, it is still not possible to speak about the complete liberation of women. In order to destroy centuries of oppression there would have to be a real revolution”.

Eight decades after these words, Egyptian women are still waiting for a “real revolution”. Yet, they succeeded in igniting their first realistic “cultural revolt”. It is an ongoing, distressing process that will require years, if not decades. “Respect for women’s rights”, as pointed out by Mozn Hassan, Executive Director of Nazra for Feminist Studies, a few months after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s fall, “can only be developed over the long term”.

Hassan’s assessment is rooted in a well-established cultural tradition. One of the most influential legacies left by French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) is in fact that “revolutions” are in themselves unable to make any significant difference: every deep change takes place through the cumulation of long-term processes of social development. A growing number of people, in Egypt and elsewhere, are aware that the process of social and cultural change is much more complex and difficult than protesting in public squares and demanding the departure of a president or a government.

Egypt’s “social and cultural process” is taking place first and foremost inside the houses of millions of women, including, and perhaps especially, the ones residing on the “front line”, that is the most disadvantaged area of the country: rural Upper Egypt. James C. Scott would define their attitude as “everyday forms of resistance” that often “make no headlines”.

These women don’t represent in any way a homogeneous group; they populate different areas and face different socioeconomic conditions. On top of this, to depict them as “heroes” would be highly problematic: “Glorification of splendid underdogs”, stressed German sociologist Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969), “is nothing other than glorification of the splendid system that makes them so”. Instead, these women should be considered as normal persons that in different ways and forms are taking part in a process of growing awareness that aims to find alternatives ways of “resisting”.

To shed light on their efforts we carried out an in-depth cultural and social research through interviews conducted in several villages, mainly in rural Upper Egypt. Israa Said Thabet, a 26-year old mother of two who lives in Asyut (375km from Cairo), explained that women’s efforts in her region should be evaluated in a broad frame that takes in the growing awareness experienced by them in these last three years. “Before the [2011] revolution”, she claimed, “most of the women were ignorant about anything that was happening in the country. After January 2011 they increasingly started to follow the news and to express their political views”.

This confirms that it is mainly inside their houses that women are turning the “political revolution” into a cultural and moral one. “We are witnessing”, Israa clarified, “a revolution against every traditional aspect. We are no more silent about abuses. Many women are taking action, when necessary, against their husbands. I also noted an increasing number of divorces in our area. We still have a long journey ahead, but we are becoming increasingly aware that there is no longer such a thing as ‘a weak woman’”.

This increasing awareness and the related attempts to find simple and practical ways to break from a deeply-rooted status quo are aspects that we registered in most of our field interviews. This does not imply that local women noticed practical improvements. Due to their efforts, many women continue to be accused of accepting Western norms and customs. Furthermore, due to women’s growing contribution to household expenses and their increased involvement in activism, the harmful aspects of patriarchy have in some contexts worsened and a new patriarchal structure has emerged.

According to Samah Anwar, a 24-year old young girl from the outskirts of Tahta (Sohag Governorate, 467km from Cairo), this rigid hierarchy is increasingly affecting women’s conditions, that were in some respects better before 2011. The charitable organizations established by Suzanne Mubarak were perhaps not so big or effective, but were at least able to offer some opportunities. After the end of the Mubarak’s regime, in Samah’s words, “these organizations almost disappeared. People started to look at them as leftovers of the past regime. I am afraid to dream of a better future and I do not have trust,” she concluded, “in anything that is currently happening in this country.”

Several interesting insights were also provided by Eman Abd Al-Aziz, a 24-year old woman residing nearby Manfalut (Asyut Governorate). She believes that today the way for women to resist growing social pressure is very much related to education. This is another social and cultural form of resistance; lower-class men in Upper Egypt, in fact, frequently prefer to marry women who have been secluded from education – thus women with a minimum interaction with males – rather than engage with women who have worked or attended secondary schools.

“Here in Asyut an increasing number of girls study medicine or pharmaceuticals”, pointed out Eman, “and they are strongly committed students that frequently obtain very high grades”. Despite all the difficulties that these women encounter, Eman did not show any doubt: “Women in Upper Egypt are very patient and never surrender to the status quo. Their tenacity and determination represent powerful weapons”.

Through the study of women’s conditions in rural Upper Egypt, which are virtually detached from established power, much may be revealed not only about the daily lives and the narratives of the “powerless”, or the “weaker”, but also, in Stephanie Cronin’s words, about the nature of the “powerful”. This can also have the positive effect to challenge us, to undermine our prejudices and dogmas, and to delineate new strategies to support their efforts.


The research for this article was carried out as part of a broader study that will be published in a volume (forthcoming in 2015) edited by M. Charrad, R. Stephan and entitled “Women and the Arab Spring: resistance, revolution, reform”.


Maha Ezzat Elkholy – who co-authored the article – is an Egyptian teacher from Sendbees, Qaliubiya Governorate. She graduated at Al-Azhar University from the Faculty of Humanities and is involved in research projects related to gender issues and gender-based violence. Maha is a former member of “Pioneers Family”, a charitable institution in which she participated in organizing seminars, visiting orphanages and organizing trips.