• 22:16
  • Wednesday ,15 October 2014

Egypt's Conservative Society Further Burdens Poor Working Women

By NPR News

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Wednesday ,15 October 2014

Egypt's Conservative Society Further Burdens Poor Working Women

Next we have a story of working women, in particular, working women in the Arab world.

Egypt's economy is failing, and in many Egyptian households, women are the ones putting food on the table. They are the primary breadwinners in up to 30 percent of Egyptian homes.
INSKEEP: They do this despite the sort of pressures women do not face commonly in the West. NPR's Leila Fadel followed one working woman in Cairo.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Om Mohammed is 45, separated and a mother of four boys. She spends every day cleaning the houses of the wealthy.


FADEL: Today she's vacuuming a four-bedroom apartment across from the Nile Country Club in suburban Cairo. She works from about 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. pretty much every day for a total of just over $200 a month. When she's done...


FADEL: She locks the door of the high-rise apartment building where she works and heads home. Her street is a far cry from the ostentatious neighborhoods where she cleans. The low-slung buildings made of cinder-block bricks crowd the narrow and unpaved road. Laundry is strung from balconies. Her neighbors sit on the stoops and greet her.

UNIDENTIFIED NEIGHBOR #1: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: And she greets them back and says, see how we live on top of each other? She opens the door to her home; a tiny, stark first-floor apartment with one bedroom that also has a refrigerator, a little kitchen and a living room with a makeshift couch in the corner made of wood and a flimsy mattress.

OM MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Om Mohammed is providing for her family on her own. Her husband lost his job years ago, she says. He stopped pulling his weight, but expected her to provide for the kids, clean and work while he made the decisions. So she left him and now raises her kids on her own. She doesn't want to use her full name for fear of causing problems in her family.

OM MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: She says that when she started to work, the pressure on her doubled. Not only was she expected to work, but she continued her household duties - something her husband didn't see as his responsibility. The man just guards the house and punishes the kids, she jokes; that's his responsibility in life.

It's a common problem in a place where traditional gender roles still largely prevail. She's one of millions of women burdened with the finances at home as prices and unemployment rise. And despite the increase in prices, her salary is stagnant and she has no benefits. If she's sick, she still works so she'll get paid. And even though she's providing for and raising the children, the bread subsidies for her kids are still in her husband's name as they usually are, and he won't hand them over. Mona Ezzat of The New Woman Foundation has done in-depth studies on working women in Egypt, mostly among the poor and middle-class.

MONA EZZAT: (Through translator) Even though women are out there and working, society doesn't acknowledge this role.

FADEL: Ezzat said the women they studied were largely from poorer families where more conservative values still dominate and women are expected to stay at home. The study showed that many of the working women were single and worked in factories to support their families, but brothers and fathers still take the salaries and make all the decisions at home. There are other societal limits; women are often barred from overnight trips in factories for work purposes where more money can be made.

EZZAT: (Through translator) Society still sees women working as exceptional. They see her main role as in the home. If they admitted that she participated economically, then they have to give her rights within the workforce and admit the large role that women play.

FADEL: In more conservative parts of Egypt, men hide the fact that their single daughters work, worried it will hurt marriage prospects. And even though women make up a smaller portion of the official workforce - the government says it's about 25 percent - they make up nearly half of laborers in the informal economy, which the government doesn't track - jobs like cleaning houses and peddling vegetables.

EZZAT: (Through translator) As the economy deteriorates, more women are working, but they're doing it in the informal economy so they don't have benefits or work protections.

FADEL: And the wage gap is pretty big, too. She says men make an average of 14 percent more than women doing the same job.

OM MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Back at Om Mohammed's home, she says leaving her husband gave her the freedom to run her house, but the burden is heavy.

OM MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: She says poorer women like herself are the ones that are most harmed by the economic downturn. Every cent she earns she spends on rent and on her children, and there is no one she can turn to for help. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo