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Women in Egypt

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Women in Egypt

Women in Egypt
Gender Inequality Index
Value 0.590 (2012)
Rank 126th
Maternal mortality (per 100,000) 66 (2010)
Women in parliament 2.2% (2012)
Females over 25 with secondary education 43.4% (2010)
Women in labour force 23.7% (2011)
Global Gender Gap Index[1]
Value 0.5935 (2013)
Rank 125th out of 136


Flag of Egypt

Women in Ancient Egypt

Two women holding large water jugs. One is carrying an infant (1878)

Women were stated lower than men when it came to a higher leader in the Egyptian hierarchy counting his peasants. This hierarchy was similar to the way the peasants were treated in the Middle Ages.[3] Despite this equality, women were expected to avoid contact with men who were not kin and to veil themselves in public. As children, females were raised to be solely dependent upon their fathers and older brothers. When women married, they depended on their husbands to make all decisions, while the women themselves were depended upon to carry out household chores. Married Egyptian women were expected by their husband's families to bear children, but particularly males. It was common for married couples to continue to reproduce until bearing at least two sons. Barrenness was considered a severe misfortune for Egyptian women, as well as the inability to produce male offspring. Women who had only bore females were given derogatory names, such as “mothers of brides”. A family with well-grown sons was considered to have decent security. An Egyptian woman was thought to be at the peak of her power when her sons had married because she automatically acquired the control over the newly growing families of her sons.

Women have traditionally been preoccupied with household tasks and child rearing and have rarely had opportunities for contact with men outside the family. Unlike most traditional Egyptian women, Cleopatra and Nefertiti were among the few who had a major impact as rulers in Egyptian society. Cleopatra was known to have ruled with Marc Antony around 31 BC, despite her gender and other social issues, and she was also the Coregent of her two husband-brothers and her son.[4] Nefertiti was the chief wife of an Egyptian pharaoh, Amenhotep IV. Nefertiti was known to be an active Egyptian woman in society, as well as her children.[5] In addition to female Egyptian rulers, Hatshepsut had reigned in Egypt as pharaoh from about 1503 to 1480 B.C. and had based most of Egypt’s economy on commerce.[6]

Though not many women have acted as rulers in Egyptian society, they have been considered to be equal among men in status as well as legal opportunities. Women were shown to be allowed the opportunity to take part in the economy, such as their role as merchants, as it happened later in the Roman Empire, specially among the lower classes. Women had also taken part in religious activities, such as those who were priestesses. In the Sixth Dynasty Nebet became a Vizier and thus the first woman in History to fulfill such an office. Women could also own property, divorce their husbands, live alone and occupy main positions, mostly religious, in similarity with Assyrian women. Only the children from the Great Royal Wife could expect to succeed to the throne, and if there were no son but daughters by her, then a son by another wife or concubine could only get the throne by marrying the heir daughter, and whoever did so would become the new King. Either through political and / or religious power, some women managed to become, de facto or de jure, the highest office holders in the kingdom, and share a status of co-rulers with men, even being depicted in monuments with the same height as their husbands or otherwise and even as the other Gods of Egypt. Such were the cases of Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, Nefertari and the Nubian Egyptian Queens. The further Nubian Queens were able to maintain this status. The most important religious offices of that kind were those of God's Wife and God's Wife of Amun. Politically, they often managed to become Interregnum queens. In the Ptolemaic Dynasty this rise to power was sublimated with the establishment of a coregency system, in which Queens had the same position as Kings and were even powerful enough to obtain in dispute that coregency for themselves.

Modern status

To limit women’s contact with men as tradition, practices such as veiling and gender segregation at schools, work, and recreation have become common. Furthermore, lower-class families, especially in Upper-Egypt, have tended to withdraw females from school as they reached puberty to minimize their interaction with males. Lower-class men frequently preferred marriage to women who had been secluded rather than to those who had worked or attended secondary school.

The rule of [7]

The economic liberalization plan of the Sadat regime would result in the collapse of this system and the resurgence of Islamist-influenced policy. While the Nasserist years allowed a wide range of study for women, Sadat's policies would narrow the opportunities available to women. Unemployment for women changed from 5.8% 1960 to 40.7% in 1986. In place of policies to economically support women during pregnancy, women were encouraged to leave work entirely or work part-time.[7]

The Mubarak years were marked by further erosion of the role of women. Preserved parliamentary seats for women and the 1979 personal status law were repealed in 1987, a new watered-down law taking its place that allowed less power for women in cases of divorce.[7]

The migration of a large number of Egyptians, mostly men, has also had an impact on the status of Egyptian women. A study by the remittances represented an important source of income, accounting for 43% of their total income. 52% of wives of the migrants independently decided how to spend the money received. In the remaining cases, the head of the household enjoyed a fair deal of autonomy as the decision on how to use the remittance money was reached through mutual consultation between the migrant and the head of the household and only in a few cases (11%) did the migrant decide alone.[8]

A 2010 Pew Research Center poll showed that 45% of Egyptian men and 76% of women supported gender equality while 11% of men and 36% of women completely agreed that women should be able to work outside home.[9] Polls taken in 2010 and 2011 show that 39% considered gender equality "very important" to Egypt's future post-revolution and 54% of Egyptians supported sex segregation in the workplace.[10][11]

Female genital mutilation was criminalized in Egypt in 2008.[12] In 2012, UNICEF reported that 91% of Egyptian women and girls 15–49 years old had undergone female genital mutilation.[13] In June 2013 13-year-old Soheir al-Batea died after undergoing FGM. The doctor responsible for the procedure became the first doctor in Egypt to be tried for committing female genital mutilation. On November 20, 2014 he was found not guilty.[14]

In a 2013 poll of gender experts, Egypt ranked worst for women's rights out of all the Arab states.[2]

Sexual harassment and violence against women

In a 2008 survey of 1,010 women by the Egyptian Center for Women's rights, 98% of foreign women and 83% of native women said they had been sexually harassed in Egypt and two-thirds of men said that they had harassed women.[15][16] Women who wore conservative attire, an Islamic headscarf or niqab, were also targeted.[17] In 2013, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women reported that 99.3% of Egyptian women had experienced some form of harassment.[18] Human Rights Watch reported 91 sexual assaults in four days from 30 June 2013 during the Tahrir Square protests, as well as 19 cases of mob sexual assaults in January.[19] The deputy Middle East director at HRW said that the attacks were "holding women back from participating fully in the public life of Egypt at a critical point in the country's development."[19] On June 4, 2014, a law criminalizing sexual harassment for the first time in modern Egyptian history was approved by then interim president, Adly Mansour.[20]

Marriage and divorce

Marriage was considered a very important part in ancient Egyptian society. Marriage was an almost completely private affair, and as a result, not many records of marriage were kept.[21] Furthermore, not all Egyptian marriages were arranged, rather, most daughters had persuaded their families for their approval towards their future spouses.

Egyptian women who were married were highly acknowledged. It was common for females to marry after the age of menstruation, such as age 14. They were usually considered married after they had left the protection of their father’s house. It had also been acknowledged that though the woman became under her spouse’s care, her husband did not become her legal guardian and the woman remained independent while controlling her own assets.

Egypt's laws pertaining to marriage and divorce have changed over the years, however they have generally favored the social position of men, although reform continues. Egypt retained the inclusion of Islamic law in dealings of family law, following on from its judicial and administrative independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1874.[22] Muslim husbands were traditionally allowed to have up to four wives at a time in accordance with Islamic religious custom, but a woman could have only one husband at a time. A Muslim man could divorce his wife with ease by saying "I divorce thee" on three separate occasions in the presence of witnesses. However, for example in the more strict Hanafi school of family law, a woman could only divorce from her husband in the case of his impotence or by choosing the 'option of puberty'. The first reforms that changed this state of affairs came in the 1920s with Law No.25 of 1920 and 1929. These reforms included the following specifics regarding legitimate grounds for a woman requesting a divorce:

  1. If her husband failed to provide maintenance. (nafaqah)
  2. If her husband was found to have a dangerous or contagious disease.
  3. If she was deserted by her husband.
  4. If she was maltreated by her husband.[23]

These reforms were possible through the Maliki school of thought, which was more liberal. As suggested by Rifa'a el-Tahtawi, a more progressive attitude towards the rights of women could be achieved whilst remaining within an Islamic framework, by looking to another of the Sunni schools. In 1971 further reforms were made and these even began to include debates about whether or not Shariah law should be included in the new constitution. Dr. Aisha Ratib became Minister of Social Affairs and in November the following revisions were suggested:

  1. That the age for legal marriage should be raised to 18 for women and 21 for men
  2. That the permission of a judge was required for polygamy
  3. That divorces could not take place without a judge being present
  4. That the mother should be allowed a greater period of guardianship, but also that guardianship in the case of divorce should go to the parent deemed most suitable to provide it
  5. That judges should have more involvement in family law cases, and that female judges should be considered to deal with family law cases.[24]

The government amended the laws relating to personal status in 1979. The amendments, which became known as the "women's rights law," were in the form of a presidential decree and subsequently approved by the People's Assembly. The leading orthodox Islamic clergy endorsed these amendments, but Islamist groups opposed them as state infringements of religious precepts and campaigned for their repeal. The amendments stated that polygamy was legally harmful to a first wife and entitled her to sue for divorce within a year after learning of her husband's second marriage. The amendments also entitled the first wife to compensation. A husband retained the right to divorce his wife without recourse to the courts, but he was required to file for his divorce before witnesses at a registrar's office and officially and immediately to inform his wife. The divorced wife was entitled to alimony equivalent to one year's maintenance in addition to compensation equivalent to two years' maintenance; a court could increase these amounts under extenuating circumstances such as the dissolution of a long marriage. The divorced wife automatically retained custody of sons under the age of ten and daughters under twelve; courts could extend the mother's custody of minors until their eighteenth birthdays.

Women during the 2011 Egyptian revolution

In 1985 Egyptian authorities ruled that the amendments of 1979 were unconstitutional because they had been enacted through a presidential decree while the People's Assembly was not in session. A new law reversed many of the rights accorded to women in 1979. A woman lost her automatic right to divorce her husband if he married a second wife. She could still petition a court to consider her case, but a judge would grant a divorce only if it were in the interests of the family. If a divorce were granted, the judge would also determine what was an appropriate residence for the divorced woman and her children.

The changes in divorce legislation in 1979 and 1985 did not significantly alter the divorce rate, which has been relatively high since the early 1950s. About one in five marriages ended in divorce in the 1980s. Remarriage was common, and most divorced men and women expected to wed again. Seven out of ten divorces took place within the first five years of marriage, and one out of three in the first year. The divorce rate depended on residence and level of education. The highest divorce rates were among the urban lower class, the lowest rates among the villagers of Upper Egypt. Throughout the country, as much as 95 percent of all divorces occurred among couples who were illiterate.

Marital rape is not specifically outlawed in Egypt.[25]

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^
  4. ^ paragraph 5, Lewis, Jone Johnson. 2006. Cleopatra. (accessed April 12, 2009)
  5. ^ paragraph 2 Lewis, Jone Johnson. 2006. Cleopatra. (accessed April 12, 2009)
  6. ^ paragraph 1 El-Sayed, Sayed Z. 1995. Queen Hatshepsut's expedition to the Land of Punt: The first oceanographic cruise? (accessed April 12, 2009)
  7. ^ a b c
  8. ^ International Organization for Migration,
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^ a b
  20. ^
  21. ^ paragraph 14 Johnson, Janet H. 2002. Women’s Legal Rights in Ancient Egypt. (accessed April 12, 2009)
  22. ^ Esposito & DeLong-Bas, Women in Muslim Family Law, p47
  23. ^ Esposito & DeLong-Bas, Women in Muslim Family Law, p51
  24. ^ Esposito & DeLong-Bas, Women in Muslim Family Law, p58
  25. ^

 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Library of Congress Country Studies. (Data from 1990.)


  • Beatty, Chester. 1998. (accessed April 12, 2009)
  • Brunner, Emma. 1979. Birth of Hatshepsut accessed April 12, 2009).
  • Dunham, D. 1917. Naga-ed-Der Stelae of the First Intermediate Period. (accessed April 12, 2009).
  • Piccione, Peter A. 1995. The Status of Women in Ancient Egyptian Society. (accessed April 12, 2009).
  • Tappan, Eva March. 1914. The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art. (accessed April 12, 2009)
  • The Statues of Women in Egyptian Society. (accessed April 12, 2009)
  • Ward, William. The Egyptian Economy and Non-royal Women: Their Status in Public Life. (accessed April 12, 2009)

External links

  • Ancient Egyptian Women
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