How do Egyptian families fare if the adult male members are unable or unwilling to work, or if they are simply not around?
It is customary for Egyptian women to work, and in contrast to many other parts of the world where a woman’s place was traditionally regarded as being in the home—children, church and kitchen—it is considered neither demeaning nor indicative of neglecting her family. According to their background, women in Egypt work beside their husbands in the fields; in private or government offices; or at the highest professional levels. Women have no problem finding work; and when they find themselves having to feed their families they have no qualms about accepting any job on offer. According to the industrialist Louis Bishara, women are more dedicated and committed workers and so employers frequently prefer them to men.
One in three
A recent study found that one in three households in Egypt is now headed by a woman. Zeinab Afifi, Secretary-General of the National Council for Women (NCW), says the proportion is higher in Lower Egypt and Cairo, especially in slum areas.
While finding a job is usually not a problem, female breadwinners are frequently underpaid, and many work in the informal sector of the economy which means they fall below the radar for social and health insurance. The NCW and a number of NGOs have been running programmes to help women who head their households acquire ID cards and file for social insurance and aid. They can also attend classes for literacy and job skills. A recent study by the Health Ministry revealed that some 20 per cent of women who head households suffer from various illnesses, while 38 per cent of their children are forced out of school and into the labour market to help their families.
One mother, Nabila (not her real name), told Watani that her husband left her four years ago with five children to support. “He never provided money for the children’s expenses, even before our divorce,” she said. “I used to buy him his cigarettes while he slept all day. After he left me for another woman I worked as a maid, but now my health is bad and I can’t take it any more. I’m just asking the government to give us a helping hand. I need treatment and my children need care.”
Another woman, Aida, from the overpopulated neighbourhood of Umraniya, said her husband used to work in a factory but quit his job when she started earning more money as a maid. “Now I feel like I’m bearing the whole responsibility and I’m forced to work more and more. I hate my life and I can’t go that extra mile,” she said.
Sociologist Azza Karim from the National Centre for Social and Criminological Research says there is no doubt that the large number—34 per cent—of female heads of household is both a surprise and a problem.
“The problem is that many men have abandoned their families. The husband, for example, is unemployed and dumps it on his wife, so she realises that she has to find a job in order to make a living, even if this means doing any inappropriate jobs and accepting any salary. Female-headed households can also indicate those families whose women work and earn more than their husbands, so paying the family expenses becomes their key role.
It is taken for granted that when a woman goes out to work in the absence of a partner there will be serious consequences for children who have no male role model, and who might tend to deviate and get out of hand. Women combining work with sole parental care will have no time for involvement in a social or political life that might help them be a better role model for their children.
Ms Afifi, says: “The proportion of female-headed households in Egypt is nearly equivalent to a quarter of the population. Many men today leave home to make a living abroad. Men used to have a moral obligation towards their wives and children, but unfortunately this is no longer the case.”
Mental health problems
What effect does the added burden of supporting as well as raising her family have on a mother’s psychological health?
Consultant psychiatrist Mohammad al-Mahdy says women are the pillars of their families. If any member of the family suffers a psychological disorder or is on drugs, the mother stands in the front line. She cares for the sick; she cleans the house; she makes the beds she does the shopping and cooking. She is simply everything.
“But if the mother is the one with a psychological disorder, here comes a dead end. This is when the pillar of the family crumbles. How can she take care of her family and their needs? Taking care of mothers is a priority, or society will fall apart.”
The Egyptian community is Islamic oriented, and Islam says the men, in their capacity as the financial supporters of the family, are in charge of the women. Does this imply that when a woman assumes that role she will no longer be under her husband’s thumb? The mere notion of this sometimes leads men whose wives are the breadwinners to abuse and maltreat them lest they get above themselves. This leads to an entire new set of problems not only for the breadwinner mother but also for the children. The image of both parents as role models is severely distorted; the father becomes the ‘brute’ and the mother the forever weak, beast-of-burden figure whose abuse is ‘normal’ and ‘justified’. Social workers and researchers are unanimous in the opinion that if the image is passed to the next generation it would make for very serious sociological and communal problems.
Many recommendations have been put forward over the years, including giving priority to the employment of women who are heads of their households through government programmes, forming business associations, assisting small businesses, and teaching new skills. Other solutions lie in facilitating the necessary procedures for implementing the provisions of alimony, setting up a fund for expenses at the Bank Nasser, and approving the scope of family insurance.
The NCW has called for a fund for female-headed households and the creation of a database supporting micro-credit projects to protect those women who fall below the poverty line.
13 September 2014