Local media was astir on Saturday when only three women were sworn in to the 33-minister Cabinet — but their looks were dominating headlines, not the lack of representation.
Of the five women in former Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb’s government, new Prime Minister Sherif Ismail kept only one — Ghada Waly, who retained her position as social solidarity minister. Since first taking on the role in June 2014, she initiated the first phase of Egypt’s cash transfer program, and has been the public face of the state’s crackdown on non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
The two new faces include Minister of International Cooperation Sahar Nasr, who holds an economics PhD from Cairo University, and previously worked as a lead financial economist for the World Bank. And Nabila Makram, who now leads the newly formed Immigration and Egyptian Expatriate Affairs Ministry, is a 20-year veteran of Egypt’s diplomatic corps in Rome, Dubai and Chicago.
But these impressive pedigrees have been obscured by reactions in the press and social media. For instance, a picture of the three ministers standing side-by-side is circulating on social media under the hashtag “Egypt is becoming prettier.” Users lauded their elegance and style, with some saying that what the women do with their new positions is irrelevant.
“The percentage of women in the Cabinet is dreadful,” says Dalia Abdel Hameed, head of the gender program at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). She contends that this flagrant objectification reinforces the idea that women in government primarily serve as “decoration.”
“They are a new flower in a suit’s buttonhole,” she comments wryly. “People are entitled to say it smells good or looks bad.”
Of course, a fixation on how successful women look is not unique to Egypt. Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, has come under scrutiny for her clothing choices and hairstyle, while in the United States, first lady Michelle Obama’s dresses have been written about far more than her successful law career.
“The babes of Sherif Ismail’s government,” trumpets the headline of an article in the privately owned newspaper Sout al-Omma profiling the three women.
Questioning how the word mozza (a pejorative term for an attractive woman) could be splashed across headlines, Abdel Hameed suggests that such coverage could constitute “verbal harassment”— especially given that a court fined a taxi driver last year after he used the word.
Another article published by the privately owned news site Al Arabiya — “Three ‘beauties’ join Egypt’s new Cabinet, but still not enough?” — takes a different angle.
It quotes a political sociology professor as saying that the three ministers maintain a “highly westernized” image that may cater to a specific social class.
Such statements reinforce the idea that women are bearers of identity, responds Abdel Hameed. “What kind of ‘authentic’ look do you expect?”
On his talk show, Tamer Amin showed a picture of the women, saying they looked presentable and that he was optimistic about the new government. He then asked his camera crew to pan away from the picture, saying, “That’s enough guys, come on.”
Amin also extended his helping hand to the three “delicate” ministers, adding that they are off-limits for criticism until they “toughen up.”
Meanwhile, social media users have juxtaposed pictures of the ministers with photos of prominent female members of the Muslim Brotherhood, breathing a sigh of relief over what might have been.
Such acts highlight a “your women versus our women” mentality, Abdel Hameed explains, showing how women are used in the battleground between the military and the Islamists.
Abdel Hameed describes these reactions as a “pseudo-celebration,” and questions to what extent society would actually accept the proper representation of women in parliament or Cabinet, or any decision-making position.
She also points out that none of the women were appointed to sovereign ministries (meaning the foreign affairs, defense, interior or justice ministries).
One minister in particular attracted the most attention after she attended the swearing-in ceremony wearing a short-sleeved dress.
On his talk show Saturday night, Ahmed Moussa claimed Makram’s outfit was “inappropriate,” and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi himself had taken note.
Moussa praised her credentials and said he understood she must be taken aback by her new position and all the attention, but had made the wrong fashion choice.
The critique paved the way for other media outlets to focus on Makram’s lifestyle, from her sense of style to how many friends she has on Facebook, shifting the focus even further away from her professional experience.
News sources have called on stylists and etiquette experts to weigh in on the minister’s outfit. An anonymous “informed” source told the privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm that Makram violated protocol by wearing short sleeves and leaving her hair down. While there is no dress code specified by the president’s office for these formal ceremonies, the source said short sleeves and makeup are frowned upon.
Another article in the privately owned Al-Watan quoted a self-described etiquette expert who said that the minister’s dress wasn’t the best outfit choice. She had no reservations about Makram’s hairstyle — she wasn’t required to tie it back since she was “not going to school” — but explained that curly hair and extra-long hair would be considered inappropriate.
Yet another news site pointed out that Makram already wore the now-infamous dress to another occasion in 2013, showing a picture from her Facebook profile as proof.
Talk show host Wael al-Ibrashy called Makram to ask her about the commentary during his show on the satellite channel Dream TV.
Makram said that she expects criticism as a public figure — but regarding her qualifications, not her appearance.
She brushed off the complaints, saying she stands by what she wore.
“I know and understand very well what is appropriate and what is not,” she said, citing her long service in diplomacy.
“I would like opinions on what I would do [with my position], rather than on short or long sleeves,” she added.
Abdel Hameed questions the logic behind the backlash, pointing out that Sisi meets other officials abroad who wear whatever they want. And Moussa’s rhetoric in particular implies that as a woman, Makram “has to be inferior to Sisi,” the researcher argues.
This kind of regulation of appearances is limited to women, Abdel Hameed continues. “If one of the ministers was wearing a brown suit, would they have said no, it has to be black?”
She points to criticism of the education minister, who has garnered attention for the spelling mistakes and outlandish opinions in his Facebook posts. He “is being criticized for his qualifications, but Makram is being judged on her appearance. No one is talking about qualifications when it comes to female ministers.”
“The Egyptian woman is still not empowered,” Abdel Hameed opines. “No matter how high she is on the career ladder.”