Would you hire a female plumber?
Um Bassem, a plumber in Cairo, has challenged the rules about women working in male-dominated fields. Why are more women not joining her?
Courtesy: Roger Anis

Um Bassem remembers well the day a fellow trainee in her plumbing course decried with horror the idea of working in such close proximity to a woman. She argued that there was no difference between them working together and him sitting beside her in microbus. But the man was not convinced and the discussion quickly turned into a fight. Um Bassem chased the man with a stick, shouting that she needed work and wasn’t leaving.

As Egypt continues to struggle through an economic crunch, and an ensuing set of harsh austerity policies agreed to under the terms of a US$12 billion dollar loan from the IMF, eliminating the gender gap in the labor force has become more pressing. While wages have stagnated in the aftermath of the 2011 revolt, birth rates and inflation have climbed, making it increasingly unfeasible to support a family with multiple children on a single income. According to a 2013 study conducted by the IMF on the macroeconomic gains of gender equality, if female participation rates in Egypt were equal to those of men, gross domestic product would grow by 34 percent.

But the benefits of women working are not just economic. Married women who do not work are rendered vulnerable by a system which provides no support in cases of divorce or the death of a spouse. Around 25 percent of those who are jailed in Egypt for unpaid debts are women. Gender experts add that households in which women work tend to allocate more money to child health and education. 

Perched on a tiny stool in the narrow lane that snakes past her shop in the densely packed Darb al-Ahmar neighborhood in central Cairo, Um Bassem’s raspy laugh echoes as she chain-smokes, telling the story of how she came to be a plumber, one of many professions that are almost exclusively the purview of men in Egypt.

Fourteen years ago, her husband abruptly walked out, leaving her and their three young children penniless. They had run several businesses together, but everything was in his name. A few years earlier, she had been cut out of her father’s business following his death in favor of her male relatives.

Then, not long after her husband left, Um Bassem was fired from her job as a hairdresser, when the male shop owner accused her of disloyalty after she made a house call to a woman who was unwell on one of her days off.

It was at that moment, she says, that she realized she couldn’t live at the whims of the men around her any longer.

She decided she would learn a skill that was in demand and start her own business.

Courtesy: Roger Anis

Hearing that a local foundation was running vocational training, she went to investigate. She was told they were offering a plumbing course but that it was only for men.

“It won’t work — you are a woman,” they told her.

She protested that she had already run her own business in the past but the training organizers were unmoved, telling her it was not proper for a woman to train for a profession dominated by men. Women should be at home, they told her.  

She insisted that she was a stronger applicant than any of the male candidates and thrust LE1,000 into their hands as a security deposit, promising that if she broke any equipment they could keep it. The organizers were perplexed and even offered her money. They were shocked, she recalls, to find her shouting back, “I don’t want money, I want a profession of my own!”

Eventually they gave in, and for the first time the course was opened up to men and women. Following Um Bassem’s lead, 10 other women decided to apply, but under pressure from their families and embarrassed by the social stigma associated with working in a male-dominated field, they quickly quit.

Um Bassem was the only woman who persevered in a group of 20 male trainees.

The beginning of her training was especially difficult because at age 50, when she started, she was both older than the teachers themselves and a woman. Her fellow students also found her presence strange and difficult and it was repeatedly made clear to her that they thought she would leave.

During their training, the students were given jumpsuits to wear. But the head of the school was offended by Um Bassem wearing the jumpsuit, declaring it “indecent.”

In 2015, Sisa Abu Daooh, a woman who disguised herself as a man for over 40 years after her husband’s death so she could work as a laborer in Luxor, was celebrated by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as an exemplary mother. But the discrimination that compelled her to pretend to be a man for four decades so she could work remains woefully unaddressed, even though Sisi declared 2017 the Year of the Woman.

Women’s rights defenders say that the resistance women face when seeking employment is part of a system of discriminatory personal status, inheritance, custody and paternity laws that disadvantage women across social classes. Such laws derive their legitimacy from Sharia, which the Constitution designates a main source of legislation in Egypt, and are advanced by the country’s conservative elites.

Indeed, the only article that references women’s labor in the Constitution also references domestic duties. The state commits in Article 11 to “supporting women’s empowerment in order to balance family duties with work requirements.”

Under the current labor law, there are 30 sectors in which women in Egypt cannot legally work, including fields such as construction and mining. The same law stipulates that the minister of manpower is responsible for designating which jobs are “morally unwholesome and not permitted” for women. Mona Ezzat, program officer at the New Woman Foundation, a non-governmental organization which works to eliminate gender discrimination, calls this list formalized discrimination. The foundation is lobbying the government to amend the law.

The gendered division of labor means there are three job categories in Egypt, says Ezzat. The first are those that are primarily occupied by women, such as labor intensive jobs in manufacturing, where a high proportion of young, unmarried women lacking education work. Fields such as medicine and teaching, in which both men and women work, make up the second category. Within these fields, however, there is another form of labor segregation, with women being assigned less important roles and being denied experience and chances for promotions. The third category is jobs that are either officially or unofficially not open to women such as jobs in construction, the stock market and mining. If women work in these sectors, Ezzat says, they tend to occupy secretarial or human resources positions.

Egypt is currently ranked 132 out of 144 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, with women representing 22 percent of the labor force, while men make up around 75 percent, according to statistics from the International Labor Organization (ILO). When it comes to management positions, Ezzat says, this number dips to 12 percent. For top-tier leadership positions, the number decreases further to 2 percent. Of the 589 members of Parliament only 89 are female.

A recent survey by Gallup and the ILO, which examined global attitudes to women working, found that younger men in Egypt are significantly less likely than their older counterparts to find it acceptable for women in their families to work outside the home, with over half of men under 29 stating that they preferred women to stay at home altogether. The same survey showed that for women seeking work, the biggest concern was finding a balance between work and family, while the second most significant concern was unfair treatment, followed by family disapproval and lack of safe transportation.

Ezzat notes that many women work in secret, because of social stigma.

Yet popular disapproval of women in the workforce contradicts the economic reality. According to the most recent available figures from the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, close to 18 percent of Egyptian breadwinners are women, while women’s advocacy groups put the figure as high as 30 percent. Lacking education and in need of quick cash and flexibility, women currently represent 60 percent of the informal sector.

“A lot of women go to work like Um Bassem to pay for a man who sits at home doing nothing,” Ezzat says.

Courtesy: Roger Anis

Ghada Barsoum, an assistant professor at the Department of Public Policy and Administration at the American University in Cairo, whose research focuses on policy solutions to the absence of women in numerous sectors, says that she has found that women who work in male-dominated fields are “less happy.” She also insists that “women don’t face pressure from society, but rather that society does not accept them working in bad jobs, and so if the jobs were better, women’s participation would not be an issue.” Hania Sholkamy, an anthropologist at AUC, echoes the same sentiment saying that the gender gap in employment would not be problematic if women were rewarded for their domestic labor and “thereby could afford to forgo full market work equality.”

In talking to a number of researchers and policy workers, Mada Masr found there was a common reluctance to address the profound challenges that societal ideas about gender present to Egyptian women seeking a place in the world of work. Ezzat is familiar with the reluctance of many of her female associates to discuss the complex relationship between women and their social environments, which she says is often based on an assumption that women are inevitably caretakers and hence only certain jobs should be allocated to them.

Ragai Assaad, a professor specializing in labor issues at the University of Minnesota, views the issue as one of economy and argues that the market is the best avenue for solving the problem of women’s marginalization from the workforce.

“Ultimately the only thing that’s going to make the difference is demand shock: when demand for labor suddenly arises. This would force employers to include women in large numbers. Without this demand-driven growth, employers have no incentive to change.”

Assaad believes that this would require a commitment on the part of the government to cultivating industries that accommodate women, and to providing flexible working hours and safe transportation. He advocates labor laws so that childcare and maternity leave are covered by social insurance, instead of being dependent on the reasonability of employers, which makes hiring female employees costly.

Policy strides by the government may be the fastest route to change, as, until now, expectations that education would gradually increase employment rates for women in the MENA region have proved disappointing, with female labor force participation having only grown by 0.17 percent annually over the past 30 years, according to the World Bank.

Increased participation by women in higher education is not necessarily a useful indicator for measuring their status in the workforce, because women tend to stick to “appropriate” fields of study, such as arts and humanities, Ezzat says, while specialties like computer science, neurosurgery or petroleum engineering remain almost entirely populated by men.

Ezzat advocates setting quotas to make areas like medicine, academia, engineering and government more attractive and accessible to women. Incentivizing the private sector to complete independent gender audits might increase opportunities for women in top-level management over time, she says.

Another important factor is the way in which women are often represented in popular culture, such as on television, as hapless and incapable.

Ezzat believes education institutions could be the frontline for countering patriarchal attitudes and policies regarding women’s employment.

Yet all the measures that could promote women’s participation in the work force depend on a political vision and will that recognizes that participation as valuable. Citing the current political climate in Egypt, Ezzat and her contemporaries remain cynical about the prospects for change in the near future.

“There is no political will to create a just society in Egypt, and no plan in place for democratic transition,” she says. “Enhancing women’s position in society ultimately falls back upon having a real democratic transition in the country.”

In this context, Um Bassem remains a swimmer against the current. After a year and a half of training six days a week, she became a certified plumber. Her male colleagues were quickly hired, but initially no one would hire her. She started working for friends, often traveling to far flung villages, where limited infrastructure and mistrust of male outsiders entering family homes meant there was work for a female plumber.

As the years have passed, Um Bassem has gained a reputation for being able to fix anything, and gradually, reactions toward her of incredulity have turned to respect. Part of her success can also be attributed to her ability to navigate the gender tightrope with a combination of stealth and flagrant disregard.

Even her son, who was initially not impressed by his mother’s notoriety, and had once threatened to change his name, is grateful that her work allowed him to marry and have a place to live.  

Now in her 60s, Um Bassem is eager to pass on the knowledge of her trade. But despite her example and encouragement, her own two daughters dropped out of college at their husbands’ behest. 

When one of her friends, a ceramicist, asked her to train his daughter, she was excited, thinking if she could instill one young woman with her skills it might inspire others, but when her student was sent to buy supplies she was publicly ridiculed. 

Um Bassem is blunt in her assessment of the issues facing women who are trying to access work in a patriarchal society.

“The problem in Egypt is that no man wants to work under a woman. Until there are women working everywhere, this mentality cannot change.”

Maddison Sawle 

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