“Dad Buys Toys, But Mom Does Everything”: Egypt’s Triumphant Female Breadwinners Tell Their Stories

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Not too long ago, gender roles in Egypt dictated that it was not necessary for an Egyptian woman to have a career. Today, however, women in as many as 40 percent of Egyptian households are the main breadwinners, compared to 18.7 during the last three years, according to the latest report by the National Council for Women. This is described by the United Nations as the highest increasing percentage of female breadwinners in the world. While a variety of reasons come into play as to why this phenomenon is increasing so rapidly, women’s education is seen as a major catalyst.

There is a close connection between the percentage of female breadwinners that increased dramatically and the quality of their education. Azza Anis, an educational consultant and school director, explained why. “Females are genetically theoretical, that’s why they study more, analyze more, think more, and accordingly plan better,” she said. Her reasoning explains why the illiteracy of women decreased by 33.1 percent within the last two years according to the latest CAPMAS report.

While that may seem like good news, the problematic point is that the conservative Egyptian society demoralizes this role, because the cultural norm dictates that women should care for their homes. On the other hand, the Secretary General of the Union of the Economic Societies in Egypt, Abdel Moeti Lotfi, said that in a major portion of Egyptian households, women are “confronting deteriorating economic circumstances due to societal problems.” His comment rings truer than ever after the devaluation of the Egyptian pound and its effects on the local economy.

Despite facing many societal challenges due to her job as a shoe-polisher, Om Hassan, a widow who is now the sole breadwinner in her household, still cares about continuing her education to make a better life for herself and her family. In a TV interview , she noted, “I got an education not because I care about the way society perceives me, rather because I want to prove myself and raise my kids well.” She is currently a university student and aspires to complete her Master’s Degree and PhD while providing for her family.

Om Hassan while interviewed in a TV program

Although, like Om Hassan, Egyptian female breadwinners face difficult circumstances, those who have completed their education are able to hold more stable jobs. A 2016 report by the Ministry of Social Solidarity noted that the percentage of Egyptian women working full time jobs reached 84.7 percent compared to 60.7 percent of men. One of these women is Mona Abdel Aziz, a senior customer service agent at a bank.

After losing both her parents, Abdel Aziz continued her education, got married, and began her career. But even when she was married, she was the sole breadwinner, to the extent that she did everything even when she was pregnant. “I used to get back from work [when I was pregnant], cook, clean, and even go buy things from the market,” she recalled. Om Hassan also felt solely responsible for her family, albeit under different circumstances.

“After my husband died, nobody helped me at all, nobody helped me raise my children, so I insisted on working in order to be able to raise them well,” Om Hassan noted.

Abdelaziz got divorced six years ago, and has managed to care for her children without assistance from anyone. Her case, as well as Om Hassan’s, highlights a considerable portion of similar cases across Egypt, as Lotfy had noted that the majority of female breadwinners are either widows or divorcees.

Both Anis and Abdel Aziz agreed that Egyptian women are seen as responsible for their families by default, something they believe is common at all different society levels. “At schools, they are responsible for [everything] related to their children. They follow on their academic levels and care about their relations,” Anis said, while Abdel Aziz pointed out that she rarely sees men attending parents’ meetings.

Abdel Aziz also named education within the home as an important factor, saying, “Careless fathers are the ones who were raised at homes where they were never asked to even buy bread.” She stressed on how much she cares about educating her son to be responsible and follow her example.

Even though she often feels overwhelmed, her son acts a reminder that it is all worth it.

"When my son was asked to tell everyone about the role of his father and mother in his life, he said, ‘My daddy buys me beautiful toys.’ But when asked about his mother's role, he told everyone, ‘She does everything for me,’” Abdel Aziz recalled joyously.

Abdel Aziz's son while specifying the role of his mother.

Juggling a career and a family alone can be a challenging task, but Anis expressed her admiration for those able to do it. “Egyptian female breadwinners take every detail into consideration, allowing no chance for failure to interrupt their plans or even get in the middle of their lives.” Facing economic, societal and cultural challenges, these women continue to fight the stigma each day, driven by their own feelings of empowerment.

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