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How female refugees started a silent gender revolution in Egypt Open in fullscreen

Ariane Lavrilleux

How female refugees started a silent gender revolution in Egypt

Many women refugees have become the breadwinner of their families after fleeing their countries

Date of publication: 19 December, 2018

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Women working while their husbands stay at home has become a common situation among refugee communities in Egypt, where millions are living, according to local authorities.
"When I am at work and my husband is at home, he cleans, tidies up and takes care of our daughter," begins Baghita Hussein, inside their small scarcely furnished flat in a dense Cairo neighbourhood.

Before getting married, she insisted her fiancée Mohammed Bawaelbeit agreed to sharing household chores once married. Six days of the week, the 29-year-old Sudanese organises activities at a refugee community centre, for 2,000 Egyptian pounds a month (around 100 euros). It is two times what her husband manages to collect as a private occasional driver.

"In Sudan, working women are not well-regarded by the society. Men believe it is their exclusive duty to go out and work, coming back home to just sit and wait for their wives doing all the house work. But I think we are a family when we are able to help each other," adds Mohammed who "tries to be happy despite the tough living conditions." 

Baghita's combined income with her husband's is just enough to help them afford their basic expenses, especially since food prices hit a 15 percent inflation. But she remains thankful that she has a job despite her blank resume. She says it has helped her "turn the page of her hardship in Sudan" and she now feels "freer and more independent because, now, no man tells [her] what to do."
This shift in gender roles is bringing a positive change in terms of economic independence for women. But it also creates a conflict because some men don't appreciate the fact that they can't control their wives anymore

Working to survive

Baghita's daily life is far from being representative of Egyptian households where only 25 percent women have access to the labour market, yet her family dynamics doesn't surprise Fatima Idriss much, who created the NGO Tadamon (Solidarity) led by refugees for refugees in Cairo. 

Out of 30,000 people supported by her NGO, 70 percent are women with children who became the breadwinner of their families after fleeing their countries, either because the husband left them or is not working.

In other neighbouring countries who have seen recent waves of refugees on their soil, similar figures can be observed.

In Greece, Syrian refugees estimate half of refugee households to be female-headed, and in Jordan this number has risen to nearly 40 percent from a quarter a couple of years ago, CARE said.

"This shift in gender roles is bringing a positive change in terms of economic independence for women. But it also creates a conflict because some men don't appreciate the fact, they can't control their wives anymore," Fatima explained.

She adds that economic insecurity of men combined with their past trauma often untreated led to certain amount of separation among refugees couples.

Elham Hassan's husband is among the supportive ones. He feels depressed and unable to look for a job since they fled the Syrian town of Douma where shelling turned his factory into rubble. His 51-year-old wife and mother of six children had never worked for money until then, but she knew very well how to knit.

In Egypt, her hobby has become the primary source of family income as she runs a doll workshop, under the umbrella of Fard Foundation, in 6th of October, on the outskirts of Cairo where a large Syrian community has settled.

"I have taken responsibilities that are traditionally regarded as masculine, I have gained new expertise and sharpened my self-confidence," the mother of six says.

But Egyptian law and labyrinthine administration make the work permit very difficult to obtain for migrants. 

Women tend to achieve quicker economic integration than their male partners by working as domestic workers

If some NGOs manage to help them in this tortuous path, most of refugees have no choice but joining informal market, that represents 40 percent Egypt's GDP.

According to local NGOs and refugees, women tend to achieve quicker economic integration than their male partners by working as domestic workers. A cleaner's monthly salary could range from 3,000 to 5,000 EGP (150 to 250 euros) and is often superior if not equal to what male refugees manage to earn.

"Men refuse to do these domestic jobs, but we have to find ways to survive," comments Karima Adeb, a former housewife who arrived from Ethiopia in 2014 and started to work as a cleaner.

Karima is now learning to be a tailor at Nil Furat, a handicraft social enterprise hiring mostly women refugees.  

Patriarchal traditions challenged 

The rapid career shift from housewife to breadwinner is rarely depicted by these women as a personal success but rather as their way to cope with their forced "ghorba", an Arabic word that refers to uprooting and all feelings raised by leaving one's home.

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"We carried the Syrian revolution's ideals inside us when we left, and it gave us the strength to adapt," explains Elham Hassan.

Starting a new life from scratch with no connection also means some traditions must be adapted.

"In Homs, at our house, men and women couldn't sit together, unless they were family members. We couldn't invite a colleague or a male friend. Here, we are freer to move as we like because we have no relatives and we need to make friends," says Rasha Mohammed, a student and part-time educator in a recreation and learning centre for kids.

In Rasha's cosy living room in a flat she rents with her retired mother, her neighbour Alaa al Kraidry, co-founder of Tomooh, a website and community centre for refugees in Giza, plays with his newborn daughter. 

"I have seen a good percentage of Syrians having a positive shift in their minds towards women, accepting that they enjoy more freedom. I don't think this is temporary," he says. 

In Homs men and women couldn't sit together, unless they were family members. We couldn't invite a colleague or a male friend. Here, we are freer to move as we like because we have no relatives and we need to make friends

Studies in Lebanon and Jordan suggest those changes in family dynamics can also generate stress for both men and women, who may feel that they have lost their gendered identity

Yet, reports show refugees in these countries have to live in camps or poor accommodation, therefore not sharing the exact same struggles of refugees in Egypt, where camps are prevented from government and living expenses are lower than in Lebanon. In absence of comprehensive research in Egypt, local players met by The New Arab emphasise that reshaped gender roles create more change than conflict. 

"In Syria, we could be pretty conservative, staying among people of the same city, but in Egypt people from Damascus are forced to sit with others from Aleppo, also work and exchange ideas with Sudanese, Eritreans, refugees from everywhere. This multicultural atmosphere nurtures change," Alaa adds. 

If Elham Hassan dreams to go back home, it is not to pursue life as it was before the war.

"When we will come back to Syria, all women would have acquired professional skills that could be useful for rebuilding the country," says Elham, who now has five women employees under her supervision and is planning to start her own brand of handmade dolls and market it on social networks.

"I will never be a housewife again." 


Ariane Lavrilleux is a journalist based in Cairo. Follow her on Twitter: @AriaLavrilleux

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