Egypt: Women, leaders and the struggle

Egypt: Women, leaders and the struggle

DAMANHOUR and CAIRO: Women are often seen as the glue of the family and in Egypt, a number of women have become the glue that keeps the adhesive together in the ongoing efforts to better working wages. Aisha Abu Sammada relaxes calmly at her Abu Yehia village home just outside Damanhour in the northern Delta, but when the questions turn toward the ongoing struggle for better wages at the Hennawy Tobacco Company in Kafr el-Dewwar, she perks up, leans forward and explains the difficulties that have been facing her co-workers for nearly five years.

“I am simply working for the betterment of our workplace. And because I am a woman is irrelevant to my work. It is important,” Abu Sammada said.

She revealed that when the struggle began nearly six years ago, the monthly wages of most workers was approximately 300 Egyptian pounds per month, but with the rising costs of living seen in the country recently, this has “made life almost unbearable for many, especially for those with families to support.”

Abu Sammada has garnered the support of her fellow activists, including the men, who at first were apprehensive at having a woman lead the charge.

“Certainly, at the beginning it was difficult because it was not expected of us to join in any protest or conversation with the lawyers, but after little bit, they understood that we were all in it together and we stood side-by-side without a problem,” she admitted.

Mervat Hilal is another of the pioneering female activists who has made headlines in recent months as a major player in the battle to establish the country’s first independent union, which her fellow tax collectors were successful in achieving.

She says that being a woman helped enable the December 2007 11-day sit-in to succeed. “Because there were women there, the police were not as brutal as they usually are. They are afraid of us women,” she argued.

In the sit-in that took place in December 2007, scores of tax collectors and their families took to the street behind the lower house of Parliament, demanding their wages be increased to represent the growing inflation. Hilal believes it was the women who kept people’s spirits high.

“We were there, always making sure people had tea and were not suffering. It was an inspiring time,” she said. Hilal herself slept for all 11 nights in the street, showing her male workers that she was there until the end.

Abdel Halim Atef, a fellow tax collector working with Hilal in their Al Warraq office, says that there is no distinction between men and women in the ongoing struggle for rights.

“It is just like brothers and sisters uniting under the aim of getting rights that we had lost,” he began, “and for many of us our motivation was increased because we saw women sleeping outside their homes in solidarity with us. It definitely boosted us.”

Abu Sammada also had a similar experience and Ahmed Fadl, another leader at the tobacco factory, believes if it weren’t for the women, the momentum that gathered in the course of their fight would have been lost.

“You cannot underestimate the power of women being involved in this type of work. We came together as a family because of them and this is what will push us to succeed,” Fadl argued.

Not only in the workers’ movements have women become prominent figures. Doctors Without Rights chief Mona Mina has also shown that women can enter the public sphere with speed and success. At the same time, she is hesitant to be labeled a Coptic woman leader.

“I am sensitive to deal based on being labeled Coptic because being a Copt has nothing to do with activism. It’s not relevant to doctors without rights,” Mina argued.

She believes that her being Coptic should not be a reflection of her status in the community. “There is no relationship with groups or ideas with the West like many Copts,” she revealed.

Despite this assertion, many in the Coptic community believe that Mina is a shining example of a woman who has risen to the forefront of society in the fight against injustice.

“As a Copt, Mona has shown that we can achieve something in society if we work together as Egyptians,” began Nora, a recent college graduate who plans on working as a nurse. “She gives people hope and although she is not outspoken on religious issues, the fact she is there, working in the field as a Copt is important to us,” the woman added, asking that her surname remain anonymous.

Mina echoes Abu Sammada and Hilal’s sentiments that activists should not be characterized as women or by their religion.

“In Egypt, achieving goals is difficult. There is total chaos in medicine here and in order to achieve or accomplished something is extremely hard,” says Mina. Her organization, Doctors Without Rights has worked strenuously to push for better health care in the country, which she says is in dire need of reforms and better financing.

She said that despite their efforts, the overall national health budget was reduced from 10 billion Egyptian pounds to 9 million pounds for 2009, representing only 3.5 percent of the national budget.

“We are facing a horrible crisis in the country and one of the main reasons is that the service providers are not given proper money. We see this not only in education, but in the amount of money provided in order to care for the sick,” Mina argued.

Hilal agrees with Mina assessment that financially, the country is not putting enough into public services, including salaries – one of the main reasons the tax collectors formed their own independent union.

“The government has not provided people with the means to live, whether this is workers here or other sectors, which is why I have worked continuously in this struggle for more rights,” she continued.

Although it is difficult to fully gauge these women’s achievements, the fact that they are making their mark on society and gaining the respect and admiration of their peers highlights the role they have played in combating what each has called the inadequacies of the state.

All three said they believe the younger generation is the key to the future success, or failure, of the country.

“The young people are the hope of this country, so it makes me happy to see them go out and try to make a difference despite all the frustration,” Mina added.

Abu Sammada agrees: “If I can do it, especially here in a male dominated workplace, then the younger women can also follow and push for what is right.”