Empowering Egyptian women despite the odds

New Delhi, Jan 10 (IANS) Egyptian women have been the worst sufferers in the revolution and the rise of Islamist factions has seen curtailment of the rights of women, said a leading women’s activist from the North African nation whose organisation has been quietly operating in the country’s southern region to empower women through training in traditional crafts to enable them stand on their own feet.

“Life in Egypt has become extremely difficult since the revolution. Now, it has become dangerous to travel in Egypt because there are so many factions and groups who don’t want to see a woman without veil or empowered.
“In such a volatile environment, women suffer the most. Also, the political instability has resulted in unemployment and the youth is restless. There are no tourists who will buy these things, but I am optimistic that things will change after the referendum (next week on the military-backed draft constitution), followed by elections,” Heba Handoussa, managing director, Egypt Network for Integrated Development (ENID), told IANS here.
“(But) we are trying to encourage women to learn traditional crafts like embroidery and patchwork. This is the first time women are learning crafts in Egypt that have always been a male dominant area. This change is what we mean by empowering women,” she said.
Speaking of the tumultuous times since the Arab Spring, the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, the Mohammad Morsi era and the army take-over, Handoussa admitted the going was tough but is optimistic about the future. Handoussa is in India for Dastkari Haat craft bazaar that is focussing on Egyptian arts and crafts. It has brought 10 Egyptian artisans to India to exchange and learn different techniques.
Supported by Britain’s Department For International Development, UN Women, and the United Nations Development Programme, ENID was launched in May 2012 and majorly works in the largely-neglected but agriculturally-rich southern region of Egypt that once flourished on tourism as historical sites like St. Catherine’s Monastery and the Sharm el Sheikh tourist destination are located there.
“We are creating opportunities to generate income because it is needed to survive a tough life. Unfortunately, the mindset in Egypt is such that unless a girl gets a teaching job in a government school, she stays at home. She is not allowed to work outside,” Handoussa pointed out, saying there was some resistance from families who initially refused to send their daughters for the training workshops.
“But once they saw the girls were earning and contributing (to the family income) they are opening up to this idea,” Handoussa said.
ENID is following the Japanese model of “one village one product” and has adopted 45 villages, but so far it has been able to penetrate into only 10 villages.
Apart from the empowerment of women, ENID also focusses on agricultural productivity, administrative and fiscal decentralisation, upgrading basic services and promoting micro, small and medium enterprises.
“We are training women in stitching so that they can export garments. They are also learning to paint and some are learning how to make jewellery. They all come to the workshop daily to learn these skills,” she said.
But there are hardly any tourists to buy these products as southern Egypt’s tourism industry has been crippled since the Arab Spring reached the country in January 2011. Thus, the women survive on whatever they can sell to the few tourists who still visit, to others in the region and on the stipends they receive from ENID.
“They have started liking this freedom and independence. As most of these women marry early, they have children. We have strictly told them not to bring children in these workshops. So, they have hired nurses who take care of their children when they are away,” Handoussa said, pointing out how an alternative employment opportunity was automatically created.