Feminist Economics in Egypt

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Dr. Salwa Elantary

Is there gender sensitive economic research in Egypt? My answer is yes. Is there feminist economics in Egypt? My answer is: not yet. It is still “work in progress”!

In order to clarify the difference between the two concepts, let me first define the term “feminist economics”. Actually, this term refers to the part of economic research which provides feminist insights into the underlying basis of the economics discipline.  Feminist economics challenges the mainstream economic analysis that treat women as invisible or that serves to reinforce women’s unequal positions and low status in the society. More important, it develops innovative research designed to overcome these biases, aiming not just to develop more illuminating theories, but to improve the conditions of life of women and the whole society.

The main bias challenged by feminist economists is the bias of the current system of national accounts, as reflected in how GDP is measured. Wage labour is included while unpaid work at home is not. Care for children, sick and elderly is included in “production” when paid for on the market, but not when supplied free at home. Not only is this way of measuring GDP arbitrary, but because women contribute the bulk of care around the world, it also systematically undervalues their contribution to society. Another bias is the fact that income generating activities for women are promoted, but a redefinition of sex roles to alleviate the resulting double burden is ignored. A third example is the way traditional economists treat   household and labour market outcomes as reflecting only sex differences. Feminist economists introduced the term “gender”, referring to the social beliefs that society constructs on the basis of sex. They argued that household and labour market outcomes might reflect misleading stereotypes and rigid social constraints.

The scope of feminist economics covers a wide arena of fields, including the economies of households, labour markets, care, development, the macro economy, national budgets as well as the history, philosophy, methodology and teaching of economics. In fact, feminist economics pushed the boundaries of traditional economic analysis to investigate new subjects. One of these new subjects is women’s agency, ie. the capacity to define and act upon their goals. Another main subject is women’s empowerment, referring to the acquisition of enabling resources, which may, in turn, enhance their agency. Economic activity is seen as an important enabling factor. Yet, attention is paid to the distinction among the various types of women’s economic activity, as they might exert different influence on the various domains of their agency. Feminist economists also extended their analysis to include the relation between gender norms and the economy. Gender norms are most commonly conceived as a constraint on women’s agency and gender equality. Restructuring of gender orders and contradictions constitute one of the main fields where feminist economics paves the way for activism.

Examples of the topics investigated by feminist economists include gender and labour market, the role of social institutions and household gender attitudes in women’s work choices, economic development and women’s labour force participation, industrial upgrading and defeminization of manufacturing employment, gender – based gap in wages, gender disparity in access to public services, gender disparity in access to finance, restrictions on women’s rights to property and mobility, unpaid care work, feminization of poverty, intra-household distribution and decision-making, gender responsive state budgets, women in the informal sector, the effects of macroeconomic policies of structural adjustment and the liberalization of global trade on women, to name a few. On all these entire topics recognition of the importance of social beliefs and structures of power in creating gendered economic outcomes has remained the privilege of feminist economics. The methodology used was, thus, extended to include historical studies, case studies, interviews and other qualitative work as additional research tools.

Feminist economics proved to be effective. Its influence was evident on the famous Stiglitz Commission report, in 2008. The commission, headed by two Nobel Prize winners, was created in reaction to the world financial crisis. Its main aim was to identify the limits of GDP as an indicator of economic performance and social progress, including the problems with its measurement; and to consider what additional information might be required for the production of more relevant indicators of social progress. Two prominent feminist economists were among the 25 members of the committee. At the end of the day, one of the committee’s main recommendations was to broaden income measures to non-market activities. The recommendations highlighted the fact that many services that households produce for themselves are not recognized in official income and production measures, yet they constitute an important aspect of economic activities. Comprehensive and periodic accounts of household activity as satellites to the core of national accounts should complete the picture.

This was soon reflected on the national statistics to be submitted to the United Nations. According to UN statistics commission, member countries are demanded to prepare satellite accounts to the national accounts, specifically for the unpaid housework statistics, and that such accounts should include average hours spent on unpaid housework segregated by sex and average number of hours spent on paid and unpaid labor (total labor burden) segregated by sex.

A third field where feminist economics exerted a great influence is the field of matrimonial property laws, promulgated in several countries, to approve the sharing of wealth by the divorced couples. The main principle guiding these laws is that such wealth is the result of the joint work of both couples of which the domestic work represents an essential part.

Gender – Sensitive Economic research in Egypt:

To date, gender sensitive research work in Egypt is dominated by sociologists. Most of this research is based on field work conducted by the National Council for Social and Criminal Research (NCSCR) and a few number of feminist human rights NGO’s such as New Woman Foundation and The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights.

A few number of Egyptian economists, mostly women, have produced important gender- sensitive research work. The bulk of this work is concentrated on the effects of the economic reform programme and adjustment policies on women’s labour, determinants of women’s participation in the labour market and wages inequality. Some researches tapped the topics of the relationship between women’s work in the informal sector and women’s poverty, as well as women entrepreneurs, especially in the context of SMEs. Research on topics like women’s agency, gender norms and women empowerment are still rare.

The striking phenomenon is the near complete absence of work on women’s unpaid house work and its participation in the national welfare. The first paper dealing with women’s unpaid house work appeared in 2010 and it focused on the relation between married women long working hours at home and their low participation in the labour market. I believe that ignoring the economic role of women’s housework in Egyptian economic scholarship can be explained by two reasons. The first reason is simply the complete absence of any work whatsoever on the critique of the mainstream economics or the history of economic thought in regards to women. If traditional economics is not questioned, the exclusion of women’s housework from national accounts will not be questioned. The second reason, in my opinion is the gap between gender sensitive economic research and the feminist movement and feminist NGO’s in Egypt. The evolution of feminist economics in Europe and the United States was closely linked to the equal rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Feminist economics provided the credible “scientific” basis mostly needed in the civil society to support women’s demands for equal rights. In the case of Egypt, the origin of gender sensitive economic research is closely linked to the Government and not the civil society. In fact we may say that gender sensitive economic research date back to the year 2000 when The National Council for Women was created. The Council was meant to be the Government entity officially concerned with the rights of Egyptian women.

Estimating the Value of Women’s Unpaid House Work in Egypt:

When the New Woman Foundation approached me to undertake a research project aiming at the evaluation of Egyptian women’s unpaid housework, my feelings were a mixture of fright and enthusiasm. As economist I thought of the academic challenge the project represents, by assuming the first attempt in that field, in Egypt. As a woman I was anxious to challenge the official argument about the low level of women’s economic participation in Egypt and to repulse the insult I felt when I read official reports accusing Egyptian women of being “reluctant to work”.

Guided by international experiences and applying the universally approved methodology in that respect, I relied on time use micro data in Egypt’s Labour Market Panel Survey 2012 and went on with my attempt to measure and estimate women’s total contribution to economic activity in Egypt, as expressed in total work hours.

The main results of the study were similar to those presented by several international experiences. Total work burden for working women exceeds that of men. Yet, the greater part of men’s work is paid work (91%), while the greater part of women’s work is unpaid housework (46%).  In fact, Egyptian women contributed no less than 46.2% of total work hours, paid and unpaid, in the fiscal year 2011/2012. Valued at average wage per hour for both women and men, total unpaid housework was estimated at 524.5 Billion LE, equivalent to 34.8% of GDP. Egyptian women contributed 30.2% and men contributed 4.6%.

So, at the end of the day, it became evident that Egyptian women contribute their fair share of the total work burden which defines the current standard of living in the Egyptian society. On the other hand, the study revealed many interesting results, such as:

  • Working women in Egypt suffer from the double-shift phenomenon, comprising two work shifts, one in the market and another at home. Consequently, the average total work hours for working women is 68.68 hours/week compared to only 53.60 for men.
  • Housework burden for the middle class women proved to be heavier than both wealthiest and poorest categories of women. The difference was concentrated in the longer average hours spent in the area of care for children, the elderly and the sick. This result might conform with the argument of feminist economists about the significant role of middle class women in contributing to children’s education, taking into consideration that the schooling system presumes that there is someone at home helping children in studying, a task that mothers usually do. It might also reflect the deterioration of the public education system in Egypt, and the increasing focus on the role of the household (mostly women) and private lessons to compensate for the regressing role of state.
  • The alleged “Egyptian women’s reluctance to work”, and their preference to “stay at home after marriage to care for their families” are mere lies! Male oppression through the institution of marriage is the main reason behind women’s leaving their paid jobs. When women were asked about the main reasons for quitting their paid jobs, the first reason was disapproval of fiancé /husband (44.8%), whereas child care was only 15.5%.
  • Egyptian women are in constant pursuit of reconciliation between work duties and child care demands, even if this entails to stop work for some time with readiness to return whenever they have a chance.
  • Paid work is not by itself a sufficient guarantee for women’s emancipation and the enhancement of their agency. Work conditions do matter. Talking about emancipation would be nonsense if paid work is not accompanied by the redistribution of the housework burden, or if such paid work is offered without   any legal protection, social insurance or the right to organize.


The results of the study made it clear that there is a long and heavy action plan waiting for the feminist movement in Egypt. One big mission would be the struggle for the official preparation and dissemination of satellite accounts for the unpaid housework statistics.