Women in Egypt
General Statistics
Maternal mortality (per 100,000)66 (2010)
Women in parliament14.9% (2015)[1]
Women over 25 with secondary education43.4% (2010)
Women in labour force26% (2014)[2]
Gender Inequality Index
Value0.590 (2012)
Global Gender Gap Index[3]
Value0.614 (2018)

The role of women in Egypt has changed throughout history, from ancient to modern times. From the earliest preserved archaeological records, Egyptian women were considered nearly equal to men in Egyptian society, regardless of marital status.

Women in ancient Egypt

Main article: Women in ancient Egypt

Cleopatra and Julius Caesar
Two women holding large water jugs. One is carrying an infant (1878)

Women were stated lower than men when it came to a higher leader in the Egyptian hierarchy counting his peasants. This hierarchy was similar to the way the peasants were treated in the Middle Ages.[4] As children, females were raised to be solely dependent upon their fathers and older brothers. When women married, they depended on their husbands to make all decisions, while the women themselves were depended upon to carry out household chores.

Married Egyptian women were expected by their husband's families to bear children, but particularly males. It was common for married couples to continue to reproduce until bearing at least two sons. Barrenness was considered a severe misfortune for Egyptian women, as well as the inability to produce male offspring. Women who had only bore females were given derogatory names, such as "mothers of brides". A family with well-grown sons was considered to have decent security. An Egyptian woman was thought to be at the peak of her power when her sons had married because she automatically acquired the control over the newly growing families of her sons.

Women have traditionally been preoccupied with household tasks and child rearing and have rarely had opportunities for contact with men outside the family. Royal Egyptian women had great impact on Egyptian Society. Queen Tiye, the grandmother of King Tut was so enmeshed in politics that neighboring King Mitanni wrote to her to ensure good will between their people when her son Akhenaten ascended to the throne.[5] Queen Aahmose was awarded the golden flies for military valor.[5]

Cleopatra and Nefertiti were among the better known rulers in Egyptian society. Cleopatra was known to have ruled with Marc Antony around 31 BC and she was also the Co-regent of her two husband-brothers and her son.[6] Nefertiti was the chief wife of an Egyptian pharaoh, Amenhotep IV. Nefertiti was known to be an active Egyptian woman in society, as well as her children.[7] In addition to female Egyptian rulers, Hatshepsut usurped the throne[5] and reigned in Egypt as pharaoh from about 1503 to 1480 B.C. She based most of Egypt's economy on commerce.[8]

Though not many women have acted as rulers in Egyptian society, they have been considered to be equal among men in status as well as legal opportunities. Women were shown to be allowed the opportunity to take part in the economy, such as their role as merchants, as it happened later in the Roman Empire, specially among the lower classes. Women had also taken part in religious activities, such as those who were priestesses. In the Sixth Dynasty Nebet became a Vizier and thus the first woman in History to fulfill such an office.

Women could also own property, divorce their husbands, live alone and occupy main positions, mostly religious, in similarity with Assyrian women. Only the children from the Great Royal Wife could expect to succeed to the throne, and if there were no son but daughters by her, then a son by another wife or concubine could only get the throne by marrying the heir daughter, and whoever did so would become the new King. Either through political and/or religious power, some women managed to become, de facto or de jure, the highest office holders in the kingdom, and share a status of co-rulers with men, even being depicted in monuments with the same height as their husbands or otherwise and even as the other Gods of Egypt.

Such were the cases of Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, Nefertari and the Nubian Egyptian Queens. The further Nubian Queens were able to maintain this status. The most important religious offices of that kind were those of God's Wife and God's Wife of Amun. Politically, they often managed to become Interregnum queens. In the Ptolemaic Dynasty this rise to power was sublimated with the establishment of a coregency system, in which Queens had the same position as Kings and were even powerful enough to obtain in dispute that coregency for themselves.

19th century

Circa the 1890s, twice the percentage of women in Alexandria knew how to read compared to the same percentage in Cairo. As a result, specialist women's publications like al-Fatāh by Hind Nawal, the country's first women's journal, appeared.[9]

Modern status

B&W photo of women in a crowd
Harem women make public speeches - "This is the first time that Egyptian women have been permitted freedom of speech in public" - June 1919
School girls visiting the Egyptian Temple of Isis from Philae Island (1995).

To limit women's contact with men as tradition, practices such as veiling and gender segregation at schools, work, and recreation have become common. Furthermore, lower-class families, especially in Upper-Egypt, have tended to withdraw females from school as they reached puberty to minimize their interaction with males. Lower-class men frequently preferred marriage to women who had been secluded rather than to those who had worked or attended secondary school.

The rule of Gamal Abdul Nasser was characterized by his policy of stridently advocating women's rights through welfare-state policies, labeled as state feminism. Women were guaranteed the right to vote and equality of opportunity was explicitly stated in the 1956 Egyptian constitution, forbidding gender-based discrimination. Labor laws were changed to ensure women's standing in the work force and maternity leave was legally protected. At the same time, the state repressed independent feminist organizations, leaving a dearth of female political representation.[10]

The economic liberalization plan of the Sadat regime resulted in the collapse of this system and the resurgence of Islamist-influenced policy. While the Nasserist years allowed a wide range of study for women, Sadat's policies narrowed the opportunities available to women. Unemployment for women changed from 5.8% 1960 to 40.7% in 1986. In place of policies to economically support women during pregnancy, women were encouraged to leave work entirely or work part-time.[10]

The Mubarak years were marked by further erosion of the role of women. Preserved parliamentary seats for women and the 1979 personal status law were repealed in 1987, a new watered-down law taking its place that allowed less power for women in cases of divorce.[10]

The migration of a large number of Egyptians, mostly men, has also affected the status of Egyptian women. A study by the International Organization for Migration found that two-thirds of migrant household interviewed were headed by a woman in the absence of the male migrant (husband/father). For these households, remittances represented an important source of income, accounting for 43% of their total income. 52% of wives of the migrants independently decided how to spend the money received. In the remaining cases, the head of the household enjoyed a fair deal of autonomy as the decision on how to use the remittance money was reached through mutual consultation between the migrant and the head of the household and only in a few cases (11%) did the migrant decide alone.[11]

A 2010 Pew Research Center poll showed that 45% of Egyptian men and 76% of women supported gender equality.[12] The same poll showed that, in principle, people tend to accept a woman's right to work outside the home, with 61% of the respondents agreeing that "women should be able to work outside the home", but at the same time showing some reservations, with only 11% of men and 36% of women completely agreeing with that statement; and 75% agreeing that "when jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job".[13] Polls taken in 2010 and 2011 show that 39% considered gender equality "very important" to Egypt's future post-revolution and 54% of Egyptians supported sex segregation in the workplace.[14][15]

Female genital mutilation was criminalized in Egypt in 2008.[16] In 2012, UNICEF reported that 87% of Egyptian women and girls 15–49 years old had undergone female genital mutilation.[17] In June 2013 13-year-old Soheir al-Batea died after undergoing FGM. The doctor responsible for the procedure became the first doctor in Egypt to be tried for committing female genital mutilation. On November 20, 2014 he was found not guilty.[18]

Virginity tests done by the military on detainees were banned in Egypt on 27 December 2011.[19]

The literacy rate of women (aged 15 and over) is 65.4%, which is lower than that of men which is 82.2% (data from 2015).[20] Egypt is largely rural country, with only 43.1% of the population being urban (in 2015),[21] and access to education is poor in rural areas.

Most women in Egypt have adopted some form of veiling,[22] with a majority of Egyptian women covering at least their hair with the hijab; however covering the face with a niqāb is only practiced by a minority of women (see Niqāb in Egypt).

Families are usually of medium size, with the total fertility rate (TFR) being 3.53 children born/woman (2016 estimate).[21] The contraception prevalence rate is high, at 60.3% (in 2008).[21]

In a 2013 poll of gender experts, Egypt ranked worst for women's rights out of all the Arab states.[23]

On 23 June 2020, Egyptian security forces detained prominent activist Sanaa Seif from outside the general prosecutor's office in the capital, Cairo, where she was waiting to file a complaint about being physically assaulted outside Cairo's Tora prison complex on 22 June 2020.[24]

Violence against women

Further information: Mass sexual assault in Egypt

Sexual violence

Further information: Mass sexual assault in Egypt

In a 2010 survey of 1,010 women by the Egyptian Center for Women's rights, 98% of foreign women and 83% of native women said they had been sexually harassed in Egypt and two-thirds of men said that they had harassed women.[25][26][27] In 2013, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women reported that 99.3% of Egyptian women had experienced some form of harassment.[28]

Virginity tests done by the military on detainees were banned in Egypt on 27 December 2011.[19]

Human Rights Watch reported 91 sexual assaults in four days from 30 June 2013 during the Tahrir Square protests, as well as 19 cases of mob sexual assaults in January.[29] The deputy Middle East director at HRW said that the attacks were "holding women back from participating fully in the public life of Egypt at a critical point in the country's development."[29] On June 4, 2013, a law criminalizing sexual harassment for the first time in modern Egyptian history was approved by then interim president, Adly Mansour.[30]

Honor killings

Honor killings take place in Egypt relatively frequently, due to reasons such as a woman meeting an unrelated man, even if this is only an allegation; or adultery (real or suspected).[31][32][33]

Female genital mutilation

Further information: Prevalence of female genital mutilation by country

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is widespread in Egypt, with a majority of women having undergone some version of the procedure,[34] although the practice is less common among the youth.[35] The practice is deeply ingrained in the culture and predates both Christianity and Islam. Its main purpose is to preserve chastity, though its social function is very complicated. FGM was banned in 2008, but enforcement of the law was weak.[36] In 2016, they tightened the law and made it a felony.[37]

Women continued to face inadequate protection from sexual and gender-based violence, as well as gender discrimination in law and practice, particularly under personal status laws regulating divorce. A 17-year-old girl died on 29 May, reportedly from hemorrhaging, following female genital mutilation (FGM) at a private hospital in Suez Governorate. Four people faced trial on charges of causing lethal injury and FGM, including the girl's mother and medical staff as per Amnesty 2016/2017 report.[38]

Personal status laws


Following an individuals death, Two-thirds of their estate is distributed according to compulsory inheritance rules, wherein women receive half the inheritance of what their brothers get.

Representation of women in politics

A constitutional referendum was held in Egypt in 2012. A constituent assembly was elected which drafted the new constitution. Of the 100 members of the assembly, only 7 were women. After the 2013 Egyptian coup d'état another constituent assembly was elected for a constitutional referendum in which 5 of the 50 members were women.[39]

In the 2015 Egyptian parliamentary election women won 75 of the 568 seats up for election. A further 14 women and 14 men were appointed by president Sisi. With a percentage of 14.9%, it was the highest representation of women in Egyptian parliament yet.[40]

Marriage and divorce

Dreaming of marriage?

Marriage was considered a very important part in ancient Egyptian society. Marriage was an almost completely private affair, and as a result, not many records of marriage were kept.[41] Furthermore, not all Egyptian marriages were arranged, rather, most daughters had persuaded their families for their approval towards their future spouses.

Egyptian women who were married were highly acknowledged. It was common for females to marry after the age of menstruation, such as age 14. They were usually considered married after they had left the protection of their father's house. It had also been acknowledged that though the woman became under her spouse's care, her husband did not become her legal guardian and the woman remained independent while controlling her own assets. For the non-royal women in ancient Egypt, the title of wife also came with the title "Mistress of the House". The role as a wife included taking care of the household.

Egypt's laws pertaining to marriage and divorce have changed over the years, however they have generally favored the social position of men, although reform continues. Egypt retained the inclusion of Islamic law in dealings of family law, following on from its judicial and administrative independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1874.[42] Muslim husbands were traditionally allowed to have up to four wives at a time in accordance with Islamic religious custom, but a woman could have only one husband at a time. A Muslim man could divorce his wife with ease by saying "I divorce thee" on three separate occasions in the presence of witnesses. The first reforms that changed this state of affairs came in the 1920s with Law No.25 of 1920 and 1929. These reforms included the following specifics regarding legitimate grounds for a woman requesting a divorce:

  1. If her husband failed to provide maintenance. (nafaqah)
  2. If her husband was found to have a dangerous or contagious disease.
  3. If she was deserted by her husband.
  4. If she was maltreated by her husband.[43]

In 1971 further reforms were made. Dr.Aisha Ratib became Minister of Social Affairs and in November the following revisions were suggested and implemented :

  1. That the age for legal marriage should be raised to 18 for women and 21 for men
  2. That the permission of a judge was required for polygamy
  3. That divorces could not take place without a judge being present
  4. That the mother should be allowed a greater period of guardianship, but also that guardianship in the case of divorce should go to the parent deemed most suitable to provide it
  5. That judges should have more involvement in family law cases, and that female judges should be considered to deal with family law cases.[44]

The government amended the laws relating to personal status in 1979. The amendments, which became known as the "women's rights law," were in the form of a presidential decree and subsequently approved by the People's Assembly. The leading orthodox Islamic clergy endorsed these amendments, but Islamist groups opposed them as state infringements of religious precepts and campaigned for their repeal. The amendments stated that polygamy was legally harmful to a first wife and entitled her to sue for divorce within a year after learning of her husband's second marriage. The amendments also entitled the first wife to compensation.

A husband retained the right to divorce his wife without recourse to the courts, but he was required to file for his divorce before witnesses at a registrar's office and officially and immediately to inform his wife. The divorced wife was entitled to alimony equivalent to one year's maintenance in addition to compensation equivalent to two years' maintenance; a court could increase these amounts under extenuating circumstances such as the dissolution of a long marriage. The divorced wife automatically retained custody of sons under the age of ten and daughters under twelve; courts could extend the mother's custody of minors until their eighteenth birthdays.

Women during the 2011 Egyptian revolution

In 1985 Egyptian authorities ruled that the amendments of 1979 were unconstitutional because they had been enacted through a presidential decree while the People's Assembly was not in session. A new law reversed many of the rights accorded to women in 1979. A woman lost her automatic right to divorce her husband if he married a second wife. She could still petition a court to consider her case, but a judge would grant a divorce only if it were in the interests of the family. If a divorce were granted, the judge would also determine what was an appropriate residence for the divorced woman and her children.

The changes in divorce legislation in 1979 and 1985 did not significantly alter the divorce rate, which has been relatively high since the early 1950s. About one in five marriages ended in divorce in the 1980s. Remarriage was common, and most divorced men and women expected to wed again. Seven out of ten divorces took place within the first five years of marriage, and one out of three in the first year. The divorce rate depended on residence and level of education. The highest divorce rates were among the urban lower class, the lowest rates among the villagers of Upper Egypt. Throughout the country, as much as 95 percent of all divorces occurred among couples who were illiterate.

Marital rape is not specifically outlawed in Egypt.[45]


See also



  1. ^ "Women in Parliaments: World Classification". www.ipu.org.
  2. ^ "Labor force participation rate, female (% of female population ages 15-64) (modeled ILO estimate) - Data". data.worldbank.org.
  3. ^ "The Global Gender Gap Report 2018" (PDF). World Economic Forum. pp. 10–11.
  4. ^ Johnson, Janet H. (2002). "Women's Legal Rights in Ancient Egypt, paragraph 1". Retrieved 12 April 2009.
  5. ^ a b c Daniel., Meyerson (2009). In the valley of the kings : Howard Carter and the mystery of King Tutankhamun's tomb (1st ed.). New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 9780345476937. OCLC 262433259.
  6. ^ paragraph 5, Lewis, Jone Johnson. 2006. Cleopatra. (accessed April 12, 2009)
  7. ^ paragraph 2 Lewis, Jone Johnson. 2006. Cleopatra. (accessed April 12, 2009)
  8. ^ paragraph 1 El-Sayed, Sayed Z. 1995. Queen Hatshepsut's expedition to the Land of Punt: The first oceanographic cruise? (accessed April 12, 2009)
  9. ^ Kendall, Elisabeth. "Between Politics and Literature: Journals in Alexandria and Istanbul at the End of the Nineteenth Century" (Chapter 15). In: Fawaz, Leila Tarazi and C. A. Bayly (editors) and Robert Ilbert (collaboration). Modernity and Culture: From the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. Columbia University Press, 2002. ISBN 0231114273, 9780231114271. Start: p. 330. CITED: p. 340.
  10. ^ a b c Hatem, Mervat. "Economic and Political Liberalization in Egypt and the Demise of State Feminism". International Journal of Middle East Studies. JSTOR 164296.
  11. ^ International Organization for Migration, egypt.iom.int
  12. ^ "Gender Equality Universally Embraced, but Inequalities Acknowledged" (PDF). Pew Research Center. 1 July 2010.
  13. ^ http://www.pewglobal.org/files/pdf/Pew-Global-Attitudes-2010-Gender-Report.pdf
  14. ^ "Egyptians Embrace Revolt Leaders, Religious Parties and Military, As Well" (PDF). Pew Research Center. 25 April 2011.
  15. ^ "Muslim Publics Divided on Hamas and Hezbollah". Pew Research Center. 2 December 2010. Archived from the original on 13 May 2013.
  16. ^ Michael, Maggie (20 November 2014). "Egypt acquits doctor in female genital mutilation". Retrieved 21 November 2014.
  17. ^ "Statistics by area - Female genital mutilation/cutting". Childinfo.org / UNICEF. February 2013. Archived from the original on 17 September 2012.
  18. ^ Hayoun, Massoud (20 November 2014). "Egypt's first FGM trial ends in not guilty verdicts for doctor, father". Retrieved 21 November 2014.
  19. ^ a b Mohamed Fadel Fahmy (27 December 2011). "Egyptian court rules against virginity tests". CNN. Retrieved 2011-12-27.
  20. ^ "The World Factbook — Central Intelligence Agency". www.cia.gov.
  21. ^ a b c "The World Factbook — Central Intelligence Agency". www.cia.gov.
  22. ^ Slackman, Michael (28 Jan 2007). "In Egypt, A new Battle Begins over the veil". The New York Times. Retrieved 23 November 2010.
  23. ^ Boros, Crina (12 November 2013). "Poll: Egypt is worst Arab state for women". Retrieved 5 November 2014.
  24. ^ "Exclusive: Human rights activist arrested outside Public Prosecutor's office". Amnesty. Retrieved 23 June 2020.
  25. ^ Estrin, Daniel (17 February 2011). "Sexual harassment in Egypt". TheWorld.org. Archived from the original on 9 January 2012.
  26. ^ Rogers, Mary (17 February 2011). "Egypt's harassed women need their own revolution". CNN.
  27. ^ "Egypt's sexual harassment of women 'epidemic'". BBC News. 3 September 2012.
  28. ^ "Study on Ways and Methods to Eliminate Sexual Harassment in Egypt" (PDF). United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. 2013.
  29. ^ a b "Egypt: Epidemic of Sexual Violence". Human Rights Watch. 3 July 2013.
  30. ^ "New law to end sexual harassment in Egypt". 12 June 2014. Retrieved 7 November 2014.
  31. ^ "Egypt's rise in honor killings sparks regional debate". hbv-awareness.com.
  32. ^ https://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/egm/vaw-gp-2005/docs/experts/khafagy.honorcrimes.pdf
  33. ^ Monitor, World Watch. "Forbidden Romance Results in Honor Killings for Coptic Women". charismanews.com.
  34. ^ https://www.unicef.org/media/files/FGMC_2016_brochure_final_UNICEF_SPREAD.pdf
  35. ^ "WHO - Prevalence of female genital cutting among Egyptian girls". www.who.int.
  36. ^ "Calls for Egypt to end FGM after death". BBC News.
  37. ^ Sirgany, Sarah. "Egypt toughens penalties for FGM". cnn.com.
  38. ^ "Amnesty International Annual Report 2016/17". www.amnesty.org. Retrieved 2017-11-30.
  39. ^ Caspani, Maria (4 September 2013). "INFOGRAPHIC: Egypt's constituent assembly". Reuters. Retrieved 16 April 2019.
  40. ^ El-Behary, Hend (5 January 2016). "Women's representation in new parliament highest in Egypt's history". Egypt Independent. Retrieved 16 April 2019.
  41. ^ paragraph 14 Johnson, Janet H. 2002. Women's Legal Rights in Ancient Egypt. (accessed April 12, 2009)
  42. ^ Esposito & DeLong-Bas, Women in Muslim Family Law, p47
  43. ^ Esposito & DeLong-Bas, Women in Muslim Family Law, p51
  44. ^ Esposito & DeLong-Bas, Women in Muslim Family Law, p58
  45. ^ Provost, Claire (6 July 2011). "UN Women justice report: get the data". Retrieved 5 November 2014.

(Data from 1990.)