Giving the possibility to women from remote and isolated areas to voice their needs and articulate their demands is an important aspect of the work done by PWAG in Egypt. At the third regional dialogue forum organized by PWAG and the National Council of Women in Marsa Matruh, in the north of Egypt, two women from Siwa – an oasis in the Libyan Desert – were invited to represent the voices of Siwi women. Fatma Ossman, one of these women, gave us insight into the role of women in her community.
The oasis Siwa is considered an extremely conservative society. Its inhabitants are of Berber origin, and live according to centuries-old traditions. Siwa is part of the governorate Marsa Matruh, which belongs to Egypt. Traditionally, women in Siwa have been kept behind closed doors. They are not allowed to leave the Oasis unaccompanied and if they do travel outside their home, they are entirely concealed under flowing robes. Young women in Siwa hardly have any chance of continuing their education after high school, as they cannot pursue their studies outside of Siwa. There is merely one technical school for women in Siwa, where they can study industry or commerce. The prevailing structure doesn’t allow girls to pursue their dreams, says Fatma Ossman, herself born and raised in Siwa. Men, she says, may however pursue their studies anywhere as long as they can afford it financially. Strong restrictions are placed on married women, as they are not allowed to leave their houses for work. Often they do raise income for their families, but only through small projects and endeavors done at home. Whereas single women benefit of more freedom to move, as they are allowed to work outside of their homes – many working in factories or handicraft.
Fatma obtained a degree in commerce and has been working for an NGO in Siwa for many years now. She is 32 years old and single. She was the first woman ever to be elected into the local council. Currently women lack a political role in the community, says Fatma. When asked what she would change if she had the chance to do so, she says: “I don’t want to change our culture, I rather want to add something to it. Women in Siwa need someone to be their representative, so they don’t have to come all the way to Marsa Matruh to voice their needs or opinions. They need a complaints office and women’s associations, which then might initiate some kind of dialogue or discussion.”
Siwi women are deprived of many rights, especially in health and education. This is why Fatma has decided to commit herself to women’s rights. By coming to the dialogue forum in Marsa Matruh, Fatma challenged herself and her environment. She explains why she accepted the invitation nonetheless: “I’m not doing anything wrong. I want something that will actually benefit my country. I want the voice that says women have a role in every aspect of the society to reach my society. Because many claim that women are half the community but in fact they are much more, we say they are the community. The participation in this forum also gives me incentive to confront the difficulties that I might face when I go back.” Her greatest wish for women in Siwa is that one day it be accepted that women participate in the political life.