«If women had a chance, things would be much better»

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A conversation with Soad Shalaby*, Director of the Women’s Business Development Center of the National Council of Women (NCW) in Egypt, at the regional Dialogue Forum in Marsa Matruh, November 2014.

The NCW supports PWAG by providing their facilities and ensuring that the dialogue fora can take place. Additionally, you personally have attended every one of the three regional dialogue fora in 2014. Why do you support this project?

It is important to give Egyptian women the chance to meet and to exchange their views. If a woman in Egypt is not given the chance to discuss her problems in a relatively protected place, then nobody will hear her. This applies especially to those women living in remote governorates. Egyptian women are very serious, sincere and dedicated. They are keen about getting a job. If they don’t get the chance to study or work, they suffer a lot – and their families with them. This project targets women in general, whether they are business women, employed in the government or in NGO’s, thus giving a bigger chance for different women to discuss their problems together. This is something that I feel is important. The way PWAG conducts the dialogue fora is very attractive: it’s a new way of generating conversation.

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“Women must have a role in preserving peace”– Soad Shalaby at the opening session in Marsa Matruh.

How can one ensure an effective dialogue?

In the first dialogue forum I attended, in Luxor, the participants told me that they had been to many seminars and workshops before, but that this was the best one: “Each one of us gets a chance to talk. It’s not a lecture; we contribute with our own thoughts. Nobody is pushing us to believe in something. We reach conclusions, which we are actually part of. This makes it different.” I agree with what these women told me, they were happy because they were able to contribute. This is an effective way of dialogue.

What is necessary in order to have a real impact on women’s political participation, be it as voters or candidates, in Egypt?

This is the most important and the most difficult part. It is not easy to change a mentality which has been there for many years and is influenced by traditions, religion, society and many difficult norms. But we have the possibility of dialogue. When the outcome of such a dialogue process is presented to the decision makers, you can say that these are samples of the society – the opinions and needs of people that have been subject to that kind of harassment or have been in this specific situation. If the society is supposed to change, then we have to listen to these voices. We have to change our mentalities. How? We have to have an impact. How? We have to really influence those people who are in the decision making processes. I feel that in order to have an impact we will have to work very hard, because nobody is interested in listening. We have to make them first listen, then we have to make them change their mentality and then we have to make them change their laws and regulations. This is a long process.

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The team from left to right: Yasmine Arafa (Project Coordinator in Egypt), Soad Shalaby (Director of the WBC, NCW), Tanja Mirabile (Program Manager PWAG), Salima Abdel Rehim (NCW Marsa Matruh).

There are a number of women in Egypt heading large companies and banks. It seems that women can reach higher positions in the private sector, but are excluded from higher ranking in the public sector. Why is that?

In the private sector there is free recruitment and promotion, ‘free’ meaning: whoever is more competent, gets the job. This is not the case in the public sector. There are many sectors of society that are not approving of the fact that a woman can get a higher job in the public sector. Even though the constitution 2013 gives women the right to get equal jobs and to be promoted equally, it’s not happening. Because there are limits, there are ceilings. And it will not happen, unless we have good role models. In all societies in this world there are some jobs that are deprived from women. But the president of Egypt made a very good step by appointing a woman as the National Security Advisor. She is young, competent and she was the Minister of International Cooperation during Mubarak’s regime and the revolution. These are the good models. In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs 25% are women, and this is a very good percentage in a ministry. Some ministries allow women to reach higher positions, others don’t. That’s why we’re still pushing. In the NCW we are pushing that a woman be elected as governor for the first time. We have influenced many women to apply and we are urging the minister who is in charge of appointing the governors to choose a woman. We still have the hope that there will be a woman at the head of a governorate in the close future.

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From left to right: Yasmine Arafa (Project Coordinator in Egypt), Soad Shalaby (Director of the WBC, NCW), Tanja Mirabile (Program Manager PWAG)

What do you believe would change if more women were represented in politics?

A lot would be happening. We have seen here in Marsa Matruh many examples of women who would make a big difference in the society, if they were given the chance. I believe that if women had a chance, things would be much better.

*Soad Shalaby was born in Cairo in 1948. After she got a university degree in economics in 1969, she started her diplomatic career. Throughout the last three decades, socio-economic development as well as enhancing peace and stability in Africa have been her main interests whether in her various diplomatic responsibilities or during her postgraduate studies at McGill University in Canada. She currently holds the position of Director of the Women Business Development Centre (WBDC) of the National Council of Women. Her mandate is to train and recruit 50’000 women from all over Egypt so that they can bring income to their families.

Interview: Andrea Grossenbacher, PWAG Project Assistant

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