Women and science in post-revolution Egypt: The long road ahead

Published online 7 March 2013

Nagwa El-Badri

After the thrill of uprisings throughout the region, the political reality of the Arab Spring is casting a shadow on every aspect of life in Egypt, including the sciences. Two years after the Egyptian revolution, the future is uncertain for scientists, especially women.

Women have traditionally played pivotal roles in Egyptian society: they were raised to the status of goddesses in ancient times and ruled the country during some of its most challenging periods.

Egyptian women led the region's modern liberation movement starting in 1923 and into the 1950's in which women felt free to abandon the veil, had the right to vote and were granted full access to education and the workforce. Generations of girls proved themselves quickly, garnering top academic rankings and enrolling in institutions of higher education in which female to male ratios often exceeded 50%.

Today, almost a century after the most significant women's movement in the Middle East, the road to women's advancement in Egypt is now full of obstacles.

Challenges to Scientific Research

To evaluate the status of women scientists in Egypt, one must first consider the status of research in general, then of women scientists specifically. Over the past several decades, Egypt's record of indicators of global development has deteriorated, and scientific research has suffered disproportionately. In a country where rudimentary needs such as clean air, adequate food, safe transportation and basic health care are sometimes not met, proper scientific research becomes a luxury.

Challenges to research in Egypt are manifold, with inadequate funding the biggest problem. Research requires significant investments in infrastructure as well as ongoing running costs and, in Egypt, considerable dependence on imported equipment and supplies.

In countries serious about research, funding through grants is heavily subsidized by the government. In contrast, government spending on research in Egypt has been dismal, lingering at about 0.23% of GDP before the revolution, and increasing to around 0.4% in the following two years. This is in comparison to 2.3% in Taiwan and 3.7% in South Korea.

While women constitute 60% of entry level junior faculty positions, only 20% of full professors are females.

Private foundations also represent a reliable source of funding in advanced countries. In Egypt, traditional causes helping the poor and the sick usually account for most of the private funding, and are considered more worthy of donations than scientific research. However, in the past few years, philanthropic organizations such as Misr El-Kheir and several businessmen are becoming more supportive of scientific research.

There is also a need for comprehensive planning for research in key areas particularly important to Egypt, such as utilizing solar energy or the eradication of endemic diseases such as hepatitis and bladder cancer. The detrimental impact of a lack of strategy trickles down the whole research infrastructure, leaving graduate students and post-doctoral scientists lacking proper mentorship and support systems. They often find themselves having to use personal funds to pay for laboratory animals and supplies.

Egypt's research culture is also suffering. A preference for immediate results overrides belief in the long-term benefits of patience and practice of the scientific method. The scarcity of national role models such as Noble laureate Ahmed Zewail has made it difficult for young generations to view research as a career, worthy of the long years of study needed. The media contributes to this negative image by regularly portraying scientists, especially female scientists, as either nerds or idealists who are irrelevant in the face of "real" societal needs. The result is a culture that does not value scientific research, to the detriment of the society at large.

Arrested potential

As we turn to the topic of Egyptian women in science, it is important to avoid over-simplifying and stereotyping Middle Eastern women as oppressed. This glosses over challenges which can be addressed and prevents an objective analysis that could benefit women.

According to a presentation by Egyptian physicist Karimat El-Sayed entitled "Women in Physics in Egypt and the Arab World," nearly 25% of the faculty of the physics department of Ain-Shams University are women. This is higher than the proportion of most physics departments in US universities. In fact, according to a recent survey by the American Institute of Physics, only about 12% of physics faculty members in all American universities are females.

Egyptian history is rich in examples of women whose achievements testify to their status as respected members of society. Some 2000 years ago, Hypatia of Alexandria was the leading mathematician, philosopher and astronomer of her time, and advocated logical thinking and the rule of the law.

In modern Egypt, Sameera Moussa was a renowned nuclear scientist who promoted the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. She worked, before her death in a fatal car accident in the US in 1952, to "make nuclear treatment as available and as cheap as Aspirin." Today's Egypt boasts many women scientists and a respectable percentage of women in academia. Indeed, the ministry of scientific research is headed by a woman, Nadia Zakhary, who is a biochemist and a leader in academic medicine.

The country must prioritize improving both the status of women and that of scientific research.

However, and despite the great milestones Egyptian women have achieved in science and in other fields, the road ahead is uncertain. Two years after a peaceful revolution in which women were at the forefront, the public presence of those same women is being undermined through attempts to marginalize them in high governmental ranks.

Sexual harassment in the street, especially of women who participate in the demonstrations, is escalating and sometimes violent. The authorities often turn a blind eye to various forms of violence against women, and recently, some members of the Shura Council, Egypt's upper house, blamed the victims themselves for their participation in the demonstrations.

In post-revolutionary Egypt, women represented a dismal 2% in the first parliament formed (which was later dissolved); only two ministers are women, and there are no female governors.

These emerging cultural attitudes have almost immediate ramifications on the careers and ambitions of women. For example, more than 50% of high-achieving graduates from Egyptian colleges are female. But according to a recent survey by the Supreme Council of Universities, while women constitute 60% of entry level junior faculty positions, only 20% of full professors are females. Many factors contribute to this disparity, but gender stereotypes are the main contributor.

Societal proclivity to view women primarily as wives and mothers leads to the assumption that they are less willing and capable of taking on the long hours required for academic work. So, as opportunities to advance scientific careers through scholarships and fellowships abroad become available, they are mostly offered to males.

For women scientists to advance in Egypt, the country must prioritize improving both the status of women and that of scientific research. Post-revolution Egypt shows signs of hope for scientific advancement with several national projects for research and medical services. Outpouring of public support and donations from private donors is transforming the image of research into an area deserving of philanthropy.

The domain of women's rights, on the other hand, lacks similar support. For women in science to thrive, new laws are needed to protect women's rights to education, work, equal wages, and criminalizing all types of violence against women, in addition to securing equity in access to training and promotion opportunities. As Egypt faces the future, it is critical that it enshrines the intention of building a better future for scientists and women alike.

Nagwa El-Badri is a professor and department chair of biomedical sciences at Zewail University of Science and Technology. She holds a Ph.D. with distinction from the University of South Florida, and an MBBCh with honors from Cairo University College of Medicine. She began her research career as a Fellow of the American Heart Association.

She was recently awarded a grant from the Science and Technology Development Fund (STDF) to establish a Centre of Excellence for Stem Cell Research and Regenerative Medicine at Zewail City.