On the occasion of the German Science Day on 16 November 2013, the German Science Center in Cairo hosted a panel discussion on “Transforming Gender. Gender Studies and Equal Opportunity Policies at Egyptian Universities”, organized in the framework of the project “Gender Equality in the Egyptian Higher Education System”. This DAAD funded project is a cooperation between Freie Universität Berlin, the Egyptian Universities Cairo, Alexandria, Sohag, and South Valley, as well as the Strategic Planning Unit of the Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education.
The panelists included Dr. Ahlam El-Adawy, Manager of the Equal Opportunity Center at Sohag University, Dr. Dina Mandour, representative for the project at Cairo University, Dina Wahba, Co-Founder of Ikhtiyar for Gender Studies and Research, Heike Pantelmann, representative of the Center for the Promotion of Women’s and Gender Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, and Elisabeth Trepesch, project coordinator of the project at Freie Universität Berlin Cairo Office. The panel was moderated by journalist and moderator Amira El Ahl.
First, the panelists exchanged their experiences with equal opportunity policies at Egyptian Universities. Even though there is no legal discrimination between men and women, at Sohag University the number of women in leadership positions is very low. Dr. Ahlam El-Adawy therefore highlighted the necessity of supporting women in their career development and of helping them balance work and family duties, especially in the Upper Egyptian context.
While women are the majority at the Faculty of Economics and Political Science of Cairo University, where Dr. Dina Mandour is a staff member, she still acknowledges the importance of a systematic approach to create a family friendly environment at the university and support underprivileged groups. She also pinpointed the need to fill the gaps in gender research and to integrate gender related topics in various teaching curricula.
As both Heike Pantelmann and Elisabeth Trepesch emphasized, bilateral projects, especially in sensitive fields like gender, are not meant to be a one-way-street but rather a mutual benefit and a learning process on both sides. While Freie Universität Berlin has a long tradition of equal opportunity policies, the exchange with representatives of Egyptian universities enriches discussions about gender equality at Freie Universität Berlin and helps reflect on established perspectives on gender relations and on still existing problems in the field. This is important not only for equality policies but especially for gender research.
Ikhtiyar for Gender Studies and Research is an only recently founded initiative to develop indigenous knowledge around gender and sexuality trends and dynamics in Arabic. Dina Wahba explained: “Egyptian women have been interviewed, and talked and written about a lot since the ouster of Mubarak in 2011 but we seldom had the chance to speak for ourselves. Through Ikhtiyar, we want to become knowledge producers and not just the subject of the study.”
This is in line with the policy of Freie Universität Berlin not to do research about Egypt and the MENA region but together with scientists from the region. The panelists agreed that establishing a gender studies program at an Egyptian state university would facilitate creating a research partnership on equal terms in this field. Furthermore it would help breaking gender stereotypes that are prevalent in society.
“From primary school on, children learn gender stereotypes: In the text books, Heba helps her mother in the kitchen and Mohamed helps his father repair the car. It’s not men only or women only who cause many of the problems we talked about, but these prejudices that define men’s and women’s roles in a very traditional way.”, Dr. Ahlam El-Adawy explained. Equal opportunity policies as well as gender research are not for and about women only: They address society as a whole.