The Role of Women in Overcoming Egypt’s Economic and Security Challenges in the 21st Century
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights
Hello everyone. Salaam Alaykum! Thank you Dr. Shahim for the introduction and to the American University of Cairo for inviting me to speak with you all today.
Before I begin, I’d like to share a somber moment with you and acknowledge the recent murder of Giulio Regeni – the Italian doctoral student and a member of this community. The United States grieves the loss of this bright young man. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Regeni family, the Italian people, and the AUC community during this tragic time. A university exists to allow inquiring minds to explore, connect, and question. This was Guliani’s quest, and I am confident that you all will continue inquiring in his spirit.
I know this university fostered these qualities in my sister, because I visited her here in 1989. We explored this amazing country together. Two young women, wandering the souk, strolling along the Nile, taking in the energy of an ancient yet vibrant city. We moved about freely and without fear. With minimal Arabic, we spoke frankly with Egyptians from all walks of life. Despite our shaky Arabic, the butcher on Hassan Sabry Street helped us find a Turkey (known here as deek roumi, it turns out) to celebrate the American holiday of Thanksgiving. That is the Egypt I remember – the warmth and openness of its people, themselves an invitation to explore Egypt’s rich and diverse heritage.
It was on that trip that I began to understand why Egyptians call their country Om al dunya – “mother of the world.” It is not simply because their country is such an important religious, cultural, and political force across the globe, but also because that power was, in interesting ways, defined by women.
Women ruled over many of the greatest civilizations – not only in Egypt but all of human history – from Nerfertiti and Cleopatra to the powerful queens of the Fatimid and Mameluke kingdoms. Here in Egypt, women struggled and marched against colonialism, sexism, and discrimination – winning the right to vote, go to school, and fully participate in public life. And here in Cairo in recent years, Egyptian women have taken to the streets alongside men to call for a new future for their country. Over the years, their leadership has inspired women across the region and shaped the course of history.
Their centrality to Egypt parallels the early role of women in Islam – the faith of most Egyptians. As many of you know well, the very first Muslim was a woman – the Prophet’s wife Khadija – and she was also a successful and independent businesswoman in her own right. And while Europe languished in the Dark Ages, Islam shone as a light to women. At that time, Islam offered women more rights and benefits than they could find in other contexts.
During my time here this week, I have met with inspirational women leaders in different facets of society. So I fully appreciate that independent and empowered women are found in both Egyptian and Islamic history, even as the majority of women here and across the globe continue to struggle for equality.
Women thrive when they enjoy freedom and opportunity, and of course this is precisely what institutions like AUC represent. In a few short years, AUC will celebrate its 100th anniversary. That achievement is also a testament to the enduring nature of ties between Americans and Egyptians.
My sister – and her career in international development – is part of that legacy, as are the thousands of Egyptians who study or work in the U.S., the Egyptian writers, musicians, and businesswomen we welcome on exchange programs to our country every year, and the generations of American and Egyptian historians and archaeologists who have worked side-by-side to uncover and preserve our shared human history. The United States, both our government and our people, has a deep and longstanding commitment to helping all Egyptians achieve their fullest potential.
But this is a difficult time for the Egyptian people. Like many countries across the globe, Egypt faces significant economic, security, and political challenges. After a period of national turmoil, Egyptians needs strong economic growth to ensure that young people have the opportunities they deserve to learn, work, and shape their future. Egyptians are also confronted by the new faces of terrorism, in the form of Daesh and other militant groups across the region. And Egyptians deserve to freely lift their voices and enjoy universal human rights, without which no country can achieve lasting security and prosperity.
The question is not whether the Egyptian people can overcome these challenges; the question is how. Around the world, we have seen that no country can overcome these challenges – and achieve the prosperity and security its people deserve – without women.
In terms of the economy, Egypt has great potential. The Nile River basin is among the most fertile in the world, and your economy is among the most diversified in the Middle East. Your regional influence gives you power to set trends in culture and trade. And, of course, Egypt’s ancient treasures have attracted generations of travelers and tourists.
Yet the turbulence of recent years has greatly strained Egypt’s economy. As you know firsthand, Egypt’s tourism and foreign investment have declined significantly. Inflation has increased. Structural reforms are essential to modernize the economy, yet they are challenging to implement. And external trends such as globalization (which increases competition worldwide) and regional instability (which disrupts trade and investment) make it even harder to jumpstart economic growth.
Yet a fundamental requirement for maximum economic growth is tapping into the talents of all Egyptians – and in particular, the untapped resource of women. Egyptian society already has made dramatic gains in other areas: the number of women who die every year in childbirth has dropped by nearly two-thirds over the last fifteen years. In secondary education, UNICEF declared that Egypt has closed the enrollment gap between boys and girls.
These are accomplishments worth celebrating. But that progress has not been matched in the workplace. Today, less than a quarter of Egyptian women work in the formal economy compared to nearly 75 percent of men. The rate of unemployment among women is four times that of men. The world recently learned the story of a mother in Luxor who dressed like a man for forty years just so she could find work to support her daughter after her husband died. To me, that story speaks to not just the perseverance and grit of Egyptian women, but also the tremendous disparities they still face.
Disparities like the one out of three Egyptian women over age ten who cannot read, the dangerous and widespread practice of female genital mutilation and cutting, or the nearly one in five Egyptian girls who marry before age 15 – many forced down this road at great risk to their health and wellbeing, and before they are old enough to finish school and develop skills to support themselves economically. Early and forced marriage and limited education not only limit women’s future, but also those of the next generation of Egyptians who grow up in households with mothers who – despite their every desire – cannot read to their children, assist them with schoolwork, or help them envision an economic livelihood or career.
The challenges for women don’t end there. In countries around the world, corruption and needless red tape hurt women more than men, because they have fewer connections and resources to navigate a broken system. They make it harder for women to enroll in schools, apply for jobs, or secure permits to start new businesses.
Women also have trouble getting loans when banks use baseless fears to demand more money up front – money women rarely have because it’s harder for them to find work. When they struggle to access capital, women have a harder time starting new businesses and creating new jobs. These disparities, which are particularly true for women, needlessly limit Egypt’s economic growth.
The United States certainly remains imperfect with respect to equal roles for women. American women are underrepresented in key sectors of our economy like science, technology, and engineering. They still receive, on average, less income than men for the same work. That’s why President Obama just required all companies that work with the U.S. government to report what they pay employees by gender, so we can help close the pay gap between men and women.
Closing that gap is so important, because when more women participate in the economy – as consumers and employers, innovators and entrepreneurs – it broadens prosperity by creating new markets, products, and patents. Today in the U.S., women are exceling in schools and universities, leading multi-billion dollar companies, and running for president. America’s economic success is inseparable from the contributions of women.
The same can be true in Egypt. The International Monetary Fund estimates that closing the gap between men and women in the labor force would expand Egypt’s economy by 34 percent. That is 2.5 trillion Egyptian pounds of economic growth, or roughly 3,000 pounds per person of greater income, flexibility, and economic security.
It’s simple: Egypt cannot reach its full economic potential – nor achieve its great promise – without women. That is why the United States supports Egyptian women with job training programs, exchanges with businesswomen from America’s tech industry, and workshops and grants to female entrepreneurs.
The United States also provides this support because we know that stifling opportunities for any group – including women – not only holds back the country’s economic potential, but can produce a host of other social problems – from inequality to crime to disengagement from public life.
Across the globe, we have seen how the marginalization of groups, and the perception that there is no path to a better future, creates powerful grievances that terrorist groups like Daesh eagerly exploit. Then, we see horrific violence like the attacks on Egyptian civilians and soldiers in the Sinai, the grisly beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts on the shores of Libya, and the murder of 14 innocent Americans by terrorists last December in California. The killers and their hateful cause threaten us all.
That is why the U.S. has partnered with Egypt against this common enemy of civilization. We applaud Egypt’s contributions to the international coalition fighting Daesh. The United States has also provided aircraft, weaponry, and other equipment to help protect Egyptian lives against Daesh’s network of death.
While military tools will remain critical to fighting terrorism, they cannot address the underlying factors that make people vulnerable to the lure of violent extremism. That is why, when Secretary Kerry was here in Cairo last August for the U.S.-Egypt Strategic Dialogue, he described the need for a comprehensive, long-term strategy to defeat violent extremist groups like Daesh, a strategy to “persuade and prevent young people from turning to terror in the first place.”
This is a new way of thinking about terrorism to expand our efforts to include getting ahead of the terror threat — instead of simply responding to its existence. The comprehensive, preventive effort is called “countering violent extremism,” and Egypt joined a broad group of nations, civil society organizations, religious leaders and private sector representatives last February at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.
Governments around the world are beginning to recognize the value of this approach, even as countering violent extremism – or CVE, as it is known – demands more of governments. CVE prompts states to examine how their own actions might be portrayed in terrorist narratives and how their security efforts in particular could have unintended second-order effects. Furthermore, this CVE approach recognizes that governments need partners to effectively discredit and reject the calls of violent extremism. Civil society – including religious leaders, the private sector, nongovernmental organizations – has a key role to play in securing communities and protecting our vulnerable youth.
Women in particular are an untapped resource in the fight against terrorism. As Daesh calls on women to marry its terrorist fighters and support its nihilistic campaign, women are well positioned to counter that message. What better network to enlist in this struggle than women, who live in every city and village, whose reach extends into every family, and who understand the needs of their community better than many local government officials?
But mobilizing the power of women for this security challenge requires empowering women and women’s groups in all manner of public life. Only then can they speak with the independence, authority, and authenticity needed to effectively push back against terrorist recruitment. So if governments are serious about reducing the threat of terrorism, they need to get serious about including and empowering women.
But for women to fully contribute to a more prosperous and secure society – they need to feel secure in their day-to-day lives. According to many surveys, over 90 percent of Egyptian women have suffered from sexual harassment or sexual violence. Nine out of ten Egyptian women. Many of these crimes took place not in dark alleys, but in public streets, maydans, and prisons.
The U.S. continues to grapple with this issue as well, in our universities, within our military, and within homes. President Obama has made stopping sexual assault a top priority of our government. So many societies have work to do to ensure safety and freedom for women.
We welcome steps the Egyptian Government has taken to address this issue, like the new National Strategy to Combat Violence Against Women and provisions in the new constitution guaranteeing protection for women from all forms of violence along with equal social, economic, and political rights. But as the U.S. has learned, constitutional commitments and national strategies to promote equality and stop sexual violence – while important – will achieve little unless they are backed up with clear mandates, sufficient resources, strong institutions, and vigorous enforcement.
The Government of Egypt has taken some important steps in this regard, like establishing a new Department within the Ministry of Interior and a new Assistant Minister of Justice to ensure crimes against women are addressed with urgency and professionalism. The government could go further still, for example, by empowering the Ombudsperson’s Office for Gender Equality within the National Council on Women, establishing and enforcing a clear zero-tolerance policy on sexual violence for Egyptian military and police, and increasing resources for investigating and prosecuting those who commit such crimes.
The United States is a ready partner to help the Egyptian government address this pervasive human rights abuse and end cycles of impunity. Already, we have modest exchanges with prosecutors, medical experts, and law enforcement to help develop more effective and coordinated responses for sexual assault. After my visit here, I am convinced that Americans and Egyptians can expand this type of support to strengthen judicial responses for a broader range of human rights challenges.
While the Egyptian government has a critical role in addressing gender inequality and sexual violence, citizens have responsibility as well. Ultimately, progress depends on Egyptians of all backgrounds, and especially men – from politicians to policeman to neighbors – speaking out for equality, inclusion, and protection from sexual violence.
In June 2014, when a young woman was assaulted in Tahrir Square, President Sisi visited the survivor to make an important point. He declared sexual harassment “an unacceptable form of conduct, alien to the best principles of Egyptian culture.” Speaking out against physical violence is critical – but so too is condemning the intimidation of women and other organizations that have a constitutional right to make their voices heard.
No civilized nation should tolerate violence, whether that violence targets people for who they are, what they believe, where they pray, or whom they love. Great nations draw strength from all their people.
Harnessing that strength means tolerating differences that are peacefully expressed. It means including diverse perspectives in decision-making, not just in politics but in every facet of public and private life. That is why, as the United States’ annual Human Rights Report detailed, we are deeply concerned about “the suppression of civil liberties, including societal and government restrictions on freedoms of expression and the press and the freedom of assembly and association…and academic freedom.”
We are concerned because a diversity of views and beliefs – in religion, culture, politics, and academia – do not weaken societies; they strengthen them by adding new perspectives, challenging faulty assumptions, and allowing people to identify and resolve differences. The freedoms of Egyptian scholars and students – to ask and to probe and to question – are also vital.
In the United States, the freedom of our students and universities, our democracy and commitment to human rights and the rule of law – these allow us to negotiate the nation’s path forward, and they sustain our economic vitality, our innovation, creativity, and national collective promise.
Insecurity and fear can prompt governments and peoples to compromise values and principles in a search for control and stability. It can be tempting to pursue these goals by silencing peaceful dissent, limiting academic inquiry, compromising universal values, or abusing the power of the state. But the American experience after the attacks of 9/11, and the experience of many other countries around the world, underscores the cost of compromising fundamental rights and freedoms.
In reality, extremist views are best discredited through open debate, where citizens and religious leaders can challenge them head-on. When debate is shut down in the name of security, it feeds extremist propaganda. And the exclusive or heavy-handed reliance on security solutions is unlikely to address – and may well exacerbate – key underlying factors that increase vulnerability to terrorist propaganda.
As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon recently said, “governments should not use the fight against terrorism and extremism as a pretext to attack one’s critics. Extremists deliberately seek to incite such over-reactions. And we must not fall into those traps.”
When people are tortured, when nonviolent protestors are shot or arrested, it suggests there is no peaceful avenue to express sincere differences. That is how dissidents become terrorists, how democracies erode, how economies wither. These are the lessons of history all nations must bear in mind.
Of course, Egyptians are still writing their own history. This has been a difficult period, but I am confident that the next chapter can be brighter – that Egyptians can thrive in a competitive global economy and cast off the shadow of violent extremism – by bringing the full power of its people to bear, by empowering women and guaranteeing the fundamental freedoms and rights of all.
Because there is no challenge before Egypt that lies beyond the power of Egyptians; here and throughout the world, people are the foundation for broad prosperity and lasting security.