Women's Empowerment in Egypt



The following research is part of Whitney Buchanan's Master's Project, from the American University in Cairo's School of Global Affairs and Public Policy Department of Public Policy and Administration. The master's project is titled "International Agency Implementation of Women's Empowerment Programs Under Secular and Islamist Governments: Comparative Cases of UN Women and International Labour Organization Experiences in Egypt".


This research compares two international agencies, the UN Women (UNW) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), and their women’s empowerment programs specifically under the Mubarak government during 2010 and under the Morsi government during 2012 to determine how Islamist and secular government support shapes the effectiveness of international agencies’ gender empowerment projects. This project is a “snapshot” of attitudes of particular ILO and UNW staff members from regional and national offices regarding their work during two different time frames, and not the institutional policies, experiences, or positions of the UNW and ILO bodies as a whole.

The principal investigator chose to focus on elements concerning authoritarian and Islamist administrations, as well as the transition possibilities between them, because there is a gap in literature concerning how these types of governments could holistically affect international agencies women’s empowerment programs, and in turn, impact gender equality outcomes. As governmental changes have drastic social, economic and political impacts on civil society, government support for international agencies’ programs concerning gender development and women’s empowerment may shift when there is a transition between a secular government, and an Islamist government.

Case studies were completed of six projects implemented by the two agencies that extended from the Mubarak 2010 through the Morsi 2012 administration. The principal investigator used in-depth online and in-person surveys, as well as interviews with ILO and UNW staff members. Key findings show that the Morsi era was more disruptive to agency programming on a higher level and that there was a change in government support for the UNW and ILO women’s empowerment programs between the two periods studied.

In general, the exploratory study found that the change in environment, specifically during Morsi’s presidency, led to alterations in the workplace and women’s programs, which were deemed negative in nature for both the ILO and UNW employees. Findings strongly support that the projects, in regards to capacity building, implementation, and other elements, were viewed as more successful during the Mubarak 2010 administration. The findings also demonstrate the need to contemplate how changes of government can potentially affect programs when underlying values are challenged.


For decades, women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have suffered from a grim insufficiency in human rights and empowerment. Sinha (2012, p.152,) defines empowerment as “a multidimensional process of [strengthening] civil, political, social, economic, and cultural participation and rights.” The role of women within MENA society has been a contentious issue for many years, and societal norms usually delay women’s development or improvement to some extent.

Although some women of the MENA region are repressed politically, socially and economically due to bodies of legislature, institutional entities, as well as cultural taboos and policies, there are numerous other women who remain resilient, and dedicated, to their beliefs regarding freedom and equality (Sadiqi and Ennaji, 2011, p.2). Women of this caliber have joined international agencies such as the United Nations Women (UNW) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) to provide guidance, resources, and technical assistance in the form of women’s empowerment programs within society.

These programs and gender equality projects coordinate local, national, regional and global efforts to integrate equality, positive outcomes and empowerment into efforts regarding democratic governance, fair labor, sustainable development and cultural acceptance (Official UN Women Website, 2014). The principal investigator chose to examine specific programs of the UNW because of interests concerning the previous merge of UNW and how programing approaches, techniques and transformations might be different in Egypt during the agency’s transition phase. The principal investigator also chose to examine gender equality programs of the ILO as it is the oldest UN agency and because it is not often considered an international agency that obtains a gender lens.

However, women’s organizations in the MENA region and Egypt tend to face difficult choices concerning how to properly portray women’s issues (Eyben, 2014, p.19) and perhaps this could be increasingly challenging due to ongoing changes and adaptations during secular and/or Islamist governments. The principal investigator chose to focus on elements concerning authoritarian and Islamist administrations because there is a gap in literature concerning how these types of governments could holistically affect international agencies women’s empowerment programs, and in turn, impact gender equality throughout the region.

Furthermore, according to The World Bank (2004), governments in the MENA region are not as supportive as in other regions of the world (p.5), however conditions have only severely worsened in a few MENA countries including Iraq, Yemen, Palestine (Freedom House, 2010, p.3) and Syria. In resistant authoritarian governments (Ghosh, 2008, p.100) throughout the region have a tendency to avoid progressive legislation or policies that would empower women.

Paxton and Hughes (2014, p.318) argue that military dominant societies rarely promote women’s interests and that female rights are frequently set aside to accomplish other state goals. In some Islamist states within the region, such as Saudi Arabia, are known for pursuing policies of oppression (Doumato and Posusney, 2003, p. 240).

There are many perspectives, both positive and negative, regarding women’s empowerment and rights within the country of Egypt. While some actively promote equality of women, the necessity for meeting basic needs and providing access to education, other members of society are disillusioned by institutional weaknesses in Egypt’s government and legislature, and by a lack of public knowledge on the matter at hand (Katulis, 2004, p. 3).

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB), for example, often takes the position that women should not and cannot lead countries, while women’s representatives from the MB advises Egyptian female citizens not to protest for their rights, “as it is more dignified to let their husbands and brothers demonstrate for them” (Paxton and Hughes, 2014, p.319).

Although there are numerous cases of political, economic and social oppression within the Egyptian society the UN Women and the ILO is working to enable gains for women in the international agency gender policy arena, despite multiple changes in government and complex transitions from a secular to Islamist administration. This reasoning is why the principal investigator will focus on the role of the previous Egyptian governments in shaping the effectiveness of international agency support for women’s empowerment programs.

This research will compare two international agencies, the UN Women (UNW) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), and their women’s empowerment programs specifically during the 2010-2012 Mubarak and Morsi administrations, while focusing on political, social and economic issues throughout these periods to determine how Islamist and secular government support shapes the effectiveness of international agencies gender empowerment projects.

In the absence of other researchers' observations of these two agencies' work in the field of gender empowerment, the observations of ILO and UNW staff members made by the principal investigator cannot be linked to other observations, which limit the generalizations that can be made from it.

Readers of this study should thus consider the findings and inferences as "snapshots" of the perspectives of the particular ILO and UNW employees interviewed, and not necessarily representative of the experience or positions of these agencies as a whole. It is helpful to understand that the observations were gathered in the form of memories, statements, and beliefs from two contentious periods where the agency members focused on issues that were problematic from a number of perspectives in addition to attitudes toward women's empowerment, including security and other concerns.

As the staff members in the UNW and ILO saw the changes from one administration and time period to another, period to another, their opinions, memories, and perspectives were nonetheless highly valuable in assisting the principal investigator to form conclusions regarding the agencies' differing experiences during the two periods.

Both the UN Women and ILO aid the female populations living in urban and rural areas. Based on completed program descriptions and final reports from UNW and ILO staff, the assistance provided by these two organizations, as well as donors and other partners, appear to be very valuable to the development of women’s empowerment and rights throughout Egypt. Activists and young women have stirred the Egyptian community with demands of equality and justice, that helped lead to the ousting of both Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi, as well as reform of women’s empowerment programs.

This master’s project will argue that many female citizens from all corners of Egyptian society, such as women in the labor force (Freedom House, 2010, p.106), married women, females wearing hijab (Freedom House, 2010, p.100), female students (Freedom House, 2010, p.90) and staff members in international agency organizations (Freedom House, 2010, p.97) such as the UNW and ILO, have felt a great deal of urgency throughout the 2010 Mubarak regime and the one year reign of the Morsi regime to develop the rights of women socially, politically, and economically.

On the other hand (The World Bank, 2004, p.17),

matters regarding gender inequality often remain one of the least understood fields in the development arena, as numerous policymakers tend to treat women’s empowerment issues with peripheral concern.

However, this issue matters because women’s equality is absolutely necessary for good governance (The World Bank, 2004, p.13) in Egypt and because the unjust treatment of women and girls on economic, political, and social levels are continuously felt throughout society (The World Bank, 2004, p.17).

As governmental changes have drastic social, economic and political impacts on civil society (Waylen, 2007, p.79), support for international agencies’ programs concerning gender development and women’s empowerment may shift when there are transitions from a secular to an Islamist government, or vice versa.

It is important for the ILO and UN Women to continue their work in Egypt, particularly when other pressing issues such as poverty and environment are also affected by governmental transitions, to help determine how to influence women’s rights within the state, increase their substantive and descriptive representation (Waylen, 2007, p.79) and make these often overlooked issues into priorities, as well as focusing on currently active programs to aid women throughout the nation. Women's empowerment in the MENA region and in Egypt specifically, as well as the different types of indicators and gender programming, will be further discussed in the literature review in order to better understand why gender equality and empowerment are of extreme importance.

Thus the aim of this research is to explore and compare whether the level of government support changed between the final year of the Mubarak (2010) presidency and the single year of the Morsi (2012) presidency, and whether or not these possible changes had certain impacts on the UNW and ILO women's empowerment programs. This comparison will examine both how the environment for gender oriented programs, which will be explained in more detail during the literature review, differed (ILO Enterprises Department, 2008), if at all, and how the actual programming initiatives themselves differed, either in design or implementation.

In each case, the research will focus on the period before the popular uprisings that ended each president’s term. In the literature review this study will briefly examine the general approaches of these two leading international agencies in the area of women’s empowerment, as a means to better understand and shed light on their contribution in the field of gender equality and empowerment.


The main research question of this study is as follows,

Was there a change in government support for the ILO and UNW women’s empowerment programs during the last year of the Hosni Mubarak administration (2010) and the one year presidency of the Mohamed Morsi administration (2012)?

The principal investigator is examining the implementation of UNW and ILO women’s empowerment programs between 2010 and 2012. Perceptions of ILO and UNW agency members will be used, as well as other means such as newspaper articles and recent literature, to measure how the Egyptian government support for agency programs changed between the Mubarak 2010 and Morsi 2012 regimes.

Furthermore, the principal investigator will ask staff members whether different types of agency projects experienced particular types of difficulties during the secular administration and the Islamist administration, and whether the differences described can be explained by the contrasting government support for the agency programs.

The setting in which the main question will be addressed includes the UN Women office in Cairo and the ILO Cairo Office. The exploratory analysis that has been formulated by preparing this master’s project proposal is that the international agencies’ programs were affected the most, in a generally negative nature, by the election and ruling of Morsi's Islamist regime.

The principal investigator hopes to clarify questions which will lead to future research efforts, concerning the nature of authoritarian and Islamist administrations and how they impact gender equality and empowerment efforts in international development program, by identifying the linkages between the levels of secular and Islamist government support, project type and design and project implementation based on ILO and UNW case studies, as well as a survey.

Other exploratory analyses include that the Mubarak 2010 administration was more supportive of the UN Women and the Morsi administration was more supportive of the ILO. Also that the Mubarak 2010 regime was more supportive of of women's empowerment programs concerning social rights, while the Morsi regime was more supportive of women's empowerment programs concerning economic rights.

Another hypothesis that will be analyzed is that the disruption of political changes had a great impact on the ILO and UNW projects, for example, reporting and budgetary documents were not readily available to identify outcomes of the programs, and different stages of implementation were not carried out exactly as planned.

As awareness and issues pertaining to women’s empowerment are on the rise in Egypt, and numerous other countries in the MENA region, a clear understanding and conceptualization of the shaping and impact of women’s empowerment programs is essential for promoting gender equality, peace and security, gender policies, leadership and participation, economic empowerment and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Figure 1 provides a conceptual framework for examining how the UNW and ILO women’s empowerment programs were shaped by the Mubarak and Morsi administration's policies, as well as other factors, and how gender equality and women’s empowerment was impacted by the process as a whole.

Whitney Buchanan AUC Thesis

The main relationship that will be discussed in this master's final project is how the UNW and ILO women's empowerment programs in Egypt compared during the complex eras of Mubarak 2010 and Morsi 2012 due to different secular and Islamic social, economic, and political variables that had varying degrees of influence on the gender programs. Specific details regarding the UNW and ILO programs will be covered in the methodology section.


Whitney Buchanan Middle East Collective FounderWhitney Buchanan is an American analyst on Gender Issues and MENA Affairs based between Cairo and Berlin. She is also the founder of the Middle East Collective.

You can reach her at whitney@middleeastcollective.com