The Egyptian family is changing in significant ways, modified by the social and economic realities of everyday life which are in turn affected by changes in the local and international economy. Extended family living arrangements are declining in favor of nuclear families, which now account for 84 percent of all households.
Changing family structure influences role behaviors among men and women, but traditional role patterns are resilient. In Egypt, as in almost all cultures, women are socialized to express less autonomy than men, and Egyptian women generally express deference to their spouses with respect to personal and family decision making. At the same time they are extraordinarily committed to their families in terms of the amount of domestic responsibility they assume. When women work, most do so to enhance family welfare rather than to gain independence. A surprising majority of urban working women in a recent large survey reported that they provide all of the funds for household expenditures for their families. Women’s assumption of traditionally male earning roles, though, has not translated into the adoption of male domestic roles.
Within this overall characterization lies a much more complex reality. Women’s overall autonomy appears to be increasing. For instance, while a majority of presently married Egyptian women did not select the man they married, the average marriage age and education level of women is increasing, both of which make it more likely that a woman will come to have the primary voice in choosing her mate. Within families, women do have a strong voice in decisions of most relevance to them, such as family planning, childbearing and child rearing practices. Their personal autonomy and influence within the family increases when they live in a more urban area with increased access to education, and when they work outside the home, thus making a greater economic contribution to the family. The waning of extended family living arrangements supports these trends. Egyptian women’s scope for increased autonomy of thought and action is potentially quite broad. However, the realization of the potential depends heavily on parents and other relatives who continue to make critical early decisions on behalf of their daughters in terms of schooling and choice of mate. The data on parental aspirations for daughters are encouraging, but these aspirations have a greater chance of being realized when the daughters’ marriages are delayed — a much more likely event if the daughter has an educated mother.
Levels of autonomy among married women go hand in hand with age, education, urban residence and more affluent living conditions. Yet even among the least advantages groups, many women show initiative in attending to their health, and play an assertive role in family decision making within traditional domains. On the other hand, and even among the most advantaged groups, most women continue to seek their husbands’ permission and to show limited knowledge of gender issues or involvement in civic activities outside the family.
Over time, women’s autonomy within marriage can be expected to grow as the economy continues to diversify and education levels for women improve. Women’s autonomy is linked most significantly to an increased ability to achieve personal fertility goals, which in most cases means smaller family size. These changes, among others, have most certainly played a role in the rapid increase in contraceptive use in Egypt in recent years.
The implications for population policy are clear: Investments in female education, employment and programs to reduce adolescent marriage for girls should receive high priority, alongside family planning services. Whether the trends among Egyptian women toward greater autonomy will be consolidated in the future depends on broadening population policy and including key national sectors such as education, labor and the judiciary in planning efforts.
A host of social and economic forces are buffeting the traditional Egyptian family, and in response, families are adapting. But the intrinsic high value which Egyptian women and men place on family life shows remarkable stability, and families rather than individuals will continue to be the locus for reproductive decision making. These facts have important implications for current debate over the cultural specificity of concepts such as individual rights and choice.
This text is abstracted from a longer study, “Women’s Autonomy and Gender Roles in Egyptian Families,” forthcoming from the Population Council in December 1994.