Egyptian Women and the Fight for the Right to Work
Almost no one works in an Egyptian clothing factory because she wants to. The teen-age girls are saving for their dowries, and they will quit when they have enough money. Some of the older women are divorced and have children to support. The married ones usually need money badly enough that their husbands have reluctantly allowed them to work. Rania didn’t quite fit into any of those groups. She was married but living apart from her husband when, eight years ago, she started working at the Delta Textile Factory in the city of Minya, a hundred and sixty miles south of Cairo. As long as they were separated, her husband, Yasser, wouldn’t find out. Unhappiness creates its own freedom, although Rania didn’t know that yet. She was twenty-two years old, with acne-scarred red cheeks, full lips, and a black wool hijab that wrapped her face in a small circle and made her appear younger than she was.
On Rania’s second day in the factory, a Romanian-American manager named Elena asked, “Who wants to work in quality control?” Rania had little idea what quality control was, but she boldly raised her hand. Elena was the first foreigner she had ever met. She trained Rania to spot every potential problem in a pair of men’s underpants. If a leg was millimetres too short, or the seams around the crotch didn’t lie flat, a client could reject the order and cost the factory thousands of dollars. Rania developed a preternatural ability to keep the line moving while catching mistakes almost as soon as they happened. Two years after she entered the factory, she was promoted to supervisor, but she never forgot what it felt like to be a newcomer.
Rania’s capacity for work was legendary—bi-mit ragel, as the Egyptians say, “worth a hundred men.” Every month, the factory awarded prizes to its most productive workers; the line she supervised placed first more times than she could count, and the dinnerware sets and kettles she won cluttered her cabinet at home, useless in their abundance. She had a way of attracting notice and charging into conversations. Executives or clients visiting the plant always asked who she was. In her red supervisor’s tunic, silver flip-flops, and wide-legged black trousers (she was often the only woman in the factory wearing pants), Rania moved around the production floor as if she were at home, and in a way she was.
In the summer of 2016, the company’s executives called a meeting of the factory employees and announced that they planned to hire their first local production manager, who would oversee a bloc of ten assembly lines. Such positions had always been held by an expatriate man, but everyone in the meeting immediately turned to look at Rania. Before the meeting, in fact, Ian Ross, the company’s C.E.O. in Egypt, had told Rania that she was being considered for the job. He warned her not to make problems with the other supervisors, with whom she sometimes fought.
“I don’t make any problems,” Rania answered coolly, but inside she felt excited and proud. She was determined to show everyone that she could be the first female production manager in Upper Egypt.