Egyptian Made

Women, Work, and the Promise of Liberation

About the Book

An incisive exploration of women and work, showing how globalization’s promise of liberation instead set the stage for repression—from the acclaimed author of Factory Girls

“Exhaustively reported and researched, Egyptian Made takes us halfway across the world and inside the intimate lives of women caught between tradition and independence.”—Monica Potts, New York Times bestselling author of The Forgotten Girls

What happens to the women who choose to work in a country struggling to reconcile a traditional culture with the demands of globalization? In this sharply drawn portrait of Egyptian society—deepened by two years of immersive reporting—Leslie T. Chang follows three women as they persevere in a country that throws up obstacles to their progress at every step, from dramatic swings in economic policy to conservative marriage expectations and a failing education system.

Working in Egypt’s centuries-old textile industry, Riham is a shrewd businesswoman who nevertheless struggles to attract workers to her garment factory and to compete in the global marketplace. Rania, who works on a factory assembly line, attempts to climb to a management rank but is held back by conflicts with co-workers and the humiliation of an unhappy marriage. Her colleague Doaa, meanwhile, pursues an education and independence but sacrifices access to her own children in order to get a divorce.

Alongside these stories, Chang shares her own experiences living and working in Egypt for five years, seeing through her own eyes the risks and prejudices that working women continue to face. She also weaves in the history of Egypt’s vaunted textile industry, its colonization and independence, a century of political upheaval, and the history of Islam in Egypt, all of which shaped the country as it is today and the choices available to Riham, Rania, and Doaa. Following each woman’s story from home and work, Chang powerfully observes the near-impossible balancing act that Egyptian women strike every day.
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Praise for Egyptian Made

“Leslie T. Chang shows us how cultural, economic, and political forces impact the women she writes about in both big and small ways, and serves as an incredibly important window into their daily lives.”—Monica Potts, New York Times bestselling author of The Forgotten Girls

“What do women want? What does freedom mean? How does capitalism translate through the prism of cultural expectations and pressures? Leslie T. Chang’s meticulous reportage offers Anglophone readers an intimate window into the varied lives, triumphs, sorrows, and dreams of women in contemporary Egypt—and invites us to examine both the global reach of patriarchy, and the universal nature of human ambitions and dreams.”—Anna Badkhen, author of Bright Unbearable Reality

“I read Egyptian Made like a novel, finishing in the early hours one morning. But the women Leslie Chang describes, and the villages and factories to which she’s devoted years of attention, are unlikely to appear in any novel. Chang takes us into an Egypt outsiders have never seen, introducing workplaces that run like dysfunctional families, where cherished colleagues can betray one another and a woman’s dream of independence can collapse overnight.  Chang’s lucid prose, her exacting journalistic standards, and her preference for truth over narrative conventions make Egyptian Made essential reading for anyone who cares about women in the Arab world.”—Nell Freudenberger, New York Times bestselling author of Lost and Wanted
“The most insightful book I’ve read about Egyptian society. Leslie Chang has embedded herself into the lives of working-class Egyptian women through the garment factories that employ them, a technique she mastered in her earlier Factory Girls, about China. Through this peephole, she can see it all—the resentments and squabbles of the factory floor, the intimate betrayals inside homes that are essentially gilded prisons, where women can’t protest second wives without losing their children. It all reveals how Egypt works—or doesn’t. Egyptian Made is a portrait of a country where tradition stagnates the economy and wastes the potential of half the population.”—Barbara Demick, bestselling author of Eat the Buddha

“Immersive and sharply observed . . . Chang’s cogent analysis and lyric impressions . . . are threaded with insight into Egypt’s political and economic history. It’s an eye-opener.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)
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Egyptian Made


The Best Workers on Earth

Almost no one worked in an Egyptian factory because she wanted to. Teenage girls might do it for a while to buy things for their gihaz—the china plates and serving bowls, the big and the small teapots, the bedsheets and nightgowns and ten or twelve or twenty sets of everything they needed in their trousseau before a man would agree to marry them. Some of the older women were divorced or widowed and had children to support. The married ones usually needed money badly enough that their husbands had agreed, reluctantly, to let them work outside the home.

Rania Saeed Mohamed didn’t fit into any of these groups. She was twenty-two and married but living apart from her husband when she started working at a men’s underwear factory outside the city of Minya. The plant was an hour’s bus ride from her village, and normally a wife would have asked her husband’s permission before taking such a step. But Rania didn’t consult anyone. Unhappiness gave her freedom, although that wasn’t a trade she would have made on her own. As with almost everything else in her life, she didn’t have a choice.

On Rania’s second day in the factory, a Romanian American manager named Elena asked a group of new recruits: “Who wants to work in quality control?”

Rania raised her hand. “I can do it.” She wasn’t sure what quality control was.

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 a few millimeters short, or the seams around the crotch didn’t lie flat, a client could reject the order and cost the company thousands of dollars. Inside every garment factory, there’s a never-ending battle between production and quality—hour after hour, workers must turn out hundreds of items to exacting standards. Rania developed a preternatural ability to keep the assembly line moving while catching mistakes almost as soon as they happened. Rania isn’t just a factory girl, Elena began telling her colleagues. She’s a manager. She sees and knows everything.

Elena taught Rania another important lesson: When someone criticizes your work, stand your ground and answer back. In Rania’s early days, a trainer named Rabab El-Sayyid often shouted at her—shouting being an act as common as breathing inside an Egyptian factory. Rania learned to respond directly and calmly to the attacks from the older woman. One day she realized that she wasn’t scared of Rabab anymore. Two years after she entered the factory, Rania was promoted to supervise her own line, just as Elena had promised.

There are no secrets in a clothing factory. Every hour, each production line’s output is recorded on a whiteboard in black marker. The numbers are printed out daily, stapled together, and passed around from hand to hand like factory samizdat, and supervisors who missed their targets are called into the manager’s office to explain themselves. Rania’s capacity for work was legendary. She was bi-mit ragil, as the Egyptians say—“worth a hundred men” (even in a factory that employed over 90 percent women, men remained the gold standard). Every month, the factory gave awards to its most productive workers, and Rania’s line placed first more times than she could count. The prize dinnerware sets and teakettles cluttered her kitchen cabinet at home, useless in their abundance.

Some people in the factory said that Rania manipulated production figures to make herself look better, and her tendency to play favorites didn’t sit well with everyone. She had a way of attracting notice and charging into conversations, and executives or clients visiting the plant always asked who she was. “Whenever management comes, there’s just a little more interaction with Rania than with other people. She’s always in their face” is how one senior manager put it. “Arrogant, bullying, bossy,” another executive rapped out between pursed lips. With her red supervisor’s tunic, wide-legged black trousers, and silver bracelets jangling on her wrists, Rania stood out for her authority and sense of style. She was often the only woman in the factory who was wearing pants.

Rania didn’t know it yet, but her bosses had big plans for her. Most of the executives in the factory came from outside Egypt, and they were eager to promote a woman into a leadership position as a way to show all their other female employees what was possible. Little by little, they would add to Rania’s production and management responsibilities. But they needed to be careful. If she took on too much at once, she might fail spectacularly and turn into a warning about what happens to women with too much ambition.

For every Egyptian woman who works, four others stay home. The nation’s percentage of women in the labor force is among the lowest in the world, and the number has remained flat for the past quarter of a century; among some groups, such as college graduates, it has actually fallen. These facts contradict the common belief that globalization will bring opportunity, create jobs for women, and overturn social norms. It did happen this way in Taiwan and South Korea, China, and India, and in conservative Muslim nations such as Malaysia and Bangladesh.

Since the 1970s, Egypt has become deeply integrated into the international economy through its political alliances along with increased trade, tourism, and migration. But the prospects for Egyptian women are getting worse. They’re less likely to enter the workforce than they were ten years ago. They’re more focused on making a good marriage and becoming more financially dependent on men. In the experience of these women, globalization has closed more doors than it has opened.

In other social realms, the country has made some progress toward equalizing opportunity for women. Girls and boys now attend school in comparable numbers, and Egyptian universities enroll more female than male students. Women are living longer, marrying later, and having fewer children than they did several decades ago. But the MENA region—the Middle East and North Africa—is the only part of the world in which such gains have not propelled women into the workforce, a puzzle that economists call “the gender equality paradox.” A World Bank study estimated that average household income would rise by as much as 25 percent if women in the Middle East worked at the same rates as their peers in other parts of the world. The bank also estimated that at the current rate of increase in female employment, it would take the region’s women a hundred fifty years to catch up to the rest of the world.

Resistance to female employment is grounded in a specific idea about male dignity. When a woman works outside the home, her family and community often interpret this act as a failure on the part of her husband. Chapter 4, verse 34, of the Quran says: Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has given the one more than the other, and because they support them from their means. Marriage is a complementary arrangement—the man supports his wife, and she obeys him in return—and wifely submission is written into the Egyptian legal code. A woman who leaves the house without her husband’s permission is considered nashiz—rebellious—and forfeits her right to his financial support.

Even when women work, their range of social acceptability is narrow. Most women are reluctant to travel far from home on public transportation, for fear of sexual harassment; they don’t want to spend their days in small workplaces or shops, which may bring them into close contact with male cofuworkers or strangers; they would rather leave work in time to be home to cook dinner for their husbands. Unemployment in Egypt is four times higher for women than for men—20 percent, compared with 5 percent—in large part because women turn down jobs that might compromise their domestic responsibilities or their reputation.

“It’s not about the wage. It’s really about the working conditions,” Ragui Assaad, an economist at the University of Minnesota who studies labor and development, told me. Many of the jobs available in the Egyptian economy, he continued, are with small or informal enterprises that may require women to travel great distances, work long hours, or be exposed to sexual harassment. “If the working conditions are met, women are ready to work in droves. But if they’re not met, very few are willing to work.”

Since the 1960s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser guaranteed jobs for all high school and college graduates, women have seen the government as the ideal employer. These positions offer gender-blind hiring and wages, good benefits, short workdays, and large workplaces with the stamp of respectability. But the public sector is shrinking—it employs 5.6 million people, down from almost six million two decades ago—and female labor participation has dropped in tandem. More than 40 percent of all working women are still concentrated there as administrators, clerks, nurses, and teachers. Even better than a sinking ship, though, may be no ship at all: Between 2006 and 2012, the number of women in the workforce fell by six hundred thousand, and it has continued to decrease since then.

About the Author

Leslie T. Chang
Leslie T. Chang has written about women in the developing world for two decades. Her book Factory Girls was named a New York Times Notable Book and has been translated into ten languages. Chang is a recipient of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Asian American Literary Award, the Tiziano Terzani International Literary Prize, the Quality Paperback Book Club New Visions Award, and the Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellowship. From 2011 to 2016, Chang lived and worked in Cairo, Egypt. Prior to that, Chang worked in China as a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. She has also written for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and National Geographic. She lives in southwestern Colorado. More by Leslie T. Chang
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Random House Publishing Group