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  • Surfacing 3(1) | 2010 1

    Gendering Decent Work: Obstacles to Performativity in the Egyptian Work Place by Dahlia Hassanien Over the last two decades, Egyptian women have seen impressive growth in the range and type of opportunities available for accessing the market, with one of the chief advancements being in the area of human capital investments in education for women and girls (Barsoum 2004). Completion rates among Egyptian females today in higher education levels have taken precedence over males (CAPMAS 2008; Barsoum 2004), yet Egypt continues to have one of the lowest female labor participation rates in the world (in Barsoum et al 2009, 3), as only 23.1 percent of Egyptian women are thought to participate in the domestic labor market1 (ELMPS

    1 According to the International Labor Organization (ILO) the market definition of employment includes those who are engaged in economic activity for purposes of market exchange. It further includes those who are currently employed and actively seeking employment.

  • Surfacing 3(1) | 2010 2

    2006). Such low levels of recognizable labor participation have caused some analysts to characterize Egypt’s working age women (ages 15-64) as “women at leisure” (Donahoe 1999, 544), conveying an ignorance of the complex interplay between gender and work in Egypt and elsewhere. Underscoring these characterizations are some grim statistics, however, as the World Economic Forum has identified Egypt as one of the worst countries for women in terms of the “gender gaps” in pay and access to economic opportunity (International Trade Union Confederation 2008), ranking it 126th out of 134 countries (Hausman et al 2009).

    Institutional quantitative rankings generally fail to reflect some important underlying tensions on two levels. Firstly, gender gaps are approximated at the most macro level by using current rates of visible female labor market participation to derive conclusions about women’s ability to access market opportunities. In other words, the methodology overlooks a host of absolutely critical social expectations and perceptions that influence women’s decision-making with respect to market entry, while also conveying the assumption that all women who can enter the labor market logically will. Such data also fails to draw out useful insights about gender as a social construct which interacts and counteracts with neoliberal conceptualizations of work in the Egyptian setting (Zulfiqar 2010; Beneria 2003; Elyachar 2005; Barsoum et al 2009), a subject to which this essay will return.

    As recently as 2009, the International Labour Organization (hereafter ILO) has reasserted itself in an attempt to gender “decent work” as an operational concept, yet in several ways its conceptualization still falls short of acknowledging the role gender plays in contributing to perceptions and expectations of how work should be performed. This essay addresses these methodological gaps by drawing on Judith Butler’s (1988) framework of gender performativity, which she describes as a dynamic, habitual and ritual practice of embodied and performed acts that repeat and reproduce social codes of “sanction and taboo” to perpetuate culture (Butler 1988, 1). Gender performativity enters as a useful construct for achieving the goals of this paper, as it offers a set of tools for calling more acute attention to the reasons why “womanhood” and “work” as competing sets of performative acts tend to compromise rather than support one another in Egypt today.

    The obstacles women face in securing quality work in Egypt’s private sector has been widely identified as the primary reason for Egyptian women’s low participation in the labor market (Assaad 1997; Barsoum 2004) and enduring preference for public sector work and its host of gender responsive benefits and securities, including maternity leave, pension and health insurance (Barsoum et al 2009). In responding to cues from NGO research across the global

  • Surfacing 3(1) | 2010 3

    South, “decent work”2 continues to be a concept with high purchase in global development praxis and international economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) discourse but has only recently begun to consider the unpaid work performed by women in the domestic sphere. The International Labor Organization (ILO), for example, has started calling attention to the “double burden” women face of paid work in the public sphere and unpaid reproductive labor in the domestic. In a 2009 ILO report, the double burden is described:

    Women’s participation in paid labour and access to decent work is particularly affected by the burden of combining reproductive and paid work. This adds stress not accounted for in traditional conceptions of decent work, which focus on paid work and do not examine related changes in reproductive labour (Floro and Meurs 2009, 4).

    The double burden paradigm attempts to make space for gender roles by calling attention to women’s roles as mothers, wives and unpaid care laborers inside the home, and ultimately by advocating for structures and regulations in the paid workplace which will allow working women to honor their unpaid domestic commitments—practices like maternity leave, flexible scheduling and health insurance are characteristic of “decent work” approaches. This essay submits that such regulations and workplace practices are not enough to constitute decent work in a gendered sense, as recent NGO research from Cairo suggests that Egyptian women face some important soft obstacles in their performance of gender inside the paid workplace, including sexual harassment, lack of respect and insults to dignity (Barsoum et al 2009). This essay argues that where women’s performance of female gender propriety, including not just the securing of marriage and motherhood but also the preservation of sexual modesty (hay’a), is obstructed by certain treatments and behaviors in the workplace, a set of unique gender pressures arise that are not yet accounted for in traditional conceptions of decent work, which tends to focus on the structural goal of reintegrating family friendly policies as a way to ensure women’s prioritization of domestic responsibilities (Floro and Meurs 2009, 4).

    The ILO’s main strategy to gender decent work by reframing it as a double burden between paid private sector and unpaid domestic work does help to draw women’s care economy practices and family friendly policies back into institutional conversations about just livelihoods for women. Yet it stops short of considering women’s need to perform femininity in socially meaningful ways inside the workplace as a way to protect their reputation and cultural 2 “Decent work” and “quality work” are interchangeable concepts generally based on eight standard indicators, including basic personal security, income security, labor market security, employment security, skills reproduction security, job security, work security, voice representation security (Anker et al 2003).

  • Surfacing 3(1) | 2010 4

    “honor” more broadly—particularly in country cases like Egypt’s, where codes of female propriety determine other social opportunities for women. By failing to make space for the particular demands and expectations relating to gender performance in the workplace, the double burden paradigm ultimately fails to dislodge women from the patriarchal structures of a neoliberal public sphere dominated by private sector work opportunities (Benerias 2007) and fails to address some critical reasons for why Egyptian women retreat from paid work in large numbers, despite rising levels of education. Moreover, the double burden paradigm runs the risk of reinforcing a binary between paid and unpaid work, either by overstating the value of more and better access to market opportunities or by failing to pick up on important signals in social workplace behavior which make sense only against a backdrop of women’s perceptions of gender performance in the workplace rather than from macro trends “relat[ing to] changes in reproductive labor” (Floro and Meurs 2009, 43).

    As the research of Barsoum et al (2009) captures well, the determinants of Egyptian women’s participation in wage work cannot be understood in macroeconomic terms alone, as rising private sector work opportunities and higher levels of educational investment among women have not necessarily translated into higher labor market participation rates, even despite a high demand for work stemming from the current global financial crisis, rising costs and overstretched incomes (Dhillon and Assaad 2008). More nuanced measures for assessing the role “quality” plays in contributing to women’s perceptions of private sector work opportunities are thus urgently needed, as the double burden paradigm tends to compartmentalize notions of quality in the workplace separately from those associated with the domestic sphere, with the former evaluated structurally in the language of policy and neoliberal best practices (Elyachar 2005), and the latter evaluated almost exclusively through the discursive lenses of religion and culture. I suggest here that Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity (1988) provides a useful departure point for exploring the interplay between the spheres of paid work and unpaid domestic work and for making plain women’s need for consistent standards of gender performance as they travel between the two.

    Despite a growing


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