Thursday, April 28, 2016

HALF THE WORLD - Equal but Diverse



By Reem Kassem and Tiago Prata

Half the World

Equal but Diverse

As far as the law was concerned in ancient Egypt, women were regarded as totally equal to men. They could own property, borrow money, sign contracts, initiate divorce, appear in court as a witness, etc. Of course, they were also equally subject to whatever responsibilities normally accompanied those rights. Egypt was also ruled by many great queens, and some of them are very popular due to their roles in ingenious pieces literature by famous novelists and poets, like Cleopatra. Women's role declined in the 4th century with the murder of the last historian and astronomer of the ancient library of Alexandria HYPATIA. This was followed by a long period of struggle for women in Egypt.  With the rise of the modern State under Mohammed Ali’s reign a magnificent role for women emerged. In 1982, a nursing school was established forming a nucleus for Egyptian women to take off household jobs. However, this did not take place overnight but was rather stimulated by calls marked by enlightened scholars such as Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, Qassem Ameen, for emancipation of women and their right to education and employment. In the early 1900s, a number of Egyptian women formed the first services NGO, i.e. Mohammed Ali’s Charity - the Intellectual League of Egyptian Women. These embryonic formations paved the way for wider participation by Egyptian women in public action.

The succeeding years witnessed efforts by women to establish and participate in charities, voluntary and literary societies. Women showed an increasing important role in national issues such as the 1919 Revolution. However, the 1923 Constitution was issued without giving women their political rights; thus leading to escalated calls for women’s access to much rights. The first women’s political party was established under the name of the Egyptian Feminist Party in 1942. The Egyptian Women’s Associate called in 1947 for the need to amend the electoral law to grant women the right to vote on equal footing with men, right of access to local and representative councils. Following the July 1952 Revolution, the 1956 Constitution granted full political rights to women. The political rights that women were granted, was the starting-point for them to take public and top positions, and to be recognized as a productive force on equal footing with man. This has led to the appointment of the first woman minister in Egypt in 1962. Since then, the practice of assigning women to ministerial posts in the Egyptian cabinets has been pursued and her representation in other legislative, judicial and political institutions entrenched.

On the other hand, in Europe, the history of social identities expressed through gender (and the social conflict between the different polarized concepts of masculine and feminine) is rather complex, with psychological stereotypes about gender roles having major influence in most social institutions from the broadest scope like politics, economy, law and education, to the most intimate aspects of daily life, either private (domestic & family) or public (working life, career and democratic participation). Take for example, the Scandinavian Late Iron Age, popularly known as the Viking Age, which is often represented in popular culture as deeply and inherently male, with male aggressiveness as the ideal presented to the public, leaving little room for alternative gender roles in the popular imagination. Contemporary scholars, however, are discussing evidence that women in medieval Nordic societies could take on far more active roles in warfare, seafaring, and religious practice than in many other European societies, generally aggregated as some form of patriarchy based on religious imagery and its moral tenets. The average Norse woman in the household, would have held more sway through her ability to divorce, and accumulate wealth in the form of a repaid dowry and ownership of the bride-price than almost anywhere in the world. Much like in any other historiography, the contemporary ideals of women belonging to the home and men being out in the public were imposed as anachronistic interpretations of Viking society by modern (19th century,) archeology and anthropology.

Through this century we reconnect with contemporary societies, as historically, the Nordic countries gained a head start regarding gender equality by giving women the right to vote before others (Sweden in 1919, Norway in 1913, Iceland and Denmark in 1915, Finland in 1906). In Sweden, specifically, cultural and social values are imbued of an overarching principle, that everyone, regardless of gender, has the right to work and support themselves, to balance career and family life, and to live without the fear of abuse or violence. Most importantly, the principle of gender equality as approached by Swedish society, but it is also about the qualitative aspects, ensuring that the knowledge and experience of both men and women are used to promote progress in all aspects of society. This is materialized in a series of efforts and progress milestones in the fields gender equality at school, at work, parental leave, economic and political power, and which make that since the Global Gender Report, was introduced by the World Economic Forum in 2006, Sweden has never finished lower than fourth in the Gender Gap rankings.

Despite advances in Women's Rights in both countries over the past century, and a leading position in the world especially in Sweden, there is still a long way to go. Even if policies are in place, laws have been written, and procedures have been taken to grant women equal rights to men, the acceptance and implementation of those policies still remain a huge challenge. The challenges can be from the societies which still deprive women from some of their rights, they can be from the woman herself who doesn’t know her rights or has no courage to ask of it, or it can be also from her male partner who intentionally deprives her from the rights granted by law. Parallel to policies and laws, in depth awareness campaigns  to solicit the society for acceptance, appreciation and understanding should take place. This makes the implementation of policies much easier. In Egypt, there is a new sexual harassment law, yet there is a huge challenge in applying this law, where the society still puts the blame on women and holds her back from seeking its implementation. In Sweden, for example, Albrecht et al., (2003) documented a decade ago the existence of a substantial glass ceiling in Swedish society. Psychologists have theorized a hidden barrier for women called “Glass Ceiling Syndrome”. The 'glass ceiling' metaphor has often been used to describe invisible barriers (glass) through which women can see elite positions but cannot reach them (ceiling). That specific research report points towards the fact that in Sweden, women work harder than men to achieve the highest wages and leadership positions. This so-called glass ceiling is prevalent in both the private and public sectors – while authors find that the wage gap between the highest paid men and women in Sweden decreased 1998-2008, it still remained at the end of the period – especially at the top management level (the positions of decision making. This is an example that despite huge achievement in the field of gender equality, even role model societies like Sweden still need to vanquish lingering social institutions of the patriarchy (as defined by sociologist Sylvia Walby), such as in the state: women are unlikely to have formal power and representation; the household: women are more likely to do the housework and raise the children; violence: women are more prone to being abused; the work life: women are likely to be paid less; sexuality: women's sexuality is more likely to be treated negatively; culture: women are more misrepresented in media and popular culture.

“Half the World”; the project aims to bring competences from the art world into non-artistic sectors of society, using unconventional tools of artistic reflection and expression to highlight the fundamental social equality between individuals independently of gender, by engaging individuals in a dialogue which is emotionally and psychologically meaningful and transformative. At a time in which globalization and demography puts different moral values (based on history or religions), creating a schism between secular/westernized and other region-based belief systems and new societal challenges regarding how these values interact (specifically, gender equality), the project tries to address these societal challenges by examining examples from each society and transforming them into interactive performances – and pilot artistic interventions in the public (governance) and private (business) arenas to develop intrinsic awareness and provoke for action and change, as well as to empower individuals and organizations to kick start their own transformative agendas. This will be accompanied by several artistic research activities in the public space, such as workshops, vox-pops, crowdsourced and participatory art, video/photo campaigns, media articles and others, focused on gathering contemporary testimonies about the issues, mostly documented online. An easy and a quick tool to build an online community of supporters, who share their own personal stories to give out a bold message to the world. The format of the project is planned to be replicated globally in different societies and settings, where the challenges of each society will be collected based on a non-formal educational approach that empowers the society sharing the information while enlightening and encouraging the society that needs to take the action.

“Half the World” is representing half the workplace, half the household, and half anything that needs both genders equally to move forward and progress. The title reflects a philosophy that emphasizes the importance of both genders together to make a difference. Gender equality needs gender cooperation, as only the sum of men and women as halves of the same concept: the human beings, can guarantee an egalitarian share of rights and duties to promote the wellbeing of all.


IFAU, (Institute for Evaluation of Labour Market and Education Policy), James Albrecht, Peter Skogman Thoursie and Susan Vroman. “Parental leave and the glass ceiling in Sweden: Working paper 2015:4”, in Research in Labor Economics, 2015, vol. 41, pp. 89-114. Accessed on 08-10-15, available at:

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