Egypt Independent

Egypt’s feminists downplay empowerment through mobile phones

Egyptian feminists have cast doubts about a newly launched initiative to reduce the gap that exists between men and women in the area of mobile phone ownership in developing countries.

Globally, 300 million more men than women own mobile phones. This is the conclusion of a recent report issued by the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA) and the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, examining the mobile phone 'gender gap'.

The mWomen program that was launched as a consequence of this report aims to halve this imbalance within three years and to give access to technology to 150 million women in developing countries.

Talking to the BBC on 8 October, Cherie Blair, barrister and wife of the previous British prime minister, declared, “There are 300 million women who could have access to technology and who are not getting it.” The report highlights the regions with the greatest disparity between the sexes in accessing the technology. According to Cherie Blair, the gap in the Middle-East is 23 percent, in Africa it is 24 and in Asia 37 percent.

Egypt has 60.3 million mobile phone subscribers out of a total 78 million inhabitants, but there are no figures showing how wide the gender gap in phone ownership is.

Through a public-private partnership between the global mobile phone industry–17 companies are involved in the program, including Orascom Telecom, which plan to contribute ten million dollars—as well as the international development community. The mWomen program will address key barriers to women purchasing phones in their local marketplace.

Claire Cranton, the director of Media Relations at the GSMA in London, enumerates the barriers that make it difficult for women to have access to the mobile phone technology.  

“Total cost of ownership, lack of understanding of how to use the phones, lack of understanding of the mobile phone’s utility beyond voice calls as well as cultural barriers,” she told Al-Masry Al-Youm in an interview by e-mail.  

While high profile personalities like Blair and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are praising this mWomen initiative, convinced that owning a mobile phone can help women with literacy, health programs and developing small businesses to achieve financial independence, feminists in Egypt do not share their point of view.

“The huge discrepancy that exists between men and women can't be solved by the ownership of a mobile,” said Sahar al-Mougy, a prominent feminist and professor of literature at Cairo University.     

Even though she values any initiative that aims at empowering women, she is concerned by the fact that this program “looks terribly simplistic and commercial. It's all good for the mobile companies that more women will possess more mobiles, it means more customers,” she added.

According to her, one way of solving the problem would be by creating more schools and training programs especially for women and not just providing them with technology.

The head of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, Nihad Abul Koumsan, does not seem enthusiastic about this program either, arguing that the ownership of a mobile phone is a double-edged sword for some Egyptian women.

“Owning a telephone is positive because it gives women a space to communicate with the outside world and greater access to education. She can also get health and medical tips sent to her mobile,” said Abul Koumsan.

“But for women in Egypt, a mobile can be compared to a dog leash: her family constantly calls her to know where she is, even if she's in the classroom or at university. And if she is unable to answer or in an area with no network, she could find herself in a very unpleasant situation once back home,” she adds.

She also mitigates the freedom a mobile offers a woman in Egypt because, “Her father or brother may very well monitor her mobile by looking through her SMSs and phones calls.”

She likens mobile phones to tools to control women’s each and every move, as opposed to being a source of liberation in the same way as they are for men. Like al-Mougy, she would have preferred the millions of dollars to have been invested in the creation of schools and training programs that are, according to her, the only way to financial independence for women, which is in turn the only real passage to liberation and equality.

Cranton does not share this point of view and defines the mobile phone as “the great enabler and leveler of our time that empowers women because it is a tool to access information and services to help them make decisions for what each woman believes is right in her own life.”

According to the mWomen program, the ownership of a mobile phone brings safety and security to women.

Al-Mougy fiercely combats this vision by giving an example: “If a husband beats his wife she is not going to call for help because she has been brought up to think that he has the right to do so.”

According to al-Mougy, what Egypt needs is to go through is what she calls “a cultural renaissance” and a change of mindsets to put an end to the stereotypes that cripple women.

The mWomen program also has an integrated educational component concerning basic literacy, technical literacy and vocational literacy, explains Claire Cranton.

She refers to the Jokko Initiative in Senegal that gives an example of how wanting to send and receive SMSs made women want to learn to read and write.

An Afghan mobile phone company, Roshan, saw that women represented a very small percentage of their subscribers so they created a product specifically for women by presenting the men as the gift bearers of the phone, in turn gifting security to their wives and daughters, explains the GSMA director of media relations. “Women were offered a special pricing plan to connect them to their five top friends and family at a reduced rate,” she said.

Cranton concludes by saying, “A mobile phone is not a silver bullet that will cure all the problems surrounding gender inequity; however it is a tool that has the potential to make life changing information and services available to the whole world.”