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Empowering Arab Women Goes Beyond Holding Public Positions, Says Hania Sholkamy

Empowering Arab women is about more than putting more women into leadership positions, says the Egyptian anthropologist Hania Sholkamy. It’s also a matter of achieving socio-economic justice for marginalised women who are unable to access economic benefits or public services.

“I call for the liberation of women empowerment from the dominance of one voice or the interpretation of certain theoretical trends,” says Sholkamy, an associate research professor in the American University in Cairo’s Social Research Center. “That’s to avoid limiting efforts to support women to quantitative aspects that focus on their holding public positions only.”

Sholkamy’s views on the issue were shaped by years of research and fieldwork on poverty and the needs of marginalised Arab women and their families.

The stereotypes surrounding the concept of women’s empowerment in the Arab world are due to “the fact that Arab feminist discourses echo discourses in other worlds,” she says.

In a Zoom interview, Sholkamy told Al-Fanar Media that empowering women is about achieving social and human justice, which is a basic entry point for human liberation in general.

Anthropology is the methodology that should govern understanding women’s priorities through experiencing their conditions, Sholkamy said.

“It is also the main determinant that shapes the policies to be implemented to empower women,” she added. “Feminist movements did not come to support the elite, but rather to support the majority. This requires the elite, or those in authority, to support its path towards development issues.”

‘Solidarity and Dignity’

“I call for the liberation of women’s empowerment from the dominance of one voice or the interpretation of certain theoretical trends. That’s to avoid limiting efforts to support women to quantitative aspects that focus on their presence in public positions only.”

Hania Sholkamy An anthropologist and research professor at the American University in Cairo

This concept of empowerment was reflected in Sholkamy’s contributions to the design of Egypt’s “Takaful and Karama” (“Solidarity and Dignity”) programme, which was launched in 2015 and has benefited millions of poor Egyptians, including women, children and members of marginalized groups.

Studying the situations of women changed her ideas as an academic, she said, and made her more aware of the interconnections between the worlds of less fortunate people and the realms of government and the social elite.

Before taking her current position, Sholkamy was an assistant professor of anthropology at AUC. She has also worked at the American University of Beirut, the Arab Gulf University in Bahrain, and Yale University. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the American University in Cairo and a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Her research has included studying rural development projects in Assiut Governorate, in Upper Egypt, on which she wrote her master’s thesis, and “Socio-Economic Factors Associated with Maternal Health”, the topic of her Ph.D. dissertation, which was based on case studies of mothers in a village in Assiut Governorate.

She added that she discovered, from field experience, the lack of developmental sociology research tools at Arab universities as a theoretical and applied science. Strong social science curricula are essential in creating economic and development policies, she said.

Social Science at Arab Universities

“The biggest problem facing the study of such sciences at Arab universities is the rigidity of teaching research curricula,” Sholkamy said, “besides the lack of academic freedom, and the political restrictions on scientific research.”

According to a 2015 report by the Arab Social Science Monitor, a project of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences, fewer than half (48 percent) of Arab universities offer academic programmes in social sciences.

“Social sciences and humanities, in particular, suffer from cuts in higher education budgets because some believe that these disciplines do not achieve quick profits, unlike applied colleges.”

Hania Sholkamy

Sholkamy attributes a decline in studying social sciences in the Arab region to the failure of university officials and academic leaders in developing curricula and providing the required support to scholars, because of their interest in profit over other aspects that such types of highly specific studies deal with, she said.

“Social sciences and humanities, in particular, suffer from cuts in higher-education budgets because some believe they are majors that do not achieve quick profits, unlike applied colleges,” she said. “Moreover, social science disciplines are neglected in policy making. There is a gap between sociologists’ research and studies and the reality of their societies.”

Sholkamy thinks that social scientists and humanities scholars were more affected by the economic recession resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic than their colleagues in other fields. This leaves her pessimistic about opportunities for establishing advanced academic programmes in these majors in Arab universities.

Mental Health at Public Hospitals

On an issue not far from her advocacy of empowering women and vulnerable groups, Sholkamy also calls for greater integration of mental health services in Egypt’s public hospitals.

Economic conditions, the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, and heavy social media use are all stressors on people’s mental health and well-being, she said.  As a result, everyone has become more vulnerable to accidents and disease, regardless of social or material background.

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She added that mental health programmes for women and vulnerable populations are no longer a “luxury” but a “must,” as mental health affects their productivity and economic status.

She also calls for employing medical sociology in understanding the health needs of society. “This must be a priority for decision-makers when designing health policies,” she said.

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