Even before protests in Tunisia and Egypt, a quieter women's revolution was underway that's challenging traditional Arab society. But resistance from men is bound to be fierce.
Leila al-Aguizy doesn't look like a farmer. Female Egyptian farmers in the Nile Delta usually wear long, colorful robes and headscarves wrapped around their heads. The skin on their hands and faces is wrinkled and a deep bronze hue from exposure and hard work in the fields. But Leila is wearing skin-tight jeans with a slit above the right knee and a hip T-shirt. Her eyes are perfectly made up, her nails painted bright red. She has a good education, majoring in German Studies. Now the 31-year-old Egyptian is successfully growing table grapes in the desert.
"My grapes are sold in major grocery stores in Europe," she says proudly. Leila's grapes are stocked by German supermarkets Aldi, Rewe and Edeka.
Her farm is an all-female operation. Men pass by only rarely. When they do it's usually an agricultural consultant bringing them potassium and phosphorus to improve the sugar content and the color of the grapes or magnesium for the plants general nutrition. Otherwise, the women keep to themselves.
Nasra has been there from the very beginning. She coordinates the other female farmhands who come from the nearby village. Leila runs the daily transport and shows the women how to clip the grapes from the vines, and maintain the vineyard.
Egyptian men alone can't support a family
"Most of the 15 girls are engaged," says the boss, "I know them all by name." Many of them can't read or write. "When they marry they stop coming here." As wives they have to work hard for their husbands. That the women come to Leila at all represents a huge step forward, though it is largely due to ongoing economic troubles in Egypt.
A man's earnings alone are no longer sufficient to feed the family. Food prices have tripled in recent years. More and more fathers are now agreeing to let their daughters look for work. If they do find something, it's almost exclusively in low-wage jobs.
Overall, only half of Egypt's 80 million inhabitants can read and write. The education system is catastrophic. "The future of our children is our problem too," is the consensus among demonstrators in Alexandria, Cairo and Suez when asked why so many women have taken to the streets to demand reform.
Self-awareness comes from education and foreign influences
The position of Egyptian women has changed in the past few years - even without a revolution in the streets. Ibrahim sighs when this is put to him. His daughter is studying law, and his wife works as a nanny for a project leader of the German development agency GIC. She travels all around the country, sometimes even abroad.
"My wife is at home even less than I am," complains the 48-year-old, who works as a chauffeur. And if she is at home, she's tired and wants to be left alone. Ibrahim has thought about taking a second wife, and insists on the right of every Muslim man to marry up to four women. "But what if the second wife makes hell for me like the first?" He thinks for a moment: "Then I'd rather not."
Women are becoming more confident as they receive better education and increasingly come into contact with other lifestyles, through international schools and universities, as well as foreign employers. Projects initiated by foreign organizations to set up civil society structures also contribute to this evolution.
Ibrahim's wife and daughter both wear the hijab, a headscarf that totally obscures the hair. If his daughter Sahra passes her state examinations and becomes a lawyer, her work will make her financially independent. Ibrahim is already wondering where it's all going to lead.
Women in senior positions often remain single
An example of where it leads is Suzan Taha from the Jordanian capital of Amman. The engineer for water and irrigation technology became the first woman in Jordan to head a ministerial department when she took over ten years ago. Although Jordanian women tend to receive a better education than in Egypt, and the illiteracy rate is lower, at around 20 percent, the tribal social structures of the Bedouin population usually still prevail.
It's rare to see a woman in a high government position, which is why Taha had difficulties asserting herself in the role. Some men even refused to work with her. When working on a water allocation project for farmers in the Jordan Valley, she decided to send one of her male employees there to negotiate in her place. "They think I'm just the secretary anyway," says the 54-year-old Jordanian with a grin.
In time, she was no longer seen as a woman, even by her family. Her work became her life. Marriage and children were unthinkable. "I've broken with the traditional female role. This society doesn't recognize anything else."
Taha has spent many years on her own. Women in good jobs and higher positions are often single because they find no support for their career among men. Leila in Egypt would also rather be alone than have a man always nagging her, undermining her self-image and confidence. She could only see herself settling down with a European man, used to dealing with independent women. Suzan Taha in Jordan is getting married to a German man next week.
Kuwaiti female minister booed in parliament
The Arab-Islamic world is without doubt in transition - beyond the street uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Masouma al-Mubarak has been fighting for years for the rights of women. A professor of political science, she became Kuwait's first female minister in 2005.
"When I was sworn in, all the men in parliament booed me out," she says, pointing to the photo hanging on the wall of her study. As ministers are appointed by the ruler of Kuwait, the Emir, Masouma had no parliamentary support.
Four years later she and three other women succeeded on entering parliament. "We succeeded in getting women to give us their vote rather than adhering to the dictates of the men." The four female politicians got virtually no votes from men, says Masouma: "They're afraid of us."
Read the original article in German