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Globalizing Rural Egypt: Women, Men, and the Agrarian Division of Labor

La mondialisation de l’Égypte rurale : femmes, hommes et division agraire du travail
James Toth
p. 69-90


Il est tentant de considérer la mondialisation comme une réponse aux forces impersonnelles et de grande envergure du marché, loin des agents individuels et de leurs intérêts particuliers. Pourtant, si ces forces abstraites créent des conditions favorables, les motivations et les intentions fonctionnent à un niveau plus concret. L’exemple ci-dessous, pris en Egypte, démontre qu’une quasi-permanente “guerre des sexes” dans l’Egypte rurale, produite par les stéréotypes patriarcaux et les inégalités de salaires, est à l’origine d’une dynamique qui alimente les marchés du travail tant rural qu’urbain dans un des nœuds politiquement important de l’économie mondiale en expansion. Après avoir dessiné à grands traits les contours de cette “bataille”, cet article examine le cataclysme agricole de 1961, que les inégalités de genre expliquent le mieux. Il démontre ensuite comment, plus récemment, les travailleurs des deux sexes ont affronté cette “guerre des sexes”, ces stéréotypes, ces inégalités, à travers une opposition plus formelle, désormais religieuse, à la position désastreuse de l’Egypte dans la division mondiale du travail.

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1One of the recurring dynamics in today’s global economy has been the equalization of production facilities across the world, gradually obliterating the boundaries between what were once called the First World and the Third World. Under the corrosive pressure of rising labor costs, factories and workshops in the developed world have shut down and relocated to new, cheap-labor sites in developing countries. This shift has been particularly acute since the rise of oil prices in the mid-1970s when the variable costs of workers were slashed after profits were squeezed by increasing energy costs.

  • 1 Mexico's maquiladora, which abut the border of the United States, represent a classical example whe (...)

2Under such new global conditions, this new international investment ought to have fueled a significant rise in employment in the Third World. Instead, it ironically aggravated a greater unemployment and underemployment as workers left the densely populated “labor reserves” of the countryside in disproportionately high numbers and headed toward the mirage of rising (but still insufficient) urban employment1. As early as 1971, Michael Todaro captured the inconsistency of the over-migration of village workers into the city as he theoretically predicted the excessive overflow of rural migrants in answer to the Siren call of better metropolitan opportunities (Todaro, 1971).

3This over-migration clogged urban labor markets with would-be applicants. This was fortuitous, perhaps, for urban employers, as a means of moderating wages, but it was unfortunate for recent arrivals, those with families, and men and women faced with inoperative government programs for unemployment payments. Without many more industrial jobs stimulated by further financial investment, there was, instead, an expansion of the informal sector, as laborers exploited personal family and collegial connections to find work, an involution of the urban economy mined for even the smallest interstitial niche that could provide a modicum of income, or else, finally, a fall into despair, penury, beggary, and homelessness.

4But when these urban positions eventually did open up it was, however, women, not men, who fared far better in receiving the new jobs. Not content with non-union, low-skilled, second-hand technology shops, employers in the developing world cheapened their payrolls even more by hiring females over males (Joekes, 1985: 189). Yet notwithstanding this “reverse discrimination” that favored women over men, male workers continued to migrate, recorded by Todaro and others as a “Bright Lights” theory of rural-to-urban migration where the alleged laxness and luxury of easy urban living presumably “beckoned irresistibly” to enamored, fun-seeking villagers, notwithstanding the objective fact of no jobs.

5Yet without assumptions of irrational behavior, why would informed villagers otherwise quit their rural home communities for the uncertainties of impoverished urban living? Could it possibly be that male villagers were as much pushed out of the countryside by the skirmishes of gender bias as they were pulled out by the illusion of urban employment?

6In this essay, I argue that instead of being enamored by bright city lights and attracted by urban employment and amenities, men have been pushed out of their intimate and familiar rural villages by a manipulated gender division of labor which continues to preclude any significant return to agrarian occupations even while they may continue to reside in the village and commute to urban work sites.

7Egypt offers an important case study, for it tests the notion that Third World economies have benefited from this global realignment. Instead, un- and under-employment have risen profoundly in a country surrounded by those petroleum exporters who have used their economic muscle to expand their political power and eclipse Egypt’s diplomatic centrality. Far from a progressive improvement in the standard of living and a diminution of the endemic poverty engulfing the Third World in general and the Middle East in particular, this study shows that rural labor reflects seriously on its conditions and acts in its own interests, but seldom in ways that genuinely resolve the underlying dynamics of patriarchy, capitalism, profits, and ever-decreasing wage levels. Egypt ironically prides itself for initiating this global realignment as oil prices rose in 1974 in support of its military stalemate with Israel. It is appropriate then to examine how an engineered “battle of the sexes” has promoted alienation and disharmony in Egypt’s working class that hinders any meaningful national development.

8My conclusion is that the labor force segmentation that embodies the gender distinctions of a rural division of labor provides an important dynamic that has pushed men out of the countryside even while the city offers little in the way of meaningful employment. It is the rural “battle of the sexes” rather than urban “Bright Lights” that prods men to relocate to find work.

Engendering Egyptian Agriculture

9The gender division of rural labor is a familiar institution in the Arab world, although it is rarely recognized as a centrifugal force pushing men out of the countryside. Richard Antoun once remarked that through the gender division of labor « certain tasks are performed exclusively by men and others exclusively by women » (Antoun, 1968: 682). A keen observer of Egyptian agricultural labor, Amr Mohie-Eldin (1982: 251), also commented that « since women and children carry out separate activities at different times of the year, we do have two distinct categories of labor, male and non-male (women and children). Moreover, I assumed », Mohie-Eldin continued, « that social institutions are so rigid that the possibilities of substitution are nearly absent ». Another scholar, Nicholas Hopkins (1983: 194), also concluded that

« [t]he household is the locus of the [rural] sexual division of labor, so that certain jobs are defined as “male” or “female”. Thus if the household does not have enough adult males to do its “male” tasks, it has a shortage of labor; if it has more, it has a surplus ».

10The concept thus implies fixed sets of complementary skills where each gender has his and her own exclusive sphere of distinct tasks and activities, equally important in their contribution to agricultural production. Yet in using such terms as “equal”, “exclusive”, and "fixed”, this concept conceals more than it reveals. For one, it masks an unequal relationship of one gender over the other that is more appropriately labeled a social “hierarchy” rather than an intrinsic “division”. It further suggests a separation of tasks so strict, so rigid, that two distinct types of labor and labor markets appear to operate in a manner isolated and disconnected from each other. Moreover, it implies a determinism that depends on assuming innate “natural” attributes for each sex. Finally, the focus on the family household as the hub of labor distribution critically overlooks the much larger and more important regional labor market whereby unpropertied and under-propertied workers of either gender hire on to well-landed (but still patriarchal) employers through the wage nexus. Thus, as we shall see, the gender division of labor is explained not so much by biology, despite this popular interpretation, but instead by capital accumulation in the village and control over wages and productivity that expands well beyond the household units of labor reproduction.

  • 2 Portions of the current article were published earlier in this 1991 IJMES article.

11The list in Table 1 combines observations and informant statements collected from 1980 to 1982 from a variety of sources (Toth, 1991: 217-219 2) in order to provide a composite of gender chores in rural Egypt.

Table 1. Composite Gender Division of Labor in Rural Egypt


12It seems clear then that men are expected to perform the heaviest tasks in agriculture and women are responsible for physically lighter chores in and around the homestead. But women are not merely relegated to housework and animal husbandry alone. They also work in the fields alongside men, cultivating such crops as wheat, cotton, corn, clover, and rice.

13Yet, no matter how important it may be to engender specific farm activities, labeling particular tasks as inherently tied to one particular gender seldom remains fixed in practice. It is, of course, necessary to outline the gender division of labor, but to stop merely at this descriptive level proves inadequate. For the boundary separating men’s and women’s work is not a physiological certainty. Instead it is a cultural (mis)representation, for although a sharp contrast seems embedded in the strict “men’s work - women’s work” distinction at the cultural or ideological level, it is repeatedly contradicted by a large number of cross-overs and a growing homogeneity of the rural work force within the agricultural labor process itself. Since the mid-1980s, mechanization has been eliminating strenuous tasks and therefore further reinforces this uniformity. Thus a contradiction exists between patriarchal stereotypes of gender differences on the one hand and actual gender interchangeability on the other. This in turn is profitably exploited by farm employers who manipulate the gender division of labor for their own economic gains.

  • 3 The Chayanovian model of the independent, self-sufficient family farmstead where household members (...)

14Farm employers3 do not discourage such gender cross-overs and labor homogenization, but then, paradoxically, they reinforce and exploit gender distinctions by citing them when deciding to employ men to perform women’s work at women’s wages, or else to hire women to do men’s work but still at their previous wage. This results in debasing labor by reducing wages to the level of the lowest-paid segment, that of the women’s portion.

15This difference between cultural discourse and actual production practices is mediated by the fact that in Egypt (as elsewhere) these various tasks and chores, as it turns out, are buttressed by a consistent record of unequal pay. Hansen observed that women receive two‑thirds the wages of men, and children receive half of men’s pay. Moreover, these proportions have remained historically constant over time despite increases and declines in the absolute magnitude of the wage itself (Hansen, 1969: 308; Tucker, 1985: 89f; Rugh, 1985: 281; Hammam, 1986: 163, and Saunders and Mehenna, 1988: 109). That male‑female wage differentials take place is, of course, not surprising. They occur in both the developing and the developed world (Davis, 1985: 427; Boserup, 1970: 74 et 273).

16In rural Egypt, men’s wages already abut the limits of acceptability, so that any further increase is only reluctantly given. If, however, men are assigned the simpler, supervised tasks customarily labeled as "female," the lower wage they are forced to accept - should the outside, non-agricultural labor market be restricted - can reduce the farm employers’ costs. Similarly, women’s wages are already low to begin with. If they cross over the gender line to do “male” tasks, then even a slight increase in their wages would still give the employer a net advantage over employing real men. Dividing the labor force according to gender thus reduces all wages to those paid women even while men’s extra efforts go unrewarded and women’s efforts are intensified to match those of men (Thompson, 1989: 180-212).

17Gender stereotyping, like all discrimination, can be profitable, and particularly so since employers would otherwise have to pay extra for the kind of personal information needed to effectively evaluate the reliability, strength and honesty of potential workers. Lester Thurow argues that stereotyping, no matter how erroneous, offers short‑cuts to hiring by reducing the cost of obtaining and weighing this subjective information about workers’ character and potential performance (Thurow, 1975). By breaking down the labor pool into its different social identities, employers believe they really can gain quick insight into the dependability of workers.

« The employer who seeks to maximize expected profit will discriminate against ... women if he believes them to be less qualified, reliable, long‑term, etc. on the average than ... men, and if the cost of gaining information about the individual applicants is excessive » (Phelps, 1972: 659, emphasis added; also see Joekes, 1985).

18The cost of higher wage differentials, then, is supposedly offset by the easier employment of a superior work force and the savings from minimizing hiring costs. Stereotyping appears to have its rewards.

19But in Egypt, the procedure for hiring farm workers of either gender who are predictably qualified is to hire directly through immediate acquaintances or else indirectly through familiar recruiters who possess broader networks of potential workers. In both cases, personal knowledge guarantees workers’ ability and accountability. Also, both genders can be trustworthy when rewarded with adequate salaries or dishonest if not paid satisfactorily. Honesty is gender neutral and besides being a matter of character, also reflects a worker’s web of personal relationships, community stature and appropriate paychecks. Laziness, less so a personal characteristic than a silent sabotage resisting onerous labor demands and paltry wages (Scott, 1985; Toth, 1988) is not peculiar to a particular gender.

20It would seem, then, that in Egypt, gender discrimination per se does not necessarily select for the more able and accountable. Yet it may not be information about strength or trust that proves the most valuable, but rather it is the ability to make bold wage demands which becomes a stereotyped trait that bears great significance to strapped farm employers.

21Defiance and compliance are important qualities that growers seek to estimate because this enables them to predict whether their laborers will demand higher wages and slack off if such demands are not met or met only slowly. For as Ester Boserup once observed:

« Women are preferred to men in jobs because they are willing to accept lower wages and more often accept unauthorized deductions, false accounts and delayed payments » (Boserup, 1970: 80).

22In Egypt, according to commonly-held gender stereotypes, assertiveness and submissiveness in requesting higher wages are believed to differ from one sex to the other. Frequently women are intimidated into accepting what is paid out and so are preferred as workers because of their presumed submissiveness. This mitigates against wage hikes which could otherwise impinge on farm employers’ profits and family income. Men, on the other hand, repeatedly make more strident - and more unacceptable - pay demands.

23However, uncritical obedience is not always desirable unless field supervision is close at hand. Farm work is commonly self‑directed and laborers are expected to know what to do without much attention. Self‑initiative can be as valuable as docility. The trade‑off between strong, independent men who could demand higher wages, and women who might require time‑consuming supervision but remain quiet over pay, leaves the employment of one gender over the other dependent on the complexity of the agricultural task and the cost of existing supervision.

24Such demands, moreover, become even more awkward and uncomfortable, and not easily dismissed or evaded, when workers and employers both live in the same village. Here proximity can be a hindrance. One solution, justified by citing gender differences, is to ship out male discontents on rural migrant labor trips (called taraḥil labor in Egyptian colloquial) (Toth, 1999) and replace them in part with compliant village-bound females. (A more recent solution has for males to leave for urban-based jobs.) Removing male workers from the village stifles wage entreaties. Women do not participate in taraḥil migrant labor (or travel to cities), but in terms of labor discipline, they need not.

25Agricultural labor brokers, employers, and workers frequently justify excluding women from long-distant migrant labor trips by pointing to the strenuous activity required to earn taraḥil wages and the need to protect women from strange men at distant work sites. Yet this argument falls apart because migrant labor often repeats many of the heavy farm tasks both genders perform at home, and because on taraḥil trips, women would reside anyway with the same men they see everyday in the village such as their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons. Still, it proves more profitable to channel women into doing the work at home that men leave behind when they go on migrant labor trips because women are predictably cheaper and more intimidated workers. So they are strongly discouraged from going on migrant labor trips. This restriction provides a good example of how directing women into particular jobs and barring them from others reduces their bargaining strength (Stevenson, 1978: 96). Thus stereotypes often prove profitable because they hold predictive value, not so much in what they say about skills, strength, endurance or dependability but instead on predicting whether workers will press for higher wages.

26The idea of labor-force homogeneity - that men and women can work equally hard and equally well - is disturbing to employers, for it presents a unity that defies manipulation and debasement, and undermines their control over production. Yet when the labor force becomes divided into different social identities or technical divisions, employers enjoy greater command. Labor’s mutual cooperation becomes more difficult when workers are convinced that their identity differences are innate, even biological. Rather than recognize their common interests, men instead are channeled into gender-based taraḥil employment and women are restricted to the village, thus reinforcing gender identities. It allows employers to weaken labor’s solidarity and to consolidate their own domination. Gender distinctions instill a labor discipline that undeniably benefits employers.

27Assumed female docility not only averts annoying wage demands but it also undercuts male defiance by moderating the latter’s wage requests (Joekes, 1985). If men persist, employers can either threaten to reduce their wages to the level of women’s pay or else replace them by women altogether. Mutual resentment of one gender toward the other then diverts attention away from those who actually divide the work force and reduce wages. Instead, men push women back into the house, justified by patriarchal beliefs concerning seclusion and natural abilities, and leave on taraḤil work trips. Women for their part resist their household isolation by ignoring these patriarchal blusterings, by visiting and socializing together, and by influencing other women - and men - through domestic quarrels and disputes (Collier, 1974; Friedl, 1989). Discontent is thus diverted into a more harmless battle of the sexes of mutual indignation. Who, in turn, would ever point to employers as responsible for wage cuts, real or threatened, and for undermining labor solidarity?

28So if under capitalism, management typically divides the labor force, weakens its unity, and undermines its wage demands, it does so specifically in Egypt by playing one gender off against the other. When workers cross the gender boundary, men’s jobs encounter wage cuts when they are performed by women, and men are paid women’s wages when they accept women’s work for lack of better paying jobs elsewhere. Gender stereotypes then portray these distinctions as innate. In the ensuing battle of the sexes, wages are reduced to their lowest possible level, though not passively or without opposition.

Resistance to Rural Debasement and Its Consequences

29Evidence of this manipulated gender division of labor lies less in theoretical explanations than in discovering resistance to it by those subjected to its wage limitations. An examination of cotton production in rural Egypt offers an excellent example of how wage differences and workers’ stereotypes based on gender have affected the output of this critically important cash crop and export commodity that in turn impacts on Egypt’s entire national economy. In the years before the new international division of labor irrevocably altered the labor profile of this crucial commodity by gradually freeing up government-controlled prices and shifting to other, higher priced commodities, cotton production had been an extremely labor intensive operation. But which labor segment – male or female, or both – became a crucial consideration in evaluating the yields and profits in cultivating Egypt’s “white gold”?

  • 4 These figures on labor demand by gender are taken from Toth, 1987. Appendix 2, p. 604. Calculated f (...)

30A review of the seasonal labor demands for this crop reveals that the most critical month for production is September. In September, practically the only job available in rural Egypt is cotton picking, a most demanding crop and labor-intensive task, which is, nevertheless, defined as “women’s work.” Men have nothing to do locally but sit around. According to 1975 calculations4, while each faddan (1 038 US acre) of cotton requires, on average, only 2 men, it nevertheless employs 35 women or children to handle the harvest. In that month, men need be employed only 4 days of the 30-day period; women and children, however, are in such high demand that three times their full employment is needed, often requiring extra shifts on other farms after finishing the picking on their own plots. The difference between a low supply of women and children and the high demand for their labor could otherwise be offset by employing “surplus” men, though still at the low wages earned by women. Yet from the man’s point of view, he would be receiving a woman’s pay for performing her tasks with the greater energy and agility expected of a man. Refusing to accept women’s low wages and having no other work available in the village, many men instead opt out for taraḥil labor.

Diagram 1. Labor Demand for 1960 and 1955 by month


  • 5 Hansen and El‑Tomy, 1965 : 405‑407. The horizontal axis is the calendar year ; the vertical axis is (...)

31Diagram 1 presents a graphic view of rural Egypt’s labor demands according to gender and age, calculated in days required per month throughout the agricultural season5. Overall, two peaks of labor demand appear, the crucial one in September, but also another apex in June. Yet in September, there is one and only one crop – cotton – while in June, there is a variety of crops that require different tasks and assignments. The spring harvesting, winnowing, and threshing of wheat is the most important, however, and is defined as the work of both men and women. The demand for both gender reaches its maximum in May and June which gives each a strong market position from which to demand high wages. In September, however, there is only the cotton harvest which is defined as women’s work. Men have little else to do locally, and thus the level of demand for their labor lies well short of the saturation point. Men are in a weak position to insist on receiving men’s wages unless they leave the village and go on taraḥil trips.

  • 6 By 1984, however, when I returned to Minuf, most, if not all, the migrant farm workers I had known (...)
  • 7 Wage figures for Minufiya Province are based on the author's field notes and unpublished Agricultur (...)
  • 8 Recruiters for the private sector are also involved in large scale cotton production or are related (...)

32The difference in men’s and women’s earnings is also reflected in the wage data I collected in 1980 in the Minuf district of Minufiya province. Although these figures are beginning to show the impact of regional labor migration, they still exhibit the ratio of men’s to women’s wages discussed earlier and confirm that taraḥil employment was still flourishing in the district6. In 1980, the prevailing village wage for male farm laborers in September was £E1.20 a day. Women earned 85 piasters (£E0.85) for a day’s work picking cotton. Children received 60 piasters. Taraḥil work in the government public sector paid less than the local wage - 80 piasters a day - but with opportunities to earn as much as £E1.60 with overtime pay7. Private sector wages were higher still, but private taraḥil employment in September was negligible8. Since no other unskilled activity of a temporary and casual nature availed itself locally at any wage rate, many men left for long-distance taraḥil work in government land reclamation projects instead of pitching in and supplementing women’s waged work at home.

Diagram 2. Departures of Migrant Laborers Minuf District 1980-1982


33As Diagram 2 indicates, September is the month exhibiting the largest number of workers engaged in state-recruited taraḥil labor from Minuf, whether it be men only or men plus boys (or total). Despite the relative high demand for cotton pickers in the district, wages did not rise high enough above the levels earned by women and children to keep men at home. Instead, the harvest was lengthened into October so that enough local, non-male labor would eventually become available to satisfy cotton harvest requirements. Thus, in September when the greatest demand was made of the local work force, the largest number of male taraḥil workers left the district, leaving the remaining women and children overworked and overburdened.

34Without the notion that employers divide and cheapen labor along gender lines, it would be difficult otherwise to understand why male workers refused cotton harvest employment - which is defined as women’s work and paid at women’s low wage levels - when jobs seemed so plentiful. Without realizing that these laborers had more than agricultural employment to choose from - namely, taraḥil migrant jobs with their higher wage levels due to overtime pay - it would also be difficult to understand how impoverished male workers could afford to turn down such work even with its low wages. September’s labor profile demonstrates that employers manipulated these gender stereotypes in order to reduce their labor costs and to maximize profits. Cotton harvests were strapped to employ enough workers. Male workers, though, took advantage of the different opportunities within the technical division of rural labor to increase their own income. However, the relatively few workers in the village potentially threatened to ruin September’s cotton harvest.

A History of Agrarian Miscalculations

35Yet the year 1980, when I collected my data, was not the first time such a mishap occurred. In the early 1960s, male workers also depleted the ranks of agricultural labor by swelling the corp of taraḥil workers who worked in desert land reclamation and in high dam construction south in Aswan. Such movement created a critical dilemma: farmers were unable to employ sufficient numbers of laborers to produce expected yields and Egypt’s agricultural sector suffered severe production problems. National development projects absorbed such large number of rural male workers that the remaining work force of women and children was severely overburdened. Although this male unskilled work force reverted back to favoring local employment after 1965, the damage to agriculture and the national economy had already taken place.

36In November, 1961, Egypt experienced a major failure in its export cotton crop. Production fell 40 percent despite a record sown faddanage. Moreover, a drop in rice yields, together with an increase in domestic consumption, created a major decline in the amount of rice available for trade as well (Hansen and Nashashibi, 1975: 50‑51). Cotton crises were not new in Egypt, and like its predecessors, this one was also blamed on a severe attack of cotton worms (Mohie‑Eldin, 1966: 109 and 188). But unlike earlier shortages, the 1961 crises in cotton and rice production could not have occurred at a worse moment. For the government had just published its monumental first Five Year Plan which, at its core, depended on a vast infusion of capital goods to industrialize Egypt.

37These capital goods, necessarily imported from abroad, required a major allocation of foreign currency. At the moment, however, the foreign currency reserves had sunk to their lowest point. A tremendous drain had begun after 1956 with nationalizing the Suez Canal and foreign banks and compensating their companies and stockholders, and defending against the Tripartite invasion and re-arming Egypt’s army by buying expensive Czech armament. So just as the government issued its first five‑year development plan, then, the well of foreign funds had run dry.

38The loss in cotton and rice that year and the subsequent loss in export earnings in foreign currency was the last straw. Yet the 1961 agricultural crisis had more than just rural consequences. In order to obtain essential foreign currency, the administration turned to the International Monetary Fund which imposed harsh requirements. Six months later, when the IMF forced the government to devalue its currency in order to receive short‑term credit, the prices of imports rose dramatically and, although the price of exports cheapened, locked-in contracts meant that the revenues for its producers further deteriorated. Consumer prices increased while incomes fell, so that the ripple effect of the cotton crisis soon came to engulf Egypt’s entire consuming public (Hansen and Nashashibi, 1975: 106).

39What really laid behind this critical crop failure in 1961? The government’s official response, through the Agriculture Ministry, was that pest control and cropping decisions had been negligent. Yet controlling cotton pest is not just a technical matter of proper crop rotation or chemical spraying. A former under-secretary of Agriculture, Hassan el‑Tobgy (1976: 74‑83) notes that too early a spraying negatively affects the natural enemies of boll weevils and thus spraying remains the last possible step applied at the last possible moment. Instead, the overall process, particularly in its earlier stages, requires thousands of hands deftly passing over the maturing cotton leaves looking for worms, intensely scouring the ground looking for their burrowings. What was missing, therefore, in the year 1961 was not cultivation coordination or crop spraying so much as the huge numbers of locally employed women and children ‑ and normally with nothing else to do, locally employed men paid at women’s wages ‑ who picked off the cotton worms and scooped them out of the dirt. The responsibility for the crisis can be laid squarely at the feet of labor ‑ or more accurately, the feet of men leaving agriculture when wages rose in migrant labor, leaving the feet of women and children overwhelmed in their absence.

40In January, 1960, construction work had begun on building the century dam at Aswan. In tandem, the government’s land reclamation program accelerated its activities so that its infrastructure would be completed when the high dam was ready, so the land could optimally benefit from the Dam’s improved water control. Building the Aswan High Dam and reclaiming desert land were monumental undertakings. They required staggering amounts of manual labor (Nagi, 1971: 107; el‑Messiri, 1983: 89; Fakhouri, 1987: 32; Mead, 1967: 96).

  • 9 They have since been advanced to the spring.

41In the years before the Aswan dam irrevocably altered agriculture, July saw the onset of the corn, rice and sorghum crops9. Cotton de‑worming took place in the same months. In the summer of 1961, these chores fell to the relatively few men who had remained behind and the overworked women and children who, however, could no longer depend on extra male workers to pitch in at times of major labor demand. Overburdened, the remaining work force was spread far too thin to adequately perform all the tasks required of it. As a result, boll weevils destroyed a larger portion of the crop before the final spraying. Rice, with its planting and transplanting, also suffered significant declines.

42The real problem turned out to be that an increasing number of men were resorting to employment in infrastructural construction and land reclamation by means of the system of taraḥil recruitment. Taraḥil wages rose accordingly and became a new important source of income for rural manual laborers. Women and children stayed in the village and were still paid two-thirds the local wages men would have earned. Men could not be persuaded to accept local women’s work when migrant labor beckoned with its higher pay. With the rural labor force divided by gender in order to keep village wages low and growers’ profits high, exasperated men left farm work and overworked women to generate not only an agricultural crisis, but a national one as well.

43What appears now as clumsy government planning and calculations can be explained by the short-sightedness of bureaucrats unaware of the dynamics of the agrarian work force. Yet following the wage trends in the different segments of both the gender and technical divisions of labor, male workers switched to more rewarding occupations when possible. In the process, women were left with a double burden. Under normal conditions, their wages were already reduced below the level of men’s wages. Then when shortages of male labor appeared, women were left relatively unaided to complete the cotton harvest, a crop whose foreign sales buoyed up the importation of critical capital goods. Later, when taraḥil labor began to disappear, other sites, now in urban locations, became sought after ambitions that solved the dilemma of rural men working below their capacity and paid women’s low wages.

Pulled Out? Or Pushed Out?

44Thus it has been the persistence of the gender division of rural labor that has continued to irritate male workers, sending them first on taraḥil work trips, shipping them north to reclaim land or south to build enormous dams. Later, it compelled them to look for work on urban construction crews, and then in staying on in services, transport, and small-scale manufacturing, but then precluding their return to agriculture despite their economic hardship in the cities.

  • 10 Claims made that the exodus from rural Egypt stopped in the mid-1970s appear erroneous, based on a (...)

45The most recent wave of agrarian displacement which took place after 1974 has not yet ended, although the oil boom that technically initiated it ended in 198510. Nineteen-seventy four represents the year when the international division of labor began unravelling and when the present phase of globalization began emerging. The event that sparked this restructuring was January’s three- to four-fold increase in the price of oil. Egyptians pride themselves that although Egypt is not a major oil-exporting country, it nevertheless was responsible for this vast escalation in one of the world’s most basic commodities. For it was in the name of supporting a just solution to the deadlocked Egyptian-Israeli war in the Sinai earlier in October, 1973, that OPEC boosted the price of petroleum. Thus, to Egyptians, it vindicated the righteousness of their cause. But from such local beginnings was born the new alignment in the international division of labor now called globalism.

46The new wave of departures from agriculture occurred when the region’s oil economy began to expand. Initially, domestic industrial development had not advanced sufficiently to provide enough jobs, so male migrants found jobs instead in an expanding informal sector, which at first meant jobs in construction and construction-related businesses replacing those who had emigrated abroad, and perhaps eventually joining these emigrants as skills and social contacts improved. When workers left these sectors and/or returned back to Egypt, personal savings often financed small-scale workshops, informal sector businesses, transportation activities, and other service-sector opportunities. All these new jobs were notably urban-based. Few, if any, returned to working full-time in farming.

47And only gradually did significant investment capital finance more operations beyond such self-employment to establish the additional formal, bureaucratically-organized full-time occupations that were needed to keep up with population growth. The government’s record in attracting financial commitments since the early 1970s has been relatively dismal despite its economic policies and diplomatic initiatives. Its own revenues from exports, foreign aid, remittances, and international credit have not provided sufficient capital for revitalizing its public sector since most surplus revenues have gone into settling trade and debt difficulties rather than financing new equipment and new factories. Nor has the state’s Open Door investment plan (1974) and its Structural Adjustments reform programs (1987, 1992) created sufficient incentives for private investors (foreign or domestic), for these policies have been frequently spoiled by the state’s inability to eliminate corruption at the top and to persuade those at the bottom to cooperate.

  • 11 For feminized textile production in Morocco, see Joekes, 1985. For the Egyptian case, see Abd el-Sa (...)

48When the few large companies did establish industrial operations, such as in textile production, such firms increasingly hired women over men, especially when they installed a second-hand technology that was gender neutral and used brain over brawn11. Confronted with such reverse discrimination, male workers did not up and return to village agriculture, however, where such bias would have been encountered once more. Instead, they dug deeper into the realms of self-employment and informal sector activities. It was not so much that farmwork was so poorly paid, though it rarely reached the levels that could be found in urban jobs. But it was the battle of the sexes, with its challenges and rivalries, that so exasperated male workers.

49Yet if men and women did not see themselves as so “naturally” different, they could cooperate together and exact greater wage concessions. If employers, both rural as well as urban, did not feel the downward pressure on profits that encouraged them to reduce wages to the lowest imaginable level, by any means possible, then gender would cease to be such a passionate issue. Or if male workers earned enough income just from village employment, there would be less need to leave home and migrate to the city. Or if the cost of living were such that it enabled families to live on what agriculture alone provided, then the additional incomes found only in urban areas would be unnecessary. But these possibilities are not the case, although rural workers are seldom content to merely accept such conditions fatalistically.

50Nevertheless, men leave home, for that’s what men do. And women replace them back in the village, if necessary, or else eventually join them in the city once shelter is arranged, standing by their man, for that is their expected station, too. Thus instead of homogenizing the work force, as might be expected from crossing over the boundary of engendered tasks and chores in agriculture and essentially doing the same work, the ideological distinctions that employers use convince workers, too, that there are innate and fundamental biological differences that identify men and women. Increasingly, these distinctions are buttressed further by the media, the women’s movements, and Islamic conservatism.

51Marx himself, and those following closely in his footsteps, like Harry Braverman (Marx, 2002, 1992; Engels, 1972 and Braverman, 1974), speculated that capitalism would ultimately erode the technical and social differences that characterized workers and would eventually homogenize the labor force. Henceforth, workers would be entirely interchangeable, with management using technology to deskill workers down to equivalent capacities and talents and with equal participation erasing sexism and racism. Yet Marx, Engels, and Braverman failed to take into consideration the potency of these different social identities, and the competition among workers promoted by job hierarchies. Employers abhor (and fear) an homogenized work force, for its potential in organizing opposition against them. Dividing the work force, then, by social identities and technical capabilities, reduces the potential homogeneity and its ability to challenge management prerogatives.

52Braverman (1974) provided a more nuanced understanding of Marx’s undeveloped notions of management strategies to divide-and-rule, though he, too, ultimately predicted the erosion of social and technical differences. Braverman went further, however, in seeing women as a reserve army waiting in the wings, so to speak, ready to replace men and, in the meantime, moderate their wage levels. But what Braverman failed to realize was that women could not enter and exit waged labor so smoothly, nor were they so easily available for lack of other activities. Women seldom replaced men perfectly - that is, on a one-to-one basis. Moreover, organized labor often remained strongholds of male privilege, and so excluded, women were channeled instead into non-competitive positions. Nor were women simply sitting idly by waiting to be hired, for there were other activities that occupied their time (Moghadam, 1993: chapters 4 et 5).

53Far from proving to be corrosive agents, capitalism and capitalist labor markets were instead substantially influenced by gender identities and, far from being “free” or “perfect” as neo-classical economists would prefer, became distorted to the benefit of employers. The discourse of gender at the cultural or ideological level that distinguished men from women merely reinforced management’s notions of ineluctable difference.

54Yet there is, perhaps, no better evidence that confirms that the differences between men and women might actually be eroding under the detergent action of modern technology - notwithstanding the ideological distinctions of contemporary patriarchy - and that the threat to management of a united work force is provoking a renewed emphasis on gender identity than in examining the pro-patriarchal component of the Islamic movement, or so-called Islamic fundamentalism that has emerged, along with its antipode, globalism, since the mid-1970s (Moghadam, 1993: chapters 4 and 5). Seen as a rear-guard action protecting the “traditional bastion” of male dominance and female seclusion, Islamism reinforces a patriarchy that may, in material and economic terms, be disappearing. As long as gender hierarchies were reinforced by a division of labor based on pre-modern technology, there were few, if any, attacks, and so there seemed little need to protect it against assault. Only as the actual gender differences have eroded with the advent of modernization have some felt the need to re-introduce and reinforce what otherwise might just be dissolving. Those participating in urban-based Islamic associations tend to be migrants from the countryside who wish to recreate the intimacy and values of a by-gone village community (Toth, 2003). Thus as gender differences blur in the countryside, men and women reinforce these cultural distinction nevertheless by migrating and homemaking. Then once in the city, the religious movement they join unsurprisingly extolls these “family values” even as they begin to vanish in practice.

55Thus we can see that the Todaro model whereby men are attracted to the Bright Lights of the city, and then often in numbers disproportionate to the actual number of job vacancies, is more the case of men instead being pushed out of agriculture where men’s wages are reduced by the real or feigned replacement by women. To avoid such reductions, they leave their villages temporarily on taraḥil migrant trips or else permanently by finding urban jobs in construction and informal-sector activities. Hypothetically, they could come to realize the artificial quality of gender differences and join together to prevent a divide-and-rule management strategy. Instead, the options they choose merely reinforce gender stereotypes and norms. And as if that in itself is not enough, discontented workers then often join religious movements so as to prevent further erosion of just those gender differences that helped push them out of the village in the first place.

  • 12 By 2004, the Egyptian government had opened up seven Free Trade Zones and 40 investment-oriented in (...)

56Business firms relocating to Free Trade Zones (FTZs)12 in the developing world incur additional costs such as transportation, expatriate subsidies, and government graft. But these are offset by the much cheaper costs of taxes, utilities, infrastructure, and labor. And since labor is the most volatile of the variable costs, its control and management remain a high priority. But as Susan Joekes points out (1985), the male work force itself is already obtained at a bargain price, cheapened by the vast numbers of urban unemployed who migrate in from the countryside but who refuse to return to their villages. Presumably since men are more qualified and more dependable, why, then, would employers go even further and hire cheaper women instead? Superior male reliability may, Joekes answers, be an illusion, but the explanation lies less in the realm of the economics of low wages or the technology of skills and training, and more in the domain of the politics of discipline, obedience, and compliance.

57Over the long haul, men have labor unions, Joekes argues, that allows them the opportunity to make aggressive wage demands. Women are excluded from the ranks of organized labor unions which then become bastions of male domination. But although unions could potentially protect male job security and wages levels, their operations are severely distorted and eviscerated by government control.

  • 13 For a good example of employers using gender as a management tactic, but also of workers using gend (...)

58Yet discipline, obedience, and compliance seem to be more a day-to-day concern, and the use of patriarchy, stereotypes, and wage differentials become more effective in controlling the detailed activities and minute operations of employees. Business, media, civil society, and the state seem very intent on emphasizing identity differences that can be used to divide and cheapen the work force and prevent homogenization. Moreover, reinforcement of such social identities is itself enough justification to continue emphasizing gender and ethnic distinctions in disciplining the work force13.

  • 14 This contradiction or irony was noticeable at the Seattle World Trade Organization (WTO) ministeria (...)

59As long as these social and technical distinctions make the local work force economically attractive, and as long as governments favor keeping the work force poor and appealing14 - legally, but also penally - then investors and financiers will continue to flock to FTZs as costs become more expensive in the developed world, itself an outcome of successful labor drives to win wage concessions. The so-called “need” for remaining competitive in the market drives businesses to seek cheaper labor sites elsewhere.

60In this chapter I have argued that the gender division of labor is increasingly artificial and misrepresentational. Once, perhaps, technology was much less gender neutral and favored one sex over the other, giving men their prerogatives that underwrote patriarchy. Today, that technological distinction is slipping rapidly, allowing men and women to perform the same tasks and jobs. Capital, along with its supporters and advocates, has done its best to divide the working force along lines of gender, race, and ethnicity in order to prevent such homogenization and potential unity and opposition.

61As reasons for wage differentials vanish, capital institutes other logics to insure its domination. Though it did not invent gender distinctions, management emphasizes and manipulates them in ways that are profitable even as workers would do well to abolish the logic of such social distinction, and strive, instead, for labor-market homogeneity. Eventually, when capital’s ability for finding cheap labor sites and for playing one social identity off another finally disappears, there well may be some cataclysmic changes, even a transformation in the mode of production. In predicting this sort of maturation, Rosa Luxemburg, prescient as she was, yet so rarely understood, may well have the last ironic laugh, notwithstanding her own ostracism as the only outstanding woman in the otherwise solidly male dominated Social Democratic Party.

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1 Mexico's maquiladora, which abut the border of the United States, represent a classical example where increasing factory employment immediately across the Rio Grande from the U.S. generated even greater increases in overall national unemployment in agriculture and underemployment in the informal sector (Martin, 2000 : 3-18).

2 Portions of the current article were published earlier in this 1991 IJMES article.

3 The Chayanovian model of the independent, self-sufficient family farmstead where household members either hire out locally (if they own inadequate amounts of land) or else hire in locally (if they own “too much” land), but remaining commercially isolated from the ravages of “outside”capitalist markets and buffered by property ownership from the vagaries of “distant” rapacious moneylenders, has, for some time, been disappearing from the rural Egyptian landscape. Or, at best, the autonomous household mode of production has been relegated to the statistical margins of agricultural production. Rural social organization now has become increasingly polarized between farm employers on the one hand who have sufficient amounts of land that they cannot farm it alone and whose family members refuse to farm in lieu of more prestigious non-manual occupations, and, on the other hand, landless and near-landless peasants and agrarian laborers who have absolutely no land whatsoever (and often no other skills) such that work and wages for some employer, near or far, prove utterly necessary for any sustenance at all. Chayanov's rustic, bucolic homestead contrasts sharply with Lenin's notion of venal financial and commercial agricultural ( Thorner, Kerblay, Smith, 1986, and Lenin, 1964).

4 These figures on labor demand by gender are taken from Toth, 1987. Appendix 2, p. 604. Calculated for one year after the abrupt rise in petroleum prices in 1974, they do not yet reflect the structural changes wrought by the oil boom.

5 Hansen and El‑Tomy, 1965 : 405‑407. The horizontal axis is the calendar year ; the vertical axis is the number of working days per month. Hanson and El-Tomy made two calculations, one including Friday, the Middle East sabbath, as a work day, the other excluding Fridays. The difference between the two is indicated by a shaded portion in the graphs. Piercing this shaded area means using up all non‑sabbath workdays ; going beyond it means that, even including Fridays, the work month is completely occupied. Although gathered earlier than the preceding labor calculations for 1975, the data in these graphs are not significantly different from the later figures, for fundamental transformations in the agricultural labor profile do not appear until after the mid- to late-1970s. Moreover, the 1955 and 1960 contours serve as base line data for concluding (see the following section) that agricultural crises in the 1960s significantly contributed to Egypt's economic malaise and the out-migration of rural workers.

6 By 1984, however, when I returned to Minuf, most, if not all, the migrant farm workers I had known had found other – and better – employment.

7 Wage figures for Minufiya Province are based on the author's field notes and unpublished Agriculture Ministry statistics.

8 Recruiters for the private sector are also involved in large scale cotton production or are related to those who are. This potential conflict of interest is resolved by keeping workers at home in the village and not recruiting them for private-sector migrant labor trips.

9 They have since been advanced to the spring.

10 Claims made that the exodus from rural Egypt stopped in the mid-1970s appear erroneous, based on a mis-reading of the relevant statistics. Although the annual rate of rural-to-urban migration in Egypt did decline from 2.1 percent in the 1960s to 1.9 percent in the 1970s, these figures represent percentages of the total national population that was in fact growing much faster than the amount of those moving from countryside to city. Indeed, in terms of absolute numbers and not relative percentages, the number of rural migrants to Cairo alone practically doubled, from an annual rate of 702 000 from 1960 to 1970, to an annual rate of 1 100 000 from 1970 to 1980. The percentage for the 1980s was even lower - 1.7 percent - although in absolute terms, the actual amount was higher : 1 430 000 migrants yearly [Ibrahim 1996 : 100]. Notably, these figures involve migration just to Cairo and do not include moving to provincial towns and cities. Egyptian statistics only measure migration as inter-provincial movements to Cairo, Alexandria, and the Canal cities. Yet I consider intra-provincial movements just as important, if not more so, where rural workers move within their province to its district towns and capital city. And even were workers to remain residing in the village, their absence from agricultural and migrant employment and their permanent engagement in local construction result in the same problems of farm labor shortages, agricultural deficits, and national economic problems.

11 For feminized textile production in Morocco, see Joekes, 1985. For the Egyptian case, see Abd el-Salam, 2000.

12 By 2004, the Egyptian government had opened up seven Free Trade Zones and 40 investment-oriented industrial parks. The FTZs are located in Alexandria (Ameriya), Nasr City (Cairo), Ismailia (the central Canal Zone), Damietta (on the Mediterranean), Port Said (the northern Canal Zone), and Media Production (facilities near Cairo). Future facilities include a second zone in Damietta, the Cairo Airport, Safaga, and East Port Said. The 40 industrial parks are located in 19 provinces throughout the republic. Cairo: ARE. The General Authority for Investment and Free Zones. May, 2004.

13 For a good example of employers using gender as a management tactic, but also of workers using gender as a means of resistance, Hossfeld, 1990.

14 This contradiction or irony was noticeable at the Seattle World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial conference in November-December, 1999, when Egypt and India "insisted that workers' rights should in no way be linked to trade" and steadfastly opposed sanctioning developing countries that "violate[d] internationally accepted labor norms" [New York Times, December 4, 1999]. Few Egyptians learned of their country's anti-organized labor policies and its demand for a "right to be poor," although few would have been surprised.

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James Toth, « Globalizing Rural Egypt: Women, Men, and the Agrarian Division of Labor », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 105-106 | janvier 2005, mis en ligne le 12 janvier 2012, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL :

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James Toth

Anthropologue, Northeastern University, Boston

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