this is the meeting i spoke at yesterday at SOAS. i gave a talk on the female industrial workers in Egypt. Comrade Houssan talked about the strike wave that swept through Egypt in the past 2 years and how it developed from large protest in solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada to the form that it is today; he also talked about how Egypt’s workers have steadfast and struck back against the brutal neo-liberal policies of the Government.

here is my talk:

Behind this struggle, there is an untold story, the story of the women workers, who played a crucial and an essential role in organizing and instigating these events.

A lot of you probably heard about “Mahalla Al kobra” textile factory. In December 2006, the workers of the Mahalla Al Kobra launched what is currently knows as the biggest strike wave in Egypt since the 1940s.

The workers were waiting for their pay-cheques with an expected annual bonus equivalent to 2 months pay, which Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif have promised to all public sector workers. But the workers discovered that Nazif’s promise was nothing but a scam, since they have only received the standard bonus.

What happened is that some 3,000 women garment workers stopped their machines and marched over to where the men were still working and demanded them to stop.

They chanted "Where are the men? Here are the women!” in response 10,000 workers gathered in the factory courtyard and women were at the forefront.

What is really important to see in the wave of industrial strikes that followed, and apart from the huge participation of workers, is that women have played a leading and a central role in initiating these strikes

At the textile factory in the Nile Delta, female workers staged a sleep-in to protest against the low wages that have been frozen for the past 10 years at only 150 Egyptian pounds a month equivalent to 15 British Pounds.

Also during the tax collector’s strike in December 2007 veiled women staged with their male colleagues a long, day and night, sit-in in front of the government demanding better wages.

By doing so, these women have acted against what is considered as social norms, and instead of acting in coherence with Egypt’s conservative social norms; they have stood proud, defiant, and spent several nights occupying factories demanding better wages. Staying home and acting as “decent women” was not an option anymore; instead they became agents of class struggle and class consciousness.

The lesson herein is that social oppression, which breeds under capitalism, can only be overcome by the collective workers’ struggle.

In the midst of the strikes, men and women workers have occupied factories, slept on its floors, stood hand in hand; class became the undisputed center of the struggle and at that point, inequalities withered away as the struggle moved on. Some of the previously considered unthinkable acts became a reality, such as men and women workers, occupying factories together, and sleeping on its floors for several nights.

During my visit to Egypt last summer I had the chance to meet one of a growing layer of trade union activists who are challenging the state-run official union federations.

Aisha Abd-al-Aziz Abu-Samada.

She’s the key organizer and spokesperson for workers in the Hennawi Tobacco factory in the Delta town of Damanhur, she is better known as Hagga Aisha (a term of respect for someone who has completed the Muslim pilgrimage).

The largely women workers at this private company face very bad working conditions.

350 workers do the work that 1,000 did five years ago. Working for long hours, from 8 in the morning till 6 at night, with a daily wage of 11 Gineh (less than one british pound). The work is exhausting and unhealthy. The workers constantly inhale tobacco dust, and many suffer from respiratory diseases. Since 2003, the company has stopped providing plastic shoes and protective gear for the workers. Company security guards frequently harass the workers, especially those who stand up to defend their rights against the management. In April 2003 the new managers decided to cancel the workers' social allowance and cut their annual bonus.

Aisha was one of a group of workers who launched a court case against the company. She also organized a number of strikes over the unpaid bonuses. As a member of the factory's union committee she began to campaign for the union to defend the workers' rights, but quickly found that the other committee members were more interested in reaching a deal with management which settled the dispute by offering the workers a lump sum. Hagga Aisha and the workers refused the deal and the second day around 100 workers occupied the factory, while another 100 headed off to Cairo for protests outside the Ministry of Labour and the General Federation of Trade Unions.

Hagga Aisha took on the role of spokesperson as well as the main organizer of the strike. She coordinated with the media and made sure that journalists were there to hear the strikers' stories. She arranged the transport from Damanhur to the ministry headquarters and led a delegation of workers to the General Federation of Trade Unions.

Bureaucrats from the General Union for Food Industries were stunned to receive a petition signed by hundreds of the workers announcing that they had withdrawn confidence from the factory union committee and demanding elections for new officials. When the strikers met the minister of labour, Hagga Aisha was part of the negotiating team. She was the only member of the factory union committee who stood up for the workers' demands, despite their efforts to keep her isolated.

Other women played a very important organizational role in the strike too.

A considerable percentage of the women who participated were in their 20s or younger.

And that’s because:

First- Being the lowest paid workers,

Second- in more than 60% of the cases they are hired with no contracts.

Third- the instability and weakness of their position makes them liable to higher risks than the older workers who are hired on stable contracts.

Surprisingly, in a country where women suffer from high juridical, social and political discrimination, I felt and saw that both men and women welcomed Aisha's leading role in the strike. The strikers had the greatest respect for her. I did not perceive any division of roles on the basis of gender. I was impressed by the atmosphere of unity and cooperation between men and women workers, and by their strong sense that they faced the same conditions and shared the same struggle for justice.

When I asked Hagga Aisha whether there were tensions or divisions between men and women, she said it was a secondary issue in terms of the conditions the workers faced. Her answer to my question as to whether the members of the union committee disliked her because she was a woman was: "If I had been a man, and stood up for the workers' rights as I did, they would have treated me just the same."

The strike quickly won concessions from the minister of labour, who recognized the full workers' demands.

Yet the battle is far from over, as Hagga Aisha was condemned from both management and the government union in the aftermath of the strike.

When I called Aisha few days before I came to London she told me that she and 6 other workers were dismissed from the factory and they launched a new court case against he management decision to sack them and the union committee’s decision to sack her although she was democratically elected by the workers in the factory. Till now 60 workers had the courage to sign a petition against the management and the Union decisions.

When I asked her what she thinks about the Mahalla Uprising on April 6: she told: “we all do support the Mahalla workers, we and them have one cause, a Just one”.

As Ann Alexander wrote, as the battle continues against the abusive bosses and the government trade union officials, women are more and more gaining confidence in their capacity to lead resistance. But what is more important that they are changing the views of many of their male colleagues. As one of the male workers said once "We don't talk about 'women' and 'men' here. The women of this [factory] are braver than a hundred men”.

What is clear from all what I saw and told you is that the interests of capitalism oppose fundamentally the liberation of women. If it’s true that the economic crisis that capitalism is witnessing all over the world and in Egypt in particular resulted in an increase in women’s exploitation, the other façade of this situation is the growing layer of female workers, more determined and prepared to face injustice and to participate in the battle for change side by side with their male colleagues.

In conclusion, we have learnt that women’s liberation and class struggle are not two separate fights but they are different faces of one, only through class struggle that workers’ emancipation is accomplished whether male or female, men start to realize that women are their equal comrades in the struggle, and women start to realize that they can force their presence and their leadership in the struggle for liberation.

At the end, Hagga Aisha and others did not have to read Marx to realize class consciousness and to engage in class struggle, their consciousness and engagement was the output of their own reality. And that is the true heart of Marxism.

As socialists, we will never be able to teach the workers on how to conduct their fight, but moreover it is our role to learn from their experiences and carry it to the world.


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