Land and Factors of Women’s Empowerment: The Cooperative Movement in Egypt

Nashwa ZAIN, 2014

This article is part of the book Take Back the Land ! The Social Function of Land and Housing, Resistance and Alternatives, Passerelle, Ritimo/Aitec/Citego, March 2014.

In Egypt, cooperatives of all kinds are emerging to satisfy needs, such as the consumer’s need for goods or services and the need of the producer to maximize her/his labor power by mobilizing limited savings. Through the economic use of limited assets, cooperative can satisfy more needs with fewer resources.

Thus, the cooperative approach becomes the most appropriate one in the pursuit of balanced development. It is also closely related to human-resource development; i.e., the development that aims to expand available options. Cooperatives allow the collection of small, scattered efforts and small amounts of money into larger entities, without obviating private property, and so realizing the advantages of mass production and economies of scale, despite the meager shares.

The International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) has acknowledged the importance of women’s cooperatives, emphasizing that women all over the world choose collaborative projects, because they secure their economic and social needs; whether it is to achieve their personal ambitions, to obtain products and services they need, or to engage in economic activity that is based on values of social solidarity. So, women’s perception is growing to realize cooperatives are the optimal choice in the pursuit of livelihood, especially when cooperatives are projects democratically owned and managed with a leadership is based on voluntary work, personal responsibility, democracy, equality, justice and sovereignty, all of which enable its members to exercise their activity through their own decisions democratically taken to reach their ambitions of fulfilling economic, social and cultural rights.

For women, cooperatives respond to their practical and strategic needs; provide organizational effective means for members; work on improving their standard of living through respectable employment opportunities, savings, credit, health, housing, social services, education and training; provide opportunities to participate in and influence economic activities; and allow them to achieve equality and change the bias of state institutions toward specific groups. Cooperatives help women to join the activities of income-maximizing projects by organizing their work in a flexible manner, while respecting the multiple roles of women in society.

The message of ICA refers to the great successes achieved by the cooperatives of women in many countries, led by Burkina Faso, India, Japan, Honduras and the United States. In Egypt, women are the breadwinners in about 35% of families, based on statistics of various research centers. This includes the provision of housing in cases of divorce and widowhood. The role of housing cooperatives to provide adequate alternative housing for families has become clear, especially for the inhabitants of such marginalize communities as the City of the Dead (Cairo) and shantytowns across the country. There cooperatives provide housing facilities and fill a gap left by the state in policies and programs to ensure adequate housing and adequate conditions of decent human life, which include the provision of clean water supplies and sanitation, paved roads, lighting, basic facilities and even recreational activities.

Egyptian women in rural communities also have formed cooperatives as a means to maximize their agricultural production and improve food security. Some recent examples are the women’s agricultural cooperatives formed in the Matrūh Governorate and al-Nubariyah, on the country’s northern coast1.

The 25th January uprising has opened new possibilities for the cooperative movement in Egypt. After President Husni Mubarak’s downfall, when the new Minister of Manpower Ahmed el-Borai (2011) decreed the right to form agricultural associations, rural women have formed unions2and called upon the state to support them in their efforts to form their own agricultural cooperatives3.

The cooperative movement in Egypt has taught women how practical cooperation and the pooling of otherwise meager resources can multiply their economic means. This empowering lesson has demonstrated how women’s agency can confront seemingly insurmountable obstacles to their well-being. The components of this collective force specifically include:

By these collective means, cooperatives can enable the empowerment of the most marginalized groups in society, particularly women wage earners and heads of households. Through cooperatives, development efforts can serve the interest of women to achieve a real change, as well as enhancing their capability to create and innovate solutions to local problems and maximize the scattered capacity into a social and economic force.

1 “Ministry of Agriculture: Assigning fertilizer distribution to cooperatives in Upper Egypt instead of Development Bank,” al-Masry al-Youm (6 May 2011), at:

2 “Egypt Women peasants form historic union,” ahram online (25 October 2011), at: /NewsContent/1/64/25107/Egypt/Politics-/Egypt-Women-peasants-form-historic-union.aspx

3 Mona Ezzat, “Conference in Matrūh demands the state support women economically and revive cooperatives,” al-Sawt al-Masriyya (25 September 2013), at:


This text is based on the presentation at the Land Forum in Tunis, March 2013, organized by HIC-HLRN.