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Monica Dispatch

It's a bird, it's a plane!
Superwoman last sighted in Cairo, Egypt!!
A talk with Dr. Zeinab Safar
November 17, 1999


Some people have a problem with women who are very successful. Dr. Zeinab Safar, whom we met at the Cairo Air Improvement Project (CAIP), told me that in Egypt, "Leadership of women is not very accepted." Dr. Safar would know, from first-hand experience. Professionally, she is a leader in many roles: as advisor to the air-quality project, as a professor, as an engineer, and as a representative in the Egyptian government. As one of her peers half-jokingly commented, "You just look at her and you feel tired!"


I had the opportunity to meet this natural leader in her role as advisor. At CAIP, her title is "Senior Advisor" to the Lead Pollution Abatement division. There are three other divisions: Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), Vehicle Emissions Testing (VET) and Air Quality Monitoring Program (AQM). CNG attempts to implement this clean-burning fuel into forms of public transport, such as the Greater Cairo Bus Company fleet. The VET division helps test emissions from the over 1.2 million vehicles on Cairo's city streets, as well as the Air Quality Monitoring Program. The last division, the AQM, measures particles in the air that we're breathing every day.

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Dr. Safar fights for clean air
Dr. Safar fights for clean air

Dr. Safar comes in three or four days a week. Her fifth-floor office at the CAIP building is located in Maadi, a quiet neighborhood of Cairo. The Lead Pollution Abatement, headed by Dr. Safar, was created in response to the super-high levels of lead in the air. The industrial lead smelters and heavy trucks, which have high emissions of lead, are to blame. Lead smelters create 40,000 to 55,000 tons of lead annually. During this process, they release lead particles into the air. Heavy transport vehicles use lead in their gasoline as well (as in leaded? or unleaded?), and their emissions further contribute to air pollution.

Why does this matter? Well, in Cairo, there's very little rain, so all these pollutants have built up in the air and dust over many years: it doesn't get washed away. Children in particular are at risk from these pollutants. If you've been exposed to high levels of lead, you have a higher chance of developing: learning disabilities; behavioral problems; reduced IQ levels; and even kidney and reproductive system disorders; seizures; coma and death!

The problem doesn't only exist in Egypt, though. In the United States, more than 80% of all homes built before 1978 have lead-based paint in them, and poisoning is a big problem with children. According to recent Centers for Disease Control estimates, 890,000 U.S. children age 1-5 have elevated blood lead levels. When was your house built? Are you at risk? Most disturbing to me is the fact that 1/5 of African-American children living in housing built before 1946 have elevated blood lead levels. Dr. Safar wanted to make a difference using her engineering background, so she chose to become affiliated with this lead abatement project through the Cairo Air Improvement Project.


Along with her role as advisor, Dr Safar teaches mechanical engineering at
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The Cairo Air Improvement Project
The Cairo Air Improvement Project
Cairo University and leads her own engineering consulting firm. When she first attended university in the United States in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during the 1960s and early-1970s, she was riding the wave of the future. "I chose to go into engineering because it was the age of industrialization here in Egypt," she stated of her decision to go into this demanding field. She was the only female mechanical engineer in the entire department and found that attitudes in the United States were unaccepting. "Here in Egypt I found I was much more accepted as an engineer than in the States."

Although faced with disapproval, Dr. Safar persevered and went on to receive her Ph.D. at the University of California Berkeley in 1973. Dr. Safar then began teaching at Berkeley and Florida Atlantic University. "At that point, people were more interested that I was a foreigner, an Egyptian, rather than that I was a woman," she says of changing attitudes to the woman's liberation movement in the United States. When she returned to Egypt, though, she found attitudes to be the same as when she left twenty years earlier. "Here it's the same as in the 1970s: women are accepted in working, like as engineers. But now females in the United States are taking more positive roles and higher positions. Here [in Egypt] women can be promoted easily, no problem, but to be dean or president is very difficult," she explains of the attitudes towards women in the workforce today. Outside societal factors contribute to the difficulties that she expresses. For example, in Egypt, Dr. Safar says it's difficult to find child care, and it's also expensive. Mothers who want to work often choose to raise their children for one year, then find a nursery, neighbors, or a relative, like a mother-in-law, to help with their children.

Vocabulary Box

compressed - pressed into less space; press together
pollutants - anything that makes foul or unclean
affiliate - associate with an organization, person, thing; together
persevere - to persist in anything undertaken; maintain purpose in spite difficulty

"I think my expectations are high and that makes me frustrated," she claims of the different demands on her as a woman in her professional and family-oriented roles. Regarding working women, she believes, "those [women] who are doing the working are working twice." This means that while women might work away from the home, they have to work at home, as well: cooking; cleaning; taking care of children, and managing family responsibilities. "Husband must share some of the responsibilities!" she points out.

Referring to men's expectations that women should do all the work, Dr. Safar points to culture as a determining factor. She feels that even men highly educated in the city tend to have a "village culture" at heart. Dr. Safar continues, "Women in the village have an important role: they're on the farm; they cultivate the land; they help with breeding the animals. They are very strong, very powerful, they are doing the job. In the city, though, they are not leading," she says, explaining that women in the city face the difficulty of being accepted as valued workers outside of family duties.

Dr. Safar thinks attitudes towards the gender roles can be changed when children are young, and she feels that changes are necessary in the education system to help changes at home. "In the schools, you see girls in the home economics class, or the cooking class. Why don't the boys have cooking classes? I say this is not right," says Dr. Safar. "Children have to be encouraged from an early age." In your school, can you think of some classes geared predominantly to guys or to girls? How many girls are enrolled in the auto mechanics or shop class at your school? How many girls are on the football team or on the wrestling team? Why? Why not?


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Promoting Dr. Safar's campaign
Promoting Dr. Safar's campaign
It was in Dr. Safar's role as Shouria Council consultative that she wanted to talk about most. The Egyptian Shouria Council is a sister to the People's Assembly, which I wrote about in the dispatch on the Liberation of Women conference.

"Out of all my roles, I am most proud of being a member of the Shouria Council," smiled Dr. Safar. She has every right to be! Consultants to this Council are appointed DIRECTLY by the president, and they deal with constitutional matters. They also research and investigate issues for the president. For example, Dr. Safar wrote about the use of technology in manufacturing here in Cairo, for President Mubarak. Yet even in this esteemed role, Dr. Safar would like to see improvement in the representation of women. There are 14 women out of 260 appointed representatives in the Shouria Council. There are nine women out of approximately 440 elected representatives in the People's Assembly.


How does Dr. Safar do it? I asked her about how she manages to organize her roles as technical advisor, university professor, private consultant, and government representative, and she gave me her simple answer. "You have to plan your time," she says. Out of her regular week, she often works every day, including Friday or Saturday, the traditional days off, and she sometimes works up to 12 hours each day. "I plan things. I have to plan," she explains. "Once you plan, your life becomes like a watch... so you don't spend your time just sitting and watching TV, or if you do, you plan to be watching TV." While I personally don't think I could work as hard as this, I think her opinion has truth to it: if you want something badly enough, you take steps towards it and plan for it. Dr. Safar also thinks that a woman has to plan "not only short term, but all her life. You have periods in your life when you have to sacrifice things. When you get your higher education, that's a specific period of life and if you want to be raising children, you have to plan when that will be so it doesn't conflict," she continues. Of the difficulties that she faced during the years when she was raising children, continuing her studies, and working professionally, she says, "You have to bear those years. You have to sacrifice. That's the key." The sacrifice, she believes, works out when a woman can achieve all that she dreams of--and more.


Of future generations, Dr. Safar believes that the situation in Egypt for women will improve. "Women in the next generation will take leadership better and higher. I would love to see a women president of a university," she says pensively. Of her belief in women's abilities, she is positive. "I think women are excellent managers. I think they will start to have better roles in key positions." Her words pertain to all women, whether they're in Central America, South America, Africa, the Middle East, or Asia. Best wishes to all of you out there who are struggling with the same decisions and the same dilemmas.

Superwoman does exist: she's your best friend; your cousin; your daughter; your neighbor; your aunt; your boss; your teacher; and the girl down the street. Watch out! Here she comes!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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