Geopolitics

Beauty Over Brains: Egyptian Media Fixates On Female Ministers

Only three ministers in Egypt's 33-member Cabinet are women. But the media is apparently too dazzled by their looks to notice there's a problem in the first place.

Immigration and Egyptian Expatriate Affairs Minister Nabila Makram
Immigration and Egyptian Expatriate Affairs Minister Nabila Makram
Dalia Rabie

CAIRO â€" Of the five women in former Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb's government, new Prime Minister Sherif Ismail kept only one: Ghada Waly, who retained her position as social solidarity minister. Since first taking on the role in June 2014, she initiated the first phase of Egypt’s cash transfer program, and has been the public face of the state’s crackdown on non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The only other women in Ismail's Cabinet, both new faces, are Minister of International Cooperation Sahar Nasr, who holds an economics PhD from Cairo University and previously worked as a lead financial economist for the World Bank, and Nabila Makram, who now leads the newly formed Immigration and Egyptian Expatriate Affairs Ministry. Makram is a 20-year veteran of Egypt’s diplomatic corps and served in Rome, Dubai and Chicago.

These impressive pedigrees have been obscured by reactions in the press and social media, which are instead focusing on the women's physical attributes. One post making the rounds on social media contains images of the three ministers along with the hashtag "Egypt is becoming prettier." Users lauded their elegance and style, with some saying that what the women do with their new positions is irrelevant.

"The percentage of women in the Cabinet is dreadful," says Dalia Abdel Hameed, head of the gender program at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). She contends that this flagrant objectification reinforces the idea that women in government primarily serve as "decoration."

"They are a new flower in a suit’s buttonhole," she comments wryly. "People feel entitled to say it smells good or looks bad."

Cabinet "babes" and "beauties"

A fixation on what successful women look like is not unique to Egypt. Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, has come under scrutiny for her clothing choices and hairstyle, while in the United States, first lady Michelle Obama’s dresses have been written about far more than her successful law career.

But in Egypt, recent media reactions have been particularly blantant with regards to sexism and objectification of women. One publication, the privately owned newspaper Sout al-Omma, went so far as to describe the women in question as "The babes of Sherif Ismail’s government."

Questioning how the word the pejorative term "mozza" (babe) could be splashed across headlines, Abdel Hameed suggests that such coverage could constitute "verbal harassment" â€" especially given that a court fined a taxi driver last year after he used the word.

Another article published by the privately owned news site Al Arabiya â€" "Three "beauties' join Egypt’s new Cabinet, but still not enough?" â€" takes a different angle. It quotes a political sociology professor as saying that the three ministers maintain a "highly westernized" image that may cater to a specific social class.

Such statements reinforce the idea that women are bearers of identity, says Abdel Hameed. "What kind of "authentic" look do you expect?"

On his talk show, Tamer Amin showed a picture of the women, saying they looked presentable and that he was optimistic about the new government. He then asked his camera crew to pan away from the picture, saying, "That’s enough guys, come on." Amin then extended a helping hand to the three "delicate" ministers, adding that they are off-limits for criticism until they "toughen up."

Social media users, in the meantime, have juxtaposed pictures of the ministers with photos of prominent female members of the Muslim Brotherhood â€" a virtual sigh of relief over what might have been.

Such acts highlight a "your women versus our women" mentality, Abdel Hameed explains, showing how women are used in the battleground between the military and the Islamists. She describes these reactions as a "pseudo-celebration," and questions to what extent society would actually accept the proper representation of women in parliament or the Cabinet, or any decision-making position. Hameed also points out that none of the women were appointed to sovereign ministries (meaning the foreign affairs, defense, interior or justice ministries).

Fashion faux pas?

One minister in particular attracted the most attention after she attended the swearing-in ceremony wearing a short-sleeved dress. On his talk show Saturday night, Ahmed Moussa claimed Makram’s outfit was "inappropriate." He praised her credentials and said he understood she must be taken aback by her new position and all the attention, but had made the wrong fashion choice.

The critique paved the way for other media outlets to focus on Makram’s lifestyle, from her sense of style to how many friends she has on Facebook, shifting the focus even further away from her professional experience.

News sources have called on stylists and etiquette experts to weigh in on the minister’s outfit. ​An anonymous "informed" source told the privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm that Makram violated protocol by wearing short sleeves and leaving her hair down. While there is no dress code specified by the president’s office for these formal ceremonies, the source said short sleeves and makeup are frowned upon.

Another article in the privately owned Al-Watan quoted a self-described etiquette expert who said that the minister’s dress wasn’t the best outfit choice. She had no reservations about Makram's hairstyle â€" she wasn’t required to tie it back since she was "not going to school" â€" but explained that curly hair and extra-long hair would be considered inappropriate.

Yet another news site pointed out that Makram already wore the now-infamous dress to another occasion in 2013, showing a picture from her Facebook profile as proof.

Talk show host Wael al-Ibrashy called Makram to ask her about the commentary during his show on the satellite channel Dream TV. Makram responded by saying she expects criticism as a public figure â€" but regarding her qualifications, not her appearance.

She brushed off the complaints, saying she stands by what she wore. "I know and understand very well what is appropriate and what is not," she said, citing her long service in diplomacy. "I would like opinions on what I would do with my position, rather than on short or long sleeves."

Abdel Hameed questions the logic behind the backlash, pointing out that Sisi meets other officials abroad who wear whatever they want. And Moussa’s rhetoric in particular implies that as a woman, Makram "has to be inferior to Sisi," the researcher argues.

Abdel Hameed says that this kind of regulation of appearances is limited to women. "If one of the ministers was wearing a brown suit, would they have said no, it has to be black?"

As an example, she points to criticism of the education minister, who has garnered attention for the spelling mistakes and outlandish opinions in his Facebook posts. "He is being criticized for his qualifications, but Makram is being judged on her appearance," says Hameed. "No one is talking about qualifications when it comes to female ministers."

"The Egyptian woman is still not empowered," she adds. "No matter how high she is on the career ladder."

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Future

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.


But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

commons.wikimedia.org

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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