Saturday December 17, 2016
Written by Pakinam El-Askary
On a bustling noisy street in the densely populated poor neighborhood of Abdeen, Cairo, pedestrians stop in front of a carpentry workshop to glance at the woman working inside, often not believing their eyes. The more curious ones step in to watch her cutting a wooden board with a table saw, drilling, chiseling, pulling nails, hammering or using a pneumatic air nail gun, not quite a common sight to many. When I called Asmaa Megahed, the first female carpenter in Egypt, to set an appointment for an interview, she was busy helping her daughter with her schoolwork. She politely asked me call her back at 6:00pm after she finished the house chores. Handling both the family and the workshop’s responsibility kept her busy. She was also counting down the days to her due date, which loaded Medhat, her husband and business partner, with more work responsibilities during her last trimester.
Asmaa realized her passion for carpentry three years ago, after she married Medhat, owner of the workshop. Medhat is also parenting Fatma, her 9-years old daughter from her first marriage. Against the norms of the society she grew up in, Medhat, to Asmaa’s “surprise,” became her mentor and supporter. He embraced “a different mindset, a more liberal one than the men in my life.” Asmaa said. Medhat was raised by a working mother who influenced his ideas about women and their work. In his own way, he empowers women and “advocates for women liberation.” Since they tied the knot, he gave Asmaa “the space she needed to exercise this freedom both at home and at work.” After all, it is not typical for men in Egypt to allow their wives to work as carpenters, a nontraditional craft for women.
The couple lives in a small apartment above the workshop. At first, the new bride accompanied her husband to work, assisted him and the team of workers with minor tasks. When Asmaa showed interest to learn more about the job, Medhat welcomed the idea. He trained her to use the various tools and machines and taught her the secrets of the craft. Asmaa, who has a diploma in tailoring and sewing ready-made garments, excelled in upholstering. Her educational background “enhanced my skills and granted me enough courage” to venture into this career, especially that “sewing clothes and upholstering requires similar basic skills.” She explained. As her skills improved, her husband assigned her more difficult tasks, which she completed with perfection.
Growing up as the only daughter gave Asmaa no advantage over her three brothers. They all shared the same chores and responsibilities. Her father worked hard to send her to school as he believed that education empowers women. On her days off from school, she accompanied her father to the military factory where he worked, and learned about machines, mechanics and maintenance workshops. Asmaa believes that this knowledge broadened her perception, developed her character and filled her with confidence in herself and her capabilities.
She managed to create a balance between her responsibilities toward her family and work; quite a challenge for many entrepreneurial women. Working with her husband and living within close proximity to the workshop – a privilege denied to many – and sharing together responsibilities both at work and at home played a tangible role in creating such balance. She also believes that working together with her husband has a positive impact on their relationship. Unlike many spouses, oblivious of the daily challenges their partner’s face at work, the couple is more understanding of each other’s mental, physical and financial situation, and thus many of the arguments other couples face are defused.
Growing the business is Asmaa’s dream. One day she hopes the workshop flourishes into a furniture factory. Realizing the power of social media, she developed a Facebook page to promote their work. The Facebook page created a buzz and introduced their work to more potential customers. Together with Medhat, and following the advice of his nephew, who also works with them, they produced tutorial YouTube videos, highlighting their profession and teaching people basic carpentry work. Social media is a double edged sword. Together with the messages of encouragement and praise Asmaa receives for breaking the mold, she also receives discouraging and malicious ones, from both men and women, criticizing her and her work. “Since you are working as a carpenter, should I be taking care of house chores then?” A man wrote in a message to her. In another, a woman wrote, “A woman should be taking care of her husband, house chores and that’s it”. Asmaa ignores such messages as “these people attack her because they can’t compete with her.” She explained.
At the workshop, it wasn’t a smooth journey for Asmaa either. When she first started working, the carpenters defied her instructions and deferred to Medhat for work decisions, and when he inquired about the reasons, one carpenter answered, “We don’t take orders from women.” However, as her skills improved and with Medhat’s continuous support and encouragement, some workers’ resistance is mellowing, and they ask for her opinion on work decisions when Medhat is not around. The hard core ones still prefer dealing with Medhat. Asmaa is not offended, she understands their attitude and behavior and is confident that one day they will accept her as an equal team member and partner.
In today’s world, dominated with technology and social media, Asmaa’s top priority is her daughter’s education. “Women play an important role in building their family and society, and education is the weapon that gives them the power to fight.” She advises mothers to raise their sons and daughters equally and encourages men to give their wives the freedom to choose whether to work or not. Asmaa admits how her work experience taught her more about life and people, which strengthened her character, boosted her self-confidence and helped not only to overcome her fear to fail, but to also realize that failure is just a step taken towards success.
While writing about Asmaa, more questions were raised in my mind and I called her back, to find that she had given birth to her son, Ibrahim, few days earlier. I apologized for interrupting and suggested to call another time, but she insisted on proceeding with the call, which was interrupted few times for a diaper change and other motherly chores.
Asmaa’s story is a message of hope and encouragement to women who want to break the mold and who aspire to reach personal and professional goals. It’s a lesson for men to support and encourage women to work, adopt new ideas, and help them to achieve their goals. With the help of Medat, Asmaa opened the door to many others to follow suit, and by doing so, in her own way, she took major leaps to empower women by asserting women’s important role in society.
To learn more about Asmaa and her work, visit her Facebook Page
Photos by Adam Saeed