Humphrey Fellow to speak at local AAUW luncheon

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Hoda El Mahdy, a 2017-18 Humphrey Fellow in Penn State's College of Education, will serve as the keynote speaker at the local American Association of University Women's (AAUW) annual luncheon on Monday, Jan. 22.

El Mahdy, a native of Egypt, is the acting manager at the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development in Cairo, an organization that provides access to education, training and employment for women in Egypt.

"I'm really looking forward to speaking to this audience and sharing the more personal side of what it is like to be a woman in Egypt," El Mahdy said. "I will share the story behind the culture, the women and what is happening to women in Egypt."

About 60 percent of Egyptians live in rural areas and approximately 30 percent of the total population lives below the poverty line, according to El Mahdy. Because of these obstacles and other cultural factors, many females in Egypt do not have equal opportunity to receive an advanced education.

"People in rural areas in particular tend to have a lot of kids because they need the kids to help work on their farms. They're a source of income for the family," she said. "So when it comes to educating their children and they have limited resources to do so, they are more prone to send the males to school because it is seen as a better return on investment. By educating mostly males, what this means is down the road a woman will continue to be financially dependent."

"In my country, policymakers are primarily male. A female representation in political life in Egypt is very small. So, when they think up things like family policy and welfare, a lot of the time it caters more toward males."

— Hoda El Mahdy, 2017-18 Humphrey Fellow

Egyptian society expects males to be the heads of the households and support females, El Mahdy explained. If a female does not receive an education, the belief is that she will still be taken care of later in life because she is expected to get married and her husband will financially support her. With the divorce rate in Egypt reaching almost 50 percent and continually growing, many females are becoming single mothers who must find a way to financially support themselves. However, they are unable to because they face barriers of entry to the marketplace due to insufficient education and lack of work experience.

"Divorce rates are increasing in my country but what is even more alarming is the age of women at the time of divorce," El Mahdy said. "The age that people are divorcing is becoming younger, which basically means single women at a young age with small children that need constant care."

While women in Egypt may have the option to remarry, doing so could affect their ability to maintain custody of their children.

"Essentially, women have to choose between getting remarried to support their kids or losing their kids," El Mahdy said.

El Mahdy acknowledges that she was fortunate to have parents who valued education and were financially secure enough to provide her with an education that many women in Egypt do not get. As a young girl, she grew up in Qatar and attended both an international school, which followed an English curriculum, as well as an Arabic school where she learned her native language and culture. At the age of 9, her family moved back to Egypt, where she attended a language school that offered subjects taught in various languages.

"My education is what paved the way for everything I achieved later on in my career," El Mahdy said.  

El Mahdy earned a bachelor's degree in pharmaceutical science from Cairo University. She later shifted her career path to focus on social development and returned to school to study civil society and human rights. While working at the Sawiris Foundation, an organization she has been with for the past decade, she also completed a master's degree in public policy.

"In my country, policymakers are primarily male. A female representation in political life in Egypt is very small," she said. "So, when they think up things like family policy and welfare, a lot of the time it caters more toward males."

With her position at the Sawiris Foundation and her education, coupled with her experience as a Humphrey Fellow, El Mahdy hopes to contribute to social change for women in her country and provide better access to education and employment.

"It was through my job that I actually got exposed to the majority of the country that I may not have been able to under other circumstances," she said. "I wouldn't have been able to understand the impact of what their lives are like if I had not seen it for myself."

El Mahdy will share more about her personal experiences and what it means to be a woman in rural Egypt at the State College chapter of AAUW's International Perspectives on Women in Society luncheon on Monday, Jan. 22, at the Nittany Lion Inn.

The luncheon will be held from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the Alumni Fireside Lounge. The cost of the luncheon is $22 and reservations must be made by Jan. 15. Late payments will be accepted at the door but advance reservations are required. Questions regarding the luncheon can be sent to Christine Bishop at or by calling 814-442-3571.

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Last Updated January 08, 2018