EGYPT: Women eye top university post

Apparently encouraged by recent gains in occupying typical male positions, Egyptian women have set their sights on the latest bastion of male dominance on campus - the university president. Candidates for this prestigious post should be judged by their efficiency, not gender, said Suheir Sharawi, Vice-president of Benha University, a public institution some 30 kilometres north of Cairo. "When treated equally and allowed to work on an equal footing with men, Egyptian women have proven their skills," Sharawi told University World News.

She said whoever was picked for university president, whether a man or a woman, should have managerial skills, the ability to handle difficult situations and have a vision for innovation.

Egypt has 18 government universities and their presidents are appointed by the head of the state. A girl called Suheir al-Qalamawi (1911-1997) became the first in any Arab country to be allowed to attend university, in 1929. Al-Qalamawi also became the first to obtain a masters degree in Arabic literature in 1937 and she was later appointed head of the State-owned National Authority for Writing, Translation and Publishing.

Egyptian women have since established themselves in academia. They now account for a third of the teaching staff in public universities according to the Ministry of Higher Education, and female academics have recently been chosen to head engineering, science, media and political science schools - posts previously monopolised by men. Girls comprise around 52% of students at Cairo University, Egypt's largest public university, according to recent official statistics.

Secretary-general of the Higher Council for Universities, charged with overseeing higher education policy and institutions in this country of 80 million people, is a woman: Salwa al-Ghareeb.

"Now that women have reached high positions in Egyptian academic institutions, including as vice-presidents of universities, I think having them as a university president is not unlikely," al-Ghareeb said. "This view is substantiated by the fact that there is a general tendency in Egypt's official circles supporting women's empowerment in all walks of life."

Last year, the Ministry of Justice approved the appointment of the first female marriage registrar in this conservative Muslim society. And two years ago, authorities approved the appointment of women judges for the first time in the country's history. Years earlier, the government created a national council for women, led by Suzanne Mubarak, wife of President Hosni Mubarak.

"There are no restrictions on having women as a university president," said Laila Abdel Meguid, dean of the media faculty of Cairo University. Citing the growing role of women in the nation's academic life, Meguid said "this dream" would soon come true.

After two years as dean, Meguid said, "I expect more than one woman university president. "There are many women academics qualified enough to occupy the president post."