Yasmin Afifi, Asmaa Ibrahim and Noha Barrania at the Million Man March in Tahrir Square on February 18, 2011. They are all Montessori teachers in Cairo.
Yasmin Afifi, Asmaa Ibrahim and Noha Barrania at the Million Man March in Tahrir Square on February 18, 2011. They are all Montessori teachers in Cairo. - 


Kai Ryssdal: Tomorrow is International Women's Day. Rallies and speeches are planned all over the world, including Cairo, Egypt -- what's being called the Million Woman March.

The protests in the Middle East the past month or so haven't explicitly been about women's rights. More about democratic rights for everybody and an end to corrupt regimes. But women have been right at the front of the demonstrations in a lot of those countries. And in Egypt, where there's a long tradition of Arab feminism, they're are determined not to be sidelined.

Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman reports from Cairo.

Mitchell Hartman: A recent mass rally to celebrate Egypt's revolution might have been called the "Million Man March." But just as many women were there, in everything from jeans and a T-shirt, to niqab -- full veil and gown.

Yasmin Afifi and Noha Barrania are in their early 30s. They teach at a Montessori school. The revolution got them fired up to work after-hours as well.

Woman: As a group of friends, we're going down to one of our friend's streets to clean it.

Hartman: Are you at all concerned as women and as workers, that if things get more conservative in this country, someone will say that maybe you shouldn't take a job over a man?

Woman: We'll need a lot of standing up for our rights. Tahrir Square is always there. OK? We'll be here again.

And there is progress to defend. In recent decades, Egyptian women have come to outnumber men at university. But women graduates earn less. Only a small fraction make it into management. And fewer women find work; men get first shot at jobs in an informal pecking order that favors males supporting their wives and children.

Nawal Al-Saadawi: It is very important to liberate women.

That's Dr. Nawal Al-Saadawi -- author, activist, and the 80-year-old mother of modern Egyptian feminism. Al-Saadawi says under current law -- reinforced by patriarchal traditions in Arab culture and Islam -- women are far from equal.

In many poor families, girls are taken out of school. Nearly half grow up illiterate. Under Islamic law, it's harder for women to divorce, and they're often left destitute.

Al-Saadawi: So now we are asking to omit Article 2 of the Constitution, which says that Islam is the religion of Egypt, of the country. There must be separation of religion and state from all domains of life.

Eric Goldstein: Well, I think this is potentially a battleground as women seek to claim their part of this revolution and prevent any backsliding.

Eric Goldstein of Human Rights Watch says the most likely source of backsliding is the Muslim Brotherhood. Their headquarters is in a run-down office building. We get on the elevator, and a recorded voice chants a prayer for safe arrival -- at our floor.

Esam El-Erian: My name is Esam El-Erian, I am a member of the guidance bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood.

I quote another senior Brotherhood official who said a woman couldn't serve as prime minister; and Islamists who've said women can't be judges. El-Erian, a 56-year-old physician, says this is not the view of the new generation of Brotherhood leaders.

El-Erian: A woman can be the prime minister of Egypt. Women are equal to men in Islamic reference.

El-Erian insists the Brotherhood has no concern about women's increasing economic power, even if they supervise men, or take scarce jobs.

El-Erian: The prophet Mohammed before prophecy was a worker to Khadija, his wife, and she is the owner.

In Egypt's traditional society, though, the reality is considerably less rosy.

Zeinab Khalifa's in her 50s. Divorced, she employs four workmen in her artisanal jewelry shop. She's had to earn their respect.

Zeinab Khalifa (via translator): You have to prove yourself as a businesswoman, and that this is a serious job, this is not something like a hobby.

And what about the Brotherhood gaining influence?

Khalifa (via translator): She said, 'I don't think they would stop her doing anything.' But she doesn't like the idea of the Muslim Brotherhood governing.

Right now, though, she's more worried about the economy. Without more sales, it'll be hard to pay the jewelry-makers whose families depend on her.

I'm Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

Watch Al-Saadawi in this New York Times video:

Follow Mitchell Hartman at @entrepreneurguy