CAIRO — Gamal Talaat’s daughter suffered from lack of oxygen at birth, which caused severe disabilities in her hearing and body movement. While this brought much pain and shock to the family, it led Talaat, a former army officer, to launch a project to help thousands of women around Egypt.
Talaat’s initiative, called el-Masryeen Awla (Egyptians First), started in 2006 in public parks where he taught women — with or without disabilities — to earn a living through handicrafts. Since 2014, the project has continued in training centers in Cairo and in Giza, which have 200 trainers and 400 trainees.
“I had the means to send my daughter to a hospital and care for her. But then I started thinking about what I could do for others who were not as fortunate — people with disabilities, people with economic needs, women, widows and divorcees who have no income. After I retired, I felt it was my duty to do something that could help them,” Talaat told Al-Monitor.
Then Talaat, who holds the honorary military title of “fighter,” started on a long battle to reach Egyptian women in need and arm them with skills to turn their homes into small factories of production.
His passion for handicrafts, inherited from his grandfathers who made Pharaonic souvenirs, provided him with a starting point. As he modestly began to teach handicrafts to people in need at public parks, word of mouth on his efforts spread in many cities and he traveled around, reaching more and more people.
The second phase of his project came with El-Masryeen Awla centers in 2014, where he offered courses in Cairo and in Giza on making jewelry, leather products, Pharaonic and folkloric antique reproductions and designing and sewing clothes. The courses are free and past trainees help teach new ones. Talaat has around 200 female trainers who give courses to newcomers on various handicrafts.
Ghada Hassan, 41, a widow, mother and a trainer at the Cairo center, said her participation in the initiative changed her life.
"When my husband fell ill, I had to go find a job as we had no other income. Mr. Gamal trained me on all the handicrafts here. I learned how to sew clothes and make jewelry, as well as Pharaonic souvenirs. I produced many different products and sold them,” Hassan told Al-Monitor.
After her husband’s death, Hassan became one of the trainers. “Before coming here, my life was very monotonous, but now I feel very happy when I make something with my hands, earn money for what I make and teach others to do the same,” she said.
Soha Ali, 52, trains others in khayamiya (Egyptian tent making) at the center. A former teacher, she combined teaching with handicrafts.
"I was trained by my mother in handicrafts. So I found it a good opportunity to practice teaching, a work that I love, and teach other trainees in the center," Ali told Al-Monitor.
Hemat Mohamed, 44, one of the trainees, told Al-Monitor that she is very excited to use her time to make accessories. “I have a table in my bedroom where I put all of my materials such as beads and chains and make necklaces and rings,” Mohamed, a housewife with two boys, told Al-Monitor.
Some of the trainees bring friends and family as well: Wafaa Mohamed, 40, a Nubian housewife, told Al-Monitor that she will bring her daughter to the courses so they can work together to make Ramadan lanterns known as fawanis.
For Talaat, empowering women economically at home is a way to economic prosperity and social stability. “In order to make this society peaceful and to eradicate terrorism, people regardless of age and sex should have a job and economic power. This would prevent them from being the prey of extremist groups,” said Talaat.
“The idea is very simple: Your factory is at your home. Each woman only needs a 1-meter size table at her home where she can work on it to create products. Even the children can be integrated into the task, so that the family’s energy is tuned to producing something and growing a business rather than spending time and energy watching TV or browsing the internet aimlessly,” he said.
Talaat has taught over 40,000 women during the past 11 years. According to statistics by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, women are the heads of over 18% of Egyptian households. However, other recent official statistics show that Egyptian female breadwinners represent over 30% of households.
The government's decision to float the pound in 2016 has brought a new opportunity to Talaat’s project. The prices of many imported products dramatically increased due to the increase of the US dollar’s value, making Egyptian-made products more affordable by comparison.
In 2015, the government had banned importing Pharaonic souvenirs; most of them in the local market were imported from China. In a separate decision in the same year, the government also banned the import of fawanis to save the Egyptian products.
Talaat said, "There are many products that we used to import when we should have made them here. These products include Pharaonic and folkloric statues and other souvenirs, as well as Ramadan lanterns. We demanded the ban of such imported products and the government accepted our demand two years ago,” Talaat said.
"We are now working on enhancing artificial leather products so we can demand the banning of importing these products also," said Talaat. In the coming months, he and his trainees will launch a new fashion line. Not surprisingly, it will be called "The Fighter.”