This past week, chatting away at the dinner table, I was asked about one of my favorite books. My answer was swift: 'Il Gattopardo' -"The Leopard"- the masterpiece of Sicilian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.
The novel narrates the changes in Sicilian life and society during the Italian Risorgimento, the revolution which led to the abolition of the monarchy and the creation of a unified Italian State in 1861. Central to the story is the idea of change, feared and opposed by the dominant class, but also opportunistically embraced by those willing to re-invent themselves in exchange for a slice of new power. It is Tancredi, the aristocrat joining the revolution to safeguard his family interests, who speaks the novel's most famous line: "If we want things to stay as they are" - he says - "things will have to change."
Tancredi's view is extremely fitting to describe the social status of a generation of women who - from India to Egypt - have enthusiastically embraced change, taking huge risks in the name of education, equal opportunities and progress. But unlike Tancredi, these women have welcomed change in their hearts, and have voluntarily positioned themselves outside traditional schemes. A choice that has given them a different status. These women are a novelty. The mainstream social-context around them hasn't changed as rapidly as they have.
In the past two months, my job took me both to India -Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore- and Cairo where the Thomson Reuters Foundation continues to expand. I had the opportunity to meet incredibly talented young women: journalists, lawyers, doctors. And I found that they have many things in common: they are empowered, emancipated, successful, in their thirties or early fourties ... and single, mostly living at home with their parents.
For many of them being single is not a real choice. It's a consequence. In traditionally male-dominated societies, a career and a degree don't belong to the dowry, in fact they are often seen as a deal-breaker.
The percentage of women occupying senior positions in Indian businesses is on the rise. The number of female in senior management has jumped from 14% in 2011 to 19% in 2012 (Grant Thornton) and overall, Indian society has witnessed a 50% rise in the number of women working over the last six years (Times of India). The phenomenon is rooted in better access to education for women, who currently make up 42% of total college graduates in India.
Something similar is happening in Egypt, where women represent 16% of high-ranking business workforce (Mercer) despite women's access to education remains relatively low compared to other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
But for the majority of middle-class women, professional success doesn't seem to transform into personal success. The choice to pursue higher education and then take a job means saying no to conventional pressures to marry young. In societies like India, a woman's marital prospects diminish precipitously after 30. If a 35-year-old woman wants to be with a man her same age, it is hugely unlikely she will find one; divorce is not commonplace in India, and men tend to prefer younger women.
Being single is not a glamorous option. It's unsafe. New Delhi has the highest number of sex crimes among India's major cities, with a rape reported on average every 18 hours, according to the latest police figures. In parts of India, outgoing single women are publicly deplored. The much-publicized attack on a group of single women drinking at a public venue by members of the Indian right-wing Sri Ram Sena political group is a fitting example.
Sexual violence can also be used as a weapon to maintain the status quo. In Egypt, 55 women are raped every day (Egyptian Interior Ministry). Women's rights experts are convinced the number is much higher, because victims are usually reluctant to go to the police as they fear social disgrace.
Being married gives women social validation. It is a ticket out of their families. If you are not married, you cannot leave home. In Egypt, a single Muslim woman wanting to find her own apartment has to face the worry of her parents, the opposition of religious conservatives, the gossip of neighbours, and the reluctance of landlords, many of whom believe that a woman on her own is less than chaste, and the kind of trouble that attracts the police.
But clearly not all working women in India or Egypt are single. So how is it like for those who have both a husband and a job? The answer is very straightforward: having a job doesn't necessarily translate in empowerment within the domestic walls.
In both Egypt and India, men remain the decision makers within the family, even if their wives have secured better jobs. An Egyptian business woman I closely dealt with in the past year described it to me this way: ''In Egypt, men are schizophrenic. Even if they have been travelling, studying abroad and remain open to modernism, they want to be in charge at home. They want to be seen as those bringing food to the table. If not, they feel their manhood is being challenged''.
In other words, women can even secure better jobs than men, but their role within the family remains unchanged. Despite working long hours, they are still expected to cook, clean and to look after the children. There is no such concept of task sharing. On Indian trains it is not unusual to see women peeling vegetables as they commute back home. The trend is culturally accepted. Recently Femina, an Indian women's magazine aimed at the rising middle-class, featured a guide to help women serve three hot meals a day using microwave and frozen food.
So, if education and professional success do not automatically bring personal success for women, what is the next challenge?
I have posed this question to many women with whom I have worked closely for the success of the Trust Women Conference, a yearly event held in December with the specific aim of putting the rule of law behind women's rights, with actions. The verdict was unanimous: education for men. It's a view increasingly shared even by world leaders. In a recent interview, Israeli President and Nobel Peace laureate Shimon Peres said that "when president Obama asked me what is preventing democracy across the Middle East, I answered: 'it's the husbands. They don't want to see their spouses becoming their equals" (Paris Match).
Social media and wider access to international news is gradually having a dramatic impact on young men, both in Cairo and in Mumbai. But in order for a wider cultural shift to take place, for the values of gender-equality and justice to be fully embraced by the wider society, something more powerful will have to happen. And the Tancredi's of Egypt and India have still many good years where the change will be very slow.
I have a lot of respect for this generation of women between 30 and 40 that have the courage to live the life they want, and stand up for their choices, even if it implies in the end that they won't become mothers.