It is increasingly clear that rural economies are not restricted to agriculture, and that rural areas differ ecologically, and also in terms of the histories of their production and exchange systems. What are women's roles in such rural economies? And what is the specificity of the social and cultural contexts of these roles in the Arab Middle East and North Africa? Taking Egypt as an example, I would like to argue that women's roles in Egypt's agriculture is characterized by significant variation and complexity. Incomes that women earn through their multiple activities are traditionally contributed to the household budget and thus constitute an important element of the survival strategy of such households. The phenomenon of large-scale male labor migrants to cities and to other Arab countries has greatly increased women's duties and responsibilities. Their roles in the marketing of agricultural produce has also been enhanced by the absence of many men in the age to work
Women's work actively maintains the continuation of the agricultural sector in the national economy and thus sustains food security. However, women's involvement herein is often devalued. Interestingly, the complex and changing roles of women in agriculture remain hidden from the public. The media also downplay the activities of women in rural areas. While the public needs to be educated about these issues, it is also important that policy-makers not be unduly influenced by the burgeoning role of large-scale agri-businesses.
Development programs all too often concentrate on issues related to production. However, almost no attention is given to what happens to crops or animals after they leave the farm. Processing, packaging, transportation, storage, wholesale and retail marketing and distribution are critical. Studies have shown in Egypt that women, especially in the delta, are crucial in the rapid marketing of highly perishable foods. They thus help to save produce that would otherwise be lost. How to incorporate women into the development of more effective processing and distribution systems (both modern and traditional) is a high priority.