Climbing date palms to feed a family: How one Egyptian woman is challenging gender roles in farming

A man harvests dates from a date palm during the annual harvest season in Dahshour village in Giza, Egypt, Oct. 2, 2020. (Xinhua/Ahmed Gomaa)
A man harvests dates from a date palm during the annual harvest season in Dahshour village in Giza, Egypt, Oct. 2, 2020. The economically important sector has traditionally been dominated by male farmers. (Xinhua/Ahmed Gomaa)

“This difficult job I have pursued is easier than the harsh conditions I faced as a woman,” said Sabria Sebai, an Egyptian in her 40s who is employed to climb palm trees to harvest the dates.

To climb up a palm tree, a special ladder is needed to reach the top, a job so dangerous and laborious that men have a general monopoly on it.

However, Sebai challenged the masculine-dominated profession to feed her family of six people who live in a shabby house in one of the Upper Egyptian villages.

“I fear nothing. Seeing the world from above to earn more money makes me feel free,” she told Xinhua.

Sebai started to ascend the palm trees for dates when she was seven, and has experienced many accidents, including a fall from the top of a tall tree.

With determination and excellent skills, Sebai, who wears men’s clothes at work to look tougher, has become a well-known woman in this profession and many farms now hire her into their harvest teams.

The risky job requires concentration, speed and even calm as snakes may appear all of a sudden from within the trees, the Egyptian woman said.

Sebai earns three U.S. dollars for climbing one tree, harvesting the dates and chopping the palm leaves, according to Baghdadi Ourahi, owner of a palm trees farm where Sebai is working.

Each time, after finishing her work, Sebai takes the leaves to her mother who then uses them to make bags of different sizes and sells them to the villagers.

Batai, mother of Sebai, said her daughter’s work has opened windows of income for the whole family.

“I completely depend on Sebai who takes the heavy leaves to our house,” the 77-year-old said, while softening the leaves in water before folding them.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported in August that Egypt’s annual production of dates, growing from nearly 16 million palm trees, exceeds 1.7 million tons, contributing to 21 percent of the global production.

However, Egypt does not boast a corresponding share of the date export market because of its weak value chain ranging from the cultivation of palm trees, packaging, distribution to selling. The North African country only exported 40,000 tons of dates to 63 countries in the past year, according to official statistics.

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