In this section, I address the question: Through a gender analysis lens of intra-household relations, what shapes the adaptive capacity of men and women in the household and community? From my data, income-earning prospects is not a defining factor in household bargaining or adaptive capacity. In general, women in Maryut earn more money than women in Nubia, but their husbands generally control both their money and the income to be spent on the household. They participate actively in family income earning but not in budgeting or expenditure. My data on actual household expenditure reveal that even with the minimal number of income-earning women, household preferences in Nubia correlate more closely with the women’s preferences. In Maryut, where 82% of the women in my sample worked—more than the national figure of 23.4% (CAPMAS 2013)—household decisions in male-headed households reflected men’s preferences. I found that women’s visible work does not automatically translate into their empowerment. I argue that the relaxation of patriarchy, or, more simply put, the diminishing provision and protection roles of men due to economic hardship, necessitating women to take low-paying and time-consuming jobs outside the home, does not necessarily lead to the women’s empowerment or improved capacity to adapt, which requires a change to societal gender norms. In critique of Sen’s (1999) key concept on the perception of value and fallback position based on women’s ‘productive work’, I argue that women’s bargaining position and power seem to correlate with other factors such as their personality, family support, age, life course and personal characteristics and relationships with spouses, families and wider society, rather than to their access to income.
Cross-cultural studies indicate that household bargaining is affected by contextual cultural practices, the family life cycle and the nature of livelihood activities (Agarwal 1997; Jackson 2007; Pahl 1989; Rao 2014). However, each factor has a different weight depending on the specific norms of the community and even the household in question.
Family life cycle of the marriage
The family life cycle or life course of the marriage is linked to the ages of the spouses and the number of years they have been married. In traditional communities, women gain agency and voice with age, particularly after menopause, when they acquire more respect and freedom (Rao 2014). From my fieldwork observations and other ethnographic studies (Hoodfar 1997; Jennings 1995), this correlation is more prevalent in Nubian than in Delta communities, and plays a greater role in Nubia, where women in the later stages of the family cycle have more authority and power. This is related to the long history of Nubian warrior queens and female spiritual figures.
A family passes through several stages, from marriage to the birth of children, the children leaving home, and its dissolution or extension (within the extended family structure). The family cycle analysis considers the family as a process of gender relations over time rather than a static unit. It assumes that men and women live through different family life cycle stages in their families and households which have different types of organization and structure (Hareven 1974). This dynamic is captured in individual and life history interviews which provide a ‘longitudinal tracing’ (Hareven 1974, p. 326) rather than a cross-sectional snapshot.
I categorize my data into four categories according to the length of the marriage: 1–10; 11–20; 21–30; and more than 30 years. From people’s accounts of their perceived ability to cope with changing intra-household relations, and thus consequently adapt to livelihood stresses including environmental change, along with my observations of their actual ability to adapt, I arrived at the following results, which are largely similar in both villages, with some differences. Couples married for 21–30 years were more able to cope, followed by those with 11–20 years of marriage. At these stages of the family life cycle, the marriage has passed through the first rocky years, children have been born and the family is established, and the couple has reached a stable phase in conjugal relations (e.g. bargaining to cope with stresses). At 21–30 years, the marriage is more stable due to the added support of young adult children who can help their families in such activities as farming, house construction and household activities. These first two categories are similar in both villages. The marriage of 1–10 years comes third in Nubia and fourth in Maryut, while the marriage of over 30 years comes third in Maryut and a close fourth in Nubia. This may be due to the fact that couples are supported in the early years of marriage by extended family, which is not generally the case for the nuclear families in Maryut. Beyond 30 years of marriage, there is less adaptive capacity due to the age and decreased productive capacity of the married couple; another reason is that at this stage of the marriage, the children leave their natal households to establish their own homes with the economic support of their parents.
Marital and fertility status
Marital and fertility status is not only a source of financial capital; it also brings social, symbolic and cultural capital to both men and women in the form of prestige and acceptability in the community. Single men and women beyond the age of 25 (as an average expressed by the residents in the two villages) are considered outcasts in the community and are thus more vulnerable than married men and women at their age. Having children, particularly sons, is also considered social and economic capital in both villages as it gives prestige in the community and improves the household income, as the children assist with the household expenses.
Marital and fertility status strongly affect men’s and women’s social and cultural capital in the community, in turn impacting on their economic prospects and adaptive capacity. In ‘The Forms of Capital’, Pierre Bourdieu (1986) explains this link between cultural, social and economic capital, where cultural and social capital may be convertible into economic capital depending on societal conditions, and how people internalize the value of the different forms of asset. Marital status in the villages has a stronger influence on women’s status but also affects men at a later age. Fertility and the preference for boys seem to affect both wives and husbands equally. Many women and men see their fertility as the ultimate way of dealing with economic insecurity, for example by having many sons, who are expected to support them.
The family life cycle and marital and fertility status are gendered factors of adaptive capacity that affect the vulnerability of men and women and their families/households in the village communities. Next, I focus specifically on kinship, which is the main difference between the two villages with their different family structures: Maryut, which consists mostly of nuclear families and Nubia, which comprises large extended families of a single ethnicity who intermarry in a mostly matrilocal setting.
Family structure and kinship
In this section, I show how family structure and kinship, crosscut by the above factors of adaptive capacity, shape individual, household and community adaptive capacity. In Egypt in general, society centres on the family at the heart of social organization and structure, which gives special significance to kindred. The family is considered the primary risk-sharing social unit at the root of household livelihoods and kinship networks (Fafchamps 2003). As the main difference between the villages, kinship is the most visible factor differentiating their adaptive capacity. I relate the link between gender relations and vulnerability to underlying context-specific kinship and family structures that affect adaptive capacity (Cannon 2002; Hemmati and Röhr 2007).
The support of a woman’s kin appears to be one of the most important factors influencing men’s attitudes to their wives’ household responsibilities and shared decision-making. This is also observed by Hoodfar (1997) in a study of poor neighbourhoods in Cairo. Nubian women generally have control of the household financial budgeting and retain full control of their own income from income-earning activities in the household (e.g. from sales of handicrafts and processed spices). Some of the most content wives of my sample were from Nubia. Men in Maryut are generally (as reported by the women) less sensitive to the needs of their wives than those in Nubia. This, as explained by the women in both villages, may be due to the extended family structure that supports and protects women’s interests as the ‘queen of the house’.
This analysis leans towards the hypothesis that women (in Nubia) who are supported/protected by their natal extended family are less vulnerable than those (in Maryut) with a more nuclear family setting. This reflects their better relations with their husbands, who are accountable to their wife’s family and kin, and in turn contributes to better household adaptive capacity.
Household bargaining is situated within the context of the existing system of gendered forms of kinship and family structure that define the nature of the conjugal contract. The Nubian natal kin support system strengthens women’s bargaining power and fallback position and endorses their agency within the dominant gender ideologies and orders. This in turn affects gender relations within and beyond the household, and the adaptive capacity of the household and its members. Better gender relations result in better adaptive capacity, mitigating vulnerability to climate and livelihood stresses.
Family structure also affects the adaptive capacity of individuals and the community in other ways, such as in pooling income. In general, higher family income was found among the extended families in Nubia due to the adult family members pooling their income. The extended family structure provides social and economic support to men and women and their households and community, enhancing their ability to adapt. This is why my findings suggest that Nubia, with its extended family structure, has greater capacity to adapt to climate and livelihood stresses than Maryut, as corroborated by Whitehead and Kabeer’s (2001) argument that the extended household communities that characterize West African societies provide protection against livelihood stresses.