Cairo: A feminist outcry has forced an Egyptian publicity company to remove billboards on women after they were denounced as degrading.

In the past days, huge signs, allegedly aimed at promoting women’s rights, were set up on highways and bridges in Cairo, showing a girl with her head bent as fingers are pointed at her, with a question in big letters: “Are you a spinster?”

The picture and the question made online waves and prompted Egypt’s state-run National Council for Women to threaten legal action.

“This advertisement is racial and degrading of the woman,” the council said in a statement. “This publicity campaign in this form is professionally mistaken and harms the woman’s image.”

The contested campaign, launched days before the International Women’s Day, also featured proverbs that reflect a negative perception of women in the conservative Egyptian society. Those behind the drive said their aim is to change negative stereotyping of females and back President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi’s designation of 2017 as the year of Egyptian women.

Their argument has left very few Egyptian women unconvinced.

“I felt insulted when I saw this advert,” a 29-year-old unmarried woman said. “I even felt inferior because the way this campaign appeared boosts society’s hurting view of the girl who has not married for one reason or another,” the woman, an engineering graduate, added, refusing to give her name.

Nearly 9 million Egyptians at the age of 33, half of them women, are not married, according to 2011 official figures. The unmarried women in Egypt are often referred to as spinsters, a term deemed derogatory by pro-women groups.

“I’ve been working in marketing for 12 years and can understand that those behind the campaign have chosen a teaser to attract attention,” said a woman called Jasmine Aladdin in a Facebook post. “But there hundreds of thousands of other ways than this approach, which is shocking and provocative to a large category of society.”

The advertising firm behind the campaign, financed by a cooking oil manufacturer, has fought back criticism.

“The aim of the campaign is to back the woman’s rights by breaking wrong perceptions about her and urge people to stop using folk proverbs that hurt the woman’s feelings,” Ahmad Al Aleemi, in charge of the drive, said.

“The campaign is composed of two phases: the first was meant to be attention-gripping, and the second was planned to disclose its real objective afterwards,” Al Aleemi told private television station DMC.

He added that the campaign was designed to encourage women to challenge negative stereotyping and go public with their life stories by writing to a trending hashtag set by up the campaigners under the title “You’re the Example”.

“We’ve received 60 such stories so far. We’ve removed the billboards in response to misunderstanding,” he said. The official did not say if the campaign will go ahead as originally planned.

Last month, a woman provincial governor was appointed for the first time in Egypt’s modern history. The country’s incumbent government includes four female ministers holding portfolios of investment, planning, social solidarity and migration.


A controversial billboard reading in Arabic: “Who said you’re a spinster?”