Egyptian Feminism (1800–1980)

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Egyptian Feminism (1800–1980)

For over a century and a half, women and men of Egypt have addressed the need for sexual equality in their country, through political organizations, feminist journals, and demonstrations that have made women's voices increasingly heard.

Europeans and Americans commonly assume that the women's rights movement is native only to their own cultures. In truth, however, women throughout the world have long struggled for equality. Western influence on the international women's movement has generally occurred in two ways. European women have worked with their sisters in foreign countries to create change, and European colonial rule has at times sparked rebellion and revolt in which women played a prominent role. Egyptian feminism reflects both these trends. The feminist movement which began in the 19th century was spurred largely by greater contact with Europe. Then, following World War I, when Egyptians revolted against colonial rule, women joined the nationalist effort, fighting and dying to liberate their country. In the process, they gained new freedoms, greater respect, and enhanced political and economic influence.

Women were a significant force in Egyptian society long before Europe had any influence in the country. Tomb paintings thousands of years old often depict women the same size as men, signifying equality according to the iconography of the ancient art, which includes female figures performing as swimmers and acrobats. Ancient Egypt was ruled by many queens, including Nefertiti, Hatshepsut , and in later times Cleopatra (VII) and Zenobia , queen of Palmyra. In Egyptian religion, goddesses like Hathor, Mut (the goddess of truth), and Isis had roles almost equal to the gods, influencing many spheres of human activity. Even after 1517, when Egypt was annexed by the Ottoman Empire and converted to Islam, its society retained a high regard for women, with their status only somewhat diminished.

For much of their history, Egyptians considered their culture superior to that of Europeans. In medieval times, when Europe had few cities and hardly any roads, Cairo and Alexandria were thriving cities under centrally administered governments, and Egyptian ships were making their way from the Red Sea across the Indian Ocean to procure the silks, spices, and other luxury goods available from India and China. Classical Greek and Roman manuscripts were a staple in Egyptian libraries and centers of learning long before they ever reached the lands to the north.

In 1798, Egypt's sense of superiority was shattered by the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte, which occupied the land for three years. Napoleon brought 120 scholars and scientists into the country to make comprehensive studies of its ancient civilization, and the Institut d'Egypte was established to probe its antiquities, languages, agriculture, and medical knowledge. A French-language journal, Courier de l'Égypte, was published, as well as an encyclopedia, Description de l'Égypte, introduced between 1809–29. The French occupation ended with their defeat by the British navy at Abukir, after which the British vied for control of the country with the Ottoman Empire, which maintained a nominal suzerainty while the British actually took control.

Muhammed Ali, who ruled from 1805 to 1849, instituted many of the reforms that gave the country the foundations of a modern state, including in particular the improvement of female education. Up to this time, the daughters of the rich were educated at home, while girls from poorer families attended kuttabs, where they learned the Qu'ran as well as some reading and writing. In 1832, Muhammed Ali established the first school for poorer girls, followed by missionary efforts in 1846. After 1841, the power of Muhammed Ali was restricted by a treaty with the British, whose influence increased under the reign of Khedive Ismail Pasha (1863–1879). Many male Egyptian students were meanwhile returning from studies abroad, usually in France, with new ideas about instituting social reforms, including many related to the position of women.

In the stormy days of 1919 [the women] descended in large bodies into the streets, those of the more respectable classes still veiled and shrouded in their loose black coats, whilst the courtesans from the lowest quarters of the city, who had also caught the contagion [of political unrest], disported themselves unveiled and arrayed in less discreet garments. In every turbulent demonstration women were well to the front. They marched in procession—some on foot, some in carriages shouting 'independence' and 'down with the English' waving national banners.

—Sir Valentine Chirol, The Egyptian Problem

Centuries-old customs, predating the country's conversion to Islam, supported the segregation of women in Egypt. The religious laws spelled out by the Qu'ran actually gave Muslim women more rights in terms of property than those enjoyed by European women, but it did not alter the customs of polygamy and seclusion. Among the wealthy, the system was upheld through the harem, a term that can signify both a portion of a house set aside for women and children to live, and a man's wife or wives. When women left the harem, they remained separate by donning veils. Since the support of numerous wives and children was expensive, the harem, seclusion, and veiling all became status symbols of the wealthy, helping to perpetuate the system. Among the poor, men and women lived crammed together in one-room quarters, with peasant women working in the fields alongside the men. In urban working-class areas, women also took jobs outside the home.

By the late 19th century, several Egyptian male leaders were advocating an end to female segregation. Sayyed Jamal al-din al-Afghani (1839–1897) was an early feminist. Born in Iran, he lived in India, Afghanistan, Turkey, Egypt, Russia, and Europe, often forced to move when his radical beliefs led to his expulsion. Al-Afghani believed that science and technology held the key to Arab independence from Europe, and changing society, especially women's social status, was central to his reform plan. Rifaa Rafii el-Tahtawi (1801–1871) demanded education for women and changes in a system that was inherently unjust to them. His views were spelled out in A Guide to Education of Girls and Boys, published in 1872. Many of these reformers held that women's inferior status had resulted from misinterpretations of Islam and called for a return to fundamental religious tenets. Sheik Muhammed Abduh (1849–1905) denounced polygamy as a practice counter to fundamental Islamic beliefs and condemned concubinage as slavery. His flexible interpretation of the Qu'ran greatly influenced the entire Muslim world. A disciple of Abduh, Kasim Amin (1865–1908), wrote Tahrir al Mara (Women's Emancipation) in 1899. Amin argued that seclusion, veiling, arranged marriages, and divorce were un-Islamic, views he reiterated in al-Mara al Jadida (The New Woman).

Begun by men, the debate on women's emancipation was being co-opted by women at the turn of the century. Malak Hifni Nassif (1886–1918), using the pen-name Bahissat el Badia ("Searcher in the Desert"), wrote articles about education, seclusion, marriage, and divorce. In 1900, she was one of the first women in the country to qualify as a teacher. Nassif moved with her husband from Cairo to the fringes of the desert, where she came to idealize the village life she discovered. Urban upper-class women, Nassif felt, spent lives of useless idleness. She wanted them to be more involved in the upbringing of their children and encouraged them in breast-feeding and the care and education of their offspring, rather than leaving such tasks to servants. Nassif's goals were mainly social, and she cared little about Egyptian nationalism or politics; her main objection to colonialism was the intermarriage of Egyptian men to foreign women. She felt that foreign women dominated their husbands and that the children of these unions were not true Egyptians.

Some of Nassif's ideas, which now seem outdated, were revolutionary by the standards of the time. In 1911, she appeared before the Egyptian Legislative Assembly to put forth her ten-point program for women's emancipation, which included elementary schooling for all girls, and the introduction of hygiene, first aid, and economics as standard school subjects. She also wanted a limited number of girls trained in the medical and teaching professions, to serve the needs of women. Her assumptions that women should fulfill certain "natural tasks" centered around home and family were typical of the time, even among Europeans. Women did not begin to be admitted to teaching and medical institutions in Europe until the end of the 19th century.

In early 20th-century Egypt, feminist issues were widely discussed by women and men alike, and contemporary press accounts engendered much debate. Feminist articles were first published in French, the language in use among upper-class Egyptians, then appeared in Arabic, widening the scope of the debate. Before World War I, there were 15 Arabic-language magazines specializing in women's issues. All but one were founded and edited by women, indicating not only the level of interest in feminism, but the number of women professionals capable of producing the literature.

One young girl greatly influenced by these works was Hidiya Afifi Barakat (1898–1969), daughter of Ahmad Pasha Afifi, a magistrate connected with the royal palace. Educated at the French convent of Notre Dame de la Mère, Hidiya was forced, according to Muslim custom, to withdraw into seclusion at age 13. In May 1918, when she married Bahieddine Barakat, a professor of law at Cairo University, she had never laid eyes on her husband until their wedding night. Despite this traditional background, her new family was revolutionary in outlook. Her husband was closely related to the Egyptian nationalist leader Sa'ad Pasha Zaghlul, who opposed British rule, and when the uprising against the British began to engulf all of Egypt, she became involved. Dressed in flowing robes, Barakat would take the train for Upper Egypt carrying shopping baskets packed with anti-British pamphlets. Schoolteachers met her at every station, ready to distribute the subversive literature, while the British remained unsuspecting of the diminutive gentlewoman swathed in veils. Had she been caught, she would have been sentenced to death like a number of other nationalists, and her bravery earned her the nickname "little soldier."

Nassif, Malak Hifni (1886–1918)

Egyptian feminist. Name variations: Nasif; (pseudonym) Bahithat al-Badiya, Badiyya, or Bahissat el Badia. Born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1886; died in 1918; married and moved to the desert.

Malak Hifni Nassif was an influential Egyptian writer whose ten-point program for improving Egyptian women's position became the standard for women's demands in the pre-World War I era.

Barakat, Hidiya Afifi (1898–1969)

Egyptian feminist. Name variations: Hidiya Hanim Barakat, Hidiya Afifi. Born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1898; died in Cairo in 1969; married Bahieddine Barakat, a professor of law at Cairo University.

Long regarded as a leading Egyptian feminist, Hidiya Afifi Barakat was known as the "little soldier" during the Revolution of 1919. She organized The Société de la Femme Nouvelle, which concentrated on education for girls, and the Mabarra, which was concerned with clinics and women's health care.

Egyptian Women's Magazines Founded Before 1914

1892Hind Nawfalal-Fatah
1898Alexandra AvierinohAnis al-jalis
1901Ibrahim Ramzial-Mar'a fi-al Islam
1901Anisa'Ata Allahal-Mar'a
1901Sa'diya Sa'd ad-DinShajarat ad-durr
1902Maryam Sa'daz-Zahra
1903Ruza AntunMajallat as-sayyi-dat waal-banat
1904Esther Moyelal'A'ila
1906Labiba HashimFata ash-sharq
1908Malaka Sa'dal-Jins al-latif
1908Fatima RashidMajallat tarqiyat al-mar'a
1909Anjilina Abu Shi'rMurshid al-atfal
1912Fatima Tawfiqal-Jamila
1913Sarah MihiyaFata an-nil

Barakat also proved to be a skillful organizer, who took over the philanthropic association Mabarrat Muhammed Ali al-Kabir, founded by two princesses, and developed it into the largest and most active women's organization in the country, involving a network of clinics, dispensaries, and hospitals. In 1919, she helped create the Société de la Femme Nouvelle, which set up girls' schools and established child-care centers and orphanages, which were especially successful in the countryside. Barakat's strategy, along with her co-workers was to ask a wealthy landowner to donate land for a project, and then consult with the village headman. Village support of the clinic or school would then be assured, as the headman would not want to affront the landowner, who was his superior. By 1961, Mabarra had created 12 hospitals, and in a 20-year period more than 13 million patients were treated in its medical facilities.

Like Hidiya Barakat, Huda Shaarawi (1879–1947) came from a wealthy family, was cloistered and married at a young age, and then became politically active. Her husband, Ali Shaarawi, was a founding member of the Wafd Party which fought for Egyptian independence, a cause that drew the couple together. Huda Shaarawi sponsored many charitable projects and worked for legislation related to women. In 1910, she opened a school for girls, and in 1919, she risked her life in organizing huge groups of women to protest against British rule. She was also founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union, the main women's organization for many decades.

Egypt's Revolution of 1919 engulfed rich and poor, female and male. When the British exiled Zaghlul Pasha and other rebels in an attempt to quash the rebellion, they only fed the flames of revolt. As men were arrested, interned, and killed, women took their place in the front lines. As Nawal El-Saadawi wrote:

They went onto the rural roads, side by side with the men, cut the telephone wires and disrupted the railway lines in order to paralyze the movement of the British troops. Some of them participated in storming the improvised camps and jails in which many of those who had led the uprisings or participated in them had been imprisoned. Women were killed or injured when British troops fired on them. Some of them are known such as Shafika Mohammed, Hamida Khalil, Sayeda Hassan, Fahima Riad and Aisha Omar . But hundreds of poor women lost their lives without anybody being able to trace their names.

In 1922, the British allowed the Egyptians limited sovereignty. Although the rebellion had clearly demonstrated the value of women's participation in national life, full acknowledgement of their role was slow in coming. Inevitably, however, their social status began to change. When Egypt's new constitution was drafted in 1924, many women hoped to attain the right to vote, but Egyptian feminists were divided over the importance of political rights. While Shaarawi's Egyptian Feminist Union worked to secure more educational opportunities and to end polygamy, seclusion, child marriage, and easy divorce, these remained abstract issues for most women. Since only the rich could afford more than one wife, harem life did not seem so burdensome to poor women who worked in the fields, sold goods on the street, or carried water from the communal well. Class differences thus led to a diminution of feminist fervor during the 1930s and early 1940s.

But the social forces that slowed Egyptian feminism eventually helped to revive it. Between World Wars I and II, as people flocked to Cairo, Alexandria, and many provincial towns in search of jobs, a growing middle class emerged, better educated and more prosperous than ever before. Women, who had especially benefitted from increased education, were now more aware of their second-class status. As they realized that their concerns would not be addressed without their own elected representatives, the right to vote became their rallying point. Doria Shafik (1908–1975) founded the Bint al-Nil Union (Daughter of the Nile) in March 1948, expressly to fight for the right to vote. Bint al-Nil's appeal was strongest to the growing number of teachers, clerical workers, nurses, and other professionals, rejecting programs of the Egyptian Feminist Union which were viewed as elitist. Largely due to Shafik's rallies and protests, Egypt's women won the vote in 1956, only 11 years after it was attained by Frenchwomen, in 1945.

Shafik represented a middle-of-the-road approach to feminism, compared to the more radical views that began to emerge among Egypt's Marxists and Communists. Marxism was unusual in Egypt's conservative society, but some were drawn to its philosophy and espousal of equal status for the sexes. Inji Efflatoun was a leader in the radical wing of Egyptian feminism. Born into a family of Cairo landowners, she had a middle-class upbringing in a French-speaking household and did not become fluent in Arabic until years later. While a student at a French lycée in Cairo, she began to take private lessons from Kamil al Tilmisani, a Trotskyite from a very poor background, who soon exploded Efflatoun's middle-class views of the world, expounding on the need for equal opportunity for rich and poor, male and female. Efflatoun discovered leftist books, engaged in endless discussions, and became a Marxist, believing in revolution, not parliamentary process, as the only effective means of change.

Another radical feminist was Latifa al-Zayyat (1923—) born to a lower-middle-class family in Damietta, who came to Cairo to be educated at age 12. Al-Zayyat had long been interested in politics but was discouraged by existing political parties, which at that point were not addressing the issue of British colonial rule, and saw the middle class as too cowardly to implement change. In 1942, at age 18, she was drawn to the Marxists at the university because they did not discriminate on the basis of sex, class, or race.

The Egypt of young Marxists like Efflatoun and al-Zayyat in the 1940s was a much different country than had been the case only a few decades earlier. World War II had accelerated social change, and what had once been a largely agrarian nation was now highly urban. In the crowded cities, a large proletariat had emerged, which was seen by Communists as an ideal environment in which to promote their agenda. Women were avidly recruited by the party and educated in Marxist philosophy before being sent out to distribute leaflets, demonstrate outside factories, and agitate on campuses.

In theory, Marxism espoused women's equality, but in practice the Communists did a poor job of implementing policies to improve their status, and male Communists have been accused of being particularly chauvinistic. The Marxists did gain ground, however, when they concentrated on ending British occupation of Egypt to the exclusion of most all other causes on their agenda. When social issues were addressed, establishing trade unions was the next priority. Unfortunately for radical leaders like Efflatoun and al-Zayyat, however, trade unions were overwhelmingly male. Women radicals postponed their agenda and worked hard to foster other forms of change, their attitude summed up by Latifa al-Zayyat:

It is a luxury to think of the liberation of women … when you see your brothers, fathers, and children strangled, scorned, and exploited by foreigners and local men and women of the local upper classes. It is only when civilization reaches a certain level that the problems of women, children, and minorities become important.

Radical feminists lived in fear of arrest and imprisonment, which was not uncommon. The Egyptian Communist movement was never large and was often factionalized, its organization inept at times, and its theories abstract. Eventually, women like Efflatoun and al-Zayyat did expand the outlook on women's issues, and with the passage of time their demands came to be seen as more middle-of-the-road.

Efflatoun, Inji

Egyptian feminist. Name variations: Inge Aflatun. Born in Cairo into a family of landowners; introduced to Marxist ideas as a student at a French lycée in Cairo.

Inji Efflatoun became active in the Communist Party and agitated for women's rights as well as freedom from colonial rule.

Zayyat, Latifa al- (1923—)

Writer and novelist who worked for greater emancipation for Egyptian women. Name variations: Zayat; az-Zayyat, as-Zayyat. Born in Damietta, Egypt, in 1923; came to Cairo in 1936 to be educated; became a Marxist after she began studying at the University of Cairo in 1942.

Works include:

The Open Door (1960), Old Age and Other Stories (1980).

Latifa al-Zayyat earned a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from Cairo University before turning her attention to teaching English at the Women's College of Ain Shams University in Cairo. She has been active in politics at both the university and national level since her student days. As both a leftist and a feminist, she continues to be outspoken in her objection to the oppressive inroads of the political right as regards women's freedom. In her literature, most notably in The Open Door (1960), she addresses these inequalities. Al-Zayyat has also written extensive literary criticism.


Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

Schipper, Mineke, ed. Unheard Words. London: Allison and Busby, 1984.

Crista Martin, freelance writer, Boston, Massachusetts

In 1952, the socialist government of Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power, and under his leadership British control of Egypt finally ended. Although Nasser was an "Arab socialist," his government was not always tolerant of divergent views from the left or right, and the women's movement found itself co-opted by the government. The voices of moderates like Shafik, as well as radicals like Efflatoun and al-Zayyat, were still. After Nasser's death in 1970, a greater tolerance for diversity surfaced, but by then political debate was beginning to focus around issues of Islamic fundamentalists, who generally mistrusted all Western ideas. Their interests do not represent all Egyptians, however, and Egyptian women have continued to be galvanized by the debate surrounding the status of women. In 1979, when the Personal Status Law, protecting the benefits of divorced women, was rescinded, women came together in widespread protests that resulted in the reinstatement of the law, and The Committee for the Defense of the Rights of the Woman and the Family was formed to ensure the rights it guaranteed would not be terminated.


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Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia