Taymuriyya, 'A'isha 'Ismat al- (1840–1902)

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Taymuriyya, 'A'isha 'Ismat al- (1840–1902)

Egyptian poet and essayist who advocated the education of women and was celebrated by later authors as one of the founders of feminist expression in Arabic. Name variations: 'A'isha Taymur; Aichat Asmat Taimur; Aisha Esmat al-Taymuriyya. Pronunciation: AY-sha IS-mat at-tay-moo-REE-a. Born in 1840 in Cairo, Egypt; died in Cairo in 1902; daughter of Isma'il Pasha Taymour (a Turkish notable of Kurdish origin who served as a government official in Egypt) and his Circassian concubine; began education in Turkish, Arabic, and Persian at home when quite young, stopped writing upon marriage and did not resume until after the death of her husband and father; married Mahmud Bey al-Islambuli (a Turkish notable), in 1854; children: daughter, Tawhida (died 1873, age 18).

Selected publications in Arabic include:

Nata'ij al-Ahwal fi al-Aqwal wa-al-Af'al (The Results of Circumstances in Words and Deeds, 1887); Mir'at al-Ta'amul fi al-Umur (The Mirror of Contemplation on Things, published during the last ten years of her life); and a collection of poetry, Hilyat al-Tiraz (Embroidered Ornaments, 1885. Also published a collection of Turkish poetry entitled Shakufa (Blossom).

'A'isha al-Taymuriyya lived during an era of rapid social, economic, and political change that laid the foundation for a modern state in Egypt. The reforms that she witnessed would have a lasting effect on the position of women in Egyptian society, and she played a crucial role in this process. As the pace of modernization in Egypt accelerated and she tried to define her role in a changing world, 'A'isha al-Taymuriyya expressed her hopes and fears in prose and poetry. Thus, she became an icon for future generations of feminists.

When 'A'isha was born in 1840, Muhammad 'Ali Pasha (1805–1848) was the Ottoman governor of Egypt. Although Muhammad 'Ali ruled Egypt on behalf of the Ottoman sultan, he effectively established a hereditary dynasty and set in motion the process of modernization that would enable Egypt to emerge as an independent nation in the middle of the 20th century. He reorganized the Egyptian military along European lines, brought European advisors to Egypt, reformed the legal, educational, and health-care systems, and built factories. He also restructured the land-tenure system and improved irrigation, allowing the state to produce crops for export to Europe.

Muhammad 'Ali's reforms fostered a sense of national pride among Egyptians, and his government achieved de facto independence in 1833 when military victories against the Ottoman army forced the sultan to appoint his son, Ibrahim Pasha, governor of southern Anatolia and greater Syria. However, this independence was not destined to last. The Middle East was a major market for British exports, and Muhammad 'Ali's expansion into Syria had threatened British commerce in the region at a time when the European economy was weak. In response, the British initiated an aggressive export policy that was supported by the Ottoman sultan Mahmud II. In 1838, he signed a treaty with Britain that favored European commercial interests in the Middle East, and the next time fighting broke out between the Ottoman and Egyptian armies European forces came to the sultan's aid, forcing Muhammad 'Ali to pull out of Syria and frustrating his efforts at industrialization. By the middle of the 19th century, supplying raw materials to European industry was the basis of the Egyptian economy, and by 'A'isha al-Taymuriyya's death in 1902 the British had occupied Egypt for two decades.

Egypt did not achieve political or economic independence during 'A'isha al-Taymuriyya's lifetime, but modernization continued and contact between Egyptians and Europeans increased. The Cairo opera house that was built for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 brought a European art form to Egyptian audiences, improvements in transportation facilitated overseas travel, and journalism provided a public forum for exploring new ideas. In addition, a neighborhood called Isma'iliyya was established in Cairo where—for the first time in Egypt—wealthy people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds lived side by side (Badran, 1995).

'A'isha al-Taymuriyya was not the only Egyptian to struggle with issues of identity as she adapted to these changes. Throughout the 19th century, Egyptians were redefining themselves both as individuals and as a nation. They took pride in their shared history and rebelled against economic and political domination, but at the same time they adapted aspects of Ottoman and European culture. Defining their identity as Egyptians meant reconsidering what it meant to be men or women, Muslims or Christians, Turks or Arabs, and members of one nation in a rapidly changing world.

The Egyptian feminism that emerged in the 20th century had its roots in this process.

'A'isha al-Taymuriyya has been called the "mother of Egyptian feminism" because her work inspired later generations of feminist writers, but with the exception of her publications 'A'isha herself never ventured into the public sphere. 'A'isha was born to Isma'il Pasha Taymour, a Turkish notable of Kurdish origin who served as a government official in Egypt, and his Circassian concubine. She spent her childhood in the harem of her father's house, probably playing with her two sisters who were very close to her in age. 'A'isha also had a brother whose birth she celebrated in verse, but by the time he was born she had been married for several years and his childhood memories of her were vague. He described her as, "neither tall nor short, neither fair nor dark, and neither fat nor thin."

By her own account, as 'A'isha grew up she had no interest in learning weaving and embroidery from her mother. Instead, she was fascinated by language, by the stories the older women in the household told in the evening, and by the gatherings of literary men her father hosted. 'A'isha's favorite pastime was to hide with paper and pen and imitate the writers. This angered her mother, but her father supported her interest. She had started writing in Turkish (the language she spoke at home), and her father encouraged her to continue. He hired two teachers—one to teach her Persian, the other to instruct her in Arabic and the Qur'an—and he helped with her lessons himself. When she was still quite young, 'A'isha began to compose poetry, first in Persian and later in Arabic and Turkish, using traditional literary forms and metaphors to express her feelings.

Were it possible for either male or female to exist in isolation, then the Knower of Secrets would have distinguished one to the exclusion of the other, and would not have put the favored one in need of the other.

—'A'isha al-Taymuriyya

'A'isha dedicated herself to her education, but because of her gender she was restricted to studying at home. As part of Muhammad 'Ali's reform program, the Egyptian government had expressed interest in the education of girls in the early part of the 19th century. However, it was not until 1873 that the wife of one of Muhammad 'Ali's successors, Tcheshme Hanim , opened the Siyufiyya School—the first state school for girls. Even after this, it was some time before the education of girls outside of the domestic sphere became generally accepted in Egyptian society. Through the turn of the 20th century, upper-class families such as 'A'isha's preferred to educate their daughters at home. Frustrated by this segregation, 'A'isha idealized the position of women in European nations. She argued against the seclusion of Egyptian women in her essays, and she vented her anger in her poetry. At 13, she wrote, "If my tears water the earth I am not the one to be blamed, for I have suffered the fate of oppression at the hands of my fellow man."

While 'A'isha felt free to express her progressive views in her writing, her own lifestyle never challenged the sense of propriety that prevailed in her society. Her behavior was consistent with what people expected of an upper-class Egyptian woman during the second half of the 19th century. In 1854, at age 14, she was given in marriage to Mahmud Bey al-Islambuli, a Turkish notable like her father. In 1855, she gave birth to their only child, Tawhida , and in the years that followed 'A'isha gave up her literary work so that she could devote all of her energies to her family. 'A'isha's biographers have suggested that for a time she made Tawhida the focus of her life. 'A'isha herself remarked that as a child Tawhida was different than she had been, showing an interest in knitting and running the household as well as in writing.

Tawhida's childhood was a joyful time for 'A'isha, but it ended abruptly and unexpectedly. Tawhida died in 1873 at the age of 18 from an unknown illness, and for 'A'isha the loss was almost unbearable. She wrote about her daughter's despair, "When she saw the hopelessness of the physician and his failure, her eyelids flowing with tears she said, 'Oh mother, the physician failed and the supporter that I hoped for in life passed me by!'"

Tawhida's death was the first of a series of losses for 'A'isha al-Taymuriyya. In 1882, her father died, followed by her husband only three years later, and 'A'isha turned to her writing for comfort. She published essays in the Egyptian press advocating education for girls and corresponded with other female intellectuals such as the Syrian poet Warda al-Yaziji (1838–1924). In addition, although she was already in her 40s, 'A'isha resumed her own education. During the last two decades of her life, she devoted herself to her poetry with new energy, studying grammar and metrics with two female professors, Fatima al-Azhariyya and Sitita al-Tablawiyya . Some of 'A'isha's poems eulogized friends and family members, some were romantic, and others had religious and moral themes.

During the final years of her life, 'A'isha al-Taymuriyya struggled with an inflammation of the eyes that made it difficult for her to write. She died in 1902.


Badran, Margot. Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Booth, Marilyn. "Biography and Feminist Rhetoric in Early Twentieth Century Egypt: Mayy Ziyada 's Studies of Three Women's Lives," in Journal of Women's History. Vol. 3, no. 2, 1991, pp. 38–64.

Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing. Ed. by Margot Badran and Miriam Cook. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990.

al-Sayyid-Marsot, Afaf. A Short History of Modern Egypt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Tucker, Judith. "Problems in the Historiography of Women in the Middle East: The Case of Nineteenth Century Egypt," in International Journal of Middle East Studies. Vol. 15, no. 3, 1983, pp. 321–336.

Ziyadah, Mayy. 'A'isha Taymur: Sha'irat al-Tali'ah ['A'isha Taymur: A Vanguard Poet]. Cairo: Matba'at al-Muqtataf, 1926.

suggested reading:

Ahmad, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

Kate Lang , Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois