Egyptian Feminism in a nationalist century
By Margot Badran
The 20th century has been one full of national and social challenges. Margot Badran maps Egyptian women’s struggle for liberation
Feminism had already been born in Egypt when the twentieth century dawned, but it was still an unnamed infant. Its mothers were women whose lives spanned the nineteenth and twentieth centuries —women of the middle- and upper-classes who realised that the benefits of modernity and the possibilities for new lives that it held were not the same for them as for men of similar circumstances. As the twentieth century unfolded, a new awareness about what it meant to be "female" took root.
The state granted women the right to vote and run for parliament in 1956. Here, Rawya Attiya, in military garb, canvassing the support that would make her Egypt’s first female parliamentarian (1957)
Huda Sha’rawi meeting with women from various Arab countries. The Egyptian Feminist Union also promoted the cause of Arab women
Huda Sha’rawi, right, with Saiza Nabarawi at a women’s conference in Rome after they had removed their veils
The story of Egyptian feminism is the story of feminism in a nationalist century. How could it be otherwise? The first half of the century was marked by a fierce anticolonial struggle; the second half in constructing a new, more independent nation. During the course of the century, women have given shape to a newer, modern identity —a new way of thinking, a new mode of analysis and a new guide for everyday and collective political activism. Women articulated feminism within the discourses of both Islamic modernism and secular nationalism. Feminist foremothers, like Aisha El-Taimuriya, Warda El-Yaziji and Zainab Fawwaz, gave expression to the emergent "feminist consciousness" in their poetry, essays and tales. Aisha El-Taimuriya wrote in 1894: "Oh, men of our homelands, Oh you who control our affairs, why have you left women behind?"
Women’s feminism gained its initial entry into public space legitimised largely as a vital nationalist force. The first two decades of the century saw a discrete social feminism, but in the next three decades, feminism grew into a forceful political movement.
After the 1952 Revolution, feminism was silenced as an independent public discourse while the state undertook to determine citizens’ rights within the framework of Arab socialism. In the 1970s a second feminist wave emerged, becoming a vibrant force in the 80s, as public space reopened to plural voices. By the 1990s, women of a new generation were shaping a third feminist wave and beginning to rethink the feminist turath and where feminism might be taken in the future.
The opening years of this century constituted a moment of discreet public feminist activism as women of the upper- and middle-classes began to exit the confines of domestically-centered life. From the turn of the century until the end of the second decade, women judiciously entered the public space to collectively engage in various modes of social feminism, either as individual pioneers or as women engaged in collective pursuits.
The year 1909 was a landmark in Egyptian feminism, witnessing a number of firsts. The field of education was marked by two important advances: First, Nabawiya Musa sat for the state secondary school examination and passed with flying colors —the first girl to do so and the last allowed to by the colonial education authorities until after Egypt’s quasi-independence in 1922. Second, in answer to demands from women, special lectures were held by and for women at the new Egyptian University. Newly educated middle-class women, such as Nabawiya Musa, Malak Hifni Nasif, Mai Ziyada, and Labiba Hashim were the speakers. In other sectors, women founded the first secular philanthropic association, the Mabarrat Muhammad Ali, to bring health and medical services to poor women and children. Malak Hifni Nasif, under the pseudonym Bahithat Al-Badiya, published a collection of her essays, articles, and public speeches in a book called Al-Nisa’iyat (Feminist Texts), which examined the challenges and potentials for women as they entered into national life and public space.
As they were staking out new lives for themselves in society, women began to formulate a coherent agenda for their advancement. At the Nationalist Congress that convened in Heliopolis in 1911, Malak Hifni Nasif seized the opportunity to issue the first set of feminist demands. These included women’s right to all forms and levels of education, the right to work in the occupations and professions of their choice and the right to participate in congregational prayer in mosques.
Women’s nationalist militancy in the period from 1919 to 1922 became the bridge from what was a mainly invisible social feminism to a highly public and organised collective feminism. Women went out in public protest for the first time when they mounted a demonstration on 16 March 1919, joining the entire nation in decrying the continued British colonial occupation and demanding national independence. While upper-class women went out in organised demonstrations, women of the popular classes joined the more spontaneous public protests. It was women "of the people" who became martyrs to the cause, like Hamida Khalil, who was shot by colonial police in front of the Al-Hussein Mosque.
Nabawiya Musa exhibited a different defiance. As the director of the Wardiyan Women Teachers’ Training School in Alexandria (a first for an Egyptian woman), she refrained from participating in street demonstrations in order not to risk the closure of her school. She answered back in 1920 when she published a bold feminist nationalist treatise, Al-Mar’a wal-’Amal (The Woman and Work), insisting that "directing women towards education and work is the best service we can render this country we are ready to die for."
Malak Hifni Nasif
During the period of intensified nationalist militancy to end British occupation, men welcomed the participation of women in the nationalist movement. The Wafdist Women’s Central Committee helped widen the base of support throughout the country and rendered vital services. However, after quasi-independence was declared in 1922, women were treated as second-class citizens. Although the Constitution of 1923 declared all Egyptians equal, a new electoral law subsequently granted the right to vote to men only.
Women saw that they would have to organise their own liberation movement at this crucial moment, when the new nation was itself being shaped. Huda Sha’rawi led women in founding the first explicitly feminist organisation, Al-Ittihad Al-Nisa’i Al-Misri (the Egyptian Feminist Union). The Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU), in conjunction with the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee, produced a comprehensive list of demands, including women’s full political rights, women’s educational and work rights and reform of the Muslim Personal Status Law. Girls from the New Woman Society workshop placarded the demands at the gates of the new parliament when it opened in 1924.
The EFU founded the journal l’Egyptienne in 1925 under the editorship of Saiza Nabarawi and 12 years later, Al-Misriya, first under the editorship of Fatma Ni’mat Rashid and later Eva Habib El-Masri. Endeavouring to reach out to a new generation of feminists, the EFU organised a junior group called the Shaqiqat in 1933. Among its members were Hawwa Idris, a niece of Huda Sha’rawi, who would later become a long-time EFU activist and set up a daycare center for working mothers. Other junior feminists included Amina El-Said, who would become a pioneering journalist at Dar Al-Hilal, and Suhair El-Qalamawi, who would break ground as a university professor. Zainab El-Ghazali, a future Islamist leader, joined the EFU in 1935, but left a year later to form the Muslim Women’s Society, intent to struggle for women’s liberation and national liberation within an Islamic framework.
The era between 1920 and 1950 witnessed many feminist achievements. The first state secondary school for girls, the Shubra School, with a curriculum equal to that of the boys’ schools was opened in 1925. Women gained entry to the university in Egypt in 1929. Suhair El-Qalamawi became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in Egypt in 1941 and went on to teach in the Department of Arabic Literature at Fuad I University. Duriya Shafiq became the first Egyptian woman to receive a doctorat d’état from the Sorbonne. Hilana Sidarus, who had been among the first group of Egyptian women to be sent on scholarship abroad to study medicine, became the first Egyptian director of the Kitchner Memorial Hospital and later established a long and successful private practice. Na’ima El-’Ayyubi, the first woman to graduate in law from Fuad I University, later became the first Inspector of Women’s Work in the new Labor Office.
Although women could claim many successes, the largest disappointment to feminists was the failure to win significant reform in the Muslim Personal Status Law, especially regarding the curbing of polygamy, control of men’s easy access to divorce, and enabling women to initiate the dissolution of marriage. No amount of Islamic reformist arguments could win the day for them. Throughout the twentieth century, reform of the Personal Status Law would be the most contentious issue in Egyptian feminism.
In the 1930s and 40s, the Egyptian Feminist Union reached other Arab women. At the height of the Arab Revolution of the 1930s in Palestine, the EFU overcame great obstacles put in the way by colonial authorities to convene the Conference for the Defence of Palestine; once again demonstrating the tight mesh of nationalism and feminism. Faika Muddaris from Syria insisted: "In order to achieve our nationalist task, we should not rely only on kings, presidents and other male leaders, but likewise upon women." Zainab El-Ghazali, who joined forces with the feminists, declared: "In past time, as today, the woman has called for peace and has raised the banner of right to defend the land and its dignity."
Anticipating a postwar world, the EFU spearheaded the Arab Feminist Conference in 1944. The liberation of Palestine and the liberation of women were at the top of the agenda, as was the cause of Arab unity. Later, when the Arab League was formed and there were no women among the delegations, Arab Feminist Conference President Huda Sha’rawi told the men: "You have widened the gap between yourselves and your women by deciding to build your new glory alone. The League is but half a league —a league of half the Arab people." The Arab Feminist Conference gave birth to pan-Arab feminism, creating the Arab Feminist Union that still exists today.
In the 1940s, women moved to widen the societal base of feminist activism, giving birth to a new populist feminism. Feminist organisations and organisers proliferated. Fatima Ni’mat Rashid, Duriya Shafiq, and Inji Aflatun appeared on the scene as leaders of three different strands of this new populism. Fatma Ni’mat Rashid created the first women’s political party called Al-Hizb Al-Nisa’i Al-Watani (The National Feminist Party), in 1941. Establishing close links with the Workers and Peasants Parties, the NFP adopted a broad agenda of economic and social reforms. However, its main purpose was to accelerate the campaign for women’s political rights. The NFP did not survive more than a year.
Duriya Shafiq undertook a more dynamic feminist initiative. She created Ittihad Bint Al-Nil (the Daughter of the Nile Union) in 1948, having paved the way by the three journals she had previously founded. The Bint Al-Nil movement was the first feminist movement to establish a broad base throughout the country. It opened literacy centres and hygiene programmes for poor women in numerous provincial towns. It also placed the vote for women at the forefront of the activist agenda.
Duriya Shafiq became Egypt’s most militant suffragist and the leader in the final round of the battle for women’s political rights. When she saw that forceful argumentation alone (of the kind the liberal feminists made) did not carry the weight necessary, she resorted to more radical tactics. In 1951 she led a women’s march to the Parliament and a three-hour sit-in. She later conducted a hunger strike in a final push for women’s political rights and also engaged in debates with the Islamic establishment, objecting to fatwas saying that women should not vote.
In this postwar period, with the international rise of the Left and the mounting anti-imperialist struggles as countries of Africa and Asia fought to gain national independence, a more radical strand of populist feminism was in the making in Egypt. Young socialist feminist Inji Aflatun helped found Rabitat Fatayat Al-Jam’ia wal-Ma’ahid (The League of Young Women of the University and Institutes) in 1945, which student leader Latifa El-Zaiyat joined. Later, when the League was closed down in a drive to suppress the Left, socialist feminists created the Jam’iya Al-Nisa’iya Al-Wataniya Al-Mu’aqqata (The Provisional Feminist Association). Inji Aflatun was the first woman from within the Egyptian Left, which accorded no space to discuss women’s liberation, to link class and women’s oppression and to connect the two to imperialist exploitation. She elaborated her arguments in two books: Thamanun Milyun Imra’a Ma’na (Eighty Million Women with Us) and Nahnu Al-Nisa’ Al-Misriyat (We Egyptian Women), published in 1948 and 1949 respectively.
The women’s peace movement became a major site for the expansion of populist feminism as women came together in a broad coalition to fight for the final expulsion of British troops from Egypt. In 1950, veteran EFU feminist Saiza Nabarawi (then moving to the left, a lone example of the radical future of liberal feminism) and younger feminists, including Inji Aflatun and Widad Mitri, formed the Harakat Ansar Al-Salam (the Friends of Peace Movement). When violence broke out in the Canal zone in 1952, women across the political and ideological spectrum from socialist feminist Inji Aflatun to liberal feminist Hawwa Idris to Islamist Zainab El-Ghazali, joined ranks to form the Al-Lajna Al-Nisa’iya lil-Muqawama Al-Shabiya (the Women’s Committee for Popular Resistance).
With the 1952 Revolution, women’s independent public militancy was about to come to an end. The new state granted women the vote in 1956, 32 years after feminists had made their first demands for suffrage. The same year the government forced the closure of the Egyptian Feminist Union (as it did all independent organisations). It was allowed to reconstitute itself as a social service organisation under a new name, the Huda Sha’rawi Association.
The major exception to the rule of the public silencing of feminists was Amina El-Said, who had come of age during the time of the EFU-led movement. While still a student she used to write and give speeches in Arabic for the feminist organisation. In 1954 El-Said founded a mass circulation magazine for women called Hawwa (Eve) published by Dar Al-Hilal. She became a member of the board of the Press Syndicate and later, vice-president. El-Said tried to integrate the liberal feminist vision into the socialist state’s "gender-neutral" project for the mobilisation of citizens. She deplored the inequities of the Muslim Personal Status Code. She decried the double burden put on women who had taken up new jobs provided by the state, only to realise how the state had failed to help these working women meet their childcare needs. The socialist state’s extension of educational and work opportunities across lines of class and gender would later lead to unintended consequences.
In the 1970s, with the start of the era of infitah (open-door) capitalism and the announcement of democratic "pluralism," feminists and other suppressed groups once again surfaced. Women who had been the beneficiaries of the socialist programmes of the previous state emerged on the scene to create a new feminist wave. At the forefront of the new feminist resurgence was Nawal El-Saadawi, who had graduated as a medical doctor in 1955. Through her medical practice she observed women’s physical and psychological problems and connected them with oppressive cultural practices. She also linked patriarchal oppression, class oppression and imperialist oppression. In 1972 she published Al-Mar’a wa Al-Jins (Woman and Sex), confronting and contextualising various aggressions perpetrated against women’s bodies, including female circumcision. The book, which became a foundational text of second-wave feminism, cost her her job in the Ministry of Health.
The 1980s saw the consolidation of various associations and groupings. Nawal El-Saadawi led women in founding the Jam’iyat Tadamun lil-Mar’a Al-’Arabiya (the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association) in 1985. AWSA provided a forum for debating gender issues and organised several international conferences. In 1982 women who had joined forces in Mansura to protest the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon went on to publish a feminist journal called Majallat Bint Al-Ard (Daughter of the Earth Magazine). The group coalescing around the new journal also began to work with women in surrounding villages to help them better their everyday lives. In 1986 a group formed around the Majallat Al-Mar’a Al-Jadida (The New Woman Magazine) and began to help ordinary women deal with health issues and legal aid and to assist them in income-generating projects.
Feminists also began organising themselves around human rights and legal literacy. In 1987 a group of women and men founded Rabitat Al-Mar’a Al-Arabiya (the Alliance for Arab Women), headed by women’s development specialist Huda Badran. The organisation focuses on women’s political and legal rights. Other professional women also brought their experience to bear in the service of women’s legal needs. Prominent lawyers, journalists, government officials, and NGO leaders, including Mervat El-Tellawi, Magda El-Mufti, ’Aziza Hussein, Inji Rushdi, Saniya Salih, Awatif Wali and Muna Zulfiqar formed the Communication Group for the Enhancement of the Status of Women. To help women take advantage of the existing laws in their favour, they published a pamphlet called Legal Rights of the Egyptian Woman: Theory and Practice in 1988.
In 1985 when the revised Muslim Personal Status Law of 1979 (the first major revision since 1929) was revoked, feminists formed a broad coalition constituting the Lajnat Al-Difa’ ’an Huquq Al-Mar’a wal-Usra (the Committee for the Defence of the Rights of the Woman and the Family), which successfully fought for the reinstatement of the law (albeit in a slightly modified form). Although the rescinding of the law was part of a larger political battle that transcended issues of personal status, the regulation of family life would prove the most contentious and least satisfactorily settled feminist issue during the century.
Feminists paid renewed attention to issues of women’s health and sexuality when Cairo hosted the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994. Although female circumcision, now called female genital mutilation, had been a feminist issue in the 1970s, there was now an intensification of the campaign against this continued, and even rising, practice. Veteran activist Marie Assad headed the Quwwat Al-’Amal lil-Munahaddat li Khitan Al-Banat (the Task Force to Fight the Circumcision of Girls) composed of a broad base of professional and activist women of different generations.
As the twentieth century draws to a close, feminism is taking multiple shapes. Feminist activism is dispersed throughout civil society. This de-centered feminism is being expressed in the context of a massive proliferation of NGOs and at a moment when the pragmatic takes precedence over the ideological. Nationalist feminism, as an ideology, seems to have run its course. Feminists are now operating in local and global spaces as the two increasingly intersect, challenging and redefining each other. As we bid farewell to feminism in the nationalist century and mark the achievements of its leaders and pioneers, it seems that feminism in a new paradigm will appear with the new millennium.
Font: Al-Ahram Weekly
30 Dec. 1999 - 5 Jan. 2000
Issue No. 462