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Feminism in Egypt

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Title: Feminism in Egypt  
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Feminism in Egypt

Feminism in Egypt has involved a number of social and political groups throughout its history. Although Egypt has in many respects been a forerunner in matters of reform particularly "in developing movements of nationalism, of resistance to imperialism and of feminism"[1] its development in fighting for equality for women and their rights has not been easy.


  • Position of women in Egyptian history 1
    • Western rule 1.1
  • Nationalism 2
    • 1919 Revolution 2.1
  • Egyptian Feminist Union 3
    • Examples of criticism faced by the early feminism movement 3.1
  • Egyptian feminism after World War II 4
  • From the 1950s to the early 1970s 5
  • Since the early 1970s 6
  • Feminism in Egypt in the 21st century 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9

Position of women in Egyptian history

In early Egyptian history (see Ancient Egypt), women’s position in Egyptian society is believed to have been equal to that of men. For example, female gods played a vital role in ancient Egyptian religion, roles which can be identified as being of equal importance to that of male gods. Goddesses such as Mut, Isis and Hathor ruled over and controlled many areas of human activity.[1] It is believed by many scholars that the high status of such goddesses is indicative of the high status of women in Pharaonic society. Equal status can be further illustrated by the very fact that Egypt was ruled by queens – female pharaohs such as Sobekneferu, Hatshepsut and Cleopatra VII, regents such as Meritneith or Ahmose-Nefertari or holders of the prestigious title God's Wife of Amun during the Late Period. Since their position was largely hereditary, women of commoner background such as the physicians Merit-Ptah and Peseshet, the vizier Nebet or the scribe Irtyrau are better examples of women's position in Egypt. Examples of early Egyptian art-work are also important in identifying the position enjoyed by women. Paintings of the earlier eras show men and women as being of equal size.[1] Kumari Jeyawordena claims that it is only after "2000 BC that women are often depicted somewhat smaller than males probably indicating a diminution of their status".[1]

Western rule

Foreign control of Egypt was the status quo of the country’s leadership for many centuries. Control of the country has ranged from early Roman domination, to the country becoming an Arab conquest in the 7th century, and then in the 16th century becoming part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. (see History of Egypt, Egypt). However it was the French invasion of Egypt which began to change the position of women in Egyptian society and which influenced the beginnings of social change in the country.

The French Invasion of Egypt led by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 was to have significant social implications on the country. For the French invasion "caused a rapid flow of European ideas into Egypt including the ideology of the French Revolution".[1] Marriages took place between French officers who had converted to Islam and Egyptian women. There were also "cases of Egyptian women imitating the behavior and dress of the women of the expedition".[2] Such ideas and beliefs were not however welcomed by all in Egypt. As a result, a backlash emerged against such western ideas. The historian al Jabarti reportedly commented on the "pernicious innovations and corruption of women caused by the French occupation".[1]

Following a series of civil wars, Egypt saw the end of the French rule. Albanian General Muhammad Ali (see Muhammad Ali's seizure of power) established authority in Egypt in 1805 and was appointed as Ottoman viceroy. During his time in power a series of modernization reforms were introduced in Egypt. Reforms included updating public works and improving the industrialization of Egypt and importantly included a series of reforms within education. Although he generally regarded "education as a means of fitting young men for the public service",[1] advancements were also made in the education of women. Daughters of the upper classes in Egypt of the time were able to receive education at home, however poorer girls were able to attend Kuttabs where the Koran was taught along with some reading and writing. In 1832 Muhammad Ali went on to build a school at which girls and women were taught to be midwives.[1] Further improvements to women’s position within Egyptian society were introduced by Isma'il Pasha known as Ismail the Magnificent (December 31, 1830 – March 2, 1895), Muhammad Ali's successor. In 1873, his third wife, Jashem Afet Hanum, started the Suyliyya Girls School which provided teaching to girls of a variety of subjects ranging from history and religion to arithmetic.[1] Female education did however remain restrictive. According to Abdel Kadar "the purpose was restricted to preparing girls to be efficient mothers and good wives, and it was mainly the girls of bourgeois families who benefited".[3]

Despite both social and economic reforms and further improvements made by Isma'il Pasha, Egypt had fallen heavily in debt to European powers and in order to protect its financial interests, particularly those in the Suez Canal, the UK seized control of the Egyptian government (1882).

Opposition against foreign intervention particularly against the British occupation began to grow. A reaction against anti-western occupation and social and economic dissatisfaction led to the emergence of the Nationalist movement. Reformism and therefore feminism, which were originally closely linked, began to diverge.


The start of the 20th century saw a growing national consciousness. "The overwhelming presence of Europe and the collapse of much of the traditional order led to a reconsideration of Egypt's own position and identity in relation to the west. National independence seemed to supply the answer to western domination".[4] A growing dissatisfaction with Egyptian society began to emerge and with it came calls for reform. The improvement of the position of women was part of this reform. "Since the end of the nineteenth century Egyptian Nationalists have claimed that there can be no improvement of the state without improving the position of women."[4]

Legislative Assembly this did not stop the British exiling Zaghlul and some of his fellow part members to Malta on March 8, 1919. This proved to be the final straw for many and in protest Egyptian society rose to demonstrate against the British in what was the country's first modern Revolution.

1919 Revolution

Western repression along with the exile of the popular Wafd leader Saad Zaghlul proved to be the catalyst for change resulting in violent demonstrations. All classes of Egyptian society participated and it was the first time women were involved in such rallies. In fact "open political agitation and action on the part of women began with their participation in the Nationalist movement against the British".[1]

"The veiled gentlewomen of Cairo paraded in the streets shouting slogans for independence and freedom from foreign occupation. They organised strikes and demonstrations, boycotts of British goods and wrote petitions protesting British actions in Egypt".[5] These demonstrations are believed to be what led to the emergence of the first phase of Egyptian feminism.

Egyptian Feminist Union

The first phase of the feminist movement is considered to have taken place between (1923–1939). The Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU) was founded by the former leader of the women’s committee in the Wafd party, Hoda Shaarawi. This led to her participation in an international Feminist Conference in Rome and upon her return, along with Nabawiyya Musa and Ceza Nabarwi, Shaarawi caused outrage in the gesture that she made against the Egyptian authorities and traditions by throwing her veil into the sea. This act caused a particular scandal for Shaarawi was the wife of an eminent Pasha. However she was able to inspire other women to cast off their veils.[6]

The EFU was concerned with education, social welfare, and changes in private law in order to provide equality between Egyptian men and women. It viewed the social problems of Egypt, such as poverty, prostitution, illiteracy, and poor health conditions, not as a result of a specific socioeconomic structure, but rather due to the neglect of the state in its responsibilities towards its people.[7] The movement believed that the state had a responsibility to maintain the morality of the nation, as well as its welfare. However it defined the issues concerning women only from the narrow and class based perspective of upper class women.[7]

This is particularly evident in the feminist journal L'Egyptienne published by the EFU. Written and published in French, the journal was only accessible to the French speaking Egyptians who were mostly members of the upper classes. However the issues discussed in the magazine included Turkish reforms regarding women, which had influenced Egyptian women and Islam. The journal editor Ceza Nebarawi stated in 1927 that "we the Egyptian Feminists, have a great respect for our religion. In wanting to see it practised in its true spirit".[8] Another journal, published 1937, was called el-Masreyyah (The Egyptian Woman).

Although the new Constitution of 1924 had made some changes to the position of women such as raising the age of marriage for girls to sixteen, the question of women's political rights was ignored as was the right to divorce and abolition of polygamy. In 1935 Hoda Shaarawi lectured at the American University of Cairo on the status of women and called for the abolition of polygamy. Her speech was met with protest from two Sheiks from the Al-Azhar University. However, according to Kumari Jayawordena the audience sided with Shaarawi which was symbolic of the changing educated opinion.[1] Her speech was in fact met with such enthusiasm that it was printed in a leading newspaper and thus widely circulated through the Arabic speaking world.[9] The rise of feminism was however stunted in Egypt by its remaining elitist nature and class bias. Its limited appeal was not fairly representative of the situation of most women in Egypt. It is claimed that to some extent the movement "followed the political practices of most parties in Egypt during the 1920s – 1930s, which regarded politics as the prerogative of the educated elite".[7] Feminist activism began to slow down particularly due to the climate of political opinion and criticism as a result of the movement increased.

Examples of criticism faced by the early feminism movement

Change concerning the position women in Egypt was felt by many as a "final invasion in the last sphere they could control against aggressive infidels, once sovereignty and much of the economy had been taken by the west".[10] Tal at Harb, a prominent Nationalist of his time, in "Tarbiyat al-mar’a wa-al-hijab" 1905 argued that "the emancipation of women was just another plot to weaken the Egyptian nation and disseminate immorality and decadence in its society. He criticised Egyptians who desired to ape the west and claimed that there was a European imperialist design to project a negative image of the position of Muslim women."

Not all critics were completely opposed to the idea of the emancipation of women. Ahmad as-Sayyid reassured his Nationalist leaders that despite events which were unfolding in Europe in which "women had satisfied their demands for individual rights and begun now to compete with men in politics "Our issue is not that of equality of men with women with regard to voting and positions. Our women, God bless them, do not put up such demands, which would disturb the public peace" They only demand education and instruction".[4] Any change in Egyptian women's position in society was often therefore "legitimised by the needs of society, not by their rights as human individuals".[4] This enabled limits to be established to prevent too much improvement in their position. By improving certain aspects of their rights and situations in Egyptian society such as access to education, meant that the upper and middle classes were satisfied.

Egyptian feminism after World War II

Following the end of the Second World War and facing hard economic realities and corruption of the ancient regime (the monarchical system under King Farouk), a general impetus for another radicalization of Egyptian politics became evident. The women’s movement experienced a similar transformation.

Although according to some writers the feminism began to decline in the period following the Second World War, it is argued by others that it is during precisely this period that the Women’s movement came of age. According to Nelson it was only then that the movement experienced a diversification in ideology, tactics, and goals, and that it began to transcend its elitist origins and membership.[4] This new phase in the Egyptian women’s movement was characterised by a more radical approach. The voices of a younger more radical generation of Egyptian women influenced by the rise of student and labour movements began to be heard and they were not content with the status quo of the EFU. It was felt that the EFU’s tactics were outdated and needed updating. The establishment of health clinics although necessary and important were no longer deemed sufficient. It was felt by the members of EFU that the distribution of charity was an inadequate solution to social problems. Fundamentally it was decided that equal rights no longer meant merely access to education but instead much more.

In 1942, the Egyptian Feminist party was founded. Headed by Fatma Neamat Rashed, the party called for complete equality between women and men in education, employment, political representation, and rights. It also called for the right to paid leave for working women.[2] The Bint El-Nil (daughter of the Nile) was another feminist association created in 1948. Their primary purpose was to claim full political rights for women.[11] It aimed to concentrate on introducing women’s participation in the decision-making processes. It also promoted literacy programmes, campaigned to improve health services among the poor, and aimed to enhance mother's rights and childcare.[12]

Doria Shafik was the leader of the movement and she reflected the liberal ideology of the modern feminists whose activism openly challenged the state. In 1951, a year before the 1952 Revolution, Doria Shafik and 1500 women stormed the parliament demanding full political rights, a reform of the Personal Status Law and equal pay for equal work.[13] In 1954 Shafik and a number of women engaged in a hunger strike for ten days in protest of a constitutional committee on which women were not permitted any places. Shafik’s most direct confrontation with Nasser took place in 1957. She again staged a hunger protest in demonstration against the occupation of Egyptian territories by Israeli forces and (in her view) the "dictatorial rule of the Egyptian authorities driving the country towards bankruptcy and chaos".[14]

From the 1950s to the early 1970s

In 1952, the army seized power in

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k
  2. ^ a b c d e f ‘The Feminist Movement in the Arab World, Intervention and Studies from Four Countries’ Nadia Abdel Wahab Al–Afifi, Amal Abdel Hadi ISBN 977-239-110-4
  3. ^ Abdel Kadar 1973:118-19 ‘Reformism and women’s rights in Egypt’ in ‘Feminism and Nationalism in the third world’ ISBN 0-86232-264-2
  4. ^ a b c d e ‘Feminism and Nationalist Politics in Egypt’ Thomas Philip, ‘Women in the Muslim world’ edited by Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie ISBN 0-674-95480-7
  5. ^ Marsat 1978:269 ‘Reformism and women’s rights in Egypt’ in ‘Feminism and Nationalism in the third world’ ISBN 0-86232-264-2
  6. ^ Mirai 1981:69 ‘Reformism and women’s rights in Egypt’ in ‘Feminism and Nationalism in the third world’ ISBN 0-86232-264-2
  7. ^ a b c ‘Women in Middle Eastern history’ edited by Nikki R. Keddie and Beth Baron ISBN 0-300-05006-2
  8. ^ Minai 1981:72 ‘Reformism and Women’s Rights in Egypt’ in Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World’ Kumari Jayawardena ISBN 0-86232-264-2
  9. ^ Woodsmall 1936:121-2 ‘Reformism and women’s rights in Egypt’ in ‘Feminism and Nationalism in the third world’ ISBN 0-86232-264-2
  10. ^ Nada Tomiche ‘The situation of Egyptian women in the first half of the 19th century’ in ‘Beginnings of modernization in the middle east’ edited by W. R. Polle and R. C. Chambers. Chicago University Press
  11. ^ (1988:469) ‘Secularism, Gender and the State in the Middle East. The Egyptian Women’s Movement’ Nadje Al-Ali ISBN 0-521-78022-5
  12. ^ (Shafik, 1955: 191) ‘Secularism, Gender and the State in the Middle East. The Egyptian Women’s Movement’ Nadje Al-Ali ISBN 0-521-78022-5
  13. ^ (Nelson, 1996: 168-177) ‘Secularism, Gender and the State in the Middle East. The Egyptian Women’s Movement’ Nadje Al-Ali ISBN 0-521-78022-5
  14. ^ (ibid:238) ‘Secularism, Gender and the State in the Middle East. The Egyptian Women’s Movement’ Nadje Al-Ali ISBN 0-521-78022-5
  15. ^ Bhaduri, Aditi Feminism in the Muslim World
  16. ^ ‘Back to basics. The discourse of Muslim feminism in contemporary Egypt’ Ghada Osman. In ‘Women and language’, Vol XXVI, Nr 1


Feminism seems to have become a priority of the state since 2000 with the foundation of the National Council for Women (NCW) who are very active in promoting women's rights in Egypt. In 2000 legislation was passed allowing women to divorce under the khul-law and to pass on their nationality to their biological children in 2004. These are great steps forward and due also in part to a very friendly Egyptian government and lobby in government and outside the state structures through civil society organisations.

See also

An Islamic feminist movement has also re-emerged in recent years. Islamic feminism is a "feminist discourse and practice articulated within an Islamic paradigm".[15] Islamic feminism sees the sexes not as different in capability, but rather in their characteristics and roles in society. Followers of such beliefs hold the view that their religion has established a framework of equality and rather than calling for change to existing laws, Islamic fundamentalists cry for a return to authentic Islam so that both women and men can achieve their full potential.[16]

Today, there are many different feminist groups within Egypt. Some of the movements are affiliated with the state in some way in that they are women's committees of political parties such as The Progressive Women's Union to the Women’s Secretariat of the Labor Party. There are however also many independent feminist associations such as The New Woman Research Centre and Bint El Ard (Daughter of the Land) Association. Although the organisations have different goals in general they all entail the improvement of women's position in Egyptian by improving literacy, democratic and human rights, increasing women's participation in political life, and women's health.

Feminism in Egypt in the 21st century

During the 1980s, however, new feminist groups were formed to counter religious fundamentalism. The New Woman Group was formed in Cairo and was mainly concerned with studying the feminist history of the country in order to determine a new program which would start off from where the previous one had stopped.[2] Another organisation was the Committee for the Defence of Women and Family Rights, which was formed in 1985. This Committee was established to support the campaign for the amendment of the Person Status Code.[2]

The decline of the Nasserist regime signified another era in the feminist movement in Egypt. In 1972 the publication of the book Women and Sex by Nawal El Saadawi was symbolic of the re-emergence and radicalisation of the movement. The book demanded "unified criteria for ‘honor’ for both women and men, and denounced social practices which used religion to justify women’s oppression".[2] The book caused a strong backlash within Egyptian society especially due to the rising religious fundamentalism within the state.

Since the early 1970s


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