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In History: Early 20th Century Egyptian Feminists

May 28, 2009

In contemporary Egyptian affairs the unknown quantity is the new woman. During the feverish days of the revolution of 1919 she threw off the muzzle endured throughout centuries. Since then her voice is raised on every public question, and what she has to say is so significant that it is recorded on the front pages of metropolitan newspapers. (“New Women of Egypt Struggle to End Age-old Wrongs” by Beatrice Hill Ogilvie, June 17, 1928, from the New York Times*)

It is said that in Ancient Egypt, women’s position in society were equal to that of men’s. In ancient Egyptian mythology, for example, goddesses such as Mut, Isis and Hathor ruled over many areas of Egypt. This post will focus on the Egyptian feminist movement that began in the early 20th century, a time when Egyptian women had little to no rights. Whenever talking about an underdeveloped country, some people believe that women’s movements outside of the First World such as the one in Egypt should not be called “feminist” because that word is imported by the West. I beg to differ, and offer an explanation articulated by Margot Badran, who is an Islamic women’s and feminist writer in her book, Feminists, Islam, and Nation:

Examining the unfolding of feminism(s) in the context of Egyptian women’s experiences and reflections renders such interrogation redundant. Looking for an essential “cultural purity” underlying such debates over feminism is futile. Cultures are constructed; they are fluid and thus continually in the process of construction and reconstruction. “External elements”–external to class, region, or country–are appropriated and woven into the fabric of the “indigenous” or local. Egypt historically has appropriated and absorbed “alien elements” into a highly vital indigenous culture. Attempts to discredit or legitimize feminism on cultural grounds, used by feminists and detractors alike, are political projects predicated on divergent ways of understanding, or manipulating, culture and on the willingness or perceived need to perpetuate constructs of “East” and “West.” (pg. 31-32, you can read parts of this book online: Feminists, Islam, and Nation by Margot Badran)

Egyptian Feminist Union, Al-Ittihad Al-Nisa’i Al-Misri

Al-Ittihad Al-Nisa’i Al-Misri, also known as the Egyptian Feminist Union [EFU], was founded by Hoda Sharawi (see below) as the first feminist organization in Egypt in early 1923. The first order of the EFU was social activism, where they picketed the 1924 opening of the Egyptian parliament after the constitution had not granted women the right to vote. The Union also focused on other issues such as equal access to educational opportunities and reform of marriage laws. The EFU went on to train girls in handicraft production, and founded two journals: the French language L’Egyptienne (1925-40) and the Arabic language Al-Misriyya (1937-40).

Mounira Sabet (1928-19??)

At the age of 24 (in 1928), Mounira Sabet directed L’Espoir, a Cairo newspaper financed by the political organization, Wafd. Going back to Beatrice Hill Ogilvie’s historical article* written in 1928, Ogilvie exclaims that Sabet as the “Amazon in journalism:”

Executive ability and political grasp are required to guide this journalistic craft through the shoals of contemporary affairs, yet Mounira Sabet has energy to spare for editing the Arabic journal Al Amal. She is a dynamic personality. She believes in pounding advanced ideas into the heads of Egyptian men, most of whom are still dozing in medieval Islamic orthodoxy.

An incident of Sabet’s pounding would be in late 1926: Mounira Sabet created a sensation when the Egyptian parliament reassembled and entered the packed chamber to take a seat. People were startled: why was a woman sitting in Parliament? In that session, Sabet talked about why she rebelled against Muslim conventions and initiated a heated discussion amongst Parliament members about a new cotton proposal. But Sabet wasn’t the only woman “stirred the pot” or so to speak in the fight for women’s rights in Egypt—another woman named Hoda Sharaawi was known for publicly taking off her veil right before Sabet’s Parliament attendance.

Her face is revealed: Hoda Sharaawi

hodasharawi

Hoda Sharawi

Hoda Sharaawi (1879-1947) was one of the leaders of the Egyptian feminist movement. Sharaawi was born into politics: her father was Muhammad Sultan, the first president of the Egyptian Representative Council; and she was married to Ali Sharaawi, a leading political activist. She was married at the young age of 14 but separated from her husband at age 21, under pressure from her family. From then on she continued her studies and expanded her independence.

Sharaawi fought for women’s rights by organizing in 1909 Mubarret Muhammad Ali, a women’s social service organization. In 1914 she helped to form the Union of Educated Women in 1914, and shortly afterwards made her first trip to Europe. Sharaawi founded the Egyptian Feminist Union (see above) in 1923, in which she was sent to Rome for an international feminist meeting. When she returned from her trip, she (along with her associate Ceza Nabaraoui) removed their face veils from the public for the first time outside of a train station. This caused some outrage with Egyptian authorities and amongst Sharaawi’s separated husband, but this caused other women to take off their face veils, too.

More about Historical Egyptian Feminism

While I just mention a feminist group and two feminists in a small part of history of Egypt, it is important to recognize that these small steps helped to pave the status and rights of women in Egypt. In March of 1956, Egyptian women were granted the right to vote, only one small but important step in fighting the feminist movement.

How do you compare the women mentioned previously and the EFU with other groups from your home country? Do you think they are similar or different? How, and why?

There is a documentary film that was made five years ago about women in the early 20th century. While I have never watched it, this film seems to be interesting. See so for yourself by going here.

*This article can be found here or purchased through NY Times website.

For more information on Egyptian feminism, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminism_in_Egypt.

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