The emancipation of Egyptian women began in the nineteenth century under the rule of Mohamed Ali (1766- 1849), when the first school to train women to be medical assistants was opened in 1832. Forty years later, in 1873, the first government primary school was opened to the public. However, the real breakthrough for Egyptian women happened by Mohamed Ali’s decedents. The policy reform which his decedents adopted included sending several intellectuals to France to be educated in key leadership positions in the government.
Qassim Amin (1863 – 1908), at the age of nineteen, and after he graduated from law school, was among the privileged who were selected for the scholarship in France. He stayed there for four years.
In France, Amin was exposed to different experiences than the oneس he grew up with. These experiences altered his vision about life and society and opened his eyes to the decaying status and living conditions in which the Egyptian women were living. As a true believer in the reform policies that Egypt was adopting, he concluded that neither these reforms would be attainable nor the Islamic world would ever witness development towards modernity unless the status of women in the society was improved.
Amin believed that the liberation of women was the first step for the liberation of the Egyptian society from its inferior position, after all how would a society advance if its rulers were brought up by ignorant and uneducated women. On these subjects Amin wrote two books. Using both rational Islamic arguments and emotional ones, he pleaded for a more dignified and improved social position for women: advocating education equality, the abolition of the veil and the reformation of marriage laws, divorce, and polygamy.
He wrote his first book, The Liberation of Women in 1899. In the book, Amin openly criticized the way men treated women in the Moslem societies and demanded that it should come to an end. He discussed her role toward her nation, her responsibility toward her family and children and recommended reforms for the practices of arranged marriages and divorce decisions. An important emphasis was put on education and the issue of polygamy and its effect on women was also addressed.
The controversial book generated a lot of debate, but it was his view regarding the veil and the seclusion of women that really ignited the fires. As many researchers before him, Amin wrote that the veil was not an Islamic custom and that the Moslems didn’t invent it. He explained that the veil was adopted from other cultures and it was a custom in many other nations, but it eventually disappeared as a result of the social changes. He believed that Moslems have exaggerated the use of veil and he denounced it as a source of discrimination against women because it would never allow them to have full control over their lives. For him, the first step for women liberation was to tear off the veil and the next step would be to bring women out of their seclusion. Unlike the masses that believed that seclusion was meant to protect women’s purity and prevent immorality in the society, Amin saw it as a shield that separated them from the living world and deprived them from any progress.
In adopting the cause of women as his focus for reform, Amin subjected himself to severe criticism from the Palace as well as from religious leaders, journalists, and writers. Such attacks and criticism however did not intimidate him, and in response he wrote a second book on the subject.
The New Woman was written in 1901, in which he developed some of his ideas further and spoke openly in favor of women’s emancipation. Amin’s second book caused more controversy than the first one and was very poorly received by both the intellectuals and the nationalists. The reason they opposed it was because it promoted western ideas and thus, from their point of view, encouraged immorality in the society. While others saw the removal of the veil and bringing the women out of their seclusion as a total destruction of the values of the society, Amin believed that the emancipation of women was the answer to the reform of the society. Amin fought for the women’s cause until he died in 1908.
More than a hundred years later and it seems that the women in Egypt are starting all over again. If Amin was alive today, it would all be a déjà vu for him.