Caption: The first Egyptian women’s study mission, departing for England in 1926
By: Alexandra Kinias
The deplorable situation of women in Egypt at the turn of the twentieth century was accepted as the status quo for most people, but not for women’s rights advocate Qassim Amin who exhausted tremendous efforts for their emancipation. In his two books: Liberation of Women and and The Free Woman he addressed the practices that kept women subservient. The books sparked fierce controversy and came under attack, but his endeavors not only fell on deaf ears, but were also resisted by decision makers and religious scholars. Meanwhile, the women whom Amin fought for remained silent. For those who could read and may have had a chance to react remained in seclusion, while the majority who were uneducated remained uninformed. It was not until 1921 that the first government secondary school for girls was opened. Unfortunately, Amin never lived to see his dreams come true.
When women finally came out of their seclusion, they began their battle to remove the veil. They fought very hard with the limited means they acquired then, but didn’t succeed until the courageous Hoda Sha’arawi and her colleague Ciza Nabrawi removed it in a spectacle in 1923 upon their return from a feminist meeting in Rome. Later that year Sha’arawi formed the Egyptian Feminist Union and headed it until her death in 1947.
After centuries of intellectual deprivation, women for the first time quenched their thirst for knowledge and education. In 1926, a group of female students were sent to England for their advanced studies and three years later universities opened their doors to women.
When the requests of the women’s political party that was formed in 1948 were not met, three years after its formation, its members stormed the parliament and demanded representation for women. By then, the snowball had started rolling and the feminist movements didn’t rest until women were granted the right to vote in 1956. A year later women were elected in the parliament and in 1962, the first Egyptian woman became a minister. Women had come a long way and were enjoying the fruits of their efforts. By the end of the sixties, and with their eyes on progress and advancement, the veil became a part of their history and almost disappeared from the heads of the Egyptian women.
However, in the seventies, the winds of changes blew in Egypt. With the new developments that happened in the society after the 67 war, ascend of Sadat to power, signing a pact with the Muslim brotherhood and releasing their leaders from jails, and with the return of thousands Egyptian workers from Arabia after being exposed to the Wahabism ideologies, veil surfaced again on the heads of women.
Four decades after the revival of the veil that had started as a practice of choice by few women, it became the norm of the society and was given the label of the Islamic dress code.
This Islamic dress code when worn by several state television presenters resulted in taking them off the air. These presenters took their cases to court and filed a case against the former Information Minister Safwat Al-Sherif. They claimed that Al-Sherif was the reason for their ban from appearing on television because they wore the veil. Although the minister never made the ban decision official, the court ruled that it was proven that the three presenters were dropped from their programs after wearing the veil, and the court rejected the ban on that basis. The court’s decision, however, did not mean the three presenters were able to resume their on-screen programs. The government’s defense team challenged the court decision by appealing to the Higher Administrative Court. When the final decision was made, the presenters were allowed to continue working at administrative jobs but not appear on screen.
It is quite interesting to note how the role had reversed in less than a century after the veil was removed. While the government is fighting to control this surging controversial phenomenon, some women are fighting to have it back on.
Today, the director and the employees of the Egyptian Feminist Union that was formed by the first women who removed the veil Hoda Sha’rawi, are all veiled. The name of the EFU was also changed to Hoda Sha’rawi’s Association. And cause that it had once fought for is abandoned. The director of the association explained in an interview to the Al-Ahram newspaper that there is no longer need for a women’s movement in Egypt as women have attained all their rights. Based upon that, the building that had witnessed the heated debates and meetings of the Egyptian suffrage movement became a dormitory service for young university women from out of Cairo. The garden of the huge villa became a day care center for pre-school children.
Had Hoda Sha’rawi been alive today, I wonder what she would have said to that.