Women of Egypt: Victories and Defeats in the Last 100 Years – Part One

Cleopatra - Hoda Sha'rawi - Working Woman - Movie Star
Cleopatra – Hoda Sha’rawi – Working Woman – Movie Star

By: Alexandra Kinias

Egyptian women have been portrayed recently in the news as being oppressed, victims and helpless. I cannot fully agree with these labels, but neither can I totally discard them because the situation of the women in Egypt is quite paradoxical when compared to other women in the Middle Ease. No one can discredit the role that they played in the 2011 revolution to topple the regime of Mubarak. They took the streets side by side the men to end the rule of the tyrant, but certainly not to replace him with another dictator who would steal their rights away.[1] It is no secret that Egypt has regressed tremendously in the 30 years of Mubarak’s rule, and so did the women status.

Today, Egypt is walking on very thin ice. With the rise of Islamists to power, both the country and the women are sailing towards an unknown fate. As Egyptians took the streets to out Mubarak, they were hoping for a democratic government that would represent all Egyptians, but as time passes, President Morsi is raising the fears that Egypt will become the next Iran. [2]

There is no doubt that the situation is becoming quite complicated and challenging, but Egyptian women have always been fighters and I have faith in them that they will prevail.

It came as a surprise to me when talking to people that the vast number of them believe that the way the Egyptian women are being portrayed had always been the status quo. This is totally false.

Allow me to take you on a brief journey, few thousand years ago, to ancient Egypt. Under the skies of this great civilization, the women enjoyed more rights and freedoms than those in neighboring lands. And as sad as it may sound, they even had more rights and better status than their contemporary daughters today. Indeed the ancient Egyptian society had many flows, yet there was no gender discrimination and women had no restrictions on their freedoms. In ancient Egypt:

– Men and women within each social class stood as equals in front of the law. Women were allowed to:
1. Appear in court as witnessess
2. Serve in juries
3. Testify in trials
4. Initiate a divorce and terminate a marriage at her will

– Women kept their financial independence and were able to:
1. Own and sell property
2. Borrow money and lend money
3. Write and sign contracts
4. Inherit equal shares from their deceased parents as their male siblings

– Women held prominent roles and important jobs in the government. Women were appointed as Vizier -– the right hand ‘person’ of the pharaoh.

Throughout Egyptian history, there were five women who ruled as Pharaohs; Queen Hatshipsut is the most known one because her temple in Upper Egypt is a witness for the grandness of her empire. Queen Nefertiti never ruled, but played a very important role in the Kingdoms as the wife of Akhnaton.[3]

May be the most famous queen known to the West, and thanks to Elizabeth Taylor, is Cleopatra, the last Pharaoh who ruled one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world. Contrary to the promiscuous image that Taylor portrayed in the Hollywood production, Cleopatra was not only the richest woman in the world, but a very powerful one too. She ruled at a time when women elsewhere were viewed as nothing but baby makers.

At the age of eighteen Cleopatra ascended the throne of Egypt and at the age of thirty five, she had formed an Eastern Mediterranean Empire that included Cyprus, Libya, Lebanon, Syria and coastal Turkey. Upon her defeat and death, and with the fall of Egypt into the hands of the Romans, Egypt slid into the dark ages and so did the women’s status.[4]

Fast forward to the nineteenth century….

The emancipation of Egyptian women started in the nineteenth century under the rule of Mohamed Ali (1766- 1849) and his descendants. Mohamed Ali was an Albanian general who was appointed by the Ottoman Sultan as the governor of Egypt, but he declared himself the ruler of Egypt, and his descendants became the monarchs of the country. He is viewed as the founder of Modern Egypt because of his military, cultural and social reforms.

The first school to train women to be medical assistants was opened in the mid-1800s. And few private schools were opened in the palaces and houses of wealthy people to educate the daughters of the upper class families and politicians.

The real breakthrough for Egyptian women happened during the reign of Mohamed Ali’s decedents. The policy reform which they adopted included sending several intellectuals to France to be educated and trained in key leadership positions in the government.

Qassim Amin (1863 – 1908), a young lawyer was among those who were granted a scholarship to study in France.The French experience altered Amin’s perception about life, society and the conditions that the Egyptian women were living in. He concluded that the Islamic world would never develop unless the status of women in the society was improved, and that the emancipation and education of women were the answer to the reform and advancement of Egypt. Upon his return from France in 1899, he wrote the book, The Liberation of Women, in which he openly criticized the way men treated women and he demanded for an improved social position for women. In his book he advocated:
– Education
– Equality
– Abolition of the veil
– Reformation of marriage, divorce, and polygamy laws
– The end to women’s seclusion that deprived them from any progress.

As many researchers before him, Amin argued that the veil was not an Islamic custom but adopted from other cultures and had eventually disappeared as a result of the social changes. Amin was attacked by the Palace, religious leaders, journalists, and writers. In response to these criticisms he wrote his second book in 1901, The New Woman.

In this book he openly wrote in favor of women’s emancipation. The New Woman caused even more controversy than The Liberation of Women, and it was poorly received by both the intellectuals and the nationalists. It was attacked for endorsing western ideas and thus, from their point of view, encouraged immorality in the society. Amin fought for women’s cause until he died in 1908 at the age of 45.[5]

The second important name that played an enormous role in the emancipation of women is Hoda Sharawi (1879 – 1945). Sha’arawi was the Egyptian Susan B. Anthony who founded the Egyptian suffrage movement. Daughter of a politician who grew up in a prominent family, Sha’arawi received a fair share of education. She married her cousin Ali Pasha Sha`arawi, a leading political activist who played an integral role in her emergence as a public figure and he actively supported her feminist movement.

Some of Sha’arawi’s achievements:

– Opening a school for girls in 1910
– Organizing the largest women’s anti-British demonstration in 1919
– Founding the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923
– After returning from the International Women Suffrage Alliance Congress in Rome in 1923, she removed her face veil in public, and so did the other women who accompanied her on the trip. This incident is a milestone in the history of Egyptian feminism
– Leading a delegation of women to the opening of the Parliament in 1924 and submitting their demands for the rights of women to vote and to share in the political life. These demands were ignored
– Publishing the feminist magazine l’Egyptienne (and el-Masreyya)

Sha’arawi continue to lead the Egyptian Feminist Union until her death in 1947.

The thirties witnessed a great advancement for Egyptian women:
– Secondary schools were opened for girls
– Women were accepted in collages
– More women magazines were published and daily newspapers dedicated columns to discuss women’s issues [6],[7]
– Women learnt how to drive, and in 1933 the first Egyptian female pilot Lotfia Al Nady at the age of 26 flew a plane from Cairo to Alexandria. In her biography she mentioned that she was inspired by her friend Amelia Earhart. [8]

However, with all these developments to women’s issues, their participation in politics was nonexistent. Their contribution to the work force was limited and they possessed few economic rights.

In April 1952, Egyptian Grand Mufti Sheikh Hassanein Makhlouf issued a fatwa that women are not entitled to vote in parliamentary elections because they are inferior. Since it was a religious declaration, no one was able to challenge it. Ironically, by mid-1952, Nasser’s coup d’état, that ousted King Farouk and ended the rule of the House of Mohamed Ali’s, eased the influence of the religious scholars. Under the rule of Nasser, Egypt shifted towards socialism and secularism.[9]

– In March 1954, eight women activists staged a hunger strike to force Egypt’s military rulers to give women the right to vote. [10]
– Within two years, the issue was resolved. The 1956 Egyptian Constitution explicitly stated the equality of opportunity between men and women.[11]
– Egyptian women were granted the right to vote and in the first elected parliament after the revolution of 1952, five women ran for seats in the parliament and two of them won.[12]
– In 1959, women gained the right to equal pay and pensions as men.[13]
– In the same year, Nasser appointed the first woman in his administration as a Minister of social affairs.
– Women were also appointed as ambassadors and high-ranking government employees.[14]
– By the early 1960s, females students were in the same number as that of males students in some faculties.[15]
– Scores of women obtained their post-graduate degrees from Egypt and abroad.[16]

Women in Egypt in the 1960s were witnessing significant and unprecedented improvement in the professional and political life. In popular culture movies, magazines, newspapers, songs and television programs, which were all controlled by the state, gender equality was aggressively promoted. Nasser knew that the more the women joined the labor force, the faster he could build the social society of his dreams. However, no one was able to tamper with the family laws that regulated marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance, since they were all derived from the Sharia law. So, while women were obtaining their doctoral degrees from European and American universities, appointed as ambassadors and Ministers, they were still unable to initiate a divorce or travel abroad without a husband’s permission.[17]

Because of all these achievements, there was generally a feeling of optimism that things would continue to progress and advance. However, this would not be the case. Just before the decade ended, there was a change in the course of history, and the situation of women started regressing from then onward.

End of Part One.

[1] Foreign Policy, Has Egypt’s Revolution left women behind? Dec 8, 2011
[2] Telegraph, Is Egypt about to become the new Iran? November 28, 2012
[3] Women of Ancient Egypt, Silenced Voices, Wasted Lives
[4] Cleopatra the last Pharaoh of Egypt, Silenced Voices, Wasted Lives
[5] The Liberation of Women and The New Woman: Two Documents in the History of Egyptian Feminism
[6] Al Ahram Weekly, Sep 2004
[7] Al Ahram Weekly, Jan 2007
[8] Leading Arab Women: Lotfia Elnadi – Video
[9] – [17] Egypt Independent, Women’s movement: A stop at Egypt’s socialist era, March 19, 2012

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