By: Alexandra Kinias —-
It is shameful that more than a century after the Egyptian lawyer Qasim Amin (1863 – 1908) published his controversial books, The Liberation of Women and The New Woman that called for the emancipation of women; Egypt is witnessing a social and cultural relapse as the disturbing voices of radical Islamists are defying women’s freedoms and rights.
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 for girls was opened to the public, as mentioned in Amin’s books. However, the policy reform, adopted by Mohamed Ali’s descendants and that included sending several intellectuals to France to be educated in key leadership positions in the government, played a substantial role in the advancement of women’s status.
Amin was born in 1863 to a Turkish aristocratic father and an upper class Egyptian mother. After receiving a law degree at the age of 18, he was sent to France on a scholarship where he lived for four years. In France, Amin was exposed to different experiences than the ones he grew up with. These experiences influenced his life style and altered his perception about life and society, especially at how the western society treated its women. It also opened his eyes to the decaying status and living conditions in which the Egyptian women were living in. The comparison between the two societies was stimulating and it shed light on the deteriorating conditions of the Egyptian society, which he attributed to the inferior condition of its women. “When the status of a nation is low, reflecting an uncivilized condition for that nation, the status of women is also low, and when the status of a nation is elevated, reflecting the progress and civilization of that nation, the status of women in that country is also elevated.”  He concluded that neither Egypt nor the Islamic world would progress unless the status of women in the society was improved.
He believed that the liberation of women was the first step for the advancement of the country, after all, he argued, how a society would advance if its rulers were brought up by ignorant and uneducated women. Amin became a women’s advocate and dedicate his life to fight for their rights.
In his first book, The Liberation of Women, which he wrote in 1899, Amin openly criticized how women were treated in the Moslem societies. He advocated for equality and addressed the importance of their role in shaping the future of their country and their responsibilities toward their family and children. During the second half of the 19th century, women’s education had already been addressed as a tangible instrument for the advancement of the country. Amin took his demands a step further beyond just education to include other variables that impacted women’s lives. By using Islamic arguments he requested better social conditions for women. He advocated for better marriage and divorce laws, removal of the veil, seclusion, and the right for an education, financial and political rights and her role in the family. He criticized polygamy and the effects on women.
The controversial book created a wave of shock in the country. Amin’s shocking views regarding the veil and the seclusion of women ignited a lot of fires. As many researchers before him, Amin acknowledged that the veil was not an Islamic custom and that Muslims adopted it from other cultures. He denounced it and viewed it as a discriminating tool used against women. Tearing off the veil was the first step to liberate women that would be followed by bringing them 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 perceived it as a shield that separated them from the living world and deprived them from any progress.
Amin received substantial criticism from the Palace, religious leaders, politicians, journalists and writers. The resistance to his ideas was fierce and his opponents were powerful, but Amin stood by his beliefs. He considered himself a reformer and didn’t allow himself to be intimidated by his critiques. He was aware that changes were slow and the fruits of his advocacy would not happen overnight. His advocacy was merely setting the grounds for future generations to benefit fully from the seeds of reform he sowed, by his writings.
In response to these attacks Amin wrote his second book, The New Woman, in 1901, in which he openly promoted 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. It was attacked for promoting western ideas and thus, from their point of view, it encouraged immorality. While others viewed the removal of the veil and bringing women out of their seclusion as a total destruction of the social values, Amin believed that the emancipation of women was the answer to the reform and advancement 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.
 The Liberation of Women, Qasim Amin, page 6
To be continued ……..