Feminists, Nationalists, and the State in 19th and 20th Century Egypt

by: Stephanie Margherio

Egypt as a nation had been through much turmoil by the advent of the 20th century. Its history was inextricably bound up with foreign customs because of the succession of ruler after ruler who took charge of the country from outside. Egypt’s strategic geographical position as well as its vast natural resources made it especially attractive to those who felt their own gain could be achieved in the directed exploitation of these assets. While at times the country benefited from outside ideologies, more often the peasant masses, and increasingly the educated elite after the British Occupation, became resentful and angry because of the way their native land was used. This gave rise to different strains of Egyptian, and later Arab, nationalism, the proponents of which succeeded in ousting foreign dominators and instituting native rule.
Women of Egypt played a part in this movement to reclaim “Egpyt for the Egyptians.” In doing so, they strengthened and honed their voices as feminists and attempted to wed their causes to the nationalists’ momentum. The result was a symbiotic relationship - the women’s claims strengthened the nationalists’ arguments and action for independence, while the nationalists allowed the women a vehicle to express their nascent feminist views. As the 20th century wore on, however, it became clear that those men who had encouraged and helped the women’s movement along were not personally invested in it and let it fall from the political fore in subsequent years. The women directly involved, as well as their future daughters, learned an important lesson from this turn of events. The reactions to their activities proved that the only way an authentic feminist movement would flourish would be by establishing it as its own political movement, independent of any other ideology, and allowing it to blossom in a political atmosphere tolerant of criticism, action, and reform. This paper, then, seeks to elucidate the ways in which the women’s movement gained strength in tandem with the nationalist movement of the 20th century, as well as how the two groups fell out of unification. To be sure, the early modern feminist thinkers in Egypt did not always come to the same conclusions about focus points or strategies. Sectional differences notwithstanding, though, references made herein to the “women’s movement” signify the overall evolution of women’s thought at this particular moment in time, women who collectively suffered the same political disempowerment with the commencement of the Nasser era in 1956.

Background: The 19th Century in Egypt
Egypt was nominally under the direction of the Ottoman Empire throughout the 1800s, and directly governed by the previous regime of Mameluks. Once taxes had been paid to the Ottomans based in Istanbul, Egypt was largely left on its own under Mameluk leaders. The region was increasingly misgoverned, as evidenced by the major population decline: “At the time of the Arab invasion in 639 the population has been estimated at between 20 and 30 million, but when Napoleon invaded the decaying Ottoman Egypt in 1798 it had been reduced to some two and a half million.” 1 Napoleon’s invasion successfully defeated the ill-prepared Mameluks, but the French were almost immediately confronted and defeated by the British, and both factions left by 1801. The result was a political vacuum, into which Circassian-Albanian soldier Muhammad Ali stepped and deftly maneuvered his way into power. He took it upon himself to bring Egypt up to speed with Europe and began to modernize the country with a series of reforms. The four major areas in which he concentrated his efforts were the army, educational development, health improvements, and finally, land reform.2
The last of these proved to be the most contentious. Ali abolished the traditional Mameluk tax-farming system and inaugurated a “strong state commercial sector,” thereby eradicating merchant capital.3 The reorganization of the land at this time caused significant social unrest. Revolts sprung up in 1812 after Ali’s seizure of the grain crop, and as things worsened from the peasants’ point of view, another revolt, the largest of the era, broke out in 1822-23, in an attempt to overthrow Ali.4 Women were increasingly a part of these rebellions, and in some cases led the action themselves. Judith Tucker notes that in an 1814 demonstration in Cairo against the iltizam (tax-farm) abolition, peasant women were at the head of the rebellion, angrily decrying the decision that would harm the peasants the most.5
Class divisions increasingly played a fundamental role in the nature of political activism throughout the rest of the 19th century. After the land reforms had taken place, many of the displaced landowners moved from the rural areas of Egypt to the urban centers, putting pressure on the established strata of classes already present in the cities. Additionally, many of the wealthy landowners living in the city as absentee landlords increasingly surpassed their city counterparts in education and political development. The laboring middle class was an amalgam of these problems: “This petite bourgeoisie was badly split, as is usual in economies on the periphery of the world market, between the “old” classes of shopkeepers, artisans, bazaar merchants, and ‘ulama,’ and the “new” classes of Westernized professionals and clerks.” 6 These divisions would have implications in the ensuing struggle against the British, and flavor the nationalist voices that emerged in the last decades of the century.
The Occupation that ensued after the 1881-82 revolt, led by a nationalist army colonel named Ahmed Urabi, gave way to British control of a nation in transition. Not fully modernized, the Western-educated upper classes of Egyptian society began to imitate the ways of the West, to the chagrin of the lower classes who had no opportunity to do so. Egypt became a dependent economy on Britain, solidified by the loans and investments made after the occupation became formalized. These shifts in society signaled a change in certain classes’ behavior:

It seems probable that the state capitalism in the nineteenth century had the effect of actually increasing the seclusion of middle class women and restricting them to household management rather than more active careers in tax-farming and business. In addition, Tomiche argues that Egyptians grew more rather than less conservative about the treatment of women in the course of the century, as a means of stressing their cultural identity in the face of growing European ascendancy. The middle class feminist movement in the early twentieth century therefore seems to have arisen in protest of a situation that was in part the result of modern developments.7

The over-lordship of Britain also induced nationalist strains to become part of public discourse. Men like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad ‘Abduh, Mustafa Kamil, and Rifa’ah Rafi’ al-Tahtawi had been writing and traveling, examining the problem of first the Ottoman Empire and then the British Occupation.8 Though each of these men had different ideas about how to implement their ideologies, their nationalist sentiments all stemmed from years under foreign rule and the desire to return Egypt to its native inhabitants. By the turn of the century, these voices, as well as the budding feminist voices, were gaining much attention and would eventually further intertwine.

Early 20th Centuy Egypt: Competing Discourses
Rashid Khalidi summarizes Arab Nationalism as:

the idea that the Arabs are a people linked by special bonds of language and history (and, many would add, religion), and that their political organization should in some way reflect this reality…Its corollary is that the Arab states form a system that should function with a high degree of cohesion.9
This ideology first grew up in Syria, where it developed in a pre-colonial era on a Western model and in reaction to the Ottoman Empire’s rule. For Egypt, however, the Ottomans were a comparatively smaller threat than the imminent one that the British presented as occupiers of Egyptian land. Indeed, many early Egyptian nationalists were either supportive or ambivalent toward the Ottomans. Because of this, the Arab national movement in Egypt produced a separate tradition from the rest of the Arab Middle East.10 Also, once the period of colonialism began in Egypt, the philosophy of Arab nationalism took a distinct turn away from the early Western models, and instead focused on the task of freeing itself from the West and becoming self-reliant.11
One of the earliest voices articulating the discourse of patriotism and nationalism was Rifa’ah Rafi’ al-Tahtawi. Educated in France, al-Tahtawi was the first to use the term watan in the sense of the love for one’s homeland, as opposed to where one originates from. The word wataniyya came to be used as ‘patriotic,’ thus establishing al-Tahtawi as one of the first Arab scholar to posit nationalism as an intellectual discourse that could be written about in classical Arabic.12 During the period in which Egypt continued to have limited national control two more prominent intellectuals began theorizing about not only nationalism, but its relation to Islam. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and his pupil, Muhammad ‘Abduh, were both instrumental in attempting to modernize Islam in the late 19th century. al-Afghani perceived that the internationalization of capitalism was increasing the formation of nation states, and he began to try to adjust Islam to fit this trend. ‘Abduh also worked toward modernizing Islam, and was slightly more successful. His work is summarized by Bassam Tibi in this way: “Abduh attempts to locate the alien innovations of the modern world within the revelation of God. In this way all modern science and all technological discovery can be affirmed and accepted by the faithful. If revelation is properly understood, it will be seen that it is not in opposition to modern culture.” 13 As the nationalist movement evolved, it became more and more secular, however, and relegated these religious scholars’ work to only certain parts of Arab national culture. One of these parts was the bourgeoning women’s movement, and within this sphere, al-Afghani and ‘Abduh were valuable proponents.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the feminist and nationalist movements were still developing somewhat separately. While economic changes for males allowed them to study abroad, women were also moving out of the harem of the upper classes and into the public sector. Those that still had connections to the cultural practice were becoming more and more disillusioned with their plight and began to speak out in a number of different ways. Beth Baron has called this period “the women’s awakening,” due to the prevalence with which women began to make their voices heard through various means. Some found their voice through writing and some found it through public action. The earliest writers and political activists include ‘Aisha al-Taimuryia, Saiza Nabarawi, and Huda Sha’rawi.
‘Aisha al-Taimuriya was one of the first of both men and women to discuss the equality of the sexes. Her passion for being treated as equally as her male counterparts was shown especially when she was deprived of education. She recounted later:

How my eyes overflowed with tears because I was deprived of harvesting the fruits of… beneficial learning! What hindered me from realizing this hope was the tentlike screen of an all-enveloping wrap. And the lock on the private quarters of femaleness hid and secluded me from the radiance of those celestial.14

The traditional restrictions on women pressed on al-Taimuryia heavily, but even through her time as a mother and wife, she remained adamant about her views on the equality of women. Before her death in 1902 she published prose and afterwards her poetry was published. She remains one of the first voices of the women’s movement, speaking for what is logically the largest impediment to equality that most women faced- the denial of access to education.
As the feminist movement evolved, the expression of the women writers began to change. With the British Occupation becoming more and more of a subject for debate among male intellectuals, women found in their nationalist rhetoric a vehicle by which to further their own cause. Arguments like al-Taimuriya’s became not just a plea for women’s education for the sake of their own betterment, but were arguments for the capacity to improve the nation, thereby making Egyptians stronger in the face of yet another foreign occupier. Women began to argue that education would make them better mothers, able to transmit valuable cultural and moral instruction. Beth Baron describes this process:
In their unique capacity as ‘mothers of the world and child-raisers,’ women were given the imperative of imbuing their children with love for the nation, teaching them national songs and stories. ‘It is upon you, tenderhearted mother, to impart to your son respect for his beloved nation, which has no dignity without him. The glory of this nation and its misery are in your hands.’ Mothers were seen as particularly well-suited to be inculcators of moral values and patriotic values.15

Nationalism became an increasingly expedient way for women to make their concerns heard. This was the case not only for education, but also in terms of practices surrounding women’s seclusion and veiling, and political activity.
As the nationalist movement increased in scope and popularity, different parties among the movement sprung up. The Umma Party, led by Ahmad Lutfy Al Sayyid from the upper classes of Egypt, advocated a secularist society and was more friendly to women and their cause. Conversely, the Watani Party, led by Mustafa Kamil, a pioneer in formulating Egyptian nationalism and who took his cues from al-Tahtawi, was largely middle class and antagonistic towards the women’s movement. Significantly, this party also believed in an Islamic society based on a Caliphate and advocated more traditional roles for women.16 Islamic rhetoric would be key in the debate over the woman question in Egypt. There were splits in this arena as well. While some, following ‘Abduh’s model of Islamic modernism, found women’s rights and equality compatible with their philosophy of an Islamic state, others followed more closely with Kamil and touted slogans such as this one, criticized by Inji Aflatun: ‘Woman at home, woman always at home.’ 17 Though of different minds religiously, ‘Abduh and Al Sayyid were both sympathetic to the women’s movement and were both major proponents of the education of women. Al Sayyid was one of the only male nationalists to make good on his promises of support for the women after independence in 1919. From his position as rector of Fuad I University, Al Sayyid advocated women’s participation in secondary education and made it available to them. Women finally entered the university in 1929.18 ‘Abduh also criticized openly unequal divorce practices as well as polygamy.19
Thus, the nationalist and feminist voices of the early part of the 20th century had collided. In some arenas women were welcomed by the nationalists, while in others they were marginalized and had their arguments turned against them. However, the events of the 1919 revolution would give women a reason to hope that their work had not been in vain. Women’s militant participation in the protests of the British were welcomed with open arms by many nationalists, and for a brief period the men and women of Egyptian society were united in their quest for independence. This would change, however, once their independence was actually granted.
The 1919 Revolution and its Aftermath
Public political activity soon became another way for women to voice their concerns while standing in solidarity with men. The 1919 revolution, at the forefront of whom was male Wafdist leader Sa’d Zaghlul, provided another opportunity to show males that women were invested in not only equality for themselves, but that they were willing participants in political activity. Huda Sha’rawi led veiled female demonstrators in protest of the British, and in solidarity with the Egyptian nationalists, particularly with the Wafd party. These were the first female demonstrations and they helped precipitate the partial removal of the British in 1923. Once the revolution had been formalized, however, with nominal independence granted Egypt by Britain, the male liberal nationalists who had engaged women in the drive for independence left them behind. Badran summarizes this problem:

Following independence, women’s liberation slipped in order of priority for male liberals, who became engaged in their own political power struggles. It was then (1923) that feminists proclaimed the start of the public, political movement for their own liberation and national liberation within the framework of their feminist movement and began the move to desegregate society by the removal of the veil.20

For the first time, an authentically feminist movement sprung up, independent of nationalist ideology. This was perhaps the most significant shift in the history of the Egyptian women’s movement. Women’s political activism flourished at this point of the century, though this was because their voices were being increasingly marginalized. But the Egyptian women would not be ignored. One of the first indications that male liberal nationalists had abandoned the women who worked with them was the snub they received in being excluded from the inaugural ceremonies of the first parliament in 1924. By 1925, women were still barred from entering the third convocation of parliament, and in an article for L’Egyptienne, Saiza Nabarawi criticized this obvious ‘double standard’:
In stating my complaint I by no means resent the presence of my distinguished colleagues but simply wish to raise a voice against unequal treatment. I should point out that representatives of the local press are often less favored than certain foreign women… A double standard! This will always exist as long as men rule…Is it just that in this Egyptian land… our women should be the last to enjoy rights and prerogatives accorded others..? 21
As the next few years proved, this and other double standards were to persist. But the women active in politics at this time were quick to point out these occurrences and constructed for themselves formal organizations from which to conduct their activity. Huda Sha’rawi and Saiza Nabarawi went on to form the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923. This was the first in a series of women’s political organizations that worked for equality and reform.22
In the ensuing years, women in the EFU, as well as in other organizations, began to focus on the goal of political equality. Their disappointment in failing to attain equal citizenship with males through the constitution of 1924 transformed into activism around suffrage and representation. As they did this, however, a religious backlash greeted them. It was acceptable for women to agitate for their rights while they were engaged in the project of independence, but it soon became clear that the idea of women in the public political sphere in their own right was too much to allow for the growing ranks of Islamic conservatives:

Now focusing mainly on suffrage, the feminist movement evoked a hostile reaction, mainly from popular religious quarters, of the sort that the EFU had not attracted earlier. The problem was not simply that women’s intensified drive for political rights was threatening but that a segment of the patriarchal culture, anchoring its ideology and politics in a conservative reading of Islam, had been gaining momentum in the 1930s and 1940s… Feminist activism in its most symbolically threatening form, a suffrage movement, and patriarchy at its most conservative, were on a collision course. 23

Despite these strains in society, however, women in this period did make some considerable gains. Largely in the interest of the state, women were able to gain more employment opportunities. Also, in 1923, equal secondary education for girls was granted, and in 1924 the minimum marriage age for both sexes was raised. As mentioned earlier, 1929 was the first year that women were allowed to attend the universities. With the onset of World War II, much political activity in general was stopped, and this affected women as well. Saiza Nabarawi’s L’Egyptienne was forced to go out of print, though by the end of the war women had established The Arab Feminist Union in Cairo, with Huda Sha’rawi as its president.24
The campaign for the vote continued, however. After the Second World War Huda Sha’rawi and other women at the Arab Feminist Conference articulated their demands for women’s suffrage. The resolution that resulted from the conference were strongly weighted in the argument for women’s vote. Additionally, an Egyptian feminist named Doria Shafiq began a militant campaign to convince the government to allow women’s suffrage. She staged a sit-in, a hunger strike, and published The White Paper on the Rights of the Egyptian Women during the early 1950s to persuade the government to allow women the vote. Finally, 33 years after the EFU had first demanded it, Nasser’s Revolutionary Government granted women the right to vote and be elected. This was a major victory long overdue for the women involved in the struggle, and one of the key advocates, Huda Sha’rawi, died before she could see it happen.25
The question of women’s suffrage became irrelevant in 1956. With the Free Officers’ Revolution and the constitution of January 16 all political activity was suppressed: “at the very moment when Egyptian women had finally acquired full citizenship, Egyptian women, like their male compatriots, lost their right to continue to freely express their views.
There would be no free elections and no independent political life.” 26 Though it was a blow to society in general, and women in particular, the events of Nasser’s ensuing regime and the climate to follow does not discount the dedication and work that the women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries put in. Indeed, feminism did not disappear, but simply went underground, ready to spring up again when the time is right.

The women’s movement at the turn of the century began with individual voices decrying the position they were in. Women such as ‘Aisha al-Taimuriya, Huda Sha’rawi, and Saiza Nabarawi were among the first Egyptian women to lament their place in society. As these voices became stronger and the women that they belonged to became more organized, a women’s movement was born. Simultaneously, a nationalist movement was gaining ascendancy among the male elite in the face of the British Occupation. These two movements met at the forefront of the political activity of the early 20th century and became intermingled for a brief period. Once disentangled by the 1919 Revolution, women were on their own to forge their own movement. In her discussion on Arab women and politics, Nawal el-Sadaawi notes that for an effective women’s movement to take place, it must be on its own, free from ideologies that will suck energy out of it for their own purpose. She describes the Arab national movement as a man’s movement, and though women have played a part in it, it remains a man’s movement. For women to succeed in promulgating their own movement, it must be political in nature, taken beyond the levels abstraction and discussion, and put into concrete action.27 This must take place in a society that is free from political suppression and open to criticism from its citizens, and hopefully one that is willing to hear female voices as well as male voices.


1 Woodward, Peter. Nasser. (New York: Longman, Inc., 1992), 4.
2 Ibid., pg. 4
3 Cole, Juan Ricardo. “Feminism, Class, and Islam in Turn-of-the-Century Egypt.“ (International Journal of Middle East Studies, Nov. 1981), 388.
4 Tucker, Judith. “Women and State in 19h Century Egypt: Insurrectionary Women.” MERIP Middle East Report, (Jan-Feb., 1986), 10.
5 Ibid., pg. 10
6 Cole, pg 389
7 Ibid., pg. 395
8 Tibi, Bassam. Arab Nationalism: A Critical Enquiry. Marion Farouk-Sluglett and Peter Sluglett, eds. and trans. (New York: The Macmillan Press, 1990), 92.
9 Khalidi, Rashid, et al., eds. The Origins of Arab Nationalism. (New York: Columbia University Press. 1991) vii of intro.
10 Tibi, pg. 178-9
11 Ibid., pg.116
12 Ibid, pg 84
13 Ibid., pg.93
14 Badran, Margot, and Miriam Cooke, eds. Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 127.
15 Khalidi, pg. 279
16 Badran, Margot. Feminists, Islam, and Nation. (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995), 206.
17 Badran, Gates, pg. 348.
18 Badran, FIN, pg. 101
19 Kandiyoti, Deniz.
Women, Islam, and the State. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), 204.
20 Badran, Margot. “The Feminist Vision in the Writings of Three Turn-of-the-Century Egyptian Women.“ Bulletin (British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, 1988), 15.
21 Badran, ‘Gates,’ 280-1
22 Badran, FIN, pg. 86
23 Ibid., pg. 218
24 Ibid., pg. 244
25 Ibid., pg. 218-9
26 Ibid., pg. 219
27 El-Saadawi, Nawal. The Nawal El-Saadawi Reader. (New York: St Martin’s Press, Inc., 1997), 81.