The Public Role of Women in Modern Egypt

The Public Role of Women in Modern Egypt

Chapter 1 of Women in Egyptian Public Life
by Earl L. Sullivan
published by the American University in Cairo Press 1987
first published by Syracuse University Press 1986
and reproduced on our website with the usual permissions

Feminists, seeking equal rights for women, attempt to transform the political balance, moving women from the margins of power to positions where they can participate in society’s important decision making. In Egypt it has been argued that the participation of women in public life will be good for both sexes, that it will strengthen the family, and also help society at large by increasing the number of citizens upon whose resources and talents the country may draw. In pursuit of an enlarged public forum, feminists everywhere have faced opposition from women as well as men, and have had to make numerous choices regarding ideology, specific goals, and tactics. Not all have felt that women should seek absolute equality with men, believing that protection and enhancement of a separate sphere for women in the public life of the country is preferable to a totally egalitarian world. Some have accepted the idea of a separate and protected sphere as an interim tactic but profess equal opportunity as the ultimate goal. Others reject separatism even as a tactic, fearing that unless women succeed in competition with men, the effect of protection will be to undermine the legitimacy of their claim to equal rights. Regardless of goals, however, feminists have made a niche for women in the public life of Egypt, one that did not exist until recently, but whose roots can be seen in the not too distant past.

The periodization of history is always arbitrary, but it may be helpful to think about the twentieth-century changes affecting the roles and status of women in Egypt as having gone through four fairly distinct phases and as having entered a new period in 1979. The chronology in the back of the book (pages 171-75) may help orient readers, as it summarizes major events relevant to the public role of women in Egypt.

From about 1900 to 1923, issues were clarified, positions taken, and debate joined. Men as well as women appeared as prominent participants in events during this stage. Some influential women, including a princess, organized fashionable intellectual salons.(1) Both proponents and opponents of an expanded role for women defended their views, most frequently in Islamic terms and in reference to the need to modernize Egypt. In this regard, little has changed since then, and the debate is still couched in these terms, thus supporting the suggestion of a prominent Egyptian sociologist that in Egypt nothing is ever really discarded. Rather, Egyptian history is a process of recycling and accumulation.(2)

The second stage in the women’s movement began in 1923 with the establishment of the Egyptian Feminist Union. It ended in 1935, when the process of women’s setting the agenda for the movement was basically completed. Upper-class women organized, marched, gave speeches, established private voluntary charitable organizations, defined issues, and staked claims. Women went abroad for higher education, schools for girls were founded, and, in 1928, women were admitted to the Egyptian National University. Feminist leaders such as Hoda Sha’rawi and Ceza Nabarawi made a point during this period of linking feminism with nationalism, but also emphasized that, in their view, women had a right to personal development and fulfillment.(3)

In 1935, the mainstream of the women’s movement in Egypt began to be more assertive regarding women’s rights. For the first time, the Feminist Union endorsed the principle of full political equality for both sexes. As they were graduated from the university, more women entered the professions. Some worked as active feminists. Others concentrated on professional development, eschewing politics for the time but, consciously or unconsciously, laying a foundation for a future political career. The question of Palestine and the need for Arab unity; were new themes taken up by women activists after 1935, but traditional programs also continued, such as the effort to abolish legalized prostitution. This last effort finally succeeded, but not until 1949. In general, women became more active in public life and helped set the tone for the period. Following World War II, political work was accelerated, and more strictly political groups of women were formed, especially after the death of Hoda Sha’rawi in 1947.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century social feminists, who specialized in attempts to improve social and economic conditions, vied for leadership with political feminists, who advocated direct political participation by women and reform of the Personal Status Laws —laws regulating marriage, divorce, and child custody. The feminist movement adopted, albeit piecemeal, the goals of the political feminists. However, most day-to-day activity fell within the scope of social feminism, by which women established and ran a variety of private voluntary social service organizations.(4) Politically, the most important of these were in the health field, such as Tahsin al-Saha, the Red Crescent, and the Mabarra Muhammad Ali group of hospitals.

One example of their importance can be seen in the response to problems Egypt faced in the aftermath of World War II, in which these agencies were active in efforts to deal with major epidemics of cholera and malaria. The women’s associations, particularly the Mabarra, were probably more effective than the government in handling these crises and they, along with the government and some foreign health agencies, were responsible for ending the epidemic.(5) In this and other ways, women demonstrated their value to society and supported the nationalist cause. In the process, in a conscious exercise of linkage politics, they worked to gain support for items on their political agenda.(6) This tactic bore fruit, but not in a major way until after the Free Officers came to power. The 1952 revolution started a new phase of life in Egypt, but for women, the period which began in 1935 did not end until 1956, when the new constitution gave women the right to vote.

Between 1956 and 1979, pathbreaking women participated in Egyptian public life in new ways. Egyptian women started their own businesses, entered parliament, were appointed to cabinet posts, and became increasingly conspicuous and visible. More women became more active in more fields, particularly the professions.(7) On perhaps a more negative note, in the 1960s women’s groups were absorbed into the only legal political organization of the time, the Arab Socialist Union, and many of the welfare activities of women were taken over by the state. For a while, the political nature of feminist activity was limited to serving the party and the state. However, even though feminist organizations were somewhat co-opted by the regime, the pace and scope of female involvement in public life was accelerated by the accumulated momentum from past achievements, notably in education. After 1970, when Anwar Sadat became president of Egypt, this trend was given further impetus and encouragement by the regime. The president’s wife, Jihan, an ardent feminist, became the focus for both blame and praise as she developed into a public personality and a force in her own right. The period which began in 1956 with women gaining the right to vote, ended in 1979. In that year, with strong presidential support, the Personal Status Laws were reformed, and women were given guaranteed seats in all of Egypt’s elected assemblies.

After 1979, Egypt’s leading women continued to do the kinds of things they had been doing throughout the century. Now, however, a new role was added: defending and consolidating established rights and protecting the position of women from erosion or wholesale attack. What was a radical and, to many, outrageous program in 1923 is now partly legal, traditional, and even regarded as conservative in some quarters. But for others, all proposals to enhance the role or improve the status of women remain objectionable. The new status quo has been supported by, among others, the Sadat-Mubarak regime and most of the women elected or appointed to high public office. Some feminists, including many in the political opposition, however, want more substantial change in the direction of full equality. Other opposition figures, including some Islamic fundamentalists, advocate enacting legislation which would severely restrict the role of women in public life. Thus, what has been accomplished remains controversial and should not be regarded as permanent.

In many ways Egyptian women are better off today than they were in 1900. Much of this progress is due to Egypt’s development, but a substantial portion is the result of the successful struggles of women such as those who are the subjects of this book. However, the fruits of development have not been shared equally between classes and, more particularly, between men and women. Poverty, malnutrition, poor health, illiteracy, and dependence are still experienced more by women than by men. What progress has been made has not been easy and is resented and opposed by many people, even though what has been achieved is little more than a beginning. Readers should keep this ugly reality in mind as they proceed through this book. It is a problem to which we shall return.

Feminist Roots: Organising and Setting the Agenda

The public role of women in Egypt’s political and economic life has changed dramatically, even fundamentally, during the twentieth century.(8) This is in contrast to the previous one hundred years, during which pressure accumulated and the stage was set, but little change for the better occurred. (In fact, conditions for women are more likely to have declined rather than improved during the nineteenth century.(9) )At the turn of the century, peasant women worked in the fields as part of the extended family, but other public activities were severely limited. Bedouin women could move unveiled within the tribe, serve behind the scenes as mediators and go-betweens, and even participate in public events and ceremonies, but they were not permitted to express opinions on public issues.(10)

Urban women were even more secluded from public life than their rural counterparts. While under Islamic law they were entitled to own property, in practice they were seldom permitted (presumably by the male members of their families) to administer it.(11) This is in contrast to the eighteenth century, in which the wives of Mamluks often administered their own property as well as that of their husbands.(12) Even though veiled, and therefore hidden, urban women at the turn of the century could not work with men. In fact, to work outside the home in any capacity was considered dishonorable. Virtually all women were illiterate, the exceptions being a handful of privileged, urban women who were more likely to read French or English than Arabic.

Upper-class urban women generally were confined by the rules governing the household. This did not mean, however, that they were necessarily powerless or ignorant of life outside their veiled world. Some, for example, were involved in business and followed political events, but they did not appear publicly to be active in these spheres. Severe social strictures limited all women and prohibited most of them from participating in public life.(13)

However, the most constrained situation was probably in provincial towns, where women were veiled, secluded, unable to work outside the home, and even less likely than urbanites to learn about anything other than the traditional world of women. As Amina Said, one of Egypt’s leading feminists and journalists and a member of its current political elite has stated: “The traditions and ideology [in these towns] bear the stamp of the petite bourgeoisie in its worst form and they have affected the women ... in a very repressive way.”(14) For this reason, in the early part of the century, if a rural family wished to educate its daughters, either the girls were sent to Cairo or, as was the case with Amina Said, the whole family moved.

The first government primary school for girls was established in 1873, but it was not until 1921 that the first government secondary school for girls was opened.(15) Virtually all schools for girls were located in an urban area, and most were in Cairo. Later, both primary and secondary schools were available in rural areas, and some members of the current political elite attended them. Change, although slow, did take place. A man, Qasim Amin (1863-1908), is credited with being the first in the twentieth century to call for basic alterations with regard to the position and rights of women in society.(16) As the historian and Islamicist Thomas Philipp has pointed out:

The debate over the emancipation of women originated among Muslim reformists. It was their contention that an Islam correctly interpreted and set free of traditional ballast was able to provide a viable system of beliefs and values even under the changed circumstances of modern times. Thus, they felt that the position of women had suffered, not through the commands of the original Islam, but by a misinterpretation of the Quran and later un-Islamic additions.(17)

Qasim Amin was a follower of Mohamed Abduh (1849-1905), the leader of the reformist movement who himself had been inspired by Rifaat al-Tahtawi (1801-73), an even earlier reformist.(18) Early in the nineteenth century, al-Tahtawi “emphasized the necessity and legitimacy of adapting Islamic law to new social circumstances.” (19) Among those circumstances were capitalism and imperialism, but the dispute over the role of women in the context of these new forces had to be conducted within the framework of Islamic jurisprudence.

In Sunni Islam, which prevails in Egypt, there are four recognized schools of law: Hanafi, Shafii, Maliki, and Hanbali. The Hanafi school, by far the strictest regarding women and issues affecting personal status, has been followed officially in Egypt since Ottoman times, but many Egyptians still use Shafii or Maliki precepts in their own life. Reformers followed Tahtawi’s advice and invoked the principle of takhyayyur, “an accepted method of jurisprudence according to which a Muslim in a specific situation was permitted to go outside his own school of law and follow the interpretation of one of the other Sunni schools.” (20) It was within the context of this movement that Amin called for the emancipation of women. On the positive side, his chief argument was that women must be educated in order for them to carry out their roles as wives and mothers properly, and to contribute to the development of society. In the same vein, he opposed polygamy, easy divorce by the male, veiling of women, and arranged marriages.

While Qasim Amin, as a Muslim reformer, advocated the rights of women, at least two of Egypt’s most prominent nationalists, Talat Harb (1867-1941) and Mustafa Kamel (1874-1908), opposed these ideas on the grounds they were foreign to Egypt. One historian’s interpretation is that Talat Harb, the founder of Bank Misr (the Bank of Egypt) and an advocate of the industrialization of Egypt by Egyptians, not foreigners, went so far as to contend that “the emancipation of women was just another plot to weaken the Egyptian nation and disseminate immorality and decadence in its society.” (21) Talat Harb’s rejection of Amin’s ideas on women may have been because Qasim Amin framed his case for reform in terms which made clear his admiration for and wish to adopt many of the customs of the British. In an astute article on Amin, Juan Cole points out that Amin “saw the emancipation of women as an essential step in catching up with European progress. . . . For Harb, the abolition of the veil and seclusion would be a further step toward the total disintegration of the indigenous values of Egyptian Islam.” (22)

In this instance, Amin can be seen as a spokesman for the established upper-middle class. He wanted Egypt to strengthen itself for competition with the West by learning from the West, thus drawing on its power. Harb, on the other side, can be seen as a representative of an upwardly mobile new middle class, possibly fearing competition for scarce jobs from women and seeking protection in the comfort of custom and the traditional sense of honor.

As the century began, the issue of greater freedom for women was controversial. No consensus existed, but it was clear to all that questions regarding the role, status, and rights of women were central to both the nationalist movement and the debate regarding the reform of Islam. In succeeding decades much has changed, but the issue continues to inspire divisiveness rather than consensus.

The public debate regarding the emancipation of women may have been started by men, but women soon joined the fray. Often for pragmatic, but sometimes for ideological reasons, some of them took a more conservative stand than that of Qasim Amin. These women tended to be educated and come from the upper class. Malak Hifni Nasif (1886-1918), for example, was the daughter of a follower of Mohamed Abduh and one of the first Egyptian women to be educated. Awarded a teacher’s certificate, she worked as an educator but also wrote articles for newspapers and magazines under the pen name of Bahithat al-Badiya.

In 1911, in a speech to the Egyptian Legislative Assembly, she presented a petition which contained ten demands for women. Her petition, all points of which were rejected by the Assembly, centered on giving women more and better education and such rights as free access to the mosque. In addition to her wish to have more women enter the fields of medicine and education, what she wanted was a system which would enable women to do their traditional jobs better. (23) She did not demand full and equal participation by women in public life but, although she did not oppose polygamy or arranged marriages, did request legal protection for women regarding marriage and divorce. (24)

The question of laws and customs pertaining to marriage and divorce was crucial to early feminists and remains so today. At the time of Qasim Amin and Malak Hifni Nasif, a Muslim girl was often married before puberty, could be divorced for any, or even no reason, could be beaten by her husband and, if she left him without his consent, be brought back by force and subjected to bayt al-taah (house of obedience), that is, forced to live under his jurisdiction and subject to his authority. In general, matters pertaining to marriage and divorce were, and continue to be, governed by custom rather than civil law, and efforts to achieve change have proven to be exceptionally difficult and controversial, even though liberal reformers have argued consistently that the changes called for by feminists are not contrary to Islam. (25)

The feminist movement in Egypt is usually said to have had its birth in 1919, when a number of veiled upper-class women, led by Mrs. Hoda Sha’rawi (1879-1947) and others, marched in protest against the British decision to forbid the nationalist leader, Saad Zaghloul (1860-1928), from going to Britain to present the demands of the Egyptian wafd(delegation). (26) Strictly speaking, the women involved in the demonstrations and marches of 1919 did not march on behalf of the rights of women, but rather advocated the same nationalist points as those presented by the men. (27) The public activity of women was intended to convey their dedication to the main issue of the day, nationalism, and to show that women stood with men and could help the national cause. From its ideological inception, therefore, Egyptian feminism was linked with nationalism and supported the desire to develop Egypt as well as free the country from foreign control.

From an institutional point of view, feminism took a step forward in Egypt on March 16, 1923, when Mrs. Hoda Sha’rawi convened a group of women at her home to organize what soon became the Egyptian Feminist Union. Mrs. Sha’rawi, Ceza Nabarawi, and the other Egyptian delegates to the International Alliance for Women, meeting in Rome in 1923, had returned to Egypt unveiled. This plus the establishment of the Feminist Union, inaugurated a more forceful and visible stage in the women’s liberation movement. It was not until 1935, however, that the Feminist Union first began to demand full and equal political rights for women. Before that demand could be made, the leaders of the movement felt that women had to be prepared for it. The primary objective of the new organization was, therefore, “to raise the intellectual and moral level of the Egyptian woman so as to enable her to realize her political and social equality with man from the legal as well as from the moral point of view.” (28)

Organized feminism retained its link with nationalism and also tried to align itself with the voices for social reform in Egypt. Thus, it stated its program in terms that made it clear that women wanted changes in the laws affecting marriage, divorce, and the custody of children but also wished “to make propaganda in favor of public hygiene and sanitation,” “encourage virtue and fight immorality,” and oppose irrational “superstitions, cults and customs.” (29) This it did, as the history of the Feminist Union makes clear. What is also clear is the pattern of political activity and the ideological tone established by Egypt’s early feminists. The precedent they set has influenced the course of events until the present time

In order to understand contemporary events, it is necessary to pause and consider what the early feminists were up against. Nominally ruled by a hereditary monarchy, Egypt was effectively controlled by the British. Members of the ruling family were the descendants of Mohamed Ali, an Albanian who took over Egypt in 1805, shortly after the departure of Napoleon. The nationalists, men like Talat Harb, Mustafa Kamel, and Saad Zaghloul, were more concerned about the British domination of the polity and the economy than about the monarchy, but they wished to “Egyptianize” the system in every way possible. As noted above, these men were either unenthusiastic about or frankly opposed to the feminist movement, suspecting it of having a foreign influence and of being “un-Egyptian.” Other nationalists, however, men such as Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid (1872-1963) and Taha Hussein (1889-1973), belonged to the liberal reformist tradition embracing especially the ideas of Mohamed Abduh and Qasim Amin. Influenced partly by the theories of Herbert Spencer, these Egyptian “progressives” were advocates of evolutionary rather than revolutionary change. (30)

Most feminists were associated with this group of nationalist reformers, progressives, and modernists who believed that society had to be freed of unhealthy (and, in their view, un-Islamic) accretions before it could experience true liberation. Dr. Taha Hussein, whose French-born wife was listed as a member of the Board of Directors of the Egyptian Feminist Union in the late 1920s, (31) devoted his life to scholarship and educational reform. He was interested particularly in the application of modern research techniques to the study of Arabic, and had a major impact, first as Dean of Arts at the National University and later in a number of other posts, on the extension and reform of education in Egypt. Among the principal beneficiaries of his efforts and those of the other modernists were the increasing number of female students who entered the formal educational system.

An inevitable consequence of the divisions within the nationalist movement was disagreement regarding both strategy and tactics. There was also a certain amount of personal competition and tension among the nationalists, but perhaps most important for our purposes is that a pattern of specialization developed. Talat Harb founded Bank Misr and concentrated his efforts on the indigenous industrialization of Egypt. Saad Zaghloul, while not uninterested in economic affairs, pursued party politics as his chosen venue, principally via the Wafd Party, which he established. Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid helped establish the three major political parties of that period but was probably best known for his important service as rector of the Egyptian University. (32) All three men were involved in journalistic ventures, and they and their followers were all nationalists; yet there was little consensus among them, except that all agreed that Egyptian institutions should be reformed and developed, and Egypt should be self-governing.

In 1923, the likelihood of women being granted the franchise was nil, so party politics was not a likely field for successful activity by women, even those of the upper class. Similarly, as few women had any expertise to offer, they could do little to contribute to the industrialization of Egypt at that time, especially given Talat Harb’s hostility to feminism and to women’s playing public roles. By default, if nothing else, the early feminists were thus left in a loose alliance with the nationalist reformers whose strongholds were in education and journalism, and who functioned primarily as a pressure group favoring general nationalist causes, legal reforms, and social action. Not surprisingly, then, most of the early gains achieved by feminists were in the areas of social reform and education.

Feminism was essentially an upper-class movement, and it was probably only the upper-class status of its leaders that permitted them to develop and then advocate their ideas in public. However, while class provided a certain freedom, it may also have reinforced conservative restraints and caused them to restrict their agenda, at least initially, to a relatively small number of issues. What they did not advocate is probably as important as what they supported. For example, women were not encouraged to avoid marriage, nor was support for birth control on the list of early Feminist Union proposals. (33) In general, women were not urged to become independent from men. They were taught to respect themselves and their sex, and to demand and earn respect from their husbands as well as from others with whom they would come in contact. (34) It was assumed that virtually all women would marry and have children. Thus it was to the institutions of marriage and the family that early feminists turned their attention. Their reasoning went something like this: the family had to be strong; educated men needed educated wives to run the household and raise children; if women were married too early or could be divorced without valid cause, this weakened the family and ultimately weakened Egypt. Thus, the cause of women and the family was part of the national cause.

Even though feminists achieved little in the way of reform at first, they kept a number of issues on the nationalist agenda for several decades. Most important, perhaps, they established certain functional areas as legitimate arenas in which women could work. For example, by concentrating activity on the fields of education and social reform, upper-class feminists of prerevolutionary Egypt made it possible later for women of all classes to seek education and for women to claim special insights into social reform. It is not an accident that all three women who have served as cabinet officers have headed the same ministry, Social Affairs, which is, in effect, Egypt’s welfare ministry. It is now widely accepted that this is a legitimate and “traditional” field for women, but it is a legitimacy established since the foundation of the Feminist Union and made traditional as a result of the extensive activity of the early feminists in “social” activities, that is, charitable good works of a private, voluntary nature.

The Feminist Legacy

What happened to the legal and social reforms pertaining to marriage, education, employment, and political freedom for women that Hoda Sha’rawi and her colleagues pursued? Some changes were made. In 1924 the legal age of marriage was established as 16 for girls and 18 for boys, and both sexes were given a legal right to education. (35) However, these laws were not always enforced and even today not all children, especially not all young girls, go to school, even though primary school education is legally mandatory for both sexes. Issues of enforcement, as well as the remainder of the feminist agenda, continued as primary elements of feminist and, because of linkage politics, nationalist concern.

There were also several attempts to change the Personal Status Laws. For example, in 1920 and again in 1929, legislators undertook to change the divorce laws. Using the principles from the Maliki school of Muslim law, the new rules identified four kinds of problems which could enable a woman to sue for divorce. Thus, if the husband failed to provide nafagah (maintenance), the wife could, after 1929, go to court and petition for a divorce. She could also do so if her husband had a serious contagious disease, if she had been deserted by her husband, or if she had been seriously maltreated by him. (36) Additional attempts to improve the rights and status of women were made in 1943 and 1945. Aimed mainly at restrictions on polygamy, they failed.

When the Free Officers came to power in 1952, they began to implement some of this program and, in the Constitution of 1956, granted women the right to vote, indicating a real, if delayed, pay-off for tying feminism with nationalism. (37) This was done in spite of the opposition of the Sheikh of al-Azhar, who issued a fatwa (religious ruling) stating that women were too unstable to vote. The Nasser regime finessed the situation in characteristic fashion. The Sheikh was made Egyptian ambassador to Yemen, and soon after he left Egypt the new law was passed”. (38)

This reform may, however, have been due in part to increased pressure from political feminists more militant than those associated with the Egyptian Feminist Union. For example, in 1948, Mrs. Doria Shafik Regai and others founded an organization called Bint al-Nil (Daughter of the Nile). Bint al-Nil had two principal purposes: to establish full political equality between men and women and to abolish illiteracy. The period between 1948 and 1952 witnessed extensive and frequent expressions of dissatisfaction with the way Egypt was governed, and some women from Bint al-Nil contributed to the revolutionary atmosphere in 1951 by briefly occupying parliament and demanding representation for women in that body. (39) They failed in their immediate objective but succeeded in making clear that part of the process of overthrowing the old order involved changes in the status of women.

Mrs. Shafik and her followers continued to work for women’s suffrage even after their party was abolished by the new regime in 1953. In 1954, she and a few others threatened to fast unto death unless the government, in the new constitution then being planned, gave women the right to vote. Her ten-day hunger strike ended when President Neguib, Egypt’s first president following the 1952 revolution, promised that her petition would be given serious consideration. (40) Two years later, the right of women to vote was made part of the law of the land in the new constitution promulgated by Neguib’s successor, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Egyptian women now have many of the legal rights for which they and their male supporters have long struggled. Rather than recount the history of how those rights were gained, I will discuss what appear to be the principal issues of the law as it is today, as well as present a brief survey of the main dimensions of female education and employment in Egypt. These three fields —law, education, and employment — are so linked that their significance for women can only be understood if they are considered together.

Female illiteracy, especially in rural areas, is still high, even though primary education has been legally mandatory for both sexes since 1924. In 1976, official government figures indicated that 71% of Egyptian females and 43% of the males were illiterate. (41) Housewives and peasant laborers are the most numerous and perhaps most important female workers in Egypt, but because their work is not remunerated they are excluded from reporting in official statistics. (42) By law, men — fathers, brothers, husbands, sons —are obliged to support “their” women, and this law is reinforced by social custom and the code of honor by which many people in Egypt live. (43) However, not all women and families are adequately supported by their men, and many families are headed by women, notably widows and divorcees. (44) Thus, many women, particularly in urban areas, find it necessary to seek employment outside the home.

Women entering the labor force are protected by Law 91 of 1959 against discrimination on the basis of sex. Once employed, they also enjoy certain benefits, which can make it more expensive to hire women, such as paid maternity leave, guaranteed job security, time off with pay to nurse an infant, and the right to retire earlier than men. In fact;:

The Egyptian government has been active and successful in enacting legislation to insure the protection and welfare of female workers. As is the case in other areas, not all laws are enforced at all times. However, Egyptian women do have a line of legal defense against discrimination or ill-treatment and, compared to many developing countries, labor laws in Egypt related to female employment are relatively progressive and enlightened.(45)

Most women employed outside the home in today’s Egypt are at least literate, and about 15% (as of 1976) had a university degree. Change in this area is both recent and striking. In 1961, almost 83% of the female labor force, excluding unpaid peasant and housewife labor as well as most “cottage industry,” was illiterate. By 1976, only 31.2% of the female labor force was illiterate.(46) Virtually all growth in female employment is accounted for by education, with most employed women working as teachers, clerks, health workers, and government civil servants. It is difficult to find a good job in Egypt, but as university graduates enjoy guaranteed government employment, it can be expected that growing numbers of women will seek the degrees that lead to jobs. As of the early 1980s, female enrollment in university programs has stabilized at about 32% of the total, having remained at that level since 1979. (47) Although women still constitute less than 15 % of the formal labor force, the number of working women is increasing as is their percentage contribution to the total labor force.(48) It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of this development. Although by Western terms the progress achieved to date may be considered modest,

these are not western women, and it is a mistake to assume that . . . social or sexual liberation will take the same form as it has in the west. In the Egyptian context, the mere fact that education and employment take women outside the home, unsupervised by “their” men for a good part of the day, is significant as a de facto challenge to the social limits placed on the public behavior of women. For at least part of the day, these women have a private life in the public world, separate from the role of daughter, wife or household manager. Men may continue to hold the same ideas regarding the “proper” limits on female behavior, but women who work and go to school are challenging those limits [daily] in effective ways.(49)

In 1928, a handful of pioneers entered Cairo University as the first women students at that level. By the early 1980s, over 150,000 women had earned university degrees and entered professions that were once male preserves. (50) As they worked their way up in a seniority-conscious society, some of the most able and lucky ones acquired prestige, wealth, and power and probably made it easier for those who followed. Many male preserves still exist, however, and today’s generation of leaders has a great deal to consider. It was not until 1979 that a woman, Dr. Aisha Rateb, reached the rank of ambassador, and in 1985 there were still no female judges in Egypt and relatively few women active in the legal profession. (51) Tradition in Egypt holds that women may not serve as judges because they are too emotional. A taste of what women must contend with regarding this issue may be ascertained from the response of the Sheikh of al-Azhar to a question from a reporter regarding the propriety of women working as judges. He said, “There is no objection in the cases which do not affect women emotionally like civil cases, personal status and delinquency. Beyond this, they are not allowed to interfere due to their emotions which cannot bear the excitement of criminal cases.” (52)

Confronting these problems perhaps will be harder, perhaps easier, but certainly different from what it would have been in the past. This is so because Egypt now has a relatively large number of women occupying significant national and local public offices, due primarily to changes in the law made in 1979.

In the recent history of Egypt, 1979 was a tumultuous year. Not only did it see the Treaty of Peace between Egypt and Israel, but it also witnessed considerable alteration of the domestic political structure. After the treaty with Israel was signed in March, parliament was dissolved and new elections were held. Political parties, including some relatively tame opposition groups, contested elections for the first time since the 1952 revolution. Emergency degrees were rescinded and rules for a new house of parliament, Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Assembly), were included in a new “peace” constitution. In the midst of this atmosphere, certain important legal changes were made affecting women. First, by Law 21 of 1979, Majlis al-Shaab (the People’s Assembly) was enlarged to include 30 seats reserved for women. Furthermore, the law of local government was changed to guarantee that 10% to 20%, depending on the circumstances, of the seats on local councils, from the governorate to the village level, had to be reserved for women. The principle is that there must be at least one seat reserved on each council for a woman. Finally, when the new, enlarged parliament was assembled, one of its first acts (Law 44 of 1979) was to ratify an emergency decree promulgated by President Sadat amending the Personal Status Laws to include many, but not all, of the demands first made by Egyptian feminists over fifty years before. Six years later, the 1979 amendments to the Personal Status Laws were declared unconstitutional on procedural grounds: the emergency decree was not valid. The main elements of the amendments are worth a brief review because of the substantive issues at stake and because most of the provisions of the 1979 laws were reintroduced in a new law in 1985.

The major terms of these reforms included the right of the wife to a divorce if her husband took an additional wife without her consent; the necessity that the wife be informed in the event of divorce; the right of the mother to retain custody of children until boys are ten and girls are twelve years of age; the right of the wife to alimony; and the right of the woman to remain in the matrimonial home until she remarries or until her period of custody of the children has expired. In this area, women were still not equal to men, but they had more rights and security than before the 1979 changes, and by 1980 the divorce rate apparently had gone down. (53)

In 1979, it looked as if much of the original feminist program had been achieved. A hard and long battle had been fought and won but, as later events indicated, complaisance was not in order. The legal changes affecting women were controversial, both for their content and because of the methods used by the Sadat regime in getting them approved. This was true especially in the case of the Personal Status Laws. It was common to hear them called “Jihan’s Laws,” referring to the wife of the president, who, even though she had no legal power, was credited with, or blamed for, their passage. Critics also pointed out that parliament had little choice but to ratify the presidential decree which preceded their enactment into law. Three years later, the constitutionality of the 1979 changes in the Personal Status Laws was challenged and, on December 12, 1982, the issue was referred from a circuit court to the Higher Constitutional Court. After December 1982, the 1979 laws were not enforced with any consistency by Egyptian courts. (54)

After a long delay, the case was resolved in May 1985 when the Higher Constitutional Court declared the 1979 amendments to the Personal Status Laws unconstitutional on the grounds that the initial emergency decree which promulgated the laws was issued in the absence of a genuine emergency and hence was not valid. This posthumous slap at President Sadat’s authority, which conceivably could be used to invalidate other laws he issued by decree as well as limit his successors, did not rule on the substance of the issue at hand. Nevertheless, it was a major blow to reformers.

Two months after the 1979 Personal Status Laws were declared unconstitutional, the saga of the reform effort took another turn. Against the objections of leading Islamic fundamentalists, the Mubarak regime supported new legislation similar to that issued by decree in 1979. In a compromise between fundamentalists and feminists, the 1985 laws provided that a wife no longer had the automatic right to divorce if her husband took a second wife. Granting the fundamentalists one of their key demands, the highly patriarchal judiciary system was given a measure of discretionary authority. A first wife who wanted a divorce would have to prove to the court that she sustained material or moral damage as a result of her husband taking a second wife. Furthermore, the husband would have to provide his former wife with adequate housing as long as she retained custody of their children. From a feminist perspective, this is not a perfect solution to the problems stemming from polygamy, but the political adage that, in politics, the perfect is often the enemy of the good, may be applicable in this case. As a result of the 1985 reforms, feminists can claim both a present victory and a cause to struggle for in the future. (55)

By 1985, parts of the original feminist agenda had been realized, but the issues remained controversial and subject to attack from many quarters. Parliament had become a central forum for debate and, potentially, for making decisions regarding these questions. During the early 1980s, this debate began and the stage was set for the next phase of activity and thought regarding the role of women in Egyptian public life. Over forty women had the opportunity to participate in that process and they, along with other women who have served in parliament in the past, are the subjects of the next chapter.


1. Baheega S. Rasheed, The Egyptian Feminist Union (Cairo: Dar El Maamoon, 1973), pp. 6-7.

2. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Egypt in a Quarter of a Century (1952-1977) (Beirut: Arab Promotion Institute, 1981), pp. 43-44. (In Arabic).

3. Ceza Nabarawi made this point several times in a May 1979 interview with the author.

4. Baheega Arafa, The Social Activities of the Egyptian Feminist Union (Cairo: Elias Modern Press, 1954). Also see: Nancy Adams Schilling, “The Social and Political Roles of Arab Women: A Study in Conflict,” in Women in Contemporary Muslim Societies, ed, Jane I. Smith (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1980), pp. 100-145; Kathleen Howard-Merriam, “Egypt’s Other Political Elite,” Western Political Quarterly 34 (March 1981): 174-87; Laila el-Hamamsy, “The Changing Role of the Egyptian Women,” Middle East Forum 33 (1958), p. 24; Laila el-Hamamsy, “The Role of Women in the Development of Egypt,” Middle East Forum 33 (1958), pp. 592-601.

5. The forthcoming book by Nancy Gallagher covers this topic in detail. See “Helping Others: Epidemics, Medical Aid, and (he Struggle for Power in Egypt, 1940-1950” (Santa Barbara, Calif.: manuscript in progress, 1985).

6. Arafa, The Social Activities of the Egyptian Feminist Union, p. 1.

7. Kathleen Howard-Merriam, “Women, Education, and the Professions in Egypt,” Comparative Education Review 23 (June, 1979), pp. 256-70.

8. Soha Abdel-Kader, The Status of Egyptian Women 3900-1973 (Cairo: Ameriocan University in Cairo, Social Research Center, 1973); Earl L. Sullivan, “Women and Work in Egypt,” in Women and Work in the Arab World by Earl L. Sullivan and Karima Korayem, Cairo Papers in Social Science 4 (Cairo, December 1981).

9. Nada Tomiche, “The Situation of Egyptian Women in the First Half of the 19th Century,” in Beginnings of Modernization in the Middle East, ed. William Polk (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1968), pp. 171-84. Also see Judith Tucker, “Decline of the Family Economy in Mid-Nineteenth Century Egypt,” Arab Studies Quarterly 1 (Summer 1979), pp. 245-71.

10. Cynthia Nelson, “Public and Private Politics: Women in the Middle Eastern World,” American Ethnologist 1 (August 1974), p. 551ff.

11. Enid Hill, Mahkama: Studies in the Egyptian Legal System (London: Ithaca Press, 1979), p. 73.

12. Tomiche, “The Situation of Egyptian Women,” p. 177.

13. Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot, “The Revolutionary Gentlewomen in Egypt,” in Women in the Muslim World, ed. Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1978), pp. 261-76.

14. Amina Said, “The Arab Woman and the Challenge of Society,” in Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak, ed. Elizabeth Furnea and Basima Q Bezirgan (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977), pp. 374-90.

15. Ruth F. Woodsmall, The Role of Women: A Study of the Role of Women, Their Activities and Organizations in Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Syria (London and New York: The International Federation of Business and Professional Women, 1956), p, 24. For those who wish a useful overview of social and political events in modern Egypt, see P. J. Vatikiotis, The History of Egypt, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980).

16. Qasim Amin, Tahrir al-Mar’a (Cairo, N.P., 1899) and Al Mar’a at Jadida (Cairo, N.P., 1901). On Qasim Amin see the excellent article by Juan Ricardo Cole, “Feminism, Class and Islam in Turn-of-the-Century Egypt,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 13 (November 1981), pp. 387-405.

17. Thomas Philipp, “Feminism and Nationalist Politics in Egypt,” in Women in the Muslim World, Beck and Keddie, p. 278.

18. Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), esp, pp. 67-102; 130-60.

19. John L, Esposito, Women in Muslim Family Law, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1982), p. 50.

20. Ibid.

21. Philipp, “Feminism and Nationalist Politics,” p. 279.

22. Cole, “Feminism, Class and Islam,” p. 404.

23. Ibid, p. 286.

24. Arafa, Social Activities of the Egyptian Feminist Union, p. 2.

25. Mohammed Nowaihi, “Changing the Law on Personal Status Within a Liberal Interpretation of the Sharia,” in Law and Social Change, ed. Cynthia Nelson and Klaus F. Koch (Cairo: Cairo Papers in Social Science, Volume 2, No. 4, 1979).

26. Arafa, Social Activities of the Egyptian Feminist Union, p. 3.

27. Philipp, “Feminism and Nationalist Politics,” p. 289.

28. Arafa, Social Activities of the Egyptian Feminist Union, p. 4.

29. Ibid.

30. Nadav Safran, Egypt in Search of Political Community (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), pp. 141-6

31. Rasheed, The Egyptian Feminist Union, pp. 46; 55.

32. Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, p. 171ff. On Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid, see Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid-Marsot, Egypt’s Liberal Experiment: 1922-1936 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977).

33. The leaders of the Egyptian feminist movement were surely aware of these issues, as they participated regularly in international feminist conferences and, in general, were alert to what was going on in the world at that time. In the early 1920s, American feminists were concerned about birth control. Margaret Sanger founded the National Birth Control League in 1917, and international conferences were held on the topic regularly, starting in 1927. Perhaps Margo Badran’s forthcoming book on Hoda Sha’rawi will shed more light on the reaction of early Egyptian feminists to these issues.

34. Amina Said in an interview with the author, April 1983, stated that self-respect was the first thing Hoda Sha’rawi taught her.

35. Arafa, Social Activities of the Egyptian Feminist Union, pp. 9-11.

36. Esposito, Women in Muslim Family Law, pp. 53-60.

37. Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, ’The Political Mobilization of Women in the Arab World,“ in Women in Contemporary Muslim Societies, ed. Jane I. Smith (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1980), pp. 245-4:6.

38. Audrey Chapman Smock and Nadia Haggag Youssef, “Egypt: From Seclusion to Limited Participation,” in Women: Roles and Status in Eight Countries, ed. Janet Z. Giele and Audrey C. Smock (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1977), p. 67.

39. Doria Shafik, “Egyptian Feminism,” Middle Eastern Affairs III (August-September 1952), p. 234.

40. Al-Ahram, March 20, 1954, p. 1.

41. Khalid Ikram, Egypt: Economic Management in a Period of Transition (Baltiimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press for the World Bank, 1980), p. 110.

42. Sullivan, “Women and Work in Egypt,” pp. 14-16.

43. Amal Othman, minister of social affairs, stressed this point repeatedly in a March 1983 interview with the author and in an undated and unpublished paper, “The Legal Status of Women in Egypt,” which she gave me during the interview.

44. Helmy Tadros, Social Security and the Family in Egypt (Cairo: Cairo Papers in Social Science, Vol. 7, No. 1, March 1984).

45. Sullivan, “Women and Work in Egypt,” p. 10.

46. Ibid., p. 26.

47. Ibid., p. 32.

48. Amal Othman, Egyptian minister of social affairs, in a March 1983 interview with me stated that the latest government figures available to her showed that women constituted roughly 15% of the formal labor force. The degree to which the issue of women working outside the home remains controversial is illustrated by an article appearing in a leftist Egyptian weekly newspaper which quotes a leading fundamentalist as saying that any woman who works outside the home is sinful and her sin is shared by her husband and all her male relatives. See “Sheikh Sha’rawi and the Sinful Women,” Al-Ahali, July 3, 1985, p. 8 (in Arabic).

49. Sullivan, “Women and Work in Egypt,” p. 35.

50. Ikram, Egypt, p. 130.

51. Amal Othman, in her March 1983 interview with me stated that she believed that “in the future” Egypt would have women judges, but she declined to speculate on how soon that change might come about.

52. Mahmoud Shaltout, “Women are Eligible to be Judges,” Rose al-Youssef, December 17, 1962, p. 36. (In Arabic) Other Islamic countries, such as Algeria and Indonesia, have women judges.

53. Al-Ahram, July 4, 1980, p. 7.

54. Ragai Abdullah, “Case #520 That Stopped the Application of the Personal Status Law,” Al-Mussawar, March 9, 1984, pp. 20-25, 72. (In Arabic)

55. On the constitutional law case, see “Personal Status Laws Not Valid,” Al-Ahram, May 5, 1985, p. 1. For the Personal Status Laws passed by Majlis al-Shaab in 1985, see “Majlis al-Shaab Agrees With Majority in Principle,” Al-Ahram, July 1, 1985, pp. 1, 11; “Majlis al-Shaab Agrees in Principle About Law of Personal Status,” Al-Akhbar, pp. 1, 4. On page 4 of Al-Akhbar, July 1, 1985, there is a photo of eight women members of Majlis al-Shaab, five of whom are veiled, participating in the debate on the new laws. For some of the political background to the new laws, see Judith Miller, “Egypt Divided by Court’s Abolition of Law Guarding Rights of First Wives,” New York Times, June 10, 1985, p. 4Y; and “Egypt Tries to Curb Fundamentalists,” New York Times, July 7, 1985, p. 3Y.

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