By Aliya Al Q
During the Franco-British occupation of Egypt (1789-1922), the Western military and technological superiority became a symbol of strength to the colonized nations. These crucial institutional structures empowering and pushing forward Western nationalistic ideas into the Ottoman territories, were further reinforced in their social and militarily characteristics through occupation. Thus, Egyptian intellectuals concentrated on studying, not the military organization and weaponry, but the ideas of liberalism, humanitarianism, and egalitarianism. these ideas were introduced by inteligencia to reform and solidify Egyptian authority within its territories. Accordingly, following the Western models of self-identity and institutional modernism, a popular resistance movement slowly emerged in Egypt, mobilizing working and peasant masses in order to enforce loyalty to the state and resistance to foreign occupation as a unifying cause.
Through the educational reforms pushed forward by Muhammad Ali (1769-1849) and Ismail (1863-1879), Egyptian society experienced intensifying intellectual activities among different groups with nationalist, legal, religious, and political interests. Jamal Al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897), a father of pan-Islamism, was one of the distinct personas of the time who opposed Ismail’s policies and called for the purification of Islamic practices and modernizing the society away from the Western model. At this time, many Egyptians traveled abroad and were surprised by the socio-political freedoms and especially by the advanced status of women in the West. Although, Al-Afghani’s initiatives did not directly relate to the women’s question, however, his ideas were employed by his successors to introduce and advance concepts related to women’s emancipation.
? Whereas, the history of Egyptian feminism has taken its roots from the theoretical and radical formulations of Qasim Amin and his male followers. Later, there was the input and the earliest manifestations of upper- and middle-class women’s influence as a new culture of modernity was being shaped in nineteenth-century Egypt. Margot Badran defines Egyptian feminism and the awareness of constraints placed upon women attempts to remove these constraints and to evolve a more equitable gender system involving new roles for women and new relations between men and women.
At the start of the nineteenth century, the struggle for women’s emancipation began in a socially and culturally turbulent environment calling rather for the nationalistic struggle. There were two major groups that were concerned with these issues; the proponents and the opponents. On the one hand, there was al-Afghani’s disciple, Ahmed Faris al-Shidyak, who published in 1855 his first book, Les Jambes Croisées favorable to women’s emancipation. Another significant proponent of the equality between men and women advocated by Islam was Sheikh Mohammed ‘Abduh, “a champion of the nationalist struggle of the Wafd”, who argued for the abolition of concubinage and polygamy. On the other hand, stood the religious and traditional thinkers and scholars who refused to recognize Western advantages, further discrediting any Western socio-political model and objecting to the reinterpretation of the legal and religious codes.
By the end of the 19th century, a new generation of the pre-World War I thinkers like Qasim Amin, having acquired their education in the West, believed that the West had to be imitated by Egypt not only in order to gain economic and political independence, but also to secure “greater individual fulfillment and happiness”. One of the subjects that especially created discussion within religious and philosophical circles was the treatment of women. Qasim Amin was among the first to uncover and treat women’s issues and is considered to be the father of Egyptian feminism. ?Moreover, Amin’s solution to women’s social inferiority lay through the adherence to the true Islamic notions with a minimal conflict between traditions and modern ideas. Through his works on female status, he indirectly attacked the existing religious and corrupted establishments and “godless” nationalist movement in Egypt, which backfired with an opposition of the Ulama of Al-Azhar and the members of the nationalist movement.
Born in 1865, Qasim Amin was brought up in Alexandria and by 1881 he moved to Cairo. Getting a bachelor’s degree from the school of Law and Administration, he studied law in France and then “began a career in the Egyptian judicial system”.
Being attracted to the ideas of nationalism and women’s liberation, Amin published his first work of 1894, Les Égyptiens, where he emphasized backwardness and the low social status of an Egyptian woman. At the same time, he was cautious enough to explain that it did not mean that secularization was the way to give women their rights. “I still defend the use of the veil and consider it one of the permanent cornerstones of morality. I would recommend, however, that we adhere to its use according to Islamic law, which differs from our present popular traditions”.
In his work, in order to give his ideas religious credibility to the women’s social place, Amin utilized the passages from the Quran and Sharia thus appealing not only to intellectuals but also to religious scholars of the time. He identified four factors that govern the place of women in the Islamic society.
The first regulation, “Oh Mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and female, and made you into nations and tribes that ye may know each other” ("The Chambers" 49:13), opposed the notion of a subordinate female position before men. The second regulation was concerned about woman’s stand for equality in humanity,
“Oh Mankind! reverence your Guardian-Lord, who created you from a single Person, created, of like nature, his mate, and from them twain scattered (like seeds) countless men and women - fear Allah, through Whom ye demand your mutual (rights), and reverence the wombs (that bore you): for Allah ever watches over you.” (“The women,” 4:1)
The third regulation reinforced the necessity for an equal participation of both sexes and their legal accountability and responsibility for complete equality in social and religious obligations. “The Believers, men and women, are protectors one of another: they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil: they observe regular prayers, practice regular charity, and obey Allah and His Messenger” (“The Repentance," 9:71)
The fourth regulation affirmed the recognition of physical differences; nonetheless, Amin underlined the idea that the positions of leadership were created by nature and not by men. They were derived from necessities neither dictated by privileges nor by distinctions in the essence of the soul and the origin of creation. It was a distinction, which did not diminish the human capability of the woman in that it was stemming from an organic difference between woman and man, not a difference in their essential mutual humanity.
Naturally, Amin was not the first to point the unfair treatment of women in Islamic society; however, a voice coming from the intellectual elite of Egypt did create a discontent within the religious circles. They believed that a modern intellectual was trying to undermine al-Azhar’s pious role, which was accused of being corrupted by the traditions and led astray from the Islamic path.
Despite his attempt to appeal to the intellectual in al-Azhar, Amin did not gain the support of Muslim scholars who opposed his ideas of reforming and reinterpreting through Islamic notions. Nonetheless, Amin realized that modernization slowly alienated the Ulama and the Islamic scholars; thus, by looking at the situation of women, he defended the necessity to moderate social and traditional restrictions of the female population. He believed that if Egyptian traditional society did not modify its legal base and social structure in order to face the forces of the Western secularization and liberalism, it would be bound to lose the support of masses. Instead to a more modern “godless” model, which in fact started to gain support in the urban centers during the early 1900s.
Furthermore, Amin was not exclusively an intellectual but also a judge. He saw the incompatibilities of the rigid legal system combined with the constantly modified social demands of t Egyptian society. An obsolete and fragile traditional class structure had no place for the urban working and intellectual classes, resulting in the creation of a separate class that demanded socio-political unity founded on the ideas of nationalism and secularization. Like many Pan-Islamic scholars, Amin sensed this split between modern and traditional society and tried to call for the purification of Islamic values, which are in their core modern. Along these lines, he believed that it was possible to bring tradition and modernism under the same banner of a united contemporary Islamic society in which women’s status played an active role in raising the new educated and liberal generation.
In order to achieve harmony between modern and tradition, the family had to be restructured and the female status improved. The predominant opinion among Western intellectuals was that an uneducated woman tainted social and cultural progress. When women were weak, men crushed their rights, despised them, treated them with contempt, and stomped on their personality. “She was of no importance, was ignored and had no legitimate opinions. She was submissive to a man because he was a man and she, a woman”. His four points about women’s role in society discredited the traditional practices, but did not provide any concrete ways of how to reintroduce those Islamic values into a society torn between conservative and modernizing trends. In other words, he was primarily concerned with the theoretical significance of women’s emancipation in Egypt.
Therefore, according to Amin, “the work of women in society is to form the morals of the nation”. The inflexibility of the Ulama’s and their anti-modern attitudes resulted in an alienating modernism appearing as an outside force to an illiterate mass. Another consequence of the inflexibility was it effect on the educated elite which was unable to fit into the rigid and inflexible framework of the traditional system of Egypt. Furthermore, Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) criticized the Ulama, who as “the spirit of the nation, have failed so far to see the benefit of the modern sciences” and remained a foreign element. If the Ulama had reacted positively to Western ideas and channeled them within the Islamic framework, it would have encouraged the creation of a modern and unique Egyptian society incorporating modern and traditional features. Instead, the Ulama were preoccupied with outdated questions and values while living in a new world.
Continuing his quest for women’s emancipation and further antagonizing the Muslim elite, Amin published Tahrir al-Mar’a (1899) (Liberation of Women) co-authored with Muhammad Abduh and Ahmad Lutfi Al Sayyid. He boldly stated,
“we should adopt …customs and acquire such ethics as are consistent with our welfare, thereby ensuring that we are the masters of the motives behind our actions, as reason and Islam demand of us, rather than being slaves to the customs of our forefathers”.
Moreover, he stated clearly that the all-covering garments will not make a woman more modest but it was the spiritual aspect that ought to be stressed in her early childhood. Thus, the new modern teachings integrated in the broader framework of a workable tradition combined with spiritual integrity would “eventually facilitate the integration of women with men, with the least negative consequences” of “corrupt behavior” and secularization. Amin cautiously stressed the important role of religious in the future of Egypt.
In the secular sphere, Egyptian patriots saw the struggle for women’s liberation closely linked to the nationalist struggle while simultaneously being vital for the nationalist movement to succeed. The notion that a female, being the “slave” of man, could not give birth to a healthy generation, this notion prevailed throughout the economic, social, and laic thought. Being sympathetic to the nationalist movement agenda towards women, Qasim Amin defined the slave position of a female in Egyptian society and called it anti-Islamic,
“A woman may be given in marriage to a man she does not know who forbids her the right to leave him and forces her to this or that and then throws her out as he wishes: this is slavery indeed” (Al-Mar’a Al-Jadidah (The New Woman), 1900).
Therefore, a woman must be liberated by means of her own realization of her vital role in society and should be given a chance to make decisions, “the woman from her birth to the day of her death is a slave because she does not live by herself and for herself”. Consequently, Amin saw education as the only way for promoting women’s emancipation. Along with the necessity of education, and in order to make his ideas sound, he incorporated in his discussions passages from the Quran that granted woman an independent status in society and allowed to “bring her into the active stream of society”. His work “'Abudiat al-Mar’a” (The Slavery of Women) presented a philosophical and religious discussion about the physical and psychological characteristics of slavery that depicted the reality of Egyptian women.
In his second book Tahrir Al-Mar’a (The Liberation of The Woman) of 1899, Amin confirmed his ideas of education and emancipation as weapons against barbarism in Egypt. The outcry against Amin was intense because of his status as a Muslim male and respected judge, who not only insisted that his views conformed to Islam, but also used secular arguments. As a result, his published works on such a controversial topic about female liberation, brought a severe opposition by the nationalist segment led by Mustafa Kamil and by the conservative groups of al-Azhar intellectuals on the grounds of Amin’s pro-Western and anti-traditionalist propaganda.
Mustafa Kamil (1874-1908) was oriented towards the modern concept of the nation-state as the basic socio-political entity. Due to his lack of Islamic education and infatuation with the West, Kamil saw Islam and nationalism as two complementary notions to each other. He gave Islam more of an ethnical-emotional value as an anchor to the land and link to the past, while not grasping fully the contradictory values of the secular, political, and geographical features of nationalism. Amin, on the other hand, pushed for the modernization through Islamic reforms in the fields of education, women’s emancipation, and development of modern and adaptable legal codes. Perhaps, Kamil would have eventually agreed with Amin’s defense of women’s rights; however, Amin’s ideas of a society with Islamic principles did not fit Kamil’s opportunistic and nationalistic agenda.
The other major group of opposition consisted of Al Azhar members who viewed society through the functions of the true leaders- sheikhs of the orders and the Ulama – religious leaders and teachers. The jurisdiction of Sharia was to care for “the affairs of Muslims and promote their eternal well-being.” Since Amin openly criticized the corrupt nature of the Ulama and advised them to accept “western tools” of education and legal reforms for the progress of Egypt, his writings challenged the dominant, inflexible, and rigid rhetoric within al Azhar intellectual circles. Amin’s Pan-Islamic views did not support the long formed traditions and established social relations of the Ulama; thus, the conservatives opposed any innovation in the religious realm out of fear of being criticized or discredited by the Muslim population with the possibility of a loss of authority.
Being disillusioned with the Ulama’s propensity to change their attitude towards the West, Amin wrote his third volume, Al-Mar’a Al-Jadidah, where he discussed these matters. He focused in depth on the Islamic past and the socio-religious decline while simultaneously criticizing the persistent view of the West as the enemy that would lead to further damage of Egyptian society. Amin’s work advocated a need for Egypt to imitate Western ideas of liberalism and incorporate them into the Islamic context in order to liven up the social and economic systems. Polygamy was nothing to him but “a legal fiction designed to satisfy animal desires … and of excessive indulgence in pleasure”. Attacking and discrediting outdated rules, Amin as a husband and a father looked beyond the legal basis of marriage stressing its alien notion to the Egyptian spiritual ideals of companionship, love, and partnership.
In his private life, Amin’s daughters grew up raised with the help of European nannies, thus, he had a first-hand experience of the socio-psychological dissonance of the new generation of educated Muslim women. He stated that they “find [themselves] stuck between the old and the new and [they] are confused. [They are] unable to forget what life was like for [their] mothers, and [they are] unable to make for [themselves] yet a new life”. Therefore, the Western ideas should not and can no longer be opposed but must be welcomed and channeled within the traditional Islamic framework of piety and unity in order to moderate the transition. In fact, the education of women is the most powerful weapon for improving their status as well as the most potent force of social change, and will touch every aspect of their life from family to economics. A lack of women’s education could further alienate the female population from participating and contributing to national self-determination. Moreover, women who were not integrated in traditional society, would have more propensity to turn away from the religious limitations of the past toward the “immodest” ideas of the West.
Therefore, an education was an essential tool for bringing women out of their world of ignorance. Although women’s rights was a movement primarily initiated by Western educated men, there was an upper class of Egyptians, including Copts, and foreigners who encouraged female education. The majority of women were illiterate, and Amin did not live to see the process of female liberation and their political participation. His successors carried over his ideas stripping them of his religious concessions and instead favored the abolition of the veil as it symbolized by a woman’s inferior position in society.
By 1919, women increasingly were drawn into the nationalist movement. Still, it is worth to analyze how far the ideas of emancipation of women truly penetrated Egyptian society. On the one hand, because of the restricting laws and oppression of traditions, only the urban working women could be active participants. On the other hand, rural women were prevented from expressing their ideas due to the strong cultural and religious influence of the Ulama in the countryside. Thus, the urban environment was the “real crucible and social change in Egypt” where most Egyptians were exposed to the West through education and socio-political associations. Meanwhile, the great majority of the population lacked education or had “only the rudimentary education” provided by the village kuttabs. Likewise, women of the lower classes had no access to Western education, which was definitely a major delaying factor in the process of liberation of the poorer rural segments.
After Amin’s death in 1908, both educational programs and an increase in female participation in the political struggle for national identity created a false an impression of wide liberating reforms. Still, in the 1950’s, peasant families and mainly the female members, remained illiterate and detached from emancipation because of the huge load of work performed in the fields. Women, had on average two years of schooling and more than five children because they were ignorant of the benefits of contraceptives. In the following fifty years since Amin’s initiations, the women’s position in the rural areas has not changed as dramatically as in the urban areas.
In 1953, an urban Muslim woman says,
“We’re a minority…an educated woman no longer dominated by circumstances. She dominates them… My daughter will definetly receive education…A liberated woman does what she wants bearing in mind the norms of our society”.
In contrast, a peasant Muslim woman reveals her bleak reality.
“I can’t read… I only had two years of schooling…I never go out; it is not that I don’t want to. That’s just the way it is…It is up to my children, if they want to go to school… as for me I m too old … I can’t change my life”.
If a working urban woman presents an optimistic attitude toward the future and visualizes her place in it, in contrast a rural woman is characterized by her passive acceptance of her inferior situation referring to God’s will instead. These two different opinions of the 1950’s cannot accurately represent all women’s attitudes; but presenting these two mind sets demonstrates the fact that Western ideas have touched only a small fraction of the Egyptian women while most have not overcome traditional and religious limitations due to the lack of broader wider educational programs to reach the female population.
Despite the fact that statistics confirm significant improvements of the female educational opportunities, there is still a lot to be improved. Higher education enrolment numbers among females predominate significantly in the urban areas. Amin was right to point out that education is the way to women’s liberation. Accordingly, the relationship between a mother’s education and her children’s attitudes toward acceptance of equal rights for women indicates that men whose mothers had no formal education are inclined to oppose the granting of women equal political rights and equal employment opportunities. Quite the opposite is true of men whose mothers attended a university. Furthermore, women's participation in public life is directly proportional to the degree of education.
Amin dedicated his life to defend the social and political benefits and necessities of uplifting women’s status in Egypt. Simultaneously, he touched upon the major conflict between the traditional and modern forces that trapped educated women and tried to define their position in relation to the traditional institutions. He introduced women’s presence in the future of Egypt on the agenda of reforms in the 19th century. Through his work, one can notice an evolution of Amin views about the Islamic Umma and its dysfunctional presence in the society. Focusing on writing about women, he also provided a picture of the interactions between the West and the various sectors of Egyptian society. Although this paper’s main concern is with Egypt, it is important to note that Western ideas of freedom and equality entered into major urban centers of the Ottoman Empire. Women’s issues in the early nineteenth century were not taken seriously, however the initiatives toward modernization led the Ottoman regions into the modern times, and the need of reshaping social structures and the status of their people men and women. In the final analysis, although Amin opinion is solid in as much as he believed that modernism is a march forward and that the inability to adapt to it means one gets turn over it seems that actual events prove otherwise.
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