Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Research Paper on Women

Research Paper on Women

Until recent times the historiography of the Middle East, including that of Egypt, has suffered in several ways because of its concentration on a very narrow focus on political institutions, events and high culture with the result that women and the lower classes have remained virtually invisible. In addition, the "Islamic" definition of history and culture promoted the idea of Middle Eastern history as Сthe embodiment of Islamic spirit, rather than the outcome of the complex interactions of material forces and ideological structures."

According to Judith Tucker, focus on written sources has tended to dictate the manner in which students of history have developed their methods. The result is that historians tended to limit themselves by neglecting archaeological sources, oral traditions and anthropological evidence. But over the past twenty years the lives of the urban and working classes have been studied largely because of these sources. Women, however, received little or no attention in these studies but, running in parallel with this history; a body of work has emerged in which the lives and experiences of women have been revealed. Gradually women's rights emerged as a contentious issue for Muslim societies as the history of women became a debate over their place in Islam.

Anthropological research has been of particular importance in the study of Egyptian women because it has provided the means for historians to explore not just the lives of elite women but also those from the middle and lower classes. What has emerged from the research is not a picture of secluded silent women but women who participated, throughout history, in informal political movements, in protests against deprivation or acts of oppression of a ruling class or state power, and in nationalist movements. Despite this, it is the custom of veiling and seclusion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that has and still continues to attract the most interest and has led to many false generalisations. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, imprecise reading of Arabic texts and travellers' interpretations of the practices and observed customs of Islam, for example, often led to grossly inaccurate assumptions regarding Egyptian women.


Powerfully evocative words such as harem, the veil and polygamy were frequently used in contexts, which justified widely held Western views that Egypt and indeed the whole of the Middle East was backward. The veil, for example, was never just about women, rather Сits connotations encompassed issues of class and culture - the widening cultural gulf between different classes in society and the interconnected conflict between the culture of the colonisers and that of the colonised. Women's issues, then, were never just about women's rights. Instead, they became inextricably bound up with issues of nationalism, politics and culture. As a result, writers have looked "behind", "beyond" and through the veil in an attempt to understand women's place in society. In other words, "the veil has been the quintessential metaphor for Middle Eastern women, yet, it has also symbolised wealth, backwardness, religiosity, and political protest". Over the past twenty years the discourse regarding veiling, the social conditions of women and the development of feminist thought has been studied in depth. Thus historians have examined the fact that the veil signalled modesty and honour to male traditionalists in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Egyptian society while modernists saw it as a signal of backwardness. Women, at the time, on the other hand tended to balance the argument in a "broader context, balancing abstract arguments with practical considerations". In effect recent debate on women and the veil became the "discourse of the veil" where issues of class, culture, imperialism and nationalism all became linked with the issue of women. This research paper will attempt to examine that debate by looking at the period 1882-1923 when Egypt was colonised by the British whose perceptions of Islam was one of inferiority exemplified in its "unenlightened" cultural practice of veiling women. It will look at the dual struggle many Egyptian women faced between feminist consciousness and nationalism under colonialism. It will also examine how the feminist movement in Egypt between 1882 and 1923 which was essentially an urban movement and moreover a movement of middle and upper class women developed in a gender-segregated system.

Veiling and seclusion developed in the pre-Islamic Near East and usually signified upper and middle class urban women. It is first mentioned in an Assyrian legal text of the thirteenth century BC and was a sign of status. It existed in pre Islamic Iran and the Byzantine Empire; areas conquered by the first Muslims. Islamic traditions state that veiling and seclusion for all Muslim women are written in the Quran, believed to be the word of God. This contention has itself prompted strong debate among modern historians such as Nikki Keddie and Fatima Mernissi who either deny or assert that Mohammed intended all women to veil. Morality, fidelity and modesty were assured when women wore the veil according to Islamic traditionalists. However, the Quran appears to tell women to "cover their bosoms and their ornaments, later to mean all except the hands, feet, and perhaps the face." In 1991 Keddie argued that the Quran would not have specified the bosom if the intention had been to tell women to cover everything. She goes on to point out that the "Quran has been interpreted, against the meaning of its text, as enjoining veiling, whereas Quranic rules on adultery are rarely followed." The debate regarding veiling when focused on Egypt is interesting because it was the first Middle Arab country to experience European commercial expansion and to experiment with social change for women.

Egypt was governed by Mohammed "Ali Pasha, an Ottoman officer who established his own ruling dynasty, for much of the early part of the nineteenth century. He introduced a centralised system of government where the rural middle class, who owned most of the land, became politically and economically powerful dominating political and religious positions outside the urban areas. Most trade was with Europe, going through European merchants in Egypt and new institutions were introduced from Europe: banks, insurance companies and the stock exchange. The legal existence of women was not recognised, and business was conducted through males only. Government was structured in a manner that precluded women from economic involvement, a hierarchy that was imitated in the patriarchal family. Even women who inherited from relatives had little authority as the wealth was automatically turned over to the male in the family. It was not difficult for the image of the woman, limited to the home, raising children, to be applied to Egyptian elite and bourgeois. In other words Egyptian laws were very like the laws on property and inheritance in most European countries in the nineteenth century.

In this period urban women of all classes and women of the rural gentry veiled when they went outside the home while in the wealthy upper classes, eunuchs were used to guard women and children and prevent them from all contact with the outside world. Jews and Christians also practised domestic seclusion and veiling in Egypt at this time. When urban middle and upper class girls reached puberty, which was often as early as nine, they too were compelled to veil and were more closely guarded. Lower class women however, did not face the same restrictions regarding veiling, as it was not always practical because of their work in the fields. Colonialism however, changed the discourse on the veil to one on culture. The British believed that the natives needed civilising and set about imposing their "superior" culture on the colonised area and since women are the bearers of culture, their situation was first targeted and the first step was the veil.

British colonial rule began in 1882 and lasted until 1923. The most notorious British consul of the occupation period was Lord Cromer (1883-1907), an autocrat, whose control over Egypt was absolute. Industry and education were neglected and British officials were brought in to staff the bureaucracy, a policy that controversially prevented Egyptian civil servants from rising to the top of their fields. The economic impact of British reform measures was demonstrated by the acquisition of wealth by European residents of Egypt, the Egyptian upper and middle class, comprising primarily of men educated in Westernised secular schools who were functionaries in the civil service. These new "modern" men displaced the "traditionally and religiously trained "ulama" as administrators and servants of the state, educators, and keepers of the valued knowledges of society". Along with their economic "reforms", the British brought their educational system, which inculcated within the upper class Egyptians the view that their own culture was inferior.

According to Leila Ahmed, who has written extensively on Muslim women, Сissues of culture and attitudes towards Western ways were intertwined with issues of class and access to economic resources, position and status. Native Egyptian women's economic rights based on Islam were diminished as western British influence took over and Victorian standards of women being mere wives or decorative appendages to their husbands took over". Upper and many middle class Egyptian women followed western fashion often buying their clothes from Paris. While wealthy women wore a mixture of western and eastern dress they continued to wear the veil because it was a way of signifying status and wealth and it also demonstrated religious affiliation. Western style department stores began to appear in Cairo and Alexandria carrying imported textiles and ready made clothes and catering for secluded women by providing home showings. Notions of seclusion were challenged as architectural alterations in houses, new designs and use of urban space, carriageways and railroads eroded many restricting practices. As women adjusted to these new conditions and experiences, a new feminist consciousness began to emerge. This new awareness was as much influenced by the manner in which the British used feminism to degrade Islam.

According to Ahmed, the British used feminism as a Western discourse to justify their racism against Muslims while at home they were certainly far from feminists. She points out one aspect of Orientalism where self-contained histories dealing with the Middle East and Mediterranean tended to emphasise their separateness. They attributed Byzantine seclusion to "Oriental influences" distancing oppression of women from European societies and represented it as originating among non-Europeans. The implication was that Western civilisation, unlike that of the Middle East, was untainted by the unequal treatment of women. Not for the first time the British colonisers, who saw themselves as guardians of civilisation, concealed their greed with rhetoric based on saving the inferior and uncivilised masses. Western women too, when observing Muslim women, tended to express their opinions within their own societal context and use their own culture's norms to judge their Muslim counterparts. With few exceptions when travelling or writing about Egyptian women, they rarely took into consideration their own privileged positions when they attempted to try to help Muslim women "liberate" themselves and invariably they were still informed by their own racist assumptions.

However, as Ahmed points out, there was a further dimension to Egyptian women's oppression. Islamic women were pressured to remain silent and loyal and reconcile themselves to the central formulations of their culture, emphasising and re-affirming them to safeguard them against the West. In other words, "Islamic civilisation developed a construct of history that labelled the pre-Islamic period the Age Of Ignorance and projected Islam as the sole source of all that was civilised". While Fatima Mernissi concurs with this view, she stresses the egalitarian and ethical nature of Islam. Mernissi relies upon the interpretation of Islamic tradition that holds that before the establishment of Islam, human civilisation was characterised by social and moral chaos. For example, she concludes that a particularly discriminatory hadith which said that women were foolish and should not acquire wealth was "a throwback to the pre-Islamic customs of the jahiliyya, the era of ignorance when the criteria of good and evil had not yet been revealed. In this period, according to Mernissi, both Western and Islamic society was configured to maintain patriarchy and in the case of Islam, women's rights were denied "not because of the Quran, nor the Prophet, nor Islamic tradition, but simply because those rights conflict with the interests of a male elite." The Bible was frequently used in western culture in a similar manner to maintain patriarchy. Ahmed and Mernissi both agree that Muslim men wished to confine women, veil them and shut them out of the world. However, many Egyptian women, particularly from the upper and middle classes, had different views and, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the emergence of a feminist consciousness inevitably challenged the maintenance of patriarchy. Most of these women had already had the benefit of education either from their fathers or from European tutors as well as instruction in Arabic and religion. In the middle and lower classes very few girls attended the traditional schools which taught basic reading skills and recitation of the Quran. Under British rule, the thrust of educational expansion begun under the khedival government (1863-79) was not only neglected but measures were introduced to curb it.

In Egypt, as in most Islamic countries, feminism emerged in the mid nineteenth century, from within the urban and middle class world where sex segregation and domestic seclusion based on Islam were still very much in force. This was a period of early social feminism, invisible to men, where women were beginning to expand their lives into public space. Upper class women offered poor women assistance in medical care and education for working class girls. Many also participated in the nationalist movement (1919-22) against British occupation, in street demonstrations, political organising and morale boosting. Upper and middle class women continued to wear the veil, "a symbol and function of sex segregation and female seclusion, signalling continued adherence to inherited conventions although many with a feminist consciousness had come to see it, in whole or in part, as oppressive". The term "feminism" was not used by these women at this stage but, according to Margot Badran, its use is appropriate as an Сanalytical concept which includes within its range a nascent awareness that women have been oppressed because of their sex and activity to remove such restraints.

The debate on veiling became more pronounced during the period of colonial domination. Women's role became linked with nationalism and the need for political and cultural reform. In other words, according to Ahmed, the veil emerged as a "potent signifier, connoting not merely the social meaning of gender but also matters of far broader political and cultural import." Nationalists such as TalТat Harb (1867-1941) who established the first national bank in Egypt in 1920, was strongly against unveiling arguing that it was emulating the West which was corrupt and decadent. Talat Harb was responding to a controversial book, "Tahrir El-Mar" (The Liberation of Women 1899), written by Muslim judge, Qassim Amin. This was often regarded as marking the beginning of feminism in Arab culture as a result of the way in which it challenged existing notions of the veil. Amin insisted on womenТs right to move outside the home and demanded adaptation of veiling where face and hands would be left uncovered. In the religious section of his book, Amin stated that the Sharia had never decreed veiling. He stressed how impractical and inconvenient it was for women whose faces were covered to carry out business or testify in court and argued that a groom should be able to see the face of the woman whom he planned to marry. Amin condemned veiling arguing that it was the main barrier to womenТs development and education and the main source of their ignorance. He maintained that an ignorant peasant would be more capable of coping with the difficulties of life than an elite urban lady who spoke French and played the piano. Harb, on the other hand, saw unveiling as a Western imperialist conspiracy.

Describing "liberated" women in the West as immoral who engaged in casual relationships, Harb argued that the current veil was inadequate and that women were doing their best to show their beauty from behind the veil. He stressed the importance of morality, fidelity and modesty and used the Quran as a source for convincing his reader of the validity of his arguments.

While it may not be an exaggeration to say that Amin's "Tahrir El-Mara" was one of the most controversial books in this period, he was not the sole pioneer of feminist ideas. Women themselves were by no means silent. On the contrary, they were using magazines, advice books, and domestic manuals to articulate their views and aims. They were meeting formally and informally to discuss their problems and grievances and solutions. They wrote essays for literary journals. Some even started journals and magazines, initiating a vibrant women's press. Journals such as Al-СA was started in 1892 and by 1919 more than thirty periodicals were being published in Egypt by women. Some women, however, rejected the trend of unveiling. Writers such as Fatima Rashid and Sarah al-Mihiyya urged women to follow the traditions of modesty and piety. Fatima Rashid wrote that the veil was "not a disease that holds us back, rather is our cause for happiness." She called on men to make their women veil when in 1910 urban women began to discard it. She and other Islamists linked unveiling to the encroachment of western ways arguing that Westernization eroded women's position by feeding materialism and undermining morality. Some believed that if "the hopes of Quasim Amin are realised, modesty will disappear, the loss of which will destroy religion." These women, in their own, way contributed to the emergence of women onto the public stage by forming associations, starting journals, writing in the national press and becoming politically aware. Amin's views, however, echoed those of many women who were publishing books of poetry and prose in the 1870s and 1880s. "Тishah al-Talmuriyah (1840-1902) became a writer and poet, was fluent in Arabic, Turkish and Persian and was described by future writers such as Lebanese Mayy Ziyadah and Egyptian Malak Hifni Nasif as the founding mother of feminism. Zaynab Fawwaz (1860-1914) playwright and poet, wrote essays and articles and in 1892 stated that "woman is a human being as man is, with complete mental faculties and acumen, and equivalent parts, capable of performing according to her own abilities.Т Later, feminist activists claimed many of these women as foremothers in the early twentieth century. Middle class women wrote in journals and no longer believed that they had transgressed any moral code. In this manner, women began to acquire a public space and a voice. This early "unveiling" of women's voices took different forms. The Lebanese-Palestinian essayist and poet, Mayy Ziyada, used biographical works to reveal the lives of women who were part of the women's emerging public voice and activism. Ziyada used this method too as a "filter through which her feminist views could emerge discreetly". She was greatly concerned about women' issues and supported reform in social services, education and the legal system. She wrote about famous women who had been significant in the "rise of women's awareness in the Arab world". Her work was published in 1919-20 when women of all classes were actively involved in boycotting the British and taking part in public demonstrations. Many including Ziyada also gave feminist speeches in the offices of the progressive newspaper al-Jarida. Women were beginning to recognise that they had a voice. Controversial issues such as unveiling in public and the social mixing of the sexes were discussed, particularly by women. They debated in the harem, attended lectures and even their philanthropic work was generally outside the sight of men. Women from the middle and upper classes attended lectures given at the new Egyptian University between 1909 and 1912, which had been heavily endowed by Princess Fatma.

In fact, the views and methods of Malak Hifni Nasif (1886-1918) and Huda ShaТrawi (1879-1947) offer an interesting insight into two very different interpretations of the issue of the veil by contemporary feminist activists. Malak Hifni Nasif wrote articles for publication in newspapers advocating womenТs rights but was firmly opposed to unveiling. She did not base her argument on text interpretation as had Harb and Amin but claimed in 1910 that women should remain veiled because of the immorality of some men who were capable of subjecting women to "foul language and adulterous glances".

Women who unveiled, she argued, were more interested in fashion rather than in education. She sent articles to local newspapers advocating women's rights specifically against polygamy, reflecting her own experience. Nasif, however, took the debate into the public domain when she presented, by proxy, a list of demands for women at the Egyptian (male) Congress in Heliopolis in 1911. Her petition included ten recommendations asking for more education and medicine for women, access to mosques, full involvement in public life and legal protection for women in marriage and divorce.

While all recommendations were rejected at least a feminist voice had been heard in the people's assembly even if it was through a mediator. While she did not advocate removal of the veil, she was the first woman to call for improved health, education and professional opportunities for women. Although she was unable to present her demands personally in public, it was still a considerable achievement. Nasif thus was in favour of promoting the cause of women within the system of sex segregation but not all Egyptian female activists were to subscribe to this method.

Huda ShaТrawi, one of the founders of the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1914, was a feminist nationalist activist and a central figure in early twentieth century Egyptian feminist. She was from the upper class and was part of the women's salon in the 1890s where women's issues were discussed. Through enlightened discussion conducted by Eugenie le Brun Rushdi, a French woman who became Muslim, Muslim upper class Egyptian women realised that many of the constraints imposed on them were not in the name of Islam. Rather, veiling and seclusion was a male imposed tradition. However, unlike the women mentioned earlier who had to confine their writing and discussions within the harem, Huda ShaТrawi and others began to take the debate outside the harem, albeit in public segregated places such as schools and the University of Egypt.

The Egyptian Feminist Union focused on women's suffrage and increased education for women together with changes in the Personal Status laws. ShaТrawi was very involved in the Egyptian nationalist struggle, and was one of the organisers of a march of upper and middle class women against the British in 1919. She was also very committed to projects such as the Mabarrat Muhammad Ali (1909) which was founded by upper class women and brought medical assistance and healthcare advice to lower class women in their own neighbourhoods. ShaТrawi saw this work as a first step towards female liberation. It gave poor women greater independence and at the same time enabled upper class women to have a role outside the harem. This was the first visible act of independence by upper class women prior to their public support of the nationalist protest in 1919. Upon her return from the ninth Congress of the Internationals Women's Suffrage Alliance in Rome in 1923, ShaТrawi declared her denunciation of the veil and took it off in a dramatic act in public at a Cairo train station. The significance of this act, however, must not be exaggerated as ShaТrawi herself argued for a gradual approach to removal of the veil. In fact, unveiling was never part of the formal agenda of the EFU but, more importantly, women for the first time were rejecting segregation and invisibility and publicly launching themselves on the scene as feminists. During the 1919 Revolution women held their own marches and struggled for not just independence but also a nation that had a place for them. Women from the lower classes demonstrated in the streets and carried out act of militancy such as cutting rail lines. Women, however, were never full partners. Male Egyptians supported anti-British protests such as these and during the arrest and repeated exiles of nationalist leaders the wife of nationalist leader often acted in his place and became a symbol of nationalist commitment in her own right. When the nation was being defended criticism about women's public role was muted, the formation of the Wafdist Women's Committee, for example, was the first women's political organisation. With ShaТrawi as president, it was very active and influential in the revolution as the Wafdist men were arrested. During long periods when the men were interned Wafdist women leaders ensured that protests were planned and maintained communication with the absent leaders. Women engaged in anti British economic boycotts. Male leaders acknowledged the active participation of women in the Wafd and some even agreed that women should become part of the movement as a whole and would work for this after independence. However this attitude changed in 1922 when Egypt gained formal independence when much to the dismay of ShaТrawi and other women activists the new government denied women suffrage. The government barred women from the opening of the Egyptian Parliament. ShaТrawi led a delegation of women to picket the opening issuing a list of thirty-two feminist, social and nationalist demands. Egyptian women were now demonstrating against the indigenous patriarchal system rather than the British. The women even criticised the terms of independence, which left British troops in Egypt. Clearly the male Wafd no longer needed the support of the women and resented their insistence on political rights as citizens. Eventually, in 1924, ShaТrawi split from the Wafidist Central Committee, and began to devote her time to the EFU.

The generally restrictive attitude of men in this period is clear in the gender segregation of society and veiling of women. This attitude was invariably couched in a language of morality, which it clearly was not. Veiling and seclusion were used to restrict women within the territory of their men in what was little more than an assertion of property rights. Part of the problem with the debate on the veil in late the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is that it was never likely that the men, whether traditionalists or modernists, would come together to argue the issues. Those who opposed it wrote and lectured in contexts completely alienated from those advocating it. Those opposing the veil were considered imperialists to some and pioneering emancipators to others. This debate, of course, did not include women's discourse. Yet women met, formed organisations, wrote and published extensively in literary journals. The women's press was an important forum in the debate on women in a society segregated by gender for women who felt comfortable in their own space. It was also important for women to have the platform to express their views on social and domestic issues. Egyptian women had some substantial early independence of thought and action and while feminism was used as an earlier tool by Western colonisers to advance their perceptions that Islam was a barbaric and uncivilised religion, it is an extreme injustice to early Egyptian feminists to dismiss their work as dictated to them by the west, or indeed to assert that their activism was not motivated by specifically Egyptian problems. Western discourse has generally linked issues of culture and women with the West as liberator and Islam as the oppressor. Consequently women's issues were always trapped within issues of culture when it is neither Islam nor Arabic culture that is the target of criticism. Rather Egyptian feminists were challenging the laws and customs that expressed indifference to women, or misogyny. Of course it is important to note that the subservient or secondary role of women in society is no Islamic invention, such a role has been common to virtually all societies throughout the ages and women have been trying to change the hierarchical relationships that have existed throughout those ages.

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