Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
11 - 17 March 1999
Issue No. 420
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Back issues Current issue

Front Page


A Diwan of contemporary life (275 )


Illustration by
Makram Henein

A demonstration by more than 500 women on 16 March 1919 marked the modern Egyptian woman's first entry into public life. The street protest came one week after the British occupation authorities arrested nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul and three associates and banished them to Malta. Another demonstration by women a few days later deteriorated into a clash with British troops. A major national debate followed on the role of women in public life, with Al-Ahram serving as a forum for both champions and opponents. Women's public activities soon led to the establishment of feminist societies in Cairo and provincial centres. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * reviews the movement from reports and articles published by Al-Ahram

On 16 March 1919, the Egyptian capital witnessed a unique historic spectacle: More than 500 women staged a protest march, adding their voice to the wave of popular outrage that had erupted a week earlier in response to the British authorities' arrest and banishment of Saad Zaghlul and several other nationalist leaders. Women demonstrators at a later protest clashed with British forces and were quickly dispersed. Nevertheless, their unexpected emergence from the confines of their homes in this public display of courage and patriotism aroused the admiration of many. As one observer recalled in his memoirs, "The spouses from the finest families marched through the various quarters of Cairo, shouting 'Long live freedom and liberty,' as the crowds thronged the pavements to applaud and cheer them on and women leaned out from windows and balconies, ululating in jubilant support. It was a fantastic scene that stirred every heart!"

The women's demonstration of 1919 brought to the fore the question of "the Egyptian woman in the life of the nation", as Al-Ahram captioned its coverage of this issue. This was not the first time Al-Ahram turned its pages over to the battle over the liberation of Egyptian women. However, whereas on previous occasions men would champion their cause, and women, if they spoke out, would never reveal their identities, this was the first time women, themselves, would assert themselves publicly in this battle.

The development, however, did not sit well with everyone. To some of the more conservative writers in other newspapers, the women's demonstration amidst the throngs was unseemly. Some, unable to criticise the women's patriotic fervour, argued that the men should have vacated the streets through which the women passed. To Al-Ahram this proposition was preposterous. Commented the newspaper, "The only way one should view the procession of women is as a step towards participating alongside men in the various walks and developments of public life. We pray to God for wisdom and guidance."

Many readers shared Al-Ahram's enthusiasm. In an open letter addressed "to the Egyptian woman" one reader, signing himself Mukhtar, wrote: "You have just taken a hundred-year step forward in the advancement of your cause. With a heart humbled today by the intensity of your patriotic sensibilities I urge you to continue to press forward. Never recoil in your march towards your desired goal and be secure in the knowledge that everyone bears the greatest respect and veneration for your triumphant stance."
On the march
Arrival Activists Egyptian women participated actively in the 1919 Revolution, while attempting to integrate an agenda specifically geared to their needs into the struggle for national liberation. Political emancipation, however, was to be delayed until after 1952; only after a hunger strike led by Doria Shafiq, during which several activists almost died, were Egyptian women granted the right to vote. The activists who fought to take part in public life were often accused of focusing exclusively on ruling-class women's demands, but the illustrious lineage that includes Safiya Zaghlul, Huda Sha'rawi and Ceza Nabarawi continues to inspire the movement until today


History's journal

On the 80th anniversary of the 1919 Revolution, issue no. 41,000 of Al-Ahram unobtrusively reached the news stands. An apparently unexpected convergence of two momentous forces -- but what does the coincidence ultimately signify? Al-Ahram, most people will agree, is far more than a daily newspaper, and the revolutionary events that commenced on 9 and 17 March 1919 -- the immediate outcome of Saad Zaghloul's exile by the British, but at a deeper level the initial signs of those historic transformations that went into the making of an independent and rejuvenated Egypt, as well as the abiding symbol of the anti-colonial struggle -- are likewise more than a heroic memory to be marvelled at.

As Ramzi Mikhail explains in the 41,000th issue of Al-Ahram, Egyptian journalism had played a central role in enlightening and educating the people. In an age when education was hard to come by and mass communications were as yet non-existent, Al-Ahram offered millions of men and women, both literate and illiterate, their only gateway into history, giving them the opportunity to find out about what was going on around them and become the active agents of social change that they were in 1919. Under an unusual and (in its time) revolutionary slogan, "Al-Ahram: An Egyptian Journal for Egyptians", Mikhail writes, "the newspaper showed a marked sympathy with the Egyptian nationalist movement, and was consequently subjected to much censorship, to the extent that whole columns were sometimes abolished..."

Adjacent to Mikhail's article, however, Yunan Labib Rizk presides over a more cheerful perspective. "It is true that other newspapers shared much with Al-Ahram," he writes, "but the uniqueness of the latter is also evident... Al-Ahram was the first Egyptian newspaper to acquire the institutional aspect, a quality which its founders endeavoured to establish since the very beginning...Besides which, the research centres were among the most prominent aspects of the Al-Ahram's uniqueness: they started in 1968, in the age of Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, with the founding of the Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, which witnessed a great deal of expansion in the age of Ibrahim Nafie, becoming the foremost political research centre in Egypt."

What with foreign-language publications and specialised periodicals of exceptional quality, as well as a rich and variegated multitude of literary as well as journalistic activities, Al-Ahram is both an institution and a way of life, for writers and readers alike, much as the 1919 Revolution was and still is a way of life for all Egyptians. On the anniversary of the Revolution, we not only celebrate history, therefore, but also history's most fascinating journal.

A second letter of support was sent by "Fardous Tawfiq, the wife of the late General Mohamed Tawfiq Pasha, Adjutant General of the khedive", who wrote: "You have performed your duty towards your beloved nation and proven in the clearest terms the ardour of your dedication and devotion by taking your patriotism beyond word to the loftier deed."

While Fardous' exuberance on this occasion may not have been unusual, her letter marks the first time that an Egyptian woman expressing her opinion in Al-Ahram signed her name in full. And, as though she had sounded a starting gun, suddenly Al-Ahram was flooded with letters from other female readers who no longer feared to disclose their identities in public. Certainly, women, at least those of the middle and upper middle classes, must have been emboldened by the fact that some very prominent women took part in the events of 16 March. One of these was Hoda Sha'rawi, who organised the women's march. Another was Safiya Zaghlul who insisted on keeping the home of Saad Zaghlul, the leader of the 1919 Revolution, open for the meetings of the nationalist leadership in spite of the threats she received from the British military authorities. Also, they would have been encouraged by the support they received in the national press, especially in Al-Ahram.. For example, an editorial appearing in the newspaper's 15 April 1919 edition said, "The advancement of nations is dependent upon the participation of women. History is replete with the accomplishments of outstanding women. Even our history teems with commemorations to famous educated women, female scholars of jurisprudence, female poets, female merchants and businesswomen and famous women in politics and power. But once history fell silent on women, civilisation degenerated and stagnated."

In this spirit, Al-Ahram allocated a column on its front page to "The voice of the Egyptian woman." Not only were these women well educated, but some also had professional careers. One was the dean of the Islamic Charity School in Al-Mehalla Al-Kubra, another signed herself "Nafisa Shafie, the wife of Hammad Mansour the teacher in the secondary school", a third was a graduate of the American College in Egypt", yet another was "a graduate of the Saniya School, a fifth was a doctor, and the list goes on. All shared the enthusiasm for the new role that was being allotted to Egyptian women. One reader, signing herself, Aziza, wrote, "The Egyptian people have witnessed an action that revives hopes. They saw Egyptian women taking to the street in protest against the injustices that befell their brothers. Their action was an expression of the finest motives and, therefore, moved spectators to the greatest admiration. The women marched as though they were in a wedding procession -- the wedding of Egypt to freedom. They were delirious with joy."

But the detractors of women's liberation were not easily silenced and Al-Ahram, committed as it was to serving as an open forum for the exchange of ideas, printed their response. Perhaps the most formidable opponent was the noted Islamic scholar Mohamed Farid Wagdi, whose detached argumentation would have been certain to have poured some cold water on the prevalent wave of fervour for promoting women's participation in public life. In a series of four articles, appearing under the headline, "A word to Egyptian women," Wagdi argued that it was the custom of the male "to attempt to beguile women during that period in which the female instinct is ripe for deception and generally succumbs to it." The men's current craze for the rights of women, as though they were about to elevate it to a social creed, was an even more insidious facet of that game, "the results of which would bring upon the woman a greater evil than any visited upon her by man before. Soon, she will see herself being treated just like a man, having to work beside him in factories, toiling the whole day and half the night in exhausting physical labour in order to earn her daily bread." He further cautioned women that when men call for women to participate in public life, what they really want is "for women to bedeck their clubs, assemblies, parks and parties with their sparkling elegance. If there is a demonstration or a cause that brings together the high and low, they want women in their midst to cheer them on and wave banners."

Professor Wagdi was not alone in exhorting women to retire back to the confines of the women's quarters. His voice was joined by that of several women. One of these was Zeinab Hashem who, under the title, "A plea from an Egyptian woman to her sisters", wrote, "I pray every Egyptian woman with modesty and honour in her veins to prove her love for her nation by preserving her oriental morals and adhering to all her customs."

For the most part, however, Farid Wagdi's and Zeinab Hashem's pleas went unheeded. The women's movement this time had gained too much momentum to be stopped by the occasional spanner in the spokes. The months that followed the women's protest march brought the establishment of a number of women's organisations, a process that began in the capital and then moved on to the provinces.

The most famous of such organisations to be founded in the course of the 1919 revolution was the Society for the New Woman whose secretary wrote a letter to "the owner of Al-Ahram" on 20 April 1919 to explain the society's aims. She wrote: "We are a group of women who decided to form a society to serve the nation by every means we deem correct and beneficial. Our first concern is to collect donations for the victims of incidents that have occurred under the current circumstances. Following this we will work towards the advancement of the status of the Egyptian woman. We have elected from among our members an acting president, a secretary and two treasurers. By a unanimous vote, we have chosen as a name for our society The New Woman."

The Society for the New Woman was warmly received by Al-Ahram, as well as many of its readers. Several welcomed it as an important step beyond random protest marches towards the creation of institutionalised frameworks for women's action. One enthusiast, writing to Al-Ahram on 26 April, said that the new society brought glory to Egypt. "Ladies, you have taken a great step forward by once again raising the flag of love and devotion which you bring to every noble endeavor you engage in."

April 1919 also saw the founding of the Society of Young Women for Young Egypt. This organisation drew its membership from a different segment of society. Rather than the wives or daughters of public notables, its members were young women of less aristocratic social standing who were fired by enthusiasm for the revolution to devote themselves to public service. In her letter to Al-Ahram, S A Mohamed, the chairwoman of the society, said that she and her colleagues had been inspired to create the new society "to work for the realisation of good." After having taken a look around them, the society's founders decided that "those who are the most deserving of assistance are the poor who make up the overwhelming majority of our nation. What the poor need above all are the means to facilitate their acquisition of clothing, food, shelter and health care, as well as employment that will secure their provision of these necessities."

The following month, Al-Ahram's correspondent in Gharbiya reported that "a group of Muslim and Coptic women founded a literary and philanthropic society in Tanta. The new society called itself the Union for the Advancement of Egyptian Women in Tanta." The social status of its membership is evident from the list of the founders, among whom are the wife of a noted lawyer, the wife of the postal commissioner, the wife of the deputy district chief and the wife of a doctor.

The spate of new societies did not pass without comment. Fouad Abul-Saoud was among the harshest critics. Under the headline, "The Age of Women's Societies", he charged that women's societies were "nothing but new newfangled venues for women to get together to talk and kill time, without serving any truly useful purpose." He urged Egyptian women to put a halt to he new craze and revert to the established methods of fulfilling the moral edification and material advancement of women.

Al-Ahram's editors left the final word to the champion of women's liberation, Hassan El-Sherif, who suggested that the new women's societies should come together under an umbrella union in order to better be able to achieve their philanthropic aims. This would "silence their detractors and calumniators," he added. El-Sherif went on to express his admiration for the movement to create women's philanthropic societies, appealing to those keen to advance the status and welfare of women, to donate unstintingly to these societies.

Finally, as a last piece of advice to conservatives on the women's issue he wrote, "Do not hasten to pass judgment. Wait and see what benefits will accrue to the nation at the hands of these angels of mercy. It is no shame for women to participate in serving their country. What is truly a shame is for their country to keep half of its people fettered and idle."

Dr Yunan

* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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