Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
11 - 17 November 1999
Issue No. 455
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Books Monthly supplement Antara

A spirit of enchantment
Last month Cairo celebrated 100 years since the publication of Qassem Amin's "The Liberation of Women". Fayza Hassan reviews the book and reflects on the model and its inspiration

A new course of action
The full text of Qassem AminOs concluding chapter of The Liberation of Women.

Women's Voices
Classical Poems by Arab Women -- A Bilingual Anthology, Abdullah al-Udhari, London: Saqi Books, London, 1999. pp240

Confronting loss
Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, Dunya Mikhail, Cairo and Leeds: Ishtar Publishing House, 1999. pp123

Novel knowledge
Tashazi Al-Zaman fil Riwaya Al-Haditha (The Fragmentation of Time in the Modern Novel), Amina Rashid, Cairo: GEBO, 1998. pp194

Moveable feast
Mulid! Carnivals of Faith, Photographs by Sherif Sonbol, Text by Tarek Atia, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp96

A regard from afar
Les Couleurs de l'infamie, Albert Cossery, Paris: Editions Joelle Losfeld, 1999. pp132

Two literary journals
*Journal of Arabic Literature, Volume XXX, No. 2, Leiden: Brill, 1999
*Arabic and Middle Eastern Literatures, Volume 2, Number 2, Basingtoke: Carfax Publishing Taylor & Francis Ltd, 1999
To the editor

At a glance
By Mahmoud El-Wardani
and Periodicals:
*Al-Hadatha Al-Tabi'a fil Thaqafa Al-Misriya (Dependence in Modern Egyptian Culture), Sayed El-Bahrawi, Cairo: Mirette Publications, 1999. pp233
*Fi Wada' Al-Qarn Al-'Ishrin (Farewell to the 20th Century), Ramzi Zaki, Cairo: Al-Mostaqbal Al-Arabi, 1999. pp442
*Al-Yahoud fi Misr Al-Mamloukiya (The Jews in Mameluke Egypt), Mahasen Mohamed El-Waqqar, Cairo: GEBO, 1999. pp471
*Misr wa Riyah Al-'Awlama (Egypt and the Winds of Globalisation), Mahmoud Abdel-Fadil, Cairo: Al-Hilal, 1999. pp264
*Taw'am Al-Solta wal Jins (The Twin Issue of Power and Sex), Nawal El-Sa'dawi, Cairo: Dar Al-Mostaqbal Al-'Arabi, 1999. pp257
*Al-Kotob: Wughat Nazar (Books: Viewpoints), monthly magazine, November 1999, Cairo: The Egyptian Company for Arab and International Publication
*Al-Arabi, a monthly magazine, November 1999, Kuwait: Ministry of Information
*Mediterraneans: Voices from Morocco: a quarterly publication, winter 1999
*Ahwal Misriya (Egyptian Chronicles), a quarterly magazine, autumn 1999, Cairo: Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies
*Al-'Osour Al-Jadida (New Eras), monthly magazine, issue no. 1, 1999, Cairo: Dar Sinai
*Al-Hilal, monthly magazine, Oct 1999, Cairo: Al-Hilal Publishing House
*Amkena (Places), an occasional publication, 1999, Cairo: Samizdat
*Adab wa Naqd (Literature and Criticism), Monthly literary magazine, Oct. 1999, Cairo: Progressive National Unionist Party publications
*Nour, Occasional Review of Books, Fall 1999, Cairo: Arab Women's Publishing House

To see other book supplements go to the ARCHIVES index. 


Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996

Last month Cairo celebrated 100 years since the publication of Qassem Amin's "The Liberation of Women". Fayza Hassan reviews the book and reflects on the model and its inspiration

A spirit of enchantment

Tahrir Al-Mar'a (The Liberation of Women), Qassem Amin, Cairo: Maktabet Al-Taraqqi, 1899, reissued by the Supreme Council for Culture to commemorate 100 years since the appearance of the first edition, 1999. pp192

"I grew up in the last days of the British Empire. My childhood fell in that era when the words 'imperialism' and 'the West' had not yet acquired the connotations they have today..."

Leila Ahmed -- born in 1940 and now a professor of women's studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst -- shares the experience of a number of Egyptian women who were born in the middle years of the century, into families of the upper middle class and the aristocracy, and were thus able to capitalise on the then recent achievements of the feminist struggle, which recognised their right to an education. Once this right had been established, it was only natural that the families who could afford it would choose what they considered best for their girls. "It was taken for granted among the people who raised us that there was unquestionably much to admire in and learn from the civilizations of Europe and the great strides Europe had made in human advancement." Like all the daughters of the elite, Ahmed went to a foreign school, had a foreign nanny, spoke foreign languages at home and, as a young girl, did not feel particularly Egyptian, Arab or alienated from her European schoolmates. It is a characteristic of those times that many families of intellectuals and professionals saw no contradiction between their dedicated and often active nationalism -- their ardent desire to see an end to the occupation of their country -- and the fact that they were eager to entrust the task of raising their children to those most unlikely to encourage patriotic feelings.

"One day, as Al-Afghani and El-Laqqani were taking a walk on the Gezira, they were overtaken by a young English horsewoman. Without looking at the amazon, Al-Afghani asked El-Laqqani: "What would your dearest wish be right now?" El-Laqqani answered that it would be to be married to a woman exactly like the one who had gone by"

IMAGES: The Western aristocracies provided a model for Egyptian upper-class life. Clockwise from top left: Early 20th-century English horsewoman; Egyptian hanim of the same period posing for the newly opened photographic studios; El- Laqqani's wife (1910); her daughter (1920); her granddaughter with her husband (1930); and an English period postcard depicting the model family.

The time is the end of the 19th century; the place, Egypt under British occupation; the event, the publication in 1899 of a book dealing openly with the emancipation of women; and the protagonists, Egyptians intellectuals, confronted for the first time with pacific, and disturbing, influences from the West. Finally, the catalyst may well have been the salon to which the Khedive Ismail's niece, Princess Nazli Fadhil, invited distinguished Egyptian savants, writers, poets and jurists to meet and share ideas.

Among her regular guests were the renowned Muslim thinker Sheikh Mohamed Abduh and his disciple, the judge -- of Kurdish origin and French education -- Qassem Amin, as well as Saad Zaghloul Pasha, Ibrahim El-Laqqani, Ibrahim El-Helbawi and Boutros Ghali, to name but a few. "The idea of developing an Egyptian elite in which women, educated and refined, could move freely, took root in the mind of these men... which inspired the courageous Qassem Bey Amin to publish two books, first The Liberation of Women (1899) followed a year later by The New Woman, commented a writer (signing his article only with the initials AHH) in Huda Shaarawi's monthly publication, L'Egyptienne (October-November 1926) a quarter of a century later. Acknowledging the tremendous prestige accorded to Jamaleddin Al-Afghani by his Egyptian followers, the author recounts an incident to which El-Helbawi Bey had been a witness. One day, as he, Al-Afghani and El-Laqqani were taking a walk on the Gezira, they were overtaken by a young English horsewoman. Without looking at the amazon, Al-Afghani asked El-Laqqani: "What would your dearest wish be right now?" El-Laqqani answered that it would be to be married to a woman exactly like the one who had gone by. Al-Afghani appeared fully satisfied by the answer, concluded El-Helbawi.

It is very easy to infer from such remarks that British and French women, with whom young Egyptian men came into frequent contact whether in Europe on study missions or in Cairo, were the ones to be taken as role models for all women, and that the emancipation or 'liberation' of Egyptian women, for which intellectuals yearned but more seldom openly advocated, should have this kind of woman as its end. One should note in passing that the period witnessed a great many marriages of foreign women to well-to-do Egyptian men.

Qassem Amin, however, a true disciple of Sheikh Mohamed Abduh, was less concerned with such trivial matters as appearance (although he was not totally immune to them -- his biting comments regarding Muslim women's allegedly shabby undergarments and lack of sexual skills are a case in point) than by a genuine desire to reconcile the teachings of the Qur'an with the manifestations of Western-inspired novelty that were taking Egyptian society by storm. He feared that confronted with the difficulty of practising the tenets of their religion in this new and exciting environment, Muslims would be won over to secularism, simply attempting uncritically to adopt European ways and schools of thought. It was therefore imperative to create a safe space in which true Islam and modernity, no longer mutually exclusive, could coexist in harmony.

In writing his first book, Amin noted that "the Islamic community is in decline. It is too weak to face the pressures surrounding it from all sides; and if it is weak it cannot survive in a world ruled by the laws of [Darwinian] natural selection." The decay that had beset Islam was due to the disappearance of social virtues, of "moral strength"; the disappearance of moral strength, in turn, was caused by ignorance, which, Amin forcefully stated, "begins in the family". And, in order to be able later to advocate their liberation, Amin began by placing the burden of damage-repair squarely on women's shoulders. "The work of women in society is to form the morals of the nation," he wrote. "In our present society, and in Muslim countries in general, neither men nor women are properly educated and will therefore fail to create together a nurturing climate in the family; furthermore, women have neither the freedom nor the status to play a constructive role." Turning to the Shari'a for support, Amin stated that this was the first body of law to provide for the equality of men and women, but that it had been corrupted by converts who had brought into Islam their own "customs and illusions". These pernicious influences had in turn brought about the rule of the strong over the weak and the contempt of strong men for weaker women, he asserted. "When women were weak, men crushed their rights, despised them, treated them with contempt, and stomped on their personality. A woman had a very low status, regardless of her position in the family as wife, mother, or daughter. 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" (Qasim Amin, Women and the Veil, trans. Samiha Sidhom Peterson, American University in Cairo Press, 1992).

The lowly position of women in Muslim societies could therefore only be improved by education, he reflected. "Amin did not suggest that women should be as highly educated as men, for in this as in other things his suggestions are so modest as to seem timid," writes Albert Hourani in Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1938 (Cambridge University Press, 1988). Rather, he advised that women should be afforded elementary education, enabling them to read and write and acquire some basic notions of the moral and natural sciences, history, geography, hygiene, physiology, "as well as religious education, physical training and the training of artistic taste". Thus equipped, they would not only become good wives, mothers and housemakers, but would also be able to earn their own living - which, he realised, was the only sure guarantee of women's rights. "Unless a woman could support herself, she would always be at the mercy of male tyranny, no matter what rights the laws gave her," he warned.

However if Qassem Amin's Tahrir Al-Mar'a inflamed the imagination of budding feminists to the point of making them believe that he advocated unveiling, they were sorely mistaken. He had already made his position clear before writing the book in his reply to the Duc d'Harcourt, who had published L'Egypte et les Egyptiens in 1893, a book condemning Egypt's 'backward' conditions and in particular the low status of women. Amin responded in 1894 with Les Egyptiens: Réponse à M. le Duc d'Harcourt. Following the same trend of thought in Tahrir Al-Mar'a, he wrote: "An observer might think that I now maintain the veil should be completely dispensed with - but this is not the case. 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. Our people are ostentatious in their caution and in their interpretations of what they believe to be the application of the law, to the extent that they presently exceed the limits of the Shari'a and have harmed the nation's interests."

Describing the customs of foreign women, which he found unacceptable, he added: "We, on the other hand, have gone to extremes in veiling our women and prohibiting them from appearing unveiled before men to such an extent that we turn women into objects or goods that we own. We have deprived them of the mental and cultural advantages that are their natural dues as human beings. The legal veil, however, is somewhere between these two extremes." Addressing himself to the problems of polygamy and divorce, "Amin proceeds like [Mohamed] Abduh, by a cautious definition of an Islamic practice rather than by abandoning it," comments Hourani.

By no extent of the imagination, therefore, can one describe Amin as the precursor of feminism as it was later to develop, if only because he did not recognise women's inherent political rights. More than women, he seems to have been defending Islam, while at the same time recognising that, in some grey areas, in the absence of a text or where the text could lend itself to different interpretations, one should be guided by reason and choose between the possible alternatives in the light of the social interest. In such cases, and in such cases alone, previous interpretations need not be deemed sacred. They were the reflection of the customs of the time and one could cautiously consider their adaptation to contemporary needs, without, however, departing from the general principles of the Shari'a.

But in spite of its timidity, Tahrir Al-Mar'a nevertheless provoked a furore on its publication, though Amin had not even gone so far as to recommend an immediate end to women's seclusion. "The reason for this cautious approach," he wrote, "is that such a sudden revolution could lead to an increase in the behaviour that we consider corrupt and would thus not achieve the desired goals. What I do recommend, however, is the preparation of our daughters for this change, starting in their childhood. This early preparation will accustom them to independence and to the belief that chastity is an inner spiritual quality, not the result of a garment that hides the body...This preparation will eventually facilitate the integration of women with men, with the least negative consequences, except in such unusual cases as spare neither the secluded nor the unsecluded woman."

A quarter of a century later, however, L'Egyptienne explored the particulars of the row that followed the book's original publication, pitting Amin against the ulama: No sooner had the book appeared than a "cabal" was mounted against its author. Offended and overwrought ulama held a meeting to prepare an answer to the work, which they considered to be blasphemous. One of their most prominent members, Sheikh Mohamed Hassanein El-Bulaqi, was chosen to head the attack. "A strange choice," commented L'Egyptienne wryly, "in view of the fact that the sheikh's children, both boys and girls, were educated in the most modern foreign schools." Among Amin's detractors were Talaat Harb, "whose present actions belie his past objections, and Mohamed Bey Farid Wagdi, whose wife founded a monthly magazine, and is involved in politics and other activities which Farid Bey deemed, not too long ago, completely outside the realm of women." It is regrettable, lamented L'Egyptienne in conclusion, that Amin's friends and partisans had not dared to defend him publicly. Instead he had had to stand alone in the storm that he had unwittingly unleashed in the belief that his duty was to enlighten his fellow men.

Read the full text of Qassem Amin's concluding chapter of The Liberation of Women.

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