3 - 9 February 2000
Issue No. 467
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Women's destiny, men's voices
As the People's Assembly heatedly debated the proposed amendments to the Personal Status law, Fayza Hassan wondered why women's voices were being drowned out
Doria Shafik speaking to students and staff
at the Amira Fawziya School
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Features Special Profile Travel Living Sports People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters "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 the misinterpretation of Islam and later, un-Islamic additions."
Thomas Philipp, "Feminism and Nationalist Politics in Egypt", cited in Earl L Sullivan, Women in Egyptian Public Life (The American University in Cairo Press, 1986)
In 1899, Qassem Amin, a French-educated judge in the Court of Appeals, published a small book on the emancipation of women. The basic ideas that underpinned Tahrir Al-Mar'a had already been expounded extensively by Gamaleddin Al-Afghani and his disciple Mohamed Abduh, whose main contention was that the Islamic community was going through a period of decay. For Amin, the reasons for this disaster were clear: they were neither the result of the environment nor due, as was sometimes suggested by Westerners, to any traits inherent in Islam. On the contrary: Amin believed that the cause of decadence was the disappearance of social virtues brought about by ignorance of the true sciences, "from which alone can be derived the rules of true human happiness".
Society had neglected the role of the family and forgotten that the virtues that exist in its midst will necessarily be reproduced in the nation. Since women were in charge of bringing up the men who were later to rule society, they were entrusted with the task of forming the morals of the nation. In Muslim countries, he argued, neither men nor women were properly prepared to create real families, as women did not have the freedom or the status necessary to play their proper role. The Shari'a, wrote Amin, was the first law to provide for the equality of men and women. This condition was no longer met, as true Islam had been contaminated by converts who brought with them customs from their own societies. It was essential now to bridge the gap so that Egypt could catch up with the civilised world. He proceeded to advocate women's education, although he did so quite timidly, never suggesting that the female of the species should be as highly educated as the male. In essence, he demanded elementary education for women and the possibility for them to earn their own living in order to protect themselves from the tyranny of men, who had forgotten the basic tenets of their religion and from whom the law offered no refuge. He also suggested, almost in passing, that veiling and seclusion be reduced (although not abolished) in such a way as to allow women the efficient performance of their duties.
Modest as these demands may have been, they provoked a furore. That cries of anathema were heard from Al-Azhar, the most venerable religious institution of the Muslim world and its bastion of conservatism, is quite understandable. The absolute power of the ulama in matters pertaining to the interpretation of the Shari'a and the education system had been eroded ever since 1872, when Ismail had promulgated the first law aimed at reforming teachers' recruitment, while presiding over the creation by Ali Mubarak of Dar Al-Ulum, the new teachers' college. Once more, the already diminished authority of the ulama was being threatened, this time by a disciple of Mohamed Abduh, who had been an enthusiastic advocate of change in the thousand-year-old institution.
More puzzling, on the other hand, was the reaction of two of Egypt's most prominent nationalists, Talaat Harb and Mustafa Kamel, who were quite vocal in their opposition to Amin's ideas on the grounds that they were "foreign to Egypt". Talaat Harb contended that "the emancipation of women [was] just another plot to weaken the Egyptian nation and disseminate immorality and decadence in its society." In an article published in the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (November 1981), historian Juan Ricardo Cole wrote that "Amin saw the emancipation of women as an essential step in catching up with European progress... [while] for Harb, the abolition of the veil and seclusion [seemed like] a further step toward the total disintegration of the indigenous values of Egyptian Islam."
The founder of Bank Misr advocated the industrialisation of Egypt by Egyptians, and he may have feared the competition of women for the scarce jobs that were available at the time, but, as Sullivan argues, on another level Qassem Amin can be seen as the representative of an established and cultured upper-class who wanted Egypt to strengthen itself for competition with the West, while Talaat Harb, issued from an upwardly mobile middle class, sought protection and reassurance in the comfort of custom and the strength of tradition.
Whatever the deep personal reasons fuelling the opposition expressed most clearly in Mustafa Kamel's newspaper Al-Liwa', no woman's opinion for or against Qassem Amin was ever recorded. Enraged by what he considered unjustified attacks on his work and him personally, the author of Tahrir Al-Mar'a followed up with a second tome in 1901. In The New Woman, he abandoned much of his previous caution and spoke out honestly in favour of women's emancipation. Interestingly, in 1894, and in response to the highly offensive L'Egypte et les Egyptiens (1893) by the Duc d'Harcourt, Amin, who was familiar with the controversy that had previously taken place between Renan and Al-Afghani, had written a short volume in French, Les Egyptiens (translated as Al-Misriyoun, and republished by Dar Al-Hilal in September 1995). Here he explained -- and staunchly defended -- many of the traditions that ruled women's lives. A few historians contend that Nazli Fazil was instrumental in changing Amin's attitude toward the plight of women; a more probable reading however, is that, regardless of Amin's personal opinions, he did not accept the highly colonialist discourse of d'Harcourt.
Meanwhile, the women on whose behalf Qassem Amin was waging this battle remained quite silent, and for good reason: those who could read and may have had a chance to know about it remained in seclusion, while the majority of uneducated women remained uninformed. It was only a decade later that the lonely voice of Malak Hefni Nassef rose in a semblance of protest: Bahithat Al-Badiya, as she called herself, was probably acquainted with Amin's work, and the list of ten modest demands she presented to the Legislative Assembly were reminiscent of his suggestions to improve the condition of women. Her petition, unsurprisingly, was summarily dismissed by the Assembly, composed solely of men. From then on, Nassef, like many women after her, took solace in speaking to women of her class.
Subsequent protagonists of the struggle for women's emancipation clothed their demands in nationalist allegations, probably realising that the men who aspired to play a political role were interested only in freeing Egypt from British domination. Some, like Talaat Harb and Mustafa Kamel, were frankly opposed to the women's movement, while Saad Zaghlul remained aloof, contenting himself with allowing his aristocratic wife to join the Feminist Union
Safiya Zaghlul, and many like her, marched behind Huda Sha'rawi in 1919 in support of the Wafd but received no recognition of their rights. Although the Egyptian Feminist Union began its activities in 1923, it is only in 1935 that its members began to make specific requests along the lines of Qassem Amin's programme. Once again, women's demands for changes in the laws affecting marriage, divorce and the custody of children were presented as part of the national cause (the argument went as follows: uneducated women, treated by their husbands as chattel, to be taken and disposed of at will, weakened the family; weak families ultimately weakened Egypt). The women's programme was duly watered down by the announcement that they also wished to campaign "in favour of public hygiene and sanitation... encourage virtue and fight immorality... and oppose irrational superstitions, cults and customs." Not once did the EFU's members follow Nabawiya Moussa's example and urge their followers to become independent, abstain from marriage or renounce the sacred duty of motherhood. Little progress by way of reforms was achieved, but today, looking back at the legacy of the pre-Revolution movement, one can credit the early activists with the establishment of "certain functional arenas in which women could work... [They] made it possible later for women of all classes to seek education and for women to claim special insight into social reform," in Sullivan's words.
The women, however, did not achieve similar success in their demands for reforms to the Personal Status law. Attempts were made in 1920 and 1929 to change the divorce law. The legislators identified four kinds of problems that could give women reason to seek divorce: After 1929, if her husband failed to provide nafaqa (maintenance), had a serious contagious disease, or had deserted or beaten her, a woman could petition the courts for divorce. Other attempts in 1943 and 1945, aimed at restricting polygamy, failed completely.
The Free Officers granted women the right to vote in the Constitution of 1956. Doria Shafik and her organisation Bint Al-Nil, set up in 1948 to eradicate illiteracy and demand full political equality for women, had succeeded where Huda Sha'rawi's EFU had not dared to venture, by sending a clear message to the new rulers: changes in women's status, they argued, had to be an integral part of any order claiming revolutionary credentials. Women were again able to capitalise on the dominant political agenda, but received little recognition for their rights as human beings equal to men.
From top: Malak Hefni Nassef (seated, far right) at the Saniya School; Qassem Amin in Geneva
The Personal Status law remained practically unchanged until 1979 when, in the middle of the domestic brouhaha caused by the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, Law 44 of 1979 was pushed through, ratifying an emergency decree promulgated by President Anwar El-Sadat. "Jihan's Law," named after Jihan El-Sadat, amended the Personal Status Law to include many but not all the demands made by feminists over the previous 50 years. The reforms included: a woman's right to seek a divorce if her husband took an additional wife without her consent; to be informed if her husband divorced her; to retain custody of her children (boys until the age of 10 and girls until the age of 12); to receive alimony; and to retain the marital home until she remarried or until the period of child custody ended. The content of the amendments as well as the rather cavalier way in which Sadat purported to pass them aroused endless criticism. Soon after the president's assassination, the constitutionality of the changes was challenged and, in late 1982, the matter was placed before the Higher Constitutional Court. After December 1982, the 1979 amendments were no longer enforced by Egyptian courts. In May 1985, the Higher Constitutional Court declared the 1979 amendments unconstitutional and invalid, thus dealing a major blow to reformers. Soon after, against the objections of leading Islamist figures, President Hosni Mubarak introduced new legislation which aimed at a compromise.
The 1985 laws stipulated that the wife no longer had an automatic right to divorce if her husband took an additional wife. She now had to prove to the court that she had sustained material or moral damage as a result of her husband's act. On the other hand, the 1979 clause relating to the provision of adequate housing for the divorced wife as long as she had custody of the children was retained.
From that time on, women have gained ground on the professional level. Relatively few women can afford to be full-time housewives, and demand for their skills is increasing constantly. One would like to believe that it is the insistence of women's rights activists, rather than the backlog of court cases that has all but paralysed the courts, that led the Ministry of Justice to present the amendments which have triggered the debate of the past weeks. Of the 81 clauses proposed, all entirely consistent with the Shari'a according to both Minister of Justice Farouk Seif El-Nasr and the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, a few have caused a fracas rarely witnessed at the Assembly. The first is the Khul', which stipulates that a woman can divorce herself from her husband if she returns the bridal gift he paid at the time of marriage and asks for none of the financial compensation to which she would be entitled if he was divorcing her; the second is the abolition of the Talaq Ghiyabi or divorce in absentia, whereby a husband can divorce his wife and/or take her back without informing her of his action at once; the third is the legitimacy of Urfi marriage; last but not least is an item not previously included in the Personal Status law, and involving a woman's right to travel without her husband's written permission.
The debates widely reported in the press are quite indicative of the deep feelings harboured by some men at least. Although the amendments basically replace the husband by the judge or the General Prosecutor's office, which retains the right to rule in cases of litigation, the hostile reaction they have drawn from many MPs can only point in one direction: many men still consider their wives as possessions, to dispose of as they please. In a desperate attempt to discredit the amendments, some described them as favouring rich women over poor ones. Only a wealthy, independent woman can afford to return her dowry and fend for herself -- thus goes the basic argument. One member of parliament went so far as to suggest that a wife who exercises her right to Khul' should pay her husband the amount necessary for him to acquire a new wife, while another requested that the bridal gift, which the wife must return, be adjusted to match current inflation rates. Instead of adding a clause providing for the protection of underprivileged women, however, some members preferred to reject this one out of hand. They seem to have forgotten that approximately 25 per cent of households in poor quarters are headed by women, and that a further percentage are the sole breadwinners in the family. In these cases, Khul' will impose no additional hardship on the wife; it is the husband who depends on his wife's income who will be out in the cold.
Urfi marriages, unregistered and performed in the presence of two witnesses only, are a convenience that has given men the possibility of enjoying the benefits of marriage without incurring any of the responsibilities. As for divorce in absentia, which many consider an inalienable right, its abolition will erode men's privileged position as masters of women's destiny. The right of women to leave the home or travel albeit on business without their husband's permission has been resisted with equal vehemence. One MP expressed the opinion that a wife had the right to leave her home only three times in her life: when she left her father's house to marry, when she went on pilgrimage, and when she finally departed to her grave.
As the deliberations come to an end, regardless of the gains or losses incurred, one can only deplore the callousness with which some of the parties to the debate have consistently attempted to use the Shari'a to protect their own interests. One can also wonder why, once again, the fate of women has been left entirely in the hands of men.
Chronology1873: The first government primary school for girls opens
1899: Qassim Amin publishes Tahrir Al-Mar'a
1901: Qassim Amin publishes Al-Mar'a Al-Gadida
1908: Fatma Rashid starts the first women's magazine to be published in Egypt by an Egyptian Muslim, Majallet Tarqiyat Al-Mar'a
1911: Malak Hefni Nassef presents 10 demands to the Egyptian Legislative Assembly; all are rejected
1914: The Educational Union of Women is founded in Cairo. World War I begins
1918: World War I ends
1919: Huda Sha'rawi leads demonstrations of veiled women in support of the Egyptian nationalist cause. These are the first demonstrations of their kind in Egypt
1921: The first government secondary school for girls opens
1923: Huda Sha'rawi attends the meeting of the International Alliance for Women in Rome. She and the rest of the Egyptian delegation return to Egypt unveiled. Many other women begin to follow their example
March 1923: Huda Sha'rawi establishes the Egyptian Feminist Union
1924: The new constitution is approved. It includes the principle that elementary education is to be free and obligatory for both sexes. The 1924 constitution does not give women the right to vote.
1925: The first Egyptian women to be sent abroad for advanced studies, Soad Farid and Fardus Helbawi, leave for England. L'Egyptienne magazine, edited by Ceza Nabarawi, is published in French by the Egyptian Feminist Union. The political magazine Rose El-Youssef is founded in Cairo by former actress Fatma El-Youssef.
1928: The first female students enter Fuad Al-Awwal University
1935: The Egyptian Feminist Union advocates equal political rights for women for the first time
1937: The Egyptian Feminist Union publishes a fortnightly periodical, Al-Masriya, in Arabic. Fatma Rashid is its first editor
1938: The Eastern Feminist Conference is held in Cairo to discuss the question of Palestine
1939: The Egyptian Ministry of Social Affairs is established. World War II begins
1944: The Arab Feminist Union is founded in Cairo. Huda Sha'rawi is elected president. Many female members of the royal family and the aristocracy become involved in charity work
1945: Egypt is one of the founding members of the United Nations and the Arab League. World War II comes to an end
1947: Huda Sha'rawi dies
1948: Doria Shafiq establishes Bint Al-Nil, a political party devoted to promoting women's rights. War rages in Palestine
1949: Legalised prostitution is abolished at the end of an Egyptian feminist campaign that has lasted 35 years. The status of entertainers begins to improve
1950: Parliamentary elections are held
1951: The Great Fire breaks out in Cairo. Members of Bint Al-Nil Union occupy parliament, demanding representation for women. Wafdist Minister of Education Taha Hussein makes education free though the secondary level. A crackdown on communists is launched
1952: In July, the Free Officers begin their Revolution. The constitution is abolished. A first phase of agrarian reform is announced
1953: All political parties are made illegal
1956: The new constitution is promulgated, giving women the right to vote for the first time in Egypt. The Suez Canal is nationalised, and the Canal War breaks out; French and British interests in Egypt are nationalised
1957: Parliamentary elections are held. Egyptian women are elected to parliament for the first time
1961: Nationalisation of the private sector. The government decides that higher education will be free of charge
1962: The National Charter is promulgated. Hekmat Abu Zeid, the first woman appointed to the cabinet, becomes minister of social affairs
1964: Parliamentary elections take place
1967: The June 1967 defeat takes place
1970: Abdel-Nasser dies, and Anwar El-Sadat is elected president
1971: Aisha Ratib becomes the second woman appointed to the cabinet as minister of social affairs; a new constitution is promulgated following the May 1971 "corrective revolution". The new constitution is perceived as more conservative, emphasising women's role in the family. Parliamentary elections are held
1973: The October War breaks out
1975: The first UN-sponsored women's conference convenes in Copenhagen
1977: Cuts in subsidies for staple food are followed by riots leading to the restoration of subsidies; the cabinet is reshuffled, and Amal Osman replaces Aisha Ratib as minister of social affairs
1979: The Egyptian-Israeli Peace treaty is signed. 30 seats are reserved for women in the People's Assembly; the law of local government is also amended to reserve 10 to 20 per cent of the seats on all local councils for women. The government party (NDP) wins 90 per cent of the seats in parliamentary elections. Jihan El-Sadat obtains amendments to the Personal Status Laws, reforming rules pertaining to divorce, alimony and child custody. Aisha Ratib becomes first Egyptian woman to be appointed ambassador. The Shura Council is formed, with only seven women among its 210 original members
1981: President Sadat orders massive arrests for political and domestic security reasons: several women are included. In October, Sadat is assassinated. Hosni Mubarak becomes president of Egypt
1985: In May, the Higher Constitutional Court declares the 1979 amendments to the Personal Status Law unconstitutional on procedural grounds; in July, the People's Council passes new amendments restricting the gains attained by women in the 1979 amendments
1994: The ICPD is held in Cairo
1995: The UN fourth world conference on women is held in Beijing, China
1999: Amendments to the Personal Status Law are presented to the People's Assembly, which passes most of them as a new procedural law