30 March - 5 April 2000
Issue No. 475
|Published in Cairo by Al-Ahram established in 1875|
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A Diwan of contemporary life (331)
The emancipation of the modern Egyptian woman had modest beginnings in the early 20th century. Taking heart from the student riots marking the 1919 anti-British revolution, women staged their first demonstration for independence soon after. In a second round of protest, women even clashed with British occupation forces, sealing the active entry of the fair sex into public life. The political action subsequently turned into a campaign to win for women the right to vote in national elections and to run for parliamentary seats. A pioneer campaigner was Munira Thabet who wrote a series of articles in Al-Ahram before publishing a magazine of her own. Her name became a byword in the battle for women's lib. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * tells the story from the pages of Al-Ahram
Women take up the cudgels
Just after the outbreak of the 1919 revolution, more than 500 women staged a protest demonstration, adding their weight to the wave of demonstrations that were set into motion a week earlier by students from the Faculty of Law. The women's demonstration inspired both admiration and shock. When, four days later, another women's march clashed with British forces, there could be no more doubt that women were determined to emerge from the seclusion of the harem.
But that was only the beginning. Over subsequent days, Al-Ahram observed the growing involvement of Egyptian women in public life. On 18 November 1919 the newspaper covered the demonstrations held against the Milner Commission, sent to negotiate with the government over issues concerning independence. Participating in the protests was "an elite of Egyptian women who rallied in Al-Hilmiya Al-Gadida Square and then boarded some 20 cars in which they drove through the streets of Cairo to the cries of freedom and independence for Egypt: "Long live the Wafd Party and long live Saad Zaghlul," and "Down with the Milner Commission!" The Milner Commission occasioned another demonstration almost a month later. On 13 December, the newspaper reports that "a throng of Egyptian women assembled in St Mark's Cathedral to support the boycott of this colonialist commission and to protest its bid to undermine the nation's demands for full independence." Again, on 16 January 1920, Egyptian women staged another demonstration. Beginning at the square in front of the Cairo railway station, they marched to the Shepherd's Hotel, where "they cheered Sinout Bek Hanna, who resides there, as well as the Egyptian Wafd and its chairman, and demanded full independence." The newspaper goes on to relate, "When the women saw a group of British soldiers, they brought out from beneath their wrappings small Egyptian flags which they waved as they shouted at the top of their voices, "Long live free Egypt! Long live full independence! Long live the Egyptian Wafd! Long live Saad Zaghlul!'"
Later that month, the women met again in St Mark's Cathedral where they formed the Egyptian Women's Central Wafd Committee. The first institutionalised framework for women's political action was headed by Hoda Shaarawi, Sharifa Riyad, Nemat Higazi, Ihsan Ahmed and Esther Wisa and its declared mission was "to assist the Central Committee of the Egyptian Wafd in its pursuit of the full independence of Egypt." When news of the new organisation reached Saad Zaghlul, who was then in Paris, he dispatched a congratulatory telegram in which he wrote, "The demonstration of your will to support the cause of independence fills our hearts with pride. With the creation of your committee you have shown to the civilised world that the mothers rearing the men who will assume control of the affairs of our nation in the future are most worthy of the lofty mission they have undertaken."
But, the institutionalisation of women's involvement in politics did not stop with the Women's Central Wafd Committee. The same period saw the emergence of a number of women's societies, the most prominent of which was the Society of the New Woman. On 20 April 1919, the secretary of this society wrote to Al-Ahram to explain why this society was created:
"We are a group of women who seek to serve society in every manner that we deem just and beneficial. Towards this end we have founded a society whose first mission will be to collect donations to assist the victims of the current events (i.e. the revolution). Following this, our society intends to work towards the emancipation of Egyptian women. The society has elected from among its members an acting chairwoman, a secretary and two treasurers. It has been unanimously decided to name this society The New Woman."
Also in April 1919 another society was founded by the name of the Young Woman's Young Egypt Society. Unlike The New Woman, this organisation did not reveal the names of its members. Nor was it established in the same manner, although its aims appeared to be the same. If The New Woman consisted of upper class women, the Young Woman's Young Egypt Society consisted of women from the middle classes, but driven by the same spirit of the 1919 revolution to engage in public service.
In the following month, Al-Ahram's correspondent in Al-Gharbiya province reported that "a group Muslim and Coptic women in Tanta formed a literary and philanthropic society the aim of which is to elevate the customs, morals and edification of Egyptian women."
Keen to support these societies and the women's movement in general, Al-Ahram devoted considerable space to covering their activities. In fact, it also featured a series of articles by Hassan El-Sherif entitled "Women's associations in Egypt."
As though to prove that women's involvement in politics was not to be merely an ephemeral product of the revolutionary ardour of 1919, the Women's Central Wafd committee continued to maintain a high profile in the years following the revolution. Al-Ahram reports, for example, that on the occasion of Prime Minister Adli Yakan's departure to London for negotiations with Lord Curzon, this society delivered a letter to the prime minister, urging him to remain unwavering in the defence of Egyptian rights. The society said, "Keep foremost in your mind that the nation is a united entity that supports you, cheers you on to victory and lends you strength. Do not forget the blood of the elderly, the men, the women and the children who have martyred themselves for the national cause."
Such was the efficacy of the women's movement that it received the wholehearted praise of nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul. In his first speech to the nation following his return to Egypt in April 1921 he said, "in the course of our current national revival, Egyptian women have demonstrated a courage and spirit of initiative that has aroused the admiration of everyone of us and everyone who observes us. They were an inspiration in every situation we encountered. They were a model of steadfastness and respect. With their glorious deeds they wrote one of the noblest chapters in the history of our struggle. We owe them our gratitude. Let us all shout together, "Long live Egyptian women!'"
Another chapter of Egyptian women in politics opens in March 1922. At that time, Prime Minister Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat formed the Constitutional Commission, or the "Commission of 30" as it was called, in order to draft a national constitution. On this occasion, however, the Women's Central Wafd Committee would find itself in conflict with prevailing public opinion.
On 2 June, the committee issued a communiqué, signed by Ihsan Ahmed, denouncing the resolutions of the constitutional commission. Appearing in Al-Ahram, the communiqué said, "This commission has betrayed the unanimity of the nation and struck out on its own course, unheeding the national will. We have been proven correct in our prediction that it would use the most obsolete principles to guide it in its efforts to restrict the freedom of the people."
The women's committee had two reasons for levelling such severe criticism against the commission. Firstly, it felt that the draft constitution failed to provide for a legislative assembly with enough deputies to create an adequately representative parliamentary body. Secondly, as the communiqué charged, "it has ignored the right of women to stand for election, in spite of the fact that the constitutions and laws of all advanced nations which the commission consulted in the course of drafting the constitution guarantee women this right."
The communiqué signalled the beginning of an important, if relatively unknown, battle in modern Egyptian history -- the battle of the right of women to become members of parliament on an equal footing with men. On 10 July 1922 -- just over a week following Al-Ahram's publication of the communiqué -- an Al-Ahram reader from Alexandria wrote to the newspaper to voice precisely this demand. The writer turned out to be Munira Thabet, who would soon acquire great fame as a pioneer for women in journalism. In 1926, she began publication of Al-Amal, the first women's magazine to fully subscribe to the principles of the Wafd Party and to propound a comprehensive political, economic and social platform for national development.
Under the headline "Women and the Egyptian Parliament," Munira Thabet fired the opening volley in defence of her cause. She proclaimed, "We ask every conservative angered by the actions women are taking in the cause of their advancement to stand out of our way. We have never asked reactionaries for encouragement or support of our demands." Getting more impassioned, she describes the general disgruntlement at the formation of the constitutional commission, "Among its members there is not a single woman, while that commission includes such figures as Saleh Lamloum Pasha and Mansour Youssef Pasha who are highly reputed for their vast erudition and superb qualifications." Munira's sarcasm would not have been lost on her contemporaries. The two individuals she referred to were known to be illiterate.
After enumerating what she saw as pitfalls in the commission's constitutional bill, Munira Thabet turned her ire to "male writers," whose criticisms of the bill focused exclusively on how it prejudiced their rights, "totally ignoring the commission's offense against the rights of women." Having been thus left abandoned, she continued, women had no alternative but "to proceed on our own in the pursuit of our rights, rights which I will defend to the bitter end."
This prominent advocate of women's rights concluded her article with a two-point agenda for Egyptian women. Their first task was to protest against the government and the Constitutional Commission for their neglect of the rights of Egyptian women. "We must press upon them at every moment," she declared, "the need to grant us the right of membership in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate without discrimination between men and women. Let the government and the commission know that however great the obstacles we encounter we will never be deterred in our demand for our natural rights." Their second course of action was to launch an appeal to all Egyptian women "to participate in our pursuit of our right to membership in the parliament and to protest against whomsoever seeks to deny us this right."
Curiously, the first to take issue with Munira Thabet's article was another Egyptian woman, whose first name, coincidentally, was also Munira. In her letter to Al-Ahram, Munira Kamal, as she was called, opposed women's representation in parliament on the grounds that it was "unsound." The nation, particularly in its earliest phases of formation following independence, required the ablest men in parliament. "If the process of electing the most appropriate candidates already demands the greatest prudence, it would only exacerbate the difficulties if women vie with the right of men to occupy parliamentary seats, even if those men are uneducated. Can she [Munira Thabet] not see that, if we ignore the rare exceptions, nature did not create the sexes to be equal? As a member of the female sex, I have no doubt that my view will not be misconstrued."
At the end of her response to Munira Thabet, Munira Kamal stresses that she is not one of those conservative reactionaries whom the former refused to address. Rather, she wrote, "I have no wish for our nation to blindly imitate those nations in which progress towards civilisation began several centuries ago and which do not have the characteristics, customs or religious taboos that our oriental Muslim nation has."
But it would be men, of course, who would remain the strongest opponents of Munira Thabet's appeal. The first to express his opinions on the issue in Al-Ahram simply signed his letter with the initials M F. His arguments can still be heard today. Women, he wrote, were created "solely for the propagation of the human species. This is a function which men are not equipped to fulfill, for God blessed woman with all the organs and the physical constitution for the performance of this function." The anonymous writer went on to contend that science had proven that women's mental faculties were weaker than men's, further supporting this contention with Qur'anic citations. God gave men mastery over women, he concluded, by blessing men with "a fuller intellect, a greater aptitude for rational planning and greater strength."
Fikri Abaza, a lawyer known as the "prince of wit," was bound to have his say on the issue. As though he had a perennial feud with the opposite sex, he opened his column of 20 June 1922 with the warning that women have proven that the female sex "will show no mercy when it writes, no pity when it speaks and no flattery when it demands." The famous satirist then asks, "What is to prevent women from "making their voice heard in politics" when they have enjoyed the right of making their voices heard since the beginning of creation: in funerals, quarrels, surgeries and every matter that provokes the sensitivities of the mistresses of the home." He then goes on to imagine what it would be like to have women in politics. In one fictional scene a "gruff" deputy, defending some issue concerning the public welfare, raises his voice against a female deputy. "Due to her delicate feelings, she breaks down in tears and in the course of her wailing she invokes against him a stream of supplications to the prophets and holy men, after which she suffers a nervous breakdown." In another scene, a female deputy has left her children in the care of her esteemed husband in order to throw herself into the business of lawmaking. "During one legislative session the chamberlain informs that her children are at home crying because they need her to breastfeed them. What will she choose: lawmaking or her infant?"
Fikri Abaza goes on to conceive the types of legislation female MPs would introduce. One bill would promote the right for women to divorce their husbands. Another would provide for a majority of female judges in trials of female defendants. If a husband is absent from his home without proper justification he would be considered to have committed "the crime of breaching the marital bond and be subject to the provisions of the penal code." Finally, if a wife sues to leave her husband, "he would be obliged to pay generous compensation, just like what the Egyptian government pays to former British employees in the Egyptian administration."
These attacks only confirmed Munira Thabet in her resolve. Resuming her campaign in Al-Ahram of 24 June 1922 she announced that she was indifferent to the attacks against her and determined to continue the struggle "to liberate Egyptian women from all outdated restrictions and traditions until they achieve full equality with men." She continues, "Yes, I, an oriental Muslim woman, am resolved in my dedication to doing away with those customs that were born out of ignorance and under which Egyptian women have suffered for so long."
Thabet devoted most of this article to a response to Munira Kamal, although first she felt obliged to make two apologies for the substance of her previous article. Firstly, she confessed, Munira Kamal, was right to criticise her remarks concerning Youssef Pasha and Lamloum Pasha. Actually, Thabet admitted, she sincerely respected the two gentlemen. But she merely used them as an example to illustrate to those who contend that women are unsuited for parliamentary membership that "there are many women among us who are equally if not more competent than these two men are." Thabet also retracted her proposal that the voting age for women should be 18. Here, she confessed, "I was somewhat extreme and, therefore, I amend my opinion to state that the voting age for women should be 21, as is commonplace in most constitutions."
As for Munira Kamal's arguments, they were "weak." Kamal, she argued, had fallen prey to that "pernicious view" which held that the thousands-of-years-old oriental customs are impossible to eradicate. This view would wreak "endless damage and destruction," Thabet wrote. "What are these customs but an excuse for the ingrained indolence and self-absorption among some Egyptian women, their fear to act and the tendency to recoil before the smallest obstacle that threatens to disturb their comfort and peace of mind?"
Opponents of the involvement of women in public life were also incorrect to suggest that it conflicts with religious strictures. Thabet writes, "Neither Islam nor Christianity forbid women to participate alongside men in diverse businesses and public affairs. Indeed, there is nothing in our holy scriptures that prohibits women from standing alongside men even in the field of battle." As for the oft-cited claim that nature did not create men and women equally, Thabet found it groundless and absurd. "Otherwise, how could they have provided for the legal equality between the sexes in Europe, where women have become the peers of men and have carried out many noble deeds? What is the difference between the eastern woman and her western counterpart who not only has entered the parliament but also sits in the courts of law and occupies many government positions?"
In her third article, published in Al-Ahram of 3 July, Munira Thabet turns her attention to the letter of M F. The anonymous writer had held that women's biological and mental makeup did not equip them for the tasks of public life in parliament. Again, she rejected the contention, arguing that Egyptian women were not inferior to their European counterparts "who have proven that they could surpass many men in many feats." She added, "It is indeed amazing to find that some Egyptians -- those very men who are seeking to derive our nation's laws and aspects of civilisation from Europe and who seek to follow Europe's path to advancement -- shamelessly obstruct the participation of women in this process of emulation and acquisition."
Some men, if somewhat diffidently or indirectly, came to Munira Thabet's support. Ismail Wahbi, a lawyer, said in a letter to Al-Ahram that he recognised the "cogency" of Thabet's arguments, but he lamented that her appeal was "a cry in the wilderness." The time has not yet come for Egypt to take this step, he said. Even in Europe, the question of female parliamentary representatives is still contentious. Moreover, in Europe, it took centuries of democratic development before the notion arose, and this occurred only in the 20th century. He continued, "I do not say that we should deprive women of the right to vote in the future. However, I do assert that the notion at present is premature."
The famous Egyptian thinker Salama Moussa also voiced a rather modest defence in his advocacy of a "step-by-step" approach towards the adoption of Thabet's ideas. However, it angered him that some of the Upper Egyptian members of the Constitutional Commission continued to oppose the education of women on the grounds that education is not necessary for Egyptian wives and mothers. "We must fight these outmoded notions advocated by those who still ignore the value of educating women," Moussa declared.
Anton Zakari, curator of the Egyptian museum, offered a stronger defence. The noted Egyptologist wrote that "among ancient peoples, Egyptian women alone were free and enjoyed many social rights, including the right to marry any person they chose and the right to an education rendering them equal to men."
However, Egypt would have to wait another 30 years or so until women gained the right to be elected as members of parliament. Munira Thabet was over 25 at the time she so outspokenly advocated her cause on the pages of Al-Ahram.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.