Al-Ahram Weekly Online
7 - 13 June 2001
Issue No.537
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map


A Diwan of contemporary life (393)

Starting from the 1882 British occupation -- when, for the first time in Egypt, prostitution was legalised -- to the 1922 Declaration that recognised Egypt's national independence, prostitution was an issue never broached by supporters of the nationalist movement. It was viewed as a fact of life, a social ill that had befallen Egypt under the British. But the status quo would change. Sheikh Mahmoud Abul-Uyun, an Al-Azhar scholar and fervent patriot, began to wage what would become an almost one-man campaign against the world's oldest profession. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* looks at an ardent social reformer tackling the sins of the flesh

Back roads

Sheikh Mahmoud Abul-Uyun
Sheikh Mahmoud Abul-Uyun
Back Roads, Martin Ritt's 1981 film about a down-and-out prostitute and a punch-drunk drifter in the American south, inspired the title of Abdel-Wahab Bakr's recent study of the underworld in Cairo from 1900-1951. This instalment of the Diwan deals with the same topic because the world of vice imposed itself upon Al-Ahram twice in the 1920s: once in 1923 in a series of articles that appeared under the headline "Slaughterhouses of Virtue" and again in 1926 under the heading "Official Prostitution in Egypt."

Behind these two campaigns against depravity was Sheikh Mahmoud Abul-Uyun, a name not unfamiliar to Al-Ahram readers of the time for he was an Al-Azhar scholar and a fervent nationalist. In 1922 the newspaper serialised another of his studies, "The Black Page," in which he attempted to document the extent to which life in Egypt had deteriorated since the British occupation in 1882. Abul-Uyun paid for his radical stances, having been arrested for his political activities on several occasions, the latest being in Rafah in 1922 when the British authorities forced him to sign a pledge stating he would no longer engage in demonstrations or seditious acts as a condition for his release. But not one to be so easily subdued, Abul-Uyun poured his patriotic energies into social reform efforts and, in particular, the fight against prostitution.

Before proceeding to Abul-Uyun's views, however, it would first be useful to gain an overview of the world's oldest profession as it manifested itself in Egypt. In addition to Bakr's Cairo's Secret Society -- 1900-1951, another highly informative study on the subject is Emad Hilal's Prostitutes in Egypt: a socio-historical study, 1834-1949. It appears, according to these scholars, that the profession was considerably stratified in terms of social class and ethnic origin. These included al-ghawazi, predominantly from gypsy tribes, and al-jawari, a term that originally designated slave girls.

With the influx of European immigrants after the British occupation, prostitution in Egypt evolved yet another stratum -- women of primarily Italian, Greek and French origin. Of these, the Italians seem to have made up the majority in view of the fact that many terms of the trade were derived from the Italian jargon. Hilal also observes that there were at least two classes of European prostitutes: the more refined concubine, distinguishable by her "smart dress, fashionable hat and elegant shoes," and the fact that "she resided in a pension or in a shared flat," was a definite cut above the ordinary prostitute who had to live in a brothel.

European prostitutes had a distinct advantage over their Egyptian colleagues since, for the most part, they enjoyed the legal immunities accorded to European subjects under the capitulations system and could, therefore, circumvent the various laws and regulations governing this line of work.

Not that prostitution was illegal at the time Abul-Uyun waged his campaigns. Following the British occupation of Egypt in 1882, the Ministry of Interior issued a nine-article edict regulating the relationship between prostitutes and the authorities. Three years later it issued an ordinance on brothels and in 1896 the government passed a comprehensive law governing all aspects of the practice of this profession. However, the more definitive and longer-lasting law was passed in 1905 and remained in effect until the official abolition of prostitution in 1949. According to this law, for example, brothels were "premises in which two or more women are assembled for the purpose of engaging in the practice of fornication." Brothels could only be established in certain areas designated by the governor or chief of a provincial directorate and they could have no more than one entrance. Women working in these establishments had to be at least 18 years old and undergo a medical examination once a week at a designated health office which, in Cairo, was located in Al-Hod Al-Marsoud.

Alongside the officially sanctioned brothels, prostitution was also practised illicitly in unlicensed premises, in hotels and private homes or flats. Naturally, too, the government sought to extend its supervision over the informal sector of the profession, a task that was inherently doomed to failure due to the clandestine nature of illegal soliciting.

In the 40-year period that extended from the British occupation -- when, for the first time in Egypt, prostitution was codified and, therefore, legalised -- to the Declaration of 28 February 1922 that recognised Egypt's national independence, prostitution never came under attack by proponents of the nationalist movement. The closest thing to censure researchers have been able to find was an article in Al-Ustaz magazine of April 1893 on "The European Contagion in Oriental Countries," appealing for "the removal of prostitutes and clandestine houses from respectable neighbourhoods, and Al-Ahram's editor-in-chief Daoud Barakat's 1907 translation of a study by a Greek specialist in venereal diseases entitled Prostitution or the Danger of Harlotry in Egypt.

Apart from this, judging by the nationalist press of the time, the prime exponent of which was Al-Liwa', prostitution tended to be viewed as one of those bitter facts of life that only occasionally surfaced in the context of discussions of the social ills that befell Egypt under the British occupation. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and the subsequent declaration of a British protectorate over Egypt, the influx of British forces and the imposition of military censorship over the press, journalists would have deemed the subject too sensitive to touch, even had they been inclined to broach it. Following the war, the nation was swept up in the momentous events of the 1919 Revolution and its aftermath. This certainly applied to Sheikh Mahmoud Abul-Uyun who became a prominent agitator for national independence and for whom issues of social reform inevitably took a back seat during the turbulent period that preceded the February Declaration. However, the lull in revolutionary activism that ensued after the acquisition of nominal independence, and the acrimony that resulted from the rupture within the nationalist ranks that led to the creation of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, disillusioned many nationalists, foremost among them Abul-Uyun. Once again they turned their attention to social reform.

It was also in 1922, coincidentally, that one of Egypt's most notorious prostitution scandals erupted. Its protagonist was Ibrahim El-Gharbi, dubbed by Cairo's police commissioner Russell Pasha as the "king of vice." According to Abdel-Wahab Bakr, El-Gharbi was originally from Aswan. His father was a slave trader and it was only natural that his son follow his footsteps in the world of illicit commerce. El-Gharbi himself proved an astute entrepreneur. He began his career in 1896 with the purchase of his first brothel and so successful was he in this line of work that by 1912 he owned more than 15 such establishments housing more than 150 women.

Wartime conditions naturally brought a boom to business but it was a boom that was temporarily curtailed when the British authorities apprehended El-Gharbi and sent him into exile in his native village. Following his release less than a year later he returned to Cairo to resume his work with unparalleled energy and acumen. In 1922, he met his doom at the hands of a minor. She confessed to the police that he had been involved in the sale of more than 400 women in the white slavery market, towards which end he had greased the palms of a number of policemen, including several senior British police officers in charge of vice.

The magnitude of this scandal, investigations into which continued for a considerable period of time, compelled Sheikh Abul-Uyun to speak out against such depravity. His preferred forum for this purpose was Al-Ahram, which featured his "Slaughterhouses of Virtue," the first instalment of which appeared on 20 November 1923. In Prostitutes in Egypt, Emad Hilal provides a brief overview of this series in which Abul-Uyun holds the government responsible for the burgeoning of "the market of fornication which thrives under the very noses of its officials." When news of the scandal broke, he charged, the government attempted to cover up the story partly because of the active involvement of police officials in the activities of El-Gharbi and also because the mere scale of his operations suggested the extent to which the government had given him free rein to build "that empire which gnaws at the very core of the Egyptian nation." Indeed, in one instalment Abul-Uyun openly accuses the authorities of complicity. Addressing the government he writes, "If you are unaware of these crimes then ask the chief of police who knows each and every one of those brothels," adding that police officials deliberately ignored many complaints from citizens whose "luck doomed them to living next to those houses of ill repute."

Letters to the editor in Al-Ahram indicate that Abul-Uyun succeeded in mobilising an important segment of public opinion. One reader said he was a witness to El-Gharbi's empire and encouraged Abul-Uyun to continue his campaign. Another proposed that not only prostitutes should be forced to undergo medical inspections but so, too, should their customers. Although Abul-Uyun welcomed this advice, he failed to suggest how this might be accomplished. A third reader expressed his surprise that the government was unaware of the locations of the clandestine brothels whereas when he and a group of friends had taken a tour of certain areas in Cairo they had come across quite a few. He was prepared to provide the authorities with the exact addresses of these establishments should they so desire, he added.

According to Hilal, these articles and letters put the authorities under considerable pressure, to the extent that the public prosecutor announced he would issue a detailed report on the case before the end of December. However, as Egypt's first popular democratic elections were held during this period, giving rise to the ardently nationalist parliament of 1924, public attention was diverted from Abul-Uyun's cause. Although Abul-Uyun sought to take advantage of the new political climate to urge the newly-formed Chamber of Deputies and the Senate to officially abolish prostitution, more pressing issues, such as the demand for British evacuation and the status of Sudan, prevailed. As a result, Abul-Uyun's numerous telegrams ultimately ended up in the parliament's archives. Frustrated at the inaction of the people's representatives on his cause, the zealous social reformer accused them of "neglecting their duty and turning a blind eye to such a dangerous social blight."

Two years later, however, Abul-Uyun found an opportunity to resume his battle. In April 1926 the Ministry of Interior was in the process of revising the regulations governing prostitution, towards which end it was considering the opinions of governorate and directorate chiefs as well as a report from the police commissioner of Cairo recommending a crackdown on houseboats and other illicit establishments. One morning around this time Abul-Uyun was delighted to read in the Al-Muqattam newspaper that the Regulations and Licensing Department had come to the conclusion that there were no legitimate grounds for allowing legally-sanctioned prostitution to persist in Egypt and recommended "adopting laws and measures in accordance with which prostitution would be abolished in order to safeguard public security, morals and health as in Britain, the US, Norway and other countries." The department offered several reasons for abolishing prostitution. One was that the government was remiss in establishing sufficient hospitals and engaging enough specialists to combat the spread of venereal disease. A second was that Islam, the official state religion, prohibited prostitution and, consequently, any legislation to regulate it.

Al-Ahram, too, perceived that circumstances were ripe for a second anti-prostitution campaign; thus for about seven months it published Abul-Uyun's pleas as well as the reactions of its readers.

Over the preceding two years Abul-Uyun had time to refine his appeal. Compared to his articles of 1923, his 1926 campaign was far more cogently argued and sober. In Al-Ahram of 27 April 1926, under the headline, "Officially sanctioned adultery: how can we justify the government's stance?" Abul-Uyun cited four reasons why prostitution should be abolished. The first pertained to the fact that the constitution stipulated that Islam was the official religion and, therefore, its provisions should be taken seriously. He writes, "Yes, Islam prohibits adultery and ordains that adulterers be lashed and put to death by stoning... Nothing could be more heinous and more devastating to the prestige of a government, and an Islamic government in particular, than for it to legislate and organise adultery."

Secondly, he drew upon the conclusions of the Regulations and Licensing Department to hold that it is impossible to enforce any body of laws and regulations governing prostitution. To add force to this contention he cited a 1924 report, The spread of prostitution and venereal diseases in Egypt and possible methods of combating them, by the venereologist Mikhail Farag, who wrote that in the event that prostitution was outlawed, "It is true that the rate of moral turmoil and venereal disease will briefly increase. However, with the combined efforts of the various government agencies, this will rapidly be brought under control, after which we will benefit from the existence of a preventive system."

One frequently cited obstacle to prohibition was the capitulations system which afforded foreign practitioners of prostitution legal immunity. Abul-Uyun countered that the ordinance on capitulations did not confer upon foreigners any right to extraordinary privileges, "nor may any foreign diplomatic representative, however high-ranking, grant license to his nation's subjects for illicit purposes on the pretext of an acquired right."

Lastly, Abul-Uyun sought to convince his readers that hygienic measures, regardless of how stringently enforced, are ineffective. In this regard he cited a prominent European physician whose job it was to examine prostitutes in The Hague. In addition to the potential dangers that required him to have police protection on his tours, the physician admitted that many women infected with venereal diseases had discovered ways to conceal the symptoms. Thus, Abul-Uyun concluded, by officially sanctioning prostitution, not only was the government luring men into adultery but was also exposing them to premature death.

As was the case in 1923, Abul-Uyun's 1926 campaign drew considerable support. On this occasion, moreover, that support was translated into action when public opinion galvanised municipal councils in Bilbeis, Dessouq, Al-Sinbilawein, Tahta and Malawi into shutting down prostitution establishments. Abul-Uyun also succeeded in bringing on board a number of government ministers who wrote to him to express their support. Among these was Foreign Minister Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat who wrote, "To license prostitution in oriental countries such as Egypt is contrary to their nature. It is also erroneous to believe that medical examinations of prostitutes reduce the risk of the spread of venereal disease." Of like mind was Minister of Justice Zaki Abul-Saoud who held that there was no justification whatsoever for continuing to sanction prostitution. No religion permits adultery, he said. Morally it is wrong to encourage and facilitate depravity. In terms of public health, "there are no sufficient guarantees that regulatory measures can prevent the spread of disease," he said.

But following this initial wave of support Abul-Uyun discovered that he had detractors. On 4 September 1926, Al-Ahram published a letter charging that his attempts to secure the support of government ministers for his cause was demeaning to their status and prestige. The author of the letter, who clearly preferred to remain anonymous having only signed "Munir A," also suggested that Abul-Uyun's approach to prostitution was ultimately detrimental. Munir A asked, "Have you given any serious thought at all to the consequences of prohibiting prostitution? If indeed you have, are you of the opinion that prohibition will be conducive to the spread of virtue? I, for one, do not believe it will. On the contrary, good sir, I fear it will allow this practice to evade government control entirely and spread epidemically." Munir A then asked what would be the fate of more than 3,000 prostitutes in Cairo who will never be able to return to their homes and whose only alternative will be to share accommodation with their colleagues in vice, with all the attendant prospects of the uncontrolled spread of disease this will bring. Abul-Uyun's solution, he concludes, is reminiscent of the physician who amputates a leg to cure a rash.

A more serious blow was delivered by Al-Siyasa, the mouthpiece of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, which accused Abul-Uyun of meddling in affairs which were none of his business. The newspaper observed that prostitution was "a necessary evil" and that all that could be done to counter it was "to contain its ills within certain bounds and consider creating new social factors to replace the material means that religious strictures have devised to counter the spread of prostitution. Such factors can be brought about by strengthening the moral fabric of the young in a manner that channels their material and moral energies towards noble endeavours, thereby diverting them from the many inducements to corruption they will encounter in adulthood."

Abul-Uyun was also in for a surprise from another quarter. To his consternation, the Ministry of Interior vetoed the decisions taken by the municipal councils to close down brothels since that would render it impossible to enforce the regulations governing prostitution. "Under such circumstances the police would be unable to take the legal procedures against prostitutes who take up residence in respectable neighbourhoods and open their premises for prostitution," a ministry communiqué stated, adding, "A thorough study of the question is essential if the results of actions taken are not to conflict with the ultimate objectives of reformers."

Such reactions prompted the Al-Ahram management to send one of its ace reporters to conduct an interview with Director of Public Security El-Qaisi Pasha in order to ascertain the government's position with regard to Sheikh Abul-Uyun's appeal. El-Qaisi admitted that the existence of prostitution in a country where the constitution stipulates that Islam is the state religion "was an unsatisfactory situation that can please no one." However, he added, duty demanded that "we examine the consequences that would ensue from the abolition of prostitution." In his defence he referred to the tragic results of the closure of the prostitution quarters in Shebin Al-Kom in 1908. So dramatic was the rise in the rate of infection of venereal disease following this action that the citizens of the Delta town pressed for the renewal of the permit to reopen the district. It was because of that experience, moreover, that public security authorities turned down the requests to close down prostitution quarters in Benha in 1925 and in Mit Ghamr and Malawi the following year, the security official said.

El-Qaisi promised to reconsider his position on the issue after giving it sufficient study. With this pronouncement it took Abul-Uyun little intelligence to realise that his second anti-prostitution campaign, like his first, had been consigned to the annals of history. He would have to wait until 1949, more than 20 years later, for his wish to come true, only to depart from this world -- with its good and evil -- two years later.

Dr Yunan

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

EmailIt!Recommend this page

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 537 Front Page

Search for words and exact phrases (as quotes strings),
Use boolean operators (AND, OR, NEAR, AND NOT) for advanced queries
Letter from the Editor
Editorial Board
Updated every Saturday at 11.00 GMT, 2pm local time
Al-Ahram Organisation