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26 July - 1 August 2001
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A Diwan of contemporary life (400)
Though few objections were raised over the advances being made by the Egyptian feminist movement in the 1920s, at issue was the pace of change. There was the go-slow approach supported by moderates while activists wanted women on the fast track to emancipation. The gradualist camp was epitomised by Hoda Sha'rawi; Munira Thabet was the all-at-once advocate. The issues they tackled in their separate ways involved polygamy, divorce, the minimum marital age, beit al-ta'a and a woman's involvement in public life. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* reviews the contrasting liberation movements as chronicled by Al-Ahram
Surely, but how fast?
When he was editor-in-chief of Al-Jarida, Ahmed Lutfi El- Sayed charged that his opponents in the Nationalist Party wanted the nation "to run before it could walk." His criticism marked the division of the Egyptian nationalist movement into two schools of thought: the advocates of a gradualist approach that would lead the country naturally to independence, primarily through a series of social and educational reforms, and the proponents of immediate, unconditional independence. The pre- World War I Umma Party and the post-war Liberal Constitutionalist Party represented the former school while the pre-war National Party and the Wafd Party that emerged following the 1919 Revolution represented the latter. "Moderates" and "extremists" was how the British high commissioner chose to describe them.
Sha'rawi Thabet Lutfi El-Sayed
It is interesting that the Egyptian feminist movement of the 1920s was similarly divided into gradualist and all-at-once camps. Many historians of this movement seem not to have given this phenomenon enough attention despite the fact that it is inescapable when reading that decade's newspapers, particularly Al-Ahram.
The Egyptian feminist movement emerged as an important part of the 1919 Revolution and was embodied in the Wafdist Women's Central Committee (WWCC), whose declared aim was "to assist the Central Committee of the Egyptian Wafd Party in sustaining the call for the full independence of Egypt." Among its members were Hoda Sha'rawi, Sharifa Riad, Ne'mat Hegazi, Ihsan Ahmed and Esther Wisa.
In the same month the committee was founded, April 1919, the Young Women of Egypt Society was established and shortly afterwards came the Society for the Union and Advancement of Egyptian Women in Tanta. As the objectives of both these societies were more socially than politically oriented, we find that a gradualist-radical rift in the women's movement existed from the outset. It was certainly nurtured by differences between nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul and Hoda Sha'rawi, which began in March 1923 when Egypt's pioneering feminist left the Wafd to form the Egyptian Women's Federation.
In Egyptian Women and Social Change: 1919-1945, Latifa Salem observes that the Women's Federation laid greater emphasis on social than on political causes. There were reasons behind the shift in Sha'rawi's attitude. As head of the WWCC, Sha'rawi constantly encountered stiff opposition from members whenever she sought to promote a stance that did not fully conform with the policies of Zaghlul. Soon, too, she found herself alone when most of the WWCC members left to join a rival Wafdist women's organisation, the Saad (Zaghlul) Women's Committee, headed by Sharifa Fadel.
There were also considerations of a more personal nature. Most important, perhaps, was the fact that Sha'rawi's husband, Ali, had left the Wafd in April 1921, and it would have been difficult for her to retain such a high-profile position in the Wafd without hurting the Sha'rawi name from which she derived her considerable prestige.
The "learn-to-walk-before-you-run" philosophy of the Egyptian Women's Federation made itself known from the very first day of its existence. On 16 March 1923, the federation's founders met in Sha'rawi's home to elect a delegation to attend the International Feminist Conference which was to be held in Rome in two months time. The conference's agenda covered a broad range of issues such as equality between men and women at the workplace, equality in education, the right of married women to retain their own nationality, women's economic status, the status of children born out of wedlock and the involvement of women in politics and political parties.
Perhaps the major exponent of the "run first" school was a young Alexandrian woman, Munira Thabet. Thabet first become known to readers of Al-Ahram through a series of articles in the summer of 1922 in which she accused the committee charged with drafting the national constitution of ignoring women's suffrage, "despite the fact that the constitutions and laws of civilised nations, which the committee is using for guidance, accord women that right." With this criticism, Thabet fired the opening salvo in the battle over the right of women to run for parliament.
In 1926, Thabet moved to Cairo, where she founded the weekly Al-Amal, along with its French-language edition L'Espoire. These were the first women's magazines to uphold the political, economic and social positions of the Wafd.
In the spring of 1926, the controversial writer was summoned to the public prosecutor's office for questioning with regard to an article in L'Espoire concerning the pullout of the Egyptian members from the Alexandrian municipal council. According to the French-language weekly, Van den Bush, the general public prosecutor for the mixed courts, and the deputy chief of the municipality of Alexandria was responsible for the crisis because "he has the power to repudiate the rights of the Egyptian people."
Abdel-Qader Hamza, the managing editor of the newspaper, was summoned to the prosecutor's office along with L'Espoire's owner. The occasion offered Thabet an opportunity to affirm that women had an equal right to assert themselves in the political arena and to bear the responsibility for any consequences. She told the prosecutor: "My colleague and I had a minor disagreement over the question of appearing before the prosecution. He insisted on coming because he is the manager responsible for the publication of the newspaper. I insisted on coming because I am the owner and should be held ultimately responsible." The prosecutor, however, refused to oblige and told her that he did not wish for her to volunteer to assume a liability for which there was no legal cause. As Thabet related later, "The prosecution cast the full brunt of the blame on Abdel-Qader Hamza, refusing that I bear the smallest portion of it which deeply troubled me."
It must have gratified Thabet somewhat to learn that her appearance before the prosecution triggered widespread reaction. On 26 March 1926, Al- Ahram expressed the general sentiment under the headline, "On the women's movement: a young female journalist appears before the public prosecutor." In the opinion of the editorial, the prosecution's action was a landmark in the history of the advancement of Egyptian women. When, at the turn of the century, Qasim Amin published his famous books advocating women's rights, "intellectuals and the press unleashed a torrent of accusations, citing in the process words he never said and attributing to him thoughts that would have never occurred to him." Now, just over two decades later, when the prosecution summoned Munira Thabet, Egyptians no longer found it surprising that females ranked with men as writers, journalists and merchants.
On 6 May 1926, a delegation of the Egyptian Women's Federation called on the prime minister and the minister of justice to present their demands. Five days earlier, at a meeting of the federation, Sha'rawi outlined the aim of the society; they did not include political activity. "I believe that women's involvement in these matters must come after they address their conditions within the family and their status in society," Sha'rawi said.
The moderate feminist went on to remind her audience of her contributions towards this end. Three years earlier, she had pressed for legislation to "protect young women from marrying below the age of 16 in order to ensure sufficient time for the development of their bodies and the edification and cultivation of their minds." She had also advocated equality of opportunity in education, including secondary school, which up to then had been out of bounds to women. Her efforts bore fruit in a decree forbidding the issuance of marriage contracts for women under 16 and men under 18. Unfortunately, Sha'rawi added, the weight of that decree was significantly diminished the following year when the minister of justice issued Ordinance 24 allowing magistrates to permit the marriage of any girl, regardless of her age, solely upon the word of her father or guardian that she had reached 16.
The women's federation presented five demands to the ministry officials: to stop unjustified polygamy; safeguard women from sudden and unwarranted divorce; protect married women from the injustices of beit al-ta'a -- the injunction obliging a wife to live in her husband's house; prevent under-age children from being taken away from their mothers when they are in the greatest need of maternal care; and to rescind Ordinance 24 on the grounds that "it does not conform with the legislative spirit for which it was promulgated."
Reaction to the demands was swift among religious officials, women who sympathised with the federation's causes and the more radical feminists who were represented by Thabet.
Al-Ahram of 17 and 18 May allocated considerable space on its front page to the letter of a "magistrate of the religious courts," as the writer signed himself, apparently due to the considerable detachment and cogency with which he presented his case. Taking each of the federation's demands in turn, the magistrate voiced concern that the women's campaign to restrict polygamy might be a prelude to demanding a total ban. When Islam appeared, he said, it sanctioned polygamy because of the benefits it brought. It introduced safeguards against the detrimental aspects of this practice by restricting the number of wives a man may take -- prior to Islam there were no limits -- and making additional marriages conditional upon the husband's financial means and his commitment to treating his wives fairly and equitably. "This system, if taken as a single package, leaves no room for grievances," he said.
Despite his reservations, he felt it was possible to comply with the federation's demand by introducing certain provisions in the religious courts "prohibiting marriage officials from registering a marital contract for a man with one wife or more without authorisation from the magistrate of the religious courts." The magistrate would have the authority to refuse such authorisation until "he has ascertained the justifications and merits of the desired marriage and has satisfied himself that the husband has the necessary means to support his wives."
The magistrate was similarly cautious with regard to the demand to "put an end to divorce without fundamental cause." Nevertheless, he suggested it was possible to institute a set of principles and regulations to curtail divorces. Above all, he believed, it was important to establish that imprecations uttered in anger and which carry the threat of divorce have no legal foundation." But he argued that while the triple utterance of "I divorce thee" was substantiated in Islamic scriptures, it was possible for the courts to grant a husband a divorce after such an utterance only after ascertaining that there is substantial cause. Such a restriction, he added, would "also authorise the judge to fine or imprison those who abuse the right to divorce after uttering the phrase without legal authorisation."
Beit al-ta'a was another thorny but resolvable question. The magistrate explains: "Ta'a (obedience) may entail that a husband demand by law the return of a recalcitrant wife to his home. When the court determines that the suit is legitimate it, nevertheless, cannot rule in favour of the husband unless he has established that he has paid the wife's dowry in full, can offer a house commensurate with their status, has furnished the house at his own expense and not from his wife's trousseau, and has designated the location of the house, either by reference to neighbours in the countryside or by supplying a street address in the city."
On the other hand, he admits that the method of implementing the court ruling has been disgraceful and unnecessarily humiliating. "A procession which includes the precinct police chief at the head of a company, the court official with the execution order, the murshida -- a woman who can identify the wife -- and throngs of onlookers, surround the house where she is staying while the police and the murshida execute the court order and stand watch over the woman as she dresses to leave. The procession then proceeds through the streets to the husband's home where his wife is forced to enter." He adds, "Her stay there may be long or short, depending on how closely guarded she is."
The solution to the injustices perpetrated in the name of beit al-ta'a, in the opinion of the judge, was for the religious courts to adopt the principle of separation on the basis of harm, particularly "in those circumstances in which they determine that the harm would be such as to render life intolerable."
The magistrate backed the women's federation's fourth demand wholeheartedly. After a brief discussion of the differences between various legal scholars on the question of increasing the age which a child should remain under maternal care, he said it was in the interests of both spouses "for women to retain the right to maternal care of sons until the age of nine and of girls until they reach puberty." However, he added, "Husbands should only be charged with payments to assist the mother in providing for the sons in her custody up to the age of seven and for daughters up to the age of nine." Finally, he was in complete accord with the demand to rescind the ministerial Ordinance 24, which undermined the judiciary's right to set the age of marriage and to corroborate the ages of prospective brides and grooms.
Among the many women who participated in the debate was the prominent feminist Nabawiya Moussa, who sided with the moderate camp championed by Hoda Sha'rawi, Moussa contributed a series of articles to Al-Ahram, appearing under the headline "The Feminist Awakening," and in which she addressed the demands of the women's federation.
Moussa begins by honouring the pioneers of the feminist movement in the West, "many of whom fell as victims in the course of their advocacy of a movement which brought so much relief to women after them." She cautioned men against underestimating "the power of the will of women who can be the pillar of happiness if permitted to receive an education and obtain freedom in work and thought."
Another endorsement of the demands came from Galila El-Bahrawi, who wrote that although she had been a member of the Egyptian Feminist Federation, circumstances had obliged her to leave the organisation. Nevertheless, she adds, "Today I find in myself a powerful urge to renew my membership." This enthusiasm, she continues, was inspired by the five demands that the federation made in the interests of the advancement of women in Egypt. Then she went on to suggest a sixth.
The legal process in the religious courts, she held, was notoriously slow. Divorce cases were always subjected to constant delays and it could take up to a year before a court ruled on the payment of alimony. Moreover, such rulings were inevitably followed by problems, generally because of the adversary's (i.e., the husband's) desire to obstruct implementation. "It is clear that these procedural flaws allow husbands to abuse the rights of women, take advantage of their weakness, coerce them into submission and then force them into permanent subjugation."
A third reader, signing her letter to Al-Ahram with only her initials, "B D," focused on the federation's fifth demand regarding the minimum marriage age. In her opinion the 16-year regulation would not affect daughters of middle and upper class families since, in all events, they tended to prefer to defer the marriage of their daughters until they had reached a certain level of education. Rather, it was her fear that it would adversely affect daughters of the poorer sections of society. Because of their families' economic circumstances, these young women "must serve in people's homes, work outside as vendors and, in the villages, assist their parents in various chores, all of which are occupations that naturally bring them into contact with young men of corrupt morals." For this reason she believed that it was wiser to reduce the minimum age of marriage for women to 14.
There was one woman, however, for whom Hoda Sha'rawi's demands were simply not enough. Munira Thabet wrote three articles in Al-Amal in response to the feminist federation's positions. If the newspaper's editors did not necessarily support Thabet's views, they were certainly impressed by her daring.
Thabet vehemently criticised Sha'rawi for maintaining that women should defer involvement in public affairs until after they had seen to their family and status in society. This stance, she argued, "is inconsistent with the principle of equality between men and women in all political rights and duties." She continues, "If the government has so far refused to recognise women's political rights, that should not prevent them, particularly in light of the progress attained in the past few years, from continuing their efforts to acquire these rights in practice, until they become official."
Moreover, she found it deplorable that Sha'rawi voiced that opinion. It was "wrong and inappropriate" for such an appeal to be made by the head of the Egyptian Feminist Federation "because it is inconsistent with the political stance she had previously adopted."
After having essentially accused Sha'rawi of hypocrisy, the owner of Al-Amal goes on to disparage nearly every one of the federation's demands. Polygamy, she charged, was in essence little more than "conjugal betrayal that takes place openly because it is officially sanctioned by law. A spouse cannot apportion his heart equally between two wives or more, nor can he enjoy a fully vibrant conscience or heart, or a happy matrimony such as that which comes from fidelity to a single wife." Worse, in Thabet's opinion, while the law sanctioned "betrayal" by the husband, it penalised wives for the same offense, an opinion that prompted criticism from Al-Ahram.
Thabet was equally audacious on the issue of divorce. Both parties in a marriage, she maintained, should have the right to sue for divorce. Divorce, as marriage, should take place in accordance with official procedures to which both parties have equal access. "Hatred or acrimony between conjugal partners should be considered sufficient grounds for divorce."
As for the injunction of beit al-ta'a, it was nothing short of prison. Or, as she put it, "Why should a woman not have recourse to beit al-ta'a in the event that her husband flees the home into the arms of another woman? Or was this injunction simply created to serve as a prison for the wife to enable the husband to torment her in a manner worse than hell?"
But the feminist's most radical suggestion was reserved for the end. "The system of the religious courts should be entirely revamped in accordance with the spirit of the age and a civil magistrate should be appointed as chief of the religious courts." Munira Thabet was clearly far ahead of her times but is that not always the case with those who want to run before they can walk?
A success storyhe Diwan series is 400 instalments old today. It has come a long way since its inception in August 1993. It has been appearing regularly every week except for a three-month hiatus in the summer of 1995 because its author had to undergo heart surgery.
A major feature of the Diwan series is that it has made dry history written in simple and graceful language accessible to the ordinary reader.
Initially Al-Ahram Weekly published only a summary of each instalment. Now the Weekly prints it in full and no less regularly than the mother newspaper Al-Ahram .
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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