Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
18 - 24 March 1999
Issue No. 421
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Back issues Current issue

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Unity in diversity

By Mariz Tadros

'Towards a unified women's movement' could not have been a more appropriate theme for the gathering that took place on 12 March at the Ahmed Shawqi Museum as part of the women's celebrations taking place throughout this month. Seven NGOs committed to the women's cause gathered to discuss women's demands today.

Hala Shukrallah, a member of the New Woman Research Centre and a representative of the NGO Forum for Women in Development reminded participants of some of the important events they are commemorating in March: 8 March for instance was the day female textile workers went on strike nearly 140 years ago to protest against their low salaries and poor working conditions. On 6 March 1923, the Egyptian Feminist Union, headed by Huda Sha'rawi, was founded; on 12 March 1954, Doria Shafiq and other women held in a sit-in and hunger strike at the Journalists' Syndicate, demanding equal political rights. Two years later, women gained the right to vote. In 1977, the UN recognised 8 March as International Women's Day.

Azza Kamel, representative of the Centre for Appropriate Communications Technology (ACT), compared the demands made by women a little over 75 years ago with those many women are making today. The charter of the Egyptian Feminist Union of 1923 reveals that demands were related to general social and political issues as well as women's rights. Among the rights related specifically to women, the charter sought to restrict polygamy, make divorce only possible through courts (Muslim men can repudiate their wives without resorting to a judge), and resolve family problems in a just manner. Social demands included more scholarships for girls, access to higher education, and more cultural awareness activities. Politically, it asked for democratic constitutional reforms, the holding of elections, and the abolition of special legal privileges. "It was the first comprehensive programme put in place by a woman's movement," said Kamel, who does not believe that activists today want anything different: women are still struggling for reforms in the Personal Status Law, still facing discrimination against girls in education, and still demanding reforms to the nationality law.
Doria Shafiq
"Doria Shafiq: demanding equal political rights

Omayma Abu Bakr from the Women and Memory Forum said historical research is essential if we are to discover what women have done to change the status quo: the past, she argued, confers legitimacy upon new voices. "The feminist movement did not end, but it changed its priorities. While there are the same issues, relating to family, health and education, there are new horizons: there is a need now more than ever for cultural awareness to gain greater legitimacy on a social level. This for instance needs be to confronted with new arguments that say women should not be judges because of their biology."

Abu Bakr pointed out that our feminist heritage should be the driving force helping women resist forces that seek to undermine the movement today. At the heart of the struggle should be the fight to keep the women's issue alive, so that it does not get put on the back burner. But she argued, this requires a tremendous effort to change public opinion, so that the role the women's rights movement plays in society is not marginalised or undermined. She believes there is common ground for a unified base, despite the increasing diversity of women's activities and orientations.

There was controversy over when the movement began to subside and re-emerge -- that is, if it ever did. Iman Baybars, member of the Association of the Development and Enhancement of Women (ADEW), noted that many people believe the movement died out in the 1950s and was reborn in the 1970s, "but we must admit that many women's rights were won in that period, especially in the 1960s." She identifies the 1970s as the time of the cultural invasion from petroleum-rich countries and the rise of reactionary trends. Baybars argued that there will be no change in the movement today unless there is mutual respect among women who are active in different ways and have different visions of how to advance women's causes. She talked about the impact of competition between personalities on the movement -- especially those who seek the limelight and advance by attacking other women and undermining their work.

For Nadia Abdel-Wahab, of the New Woman Centre, the comparison between past and present should go back to the year 1800, to the time of the French Expedition. Abdel-Wahab mentioned the Egyptian women in Rosetta who, having heard about how well General Menou treated his wife, went to Rosetta's French governor demanding the right to go to the public baths, and to be treated by their husbands with respect.

Also significant for Abdel-Wahab was the establishment of the school for midwives, built during Mohamed Ali's era. Under Khedive Ismail, missionaries were granted permission to build girls' schools, one in Cairo and one in Alexandria, run by the Sisters of the Bon Pasteur. What followed was the concentrated effort on the part of ruling-class women to provide education and health services. Until the 1919 revolution, Egyptian witnessed a proliferation of literature dealing with women's issues, by women writing under pen names. "What was important about 1919 was that women of all classes took to the streets, even if it meant breaking the traditions and customs of the time," continued Abdel-Wahab. As for Huda Sha'rawi's dramatic unveiling of 1923, "it meant lifting the veils from their faces and their names. March of that year was the first time they participated at an international conference on women," she noted.

The '30s and '40s witnessed the increasing radicalisation of the movement: activists such as Inji Aflatoun and Doria Shafiq began to join trade unions and challenge the patriarchal precepts of society. This phase, according to Abdel-Wahab, marked the end of the first movement, "in which women gained legitimacy through participation in protests and demonstrations." At this time, however, "it was also a movement that had been significantly affected by the West." Today, women's demands encompass new areas such as reproductive health, domestic violence, training women and "empowerment rather than charity", she concluded. There is a consensus among women about the need to address such issues, she said, citing the united stand taken against the draft NGO Law.

Azza Soliman of the Egyptian Women's Centre for Legal Aid began in 1911, when Malak Hefni Nassef put forward 10 demands to the parliament, which were all rejected. Nassef is best known for denunciation of polygamy, men's unrestricted right to divorce their wives, early marriage for girls and marriages with too great a disparity in age between the spouses. Not until 1979 was there a move to change the Personal Status Law; but this success was short-lived, since the government ruled it unconstitutional. "This just says it all about the dominant philosophy," she noted, arguing against compromise: "I am against the idea that we should work for whatever little we can gain now because that is better than nothing. The government is making all kinds of concessions for all kinds of interest groups in the economy, why is it that, when it comes to women's issues, the old argument about 'later, we cannot do anything now because of the economic crisis and terrorism' is used?" she demanded.

Farida El-Naqqash, head of the NGO Forum for Women in Development, pointed out that history, especially in this region, has taught women the futility of joining men against colonial oppressors in the hope that, after their expulsion, they will be freed from their own oppressors. Experience, she explained, has taught women that these promises are never fulfilled. "Algeria and Egypt bear witness to that. We must work on both fronts [women's and national liberation] at the same time," she asserted.

Shahinda Maqlad, a member of the Peasants' Committee of the Tagammu Party, who was chairing the discussion, suggested that a charter be drawn up as a basis for building up a movement that would incorporate a variety of women's organisations working in Egypt. Perhaps this time next year, a forum will have been established that fosters unity while celebrating diversity.

A date with history

1800: women demonstrate in Rosetta, demanding the right to use public baths and better treatment from their husbands.

1873: Opening of the first primary school for girls.

1893: Release of the first women's magazine in Egypt, Al-Fatat.

1899: Qassem Amin publishes Tahrir Al-Mar'a (Women's Liberation).

1901: Qassem Amin publishes Al-Mar'a Al-Gadida (New Woman).

1911: Malak Hefni Nassef puts forward ten demands to the parliament. All are rejected.

1914: Establishment of the Women's Teaching Union.

16 March 1919: Five hundred women protest in the streets against British occupation.

1920: opening of the first secondary school for girls. Twenty-three girls are enrolled at the Shubra Secondary School in its first year.

1923: Huda Sha'rawi and Ceza Nabarawi lift their veils as a symbol of women's emancipation. The incident is replicated throughout the country.

16 March 1923: Huda Sha'rawi and other women establish the Egyptian Feminist Union demanding rights as equal citizens, women's right to education, the right to vote, and reform of the Personal Status Law. 1924: A new charter is issued, stating the right to free primary education for both boys and girls.

1925: Ceza Nabarawi and Huda Sha'rawi publish L'Egyptienne, a French-language magazine which ceased publication in 1940.

1928: The first group of female students enrols at Cairo University.

1935: The first group of female students graduates from medical school.

1937: The Egyptian Feminist Union publishes L'Egyptienne in Arabic, led by Fatma Rashed.

1938: The Middle East Women's Conference is held in Egypt.

1944: The Arab Women's Union is established, under the leadership of Huda Sha'rawi.

1947: Huda Sha'rawi dies.

1951: Members of Doria Shafiq's Bint Al-Nil organisation stage a sit-in in front of the parliament, calling for women's political representation.

1953: Dissolution of all political parties.

1956: The new constitution enshrines women's right to vote and to run for election.

1957: The first woman enters parliament.

1961: Free university education announced.

1962: Hekmat Abu Zeid becomes Egypt's first female minister (of social affairs).

1979: A new election law assigns a 30-seat quota for women in the parliament.

1979: The Local Administration Law is reformed to include a 10-20 per cent quota for women.

1980: Of the 210 members in the new Shura Council, seven are women.

1979-80: The Personal Status Law is reformed, with some gains in women's rights.

1985: The High Constitutional Court rules on the unconstitutionality of the reformed Personal Status Law. Dissolution of the new law's most important gains.

(Source: New Woman Research Centre)

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