Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
11 - 17 May 2000
Issue No. 481
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A Diwan of contemporary life (337)

The feminist movement in modern Egypt was baptised by fire in the 1919 revolution. Women took to the streets, joining men in demonstrations for freedom and coming under fire from British occupation forces. A pioneer in the emancipation of women at the beginning of this century was Hoda Sha'rawi, who turned her back on her aristocratic status and plunged into national action, forming several feminist societies and leading the feminist wing of the 1919 revolution. She and two other feminist leaders made up Egypt's delegation to the 9th International Feminist Conference in Rome in May, 1923, marking the Egyptian woman's debut on the world scene. At that meeting, the three women took off their veils and never put them back on even after returning home. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * tells the story from the pages of Al-Ahram

Egyptian women make their mark

1919 revolution Women demonstrating in 1919 revolution
On the morning of 4 May 1923, Hoda Sha'rawi, Nabawiya Moussa and Ceza Nabarawi, three leaders of the Egyptian feminist movement, set sail from Alexandria on the SS Helwan bound for Rome where they would represent Egypt in the International Feminist Conference. This was to be the ninth session of this conference, but the first in which Egypt would participate. This participation was one of the direct outcomes of the active role women played in the Egyptian revolution of 1919. In fact, Hoda Sha'rawi was the chairperson of the Women's Central Wafd Committee that organised anti-British protests and led the boycott against British products in 1922. On this occasion, however, she was travelling to Rome in her capacity as the chairwoman of the Egyptian Feminist Union that had been formed earlier.

During the two months preceding the departure of this delegation, their participation in the International Feminist Conference was the focus of heated debate. Although the majority of opinion did not oppose the participation of Hoda Sha'rawi and her colleagues in this conference, views clashed over their role at the conference whose agenda included many issues deemed inappropriate for Egyptian women.

Naturally, Al-Ahram was keen to follow this development in the history of the Egyptian feminist movement. Its first announcement regarding Egypt's participation in the international women's conference in Rome appeared in its edition of 2 March 1923. Unfortunately, on this occasion, the newspaper did not verify its facts, for it reported that Hoda Sha'rawi and her daughter would represent Egyptian women and that the conference was to discuss women's suffrage.

But, even before the newspaper could set the record straight, an Al-Ahram reader, signing himself Selim Youssef, wrote in to applaud the news. "Could anyone who loves their country aspire to a greater way to defend the reputation of our country abroad and to draw the attention of Europe, indeed the entire world, both to the deep historical roots of our civilisation and to the noble actions Egyptian women have undertaken recently in keeping with their ardent spirit of patriotism and lofty principles?" The reader was also a great admirer of Hoda Sha'rawi, whom he described as "a staunch patriot, an astute politician in the broadest sense of the word, and ever vigilant to preserve and promote the interests of our nation."

On Friday, 16 March, in the home of Hoda Sha'rawi, located at 2 Qasr Al-Nil Street, the Permanent Committee of Egyptian Women was formed. The committee consisted of 24 members, of whom five were elected to represent Egypt in the conference. In addition to Hoda Sha'rawi, who, of course, was elected as head of the delegation, the team included Nabawiya Moussa, Esther Fahmi, Wahida Khulusi and Ceza Nabarawi. The formation of this committee coincided with the first news Egyptians heard about the substance of the conference. Featuring prominently on the agenda were: equality between men and women at work, unified moral standards and equality in education, the nationality of the wife and her autonomy with respect to her husband, women's economic status, illegitimate children and, finally, women and political parties.

Ceza Nabarawi and Huda Sha'rawi
Nabawiya Moussa
Munira Thabet
From top to bottom:
Ceza Nabarawi(l) and Hoda Sha'rawi at the conference; Nabawiya Moussa; Munira Thabet and nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul

At first it appeared that the delegation's preparations for presenting itself in Rome would proceed smoothly, but criticism surfaced from the least expected quarters. Munira Thabet, a prominent if contentious feminist figure from Alexandria, turned the tables against the women who met at 2 Qasr Al-Nil Street. In a lengthy article to Al-Ahram, entitled, "On the International Women's Conference: A preface to a reckoning," the obviously irate writer reproaches the leaders of the Permanent Committee of Egyptian Women. The forthcoming conference in Rome, she writes, is the ninth of its type. "Where were the Egyptian women who formed the Egyptian Feminist Union during the conference's last eight sessions? What have our great feminist leaders been doing over the past nine years? What are the causes of this negligence on the part of Egyptian women, particularly those who have assumed the leadership of the Egyptian feminist movement?"

It was obvious to readers then that the target of this broadside was Hoda Sha'rawi. The reason for Munira Thabet's anger becomes obvious later in the same article. Apparently she felt that those "leaders" had failed to back her in her recent campaign to pressure the Constitutional Commission into including provisions in the national constitution it was drafting guaranteeing the right of women to stand for membership in parliament. As a result, all she received for her efforts was "clamour of resentment and censure from men, as well as from some women. And how much more it pained me to see women standing against me, maligning my efforts."

Munira Thabet was also offended that she had not been invited to attend the meeting at Hoda Sha'rawi's house. As a result, she had decided to place herself in the position of an objective observer who would "discuss the decisions of the committee and monitor the activities of its delegation closely."

The response of the feminist leaders followed quickly. Less than a week later, Al-Ahram featured an article by Nabawiya Moussa, who explained that the reason "our younger sister," as she referred to Thabet, had not been invited to attend the committee meeting in Cairo was because she was too young. Moussa went on to explain that "our younger sister" was wrong to imagine that the conference in Rome was only going to discuss women's right to suffrage and to run for parliament. Rather, it was being convened to deliberate a much broader range of issues affecting every aspect of the status of women, including their right to a proper education and to become equipped for the practical side of life in its fullest sense."

Moussa's article in Al-Ahram may have been written at the behest, or at least with the approval of, Hoda Sha'rawi, for she goes on to say that Sha'rawi "views Munira much as a wise and sensible mother views a young son that has just thrown a tantrum." While Sha'rawi liked Thabet's writings, she refused to assist her in her campaign for the right of women to stand for election to the new parliament because "this is impossible to implement at the present time." Moreover, Sha'rawi "is concerned with a far more important and pressing issue, which is to ensure that young women receive a proper education, an indispensable first step towards qualifying women for parliamentary membership." At the same time, Moussa suggests, no aspersions can be cast against Sha'rawi's commitment to women's issues. It was she who founded the Mohamed Ali Philanthropic Society and the Society of the New Woman and lent all possible assistance to the Society for the Advancement of Young Egyptian Women. Moussa nevertheless extended Thabet an invitation to attend the next meeting of the Permanent Committee of Egyptian Women.

Thabet took great offense at the condescending tone of Moussa's letter. In a subsequent letter to Al-Ahram, she vehemently protested at being treated like a child and at the frequent intimations that she was akin to one of Moussa's students. At the same time, she reaffirmed her commitment to her cause, signing her letter as "the advocate of women's right to suffrage."

As the date for the delegation's departure for Rome approached, the debate took a different turn. In Al-Ahram of 29 March, a reader from Mansoura called Hasana Mahmoud Nigmeddin opened the discussion on the agenda of the conference.

Taking several points of the agenda in turn, she addressed first the "nationality of the wife and her autonomy with respect to her husband." To Hasana, this was an issue that entailed a certain amount of discretion. A woman's commitment to marital life, she wrote, was a job in and of itself. If a wife were fully dedicated to the performance of the duties incumbent upon her, she would not have time to pursue another job, she argued. On the other hand, she said, there were poor women "who seek employment in order to help their husbands meet the costs of living, and there is no denying that they are the most honourable and noble of women." At the same time, some educated women volunteered their services to help educate the children of the poor, and yet "are the worthiest mothers." But she took exception to those women "who seek employment in order to become financially independent from their husbands and in order to escape the drudgery of household work." These women constituted "a threat to the fabric of the family that must be combated and not encouraged. In fact, it is better that such women do not marry at all."

Hasana turns next to women's economic status. She admits that women occupy "the lowest rung" in the economic ladder. The reason she cites for this is that Egyptian women "have only copied from the manifestations of Western urbanity those aspects pertaining to the accoutrements of elegance and adornment, the consequence of which is that all money that comes into their hands is squandered in that bottomless pit of fashion." Simultaneously, Egyptian women engage far more servants than their economic means permit. Finally, "they lack an awareness of financial affairs, which render them vulnerable at every turn to covetous designs on their wealth should they possess wealth, or to attempts to cheat them out of their wages should they be working women."

Hasana's views on "illegitimate children" reflected the general run of Egyptian opinion on this subject at the time. A woman who bears an illegitimate child "does not merit mercy and it is thus dishonourable to show her compassion by conferring equitable treatment to her child." The writer confesses that this judgement is harsh as it makes the child the victim of its mother's mistake. However, to act otherwise would be "to encourage women to give up their chastity and thus disgracefully tamper with religious strictures." Hasana urged the Egyptian women's delegation to avoid discussing this item on the conference's agenda.

Finally, on the issue of "women and political parties," Hasana sided with the opinion of Nabawiya Moussa that priority should be given to educational reform as a precondition for equipping women to engage in public life. She adds, "Even if we grant that there are women capable of serving in parliament, the question is: where among the uneducated women of the villages and towns of rural Egypt at present can we find women capable of even grasping the meaning of the electoral process?"

Shortly before its departure for Rome the delegation underwent certain changes in its composition and aims. Firstly, it was decided to restrict the delegation to three: Hoda Sha'rawi, Nabawiya Moussa and Ceza Nabarawi. Hoda Sha'rawi was a wealthy descendant of a long established prominent family. She began her career in social reform in 1909, establishing a number of philanthropic and feminist associations. She was particularly famous for her role in organising the women's protest movement during the 1919 revolution and afterwards. The first Egyptian woman to obtain the baccalaureate degree, Nabawiya Moussa dedicated her career to educational reform and the spread of female education, occupying positions in this domain that had formerly been the preserve of British women. Finally, Ceza Nabarawi spent 10 of her formative years in France, giving her intensive exposure to Western culture and liberalism. She was one of the founders of the Egyptian Feminist Union.

This three-member Egyptian women's delegation to Rome readily bowed to demands to adopt an agenda of their own that conformed with the particular needs of women in Egypt and not to lend themselves to those contentious issues on the conference's agenda that were considered "alien to our customs and traditions." Thus, the Egyptian women's agenda included two items involving education: "improving women's intellectual and moral awareness and equal treatment for women wishing to pursue higher academic degrees. It also included several points related to marriage: "reforming the mode of engagement to enable prospective spouses to acquaint themselves with one another prior to the marital contract; reforming the laws pertaining to the conjugal relationship to bring it into closer conformity with the spirit of Islam; and the promulgation of a law prohibiting the marriage of girls below the age of 16." Finally, it included three points of a social nature -- "exploring all means to improve the health of the people, combating superstition and myth and, lastly, promoting virtue and combating vice."

At first glance, the agenda appears so general and heavily oriented to domestic conditions that it could hardly be brought to the conference hall in Rome. But then, as the Permanent Committee of Egyptian Women announced on the occasion of the departure of the delegation, "the major purpose of this trip is to dispel the notion prevalent in Europe that Egyptian women are still adrift in idleness, confined to the home and with no role to play in public affairs." However, from two memorandums issued by the delegation following its arrival in Rome, it would appear that the women decided to alter their plan of action and to present to the conference studies, firstly, on topics of interest to Egyptian women and, secondly, on "the status of Egyptian women from the age of Mohamed Ali and the status of Arab women prior to that."

Following the departure of the delegation on 4 May, Nabawiya Moussa dispatched to Al-Ahram a brief report on their trip. She wrote that the delegation received a warm welcome at every phase of their journey: on board the ship which raised the Egyptian flag to salute them, in Brindisi where they were greeted by a group of Egyptian students singing national anthems and finally in the conference centre itself. One of Moussa's reports conveyed the impression that the women were encountering difficulties because of their veils, for Al-Ahram commented that "they are contemplating changing the way they dress so as not to draw attraction to themselves everywhere." According to a study by Gaber Asfur, published in the Gulf newspaper Al-Bayan, contrary to the commonly held belief, Egyptian women did not remove their veils during the protest demonstrations in 1919. Rather, he said, the precedent was set by the three women who travelled to Rome in 1923, when, after having removed their veils, they refused to don them again following their return to Egypt, inspiring other women to do likewise.

Nothing serves better to describe the activities of the Egyptian women's delegation in Rome than the account of Nabawiya Moussa published in Al-Ahram on 25 May 1923. She wrote, "The delegation arrived in Rome on 7 May and headed directly to the conference headquarters. The headquarters were located in an elegant building converted by the government into a exhibition for the display of masterpieces in art and sculpture. The conference was to take place in the bottom floor of this building, which had been prepared for that purpose. When we entered the conference room, we saw women of many diverse nationalities and soon learned that 40 nations were to be represented in the conference. The women there were surprised to learn that we were Egyptian because they had imagined that Egyptian women would appear different. They also were under the impression that our delegation would be inferior to the Indian delegation that attended the conference last year and expressed no opinions whatsoever on the issues discussed."

During the opening ceremonies of the conference, the chairwoman remarked upon the flag brought by the Egyptian delegation and asked whether Egypt had adopted a new flag. Hoda Sha'rawi told her that the flag, which featured a crescent in the centre of which was a cross and had been the emblem of the 1919 Revolution, was "our national flag." The chairwoman was impressed and "praised the spirit of harmony that prevails in Egypt." Moussa went on to comment, "Apparently they had believed that Egyptians were given to religious intolerance. We found proof of this in the fact that when one of the conference participants approached to speak with us, her first question was, 'What is the difference between Copts and Muslims in Egypt?' We told her that the Copts believe in Christianity and the Muslims believe in Islam, that both Copts and Muslims are free in the practice of their beliefs, but that all are bound by a common loyalty to their country."

The activities of the conference began on 12 May. Four committees were created to deal with various items of the agenda and the Egyptian delegation chose to join that which discussed the economic status of women. In this committee, Moussa relates, "The Egyptian delegation proved so effective that the committee approved virtually every recommendation for reform we proposed." A memorandum submitted to the committee by the Egyptian delegation read: "Before women can demand their political rights, we must work to improve their economic circumstances, thereby endowing them with the autonomy to hold their own opinions and beliefs on political affairs. Therefore, our primary objective is to enable Egyptian women to better their economic circumstances by securing for them the right to receive the same education as men."

The memorandum went on to contend that the education of women in Egypt encountered many obstacles, and singled out the British for special censure in this regard. Moussa recalls, "Although I felt that this memorandum would not meet with the approval of all participants, I felt obliged to mention the obstacles the British government has placed in the face of the advancement of women's education in Egypt. However, I am convinced that the large Anglo-Saxon contingent in the conference will be moved by good intentions and foresight to recognise that our assertions are based on the truth."

The following day, the chairwoman singled out the Egyptian delegation for special praise, saying "We particularly welcome the delegation coming from Egypt, that marvellous land that in ancient times brought forth great queens and women commanders of armies famous the world over. It is no wonder, therefore, that we should see among us today such heroines championing the cause of freedom and equality in civil and political affairs for the women of the new Egypt."

On Monday 28 May 1923, the ship bearing Hoda Sha'rawi and Ceza Nabarawi entered the port of Alexandria. Nabawiya Moussa had returned to Egypt earlier in order to make arrangements for their reception. That an Al-Ahram correspondent was present to cover their arrival is sufficient to illustrate the significance of the occasion. But perhaps the most appropriate welcome home to Egypt's first delegation to an international women's conference was that voiced by an Al-Ahram reader who wrote to the newspaper praising Hoda Sha'rawi and her colleagues for their courage and concluded with the prayer: "May God spare Egypt the evils of obstinacy and mental stagnation, the ills that plague all efforts at reform."

Dr Yunan

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

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