Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
1 - 7 June 2000
Issue No. 484
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Al-Ahram:

A Diwan of contemporary life (340)

makram
illustration: Makram Henin

The early decades of the 20th century saw radical changes in the status of Egyptian women and their rights. The 1919 nationalist revolution against British occupation brought women out of their home cloisters and into the streets to join protest demonstrations. It also led them to form associations and unions to champion their rights. And it gave them the courage to cry out against male domination and despotism. In 1924, a woman had the guts to complain to a friend about being forced to marry against her will. The friend, in turn, wrote to Al-Ahram about it and the newspaper duly published the letter. This was the opening shot in a debate that spilled into the following year over love, marriage and freedom of choice. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * spotlights the debate


Of love and marriage

On 18 October 1924, under the headline "Forced Marriage," Al-Ahram featured a letter that touched the hearts of the Egyptian people. Signed by "a young virgin," the letter broached an issue that came up frequently thereafter: the question of love and marriage. During the previous week, the author wrote, "a prominent Upper Egyptian family forcefully contracted their daughter in marriage to a cousin for whom she has no affection. Striking anguish into the young girl's heart, the family compelled her to accept that young man as her life's partner against her will, a fate to which she responded with tears of agony."

Up to this point, there is nothing out of the ordinary in this story, given the period and the place in which it occurred. In Upper Egypt, with its highly conservative traditions, the father had the absolute right to determine the fate of his children, in general, and daughters, in particular. Also, according to the conventions of the time, especially in the deepest reaches of southern Egypt, it was impossible for a daughter to act against the wishes of her father; such an audacious breach of accepted bounds merited the harshest penalties.

However, what was unusual in this story was that the girl in question dared to open her heart to the "young virgin" who, in turn, publicised her plight in Al-Ahram, in the hopes of arousing the sympathies of "heedful ears and mindful hearts." "As a young woman," she continued, "it is my duty to examine such incidents and to urge writers of both sexes to voice their views on the subject and to champion justice so that the realm of the gentle sex will no longer be subject to such storms that shake its foundations, usurp the rights of its people and cause the clouds of misery to hover over young women whom family cruelty casts into the abyss of wretchedness."

Unveiled women Veiled women
Left:Unveiled Egyptian women at fund-raising party in the early 1920s
Right: veiled women in anti-British demonstration

Before turning to the newspaper articles and commentaries that continued to appear in the press for many months following the publication of this letter, it is important to place the issue in its historical context.

While it is true that the author of the letter used a pseudonym, one suspects that she did so for fear of the repercussions that disclosing her identity would have upon her ill-fated confidante. Many other women did not have that consideration in mind and, therefore, readily identified themselves in their letters to Al-Ahram. The more outspoken responses from women on this issue reflected a growing assertiveness among Egyptian women that was in large measure a manifestation of the increasing participation of women in public life in the years following the 1919 revolution. The high-profile women's demonstrations during the revolution were widely hailed by the Egyptian public, a factor that lent considerable impetus to the women's movement with profound consequences for the status of women in Egypt. Epitomising this development was the creation of numerous feminist societies, notably the Egyptian Women's Union headed by the famous Hoda Sha'rawi, as well as the participation of an Egyptian women's delegation in the international women's conference held in Rome in May 1923.

These developments signalled the end of the "age of the harem." The system, which was characterised by the strict divide between the spheres of men and women, continued to prevail during the Ottoman era when it was manifested primarily among the Turkish aristocracy and the more affluent merchant and master artisan classes in Egyptian society. Over the course of a century and a quarter following the inception of the Mohamed Ali dynasty profound changes took effect in the Egyptian class structure. On the one hand, the Turkish aristocracy that had ruled Egypt before then began to dwindle both in size and in influence with the intermarriage between it and families of Egyptian rural notables and major landowners. Perhaps the marriage of Saad Zaghlul Bek, son of the mayor of Ibyana in Al-Gharabiya, and Safiya Mustafa Fahmi, the daughter of the most famous Egyptian prime minister before World War I, exemplifies this process of amalgamation, to the extent that this woman of aristocratic Turkish descent became the reputed "Mother of the Egyptian People" during the Egyptian revolution.

On the other hand, there emerged a new component of the Egyptian middle class alongside the heads of the merchant and artisan classes. This was the effendi class, consisting of the country's indigenous educated elite. The effendis were the product of the quantitative and qualitative changes in the modern schooling that was becoming increasingly available to Egyptians. In addition to the government schools that were introduced in the 19th century, by the advent of the next century, Islamic and Coptic philanthropic societies joined energetically in the field of education and a broad range of evangelical missions and foreign community schools also opened their doors to Egyptian children. In addition, many individuals founded privately operated schools whose status they sought to secure through accreditation from the Ministry of Education.

Women were to benefit significantly from this renaissance in education, whether through some of the government schools or through the foreign and community operated schools for girls founded at the time. In this way, education paved the way for the emergence of women from the confines of the harem.

Also indicative of the blurring of the line between the male and female realms was the evanescence of the old design of private homes. Traditionally, in the old upper class houses, the upper story was designated as the haramlek, for women, and the ground floor as the salamlek, for men. This feature eventually began to disappear until the space allocated to the haramlek vanished entirely. True, newer plans continued to provide for a special salon, generally located on the ground floor, for the reception of male guests. But it was not unusual for wives to use the same room to entertain their female guests.

In light of these developments, middle class women differed radically in social terms from their predecessors of a century before. It was only natural, as a consequence, that these changes would be attended by the spread of new ideas, foremost among which was that women had the right to choose their future husbands. Entertaining this notion in an earlier period would have subjected Egyptian women to the greatest ignominy and this was indicative of the radically different climate that prevailed at the appeal by the "young virgin" to Al-Ahram of 1924.

Veiled and unveiled women gathering
Veiled and unveiled women at memorial gathering for deceased nationalist leader Mustafa Kamel
Two Al-Ahram readers initiated the response to this letter, the first female, the second male. Describing herself as "a graduate of Washington University in the United States," the author of the first letter, as one might expect from her exposure to the more liberal climate in the US, was outraged by the plight of the young woman from Upper Egypt. To her, forced marriage was a "brutal" custom that "eroded family happiness." And, "with the decay of family bliss comes the deterioration of all order, the fruitlessness of all deeds and the inefficacy of education." She went on to say that many families would suffer considerable hardship because of the lack of proper education. She appealed to proponents of the educational revival, from both sexes, to work towards warding off those "shameful evils which stand in the way of an emerging nation that seeks to elevate itself to the ranks of advanced nations."

The male writer was much more conservative. Firstly, he drew a distinction between "ignorant" young women from rural Egypt, such as the subject of the letter, and educated women. Whereas the former were not enlightened enough to be able to distinguish what is good for them from what is bad, the latter should be consulted in all matters that concern her and, if necessary, should be given advice. Yet, even with the educated woman, the author continues to support the prevalence of parental authority, for if there is too great a disparity between the her opinion and that of her guardian, "the decision should be postponed and her opinion should not prevail."

Secondly, the male writer did not believe that love was a proper reason for marriage. He writes, "Frequently love is ephemeral sexual passion. After this subsides, the couple soon discover the true differences between them, whether in terms of physical attributes, education, age, financial well-being, family background, upbringing, colour, morals and sense of honour, or some or all of these combined. True love, on the other hand, is grounded in a harmony between the spouses in all, or at least some, of these facets."

Soon, a third party -- "Zakiya Mohamed, teacher at Al-Sharqiya University in Al-Hussein" -- contributed a new and original dimension to the discussion. There is a way, she writes, in which parents can determine whether or not a "shy" daughter consents to a prospective suitor. Consent is indicated in one of two ways. Either the daughter will remain silent or cry silently, silence being an indication of acceptance, or she will laugh or smile "without a suggestion of derision." Rejection, on the other hand, is indicated by loud crying or by a derisory laugh, the intent of which cannot be misinterpreted.

It was only natural that religious figures would enter the debate. One of these was Abdel-Baqi Abdel-Rahman of the School of Islamic Jurisprudence, whose lengthy article "Compulsory Marriage and Islamic Law" appeared in Al-Ahram on 29 November 1924. Abdel-Rahman said that he would respond to three questions concerning the issue at hand.

The first was whether a free, sane, adult woman had the right to marry herself off. Unfortunately, the opinions of the founders of the various schools of Islamic jurisprudence were at odds with one another. The Imam Abu Hanifa, for example, held that a woman could marry "without need for the approval or permission of a guardian whether she married a man of equal social status or not." According to the Malek and Al-Shafie schools, however, "the impetuosity of youth" rendered young women too rash to be able to decide upon an appropriate husband and the only person who could do so and who had the authority to compel her to do so was her guardian.

The second question was whether anyone had the right to force a rational, adult woman to marry under duress. Once again the imams differed. For the Shafie school, duress was justified because the underlying concept was "virginity and the virgin's ignorance of the affairs of marriage." For the Hanafi school the justification was either the "youthfulness" of the prospective spouses or their "senility" in the case of older people.

However, as to whether anyone had the right to compel a rational, adult woman to marry against her will, the answer was a categorical no. Abdel-Rahman wrote, "No one has the right to coerce a rational, adult woman to marry against her will. Should such an attempt be made, the legitimacy of the marriage is dependent upon her consent. Should she refuse, the marriage cannot be consummated. Should she consent, it shall be consummated. If she remains silent when asked by her guardian, the silence shall be construed as consent, even if the woman is reluctant."

In the midst of this debate, Al-Ahram reported the disturbing news that a young woman from Tanta chose to commit suicide by swallowing carbolic acid rather than submit to her father's demand that she marry her cousin. In a letter deploring the fate of the victim of this attempt at forced marriage, a writer from Tanta condemned the father for passing such a cruel sentence against his daughter after having "derived from his paternal rights a despotic authority that conforms neither with Islam nor with law." The writer goes on to exhort that such "cruel-hearted fathers who lack all compassion" be punished and that ways be explored "to put an end to their actions that lead to such distressing consequences and shameful tales of woe."

The tragedy in Tanta was at least in part responsible for the move to demand fundamental reforms to the marriage system in Egypt in general. The first to make such an appeal through the pages of Al-Ahram was "Shafiq Abu Hindi of the University of Manchester." Under the headline, "Our need for reform," Abu Hindi wrote, "We must turn independent thought, a clear mind and an unfettered sound conscience to the conduct of our affairs." Undoubtedly influenced by the British environment in which he was studying, he held that he could find no justification to prevent fiancés from meeting one another before their wedding. "If you do not meet with your intended spouse before the marriage, how can you ascertain that your natures our compatible?" he asks his readers.

Hoda Sha'rawi
Feminist leader Hoda Sha'rawi
with husband and daughters

Abu Hindi then turns to the highly contentious realm of the question of the veil. He says, "The absence of the veil, rather than tarnishing chastity, strengthens moral fortitude, whereas the veil weakens both chastity and moral fortitude." More surprising, he adds, "Western women and youth in general are more virtuous than we are by miles." On the basis that the intermingling of the sexes builds character, Abu Hindi appeals for an end to the segregation of the sexes. Undoubtedly to the horror of some of his readers, he finds no objection to the idea that a young man might find his bride-to-be in a ballroom. "If only we had that honourable spirit with which they dance in this country, for this practice brings forth the ultimate in virtue, rather than the inhuman and morally debasing veil. Contrary to our impression, ballrooms are not locations of depravity, and even universities and sometimes religious institutions sponsor dances."

The writer concludes his letter with a condemnation of the absolute freedom accorded to the oriental male in matters of divorce. He asks him, "Is it merciful that you should divorce your wife for no offense that she has committed and to wrest a child away from his mother for no legitimate reason except that this is what you desire? Would you think it wise, merciful or right were your (divorced) wife to marry a second spouse and put him in the same home where you live?"

Naturally, Abu Hindi's letter provoked a storm. Al-Ahram was flooded with letters from readers, notably by one from a student of the College of Medicine, Mahmoud Bahgat El-Tutungui, and a second from someone who signed herself anonymously as "a wronged and tormented woman."

El-Tutungui disagreed with the young University of Manchester student on several points. Firstly, he contended that secluding a woman in the home was not a form of subjugation, but rather necessary "to safeguard her honour and chastity." He also objected to Abu Hindi's generalisation regarding the liberties men took with regard to divorce. "This heinous offense (divorce)," he wrote, "is only perpetrated by ignorant, immoral men who have no conscience or sense of rectitude to restrain them. So put your mind to rest, for the day will come when the ignorant shall learn and knowledge shall reform the perpetrator of vice."

Finally, the young medical student took a curious stance on the issue of dancing. Dance per se was not a problem. Rather it was a beautiful art, so long as public morals were observed, which was perhaps the case abroad. In Egypt, however, he protests, "It abounds in disgraces. Imagine, by God, a young man who has so filled his stomach with all sorts of alcohol that he has lost his senses to his whims, and who then finds between his arms a slender beauty decked out in her best ballroom gown, revealing most of her physique -- I leave the rest to your imagination, my good sir."

The "wronged and tormented woman," in contrast, found Abu Hindi's article "a soothing balm for my heart that has long been rent by anguish and degradation." After having read his letter, she wrote, "I awoke from my slumber to the certainty that we have in our country intelligent men to defend the rights of women and lend a guiding hand to the oppressed."

Following this introduction, the writer told her story: "We are a family of average means. I was brought up by an honest and kind-hearted father and a mother who is highly competent in the management of domestic affairs and who has mastered French to the extent that she has become an instructor in that language. I completed my instruction in Arabic and household management at home. Then, just as I turned 18, fate suddenly turned my happiness into the misery that has remained my lot throughout the rest of my life."

Fate in her case manifested itself in the form of a young member of the family. "He appeared thoroughly well-mannered and of excellent character. His elderly mother was a pious woman who spent most of her time in prayer and her prayer beads never left her hand." After an initial period of marital bliss, however, the "pious" mother-in-law became her tormentor. Whereas once she said only "the sweetest words," today "I hear nothing but the most biting abuse, particularly that expression which she repeats endlessly, which is that 'a wife is akin to her husband's shoes, which he can put on or take off, or exchange for a new pair should he so wish."

It eventually came to light that the husband's family was not as well off as the tormented wife's and that he wanted her to intercede with her father in order to obtain more money for him and his mother. When she refused, her husband and mother-in-law insulted and degraded her without cause. Eventually, the husband divorced her, "leaving me with a young child and, for the rest of my life, the anguish of having to answer my son's tearful questions about a father who he only sees once every few months."

This sorrowful tale provoked many sympathetic responses, among which was a letter to Al-Ahram from a reader who simply signed himself, "M H." He said that there were many men who married frequently, taking advantage of the lenient marital codes under Islam. He recounted one instance of a person "who took between 50 and 70 wives, using every diabolical ruse to lure them into marriage, and the religious courts are still contending with the backlog of his astonishing cases. Were I to recount everything I heard about that brutish man, it would fill an enormous volume. However, my purpose here is simply to shed light on one of our most important social ills, in the hopes that Al-Ahram would give space to sociologists to discuss the subject."

However, as a self-appointed champion of traditional mores, El-Tutungui had little compassion for the "tormented woman's" plight. Indeed, it was his inclination to lay the fault at her doorstep. Firstly, she should have taken into consideration the fact that her mother-in-law was an elderly woman, "of declining mental faculties -- or 'senile' in the common parlance -- a condition that demands of one the indulgence one would show to a child." Secondly, before marrying she should not have contented herself with the hearsay that the husband was of good character and the mother a pious woman. Moreover, she should have considered the differences in the financial standing between her family and the family of her suitor, for "such differences are certain to lead to marital strife."

Rising to her defense was another reader, Toma Maqar, who felt that El-Tutungui's verdict was most unjust. The woman could hardly be blamed for failing to exercise good judgment in assessing the character of her future spouse when, "our oriental customs prohibit the intermingling of the sexes, under which circumstances the lot of a woman is hostage to the decisions of others."

To this, the young medical student had no rejoinder. At least this is what we understand from his brief message to Al-Ahram on 20 May in which he announced that he would temporarily withdraw from the debate on the grounds that year-end examinations were approaching!


Dr Yunan

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

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