Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 January 2004
Issue No. 672
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Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (528)

Lady lawyer

Dr Yunan Naima El-Ayoubi, Egypt's first female lawyer when the profession was an exclusively male preserve, was a champion among supporters and a Yunan Labib Rizk* constant source of irritation to her detractors. Professor shows how El-Ayoubi's battle to win respectability guided other women as they fought for other rights

Miss Naima El-Ayoubi
Miss Naima El-Ayoubi
Peering out of the front page of Al-Ahram of 16 June 1933 was the finely sculptured face typical of a young Egyptian woman. The caption read: "Miss Naima El-Ayoubi, the first Egyptian woman to receive a bachelor's degree from the Faculty of Law since the founding of this college. Naima, the daughter of the prominent historian, the late Elias El-Ayoubi, ranked 13 out of the many students who passed the examination and graduated with honours."

Contemporary supporters of women's rights must have cheered when they read the news that morning, all the more so when they recalled the bitter battle El-Ayoubi had to fight in order to be accepted into that venerable faculty. Although in that same year, several other women managed to enter the faculties of science (eight), humanities (three), and medicine (four), Naima was the only female in the Faculty of Law.

Conservatives who read the news that morning would have undoubtedly shook their head and wondered what that audacious young woman would be up to next. They did not have long to wait. The following day Al-Ahram announced, "Ustaza Naima El-Ayoubi receives a warm welcome in the courts." "Ustaza" (professor), whereas only the day before she had been "Miss". The import of the new title and what it signified with regard to the young woman's career would not have been lost on conservatives. And, sure enough, the article accompanying the headline bore out their fears:

"The Honourable Professor of Law, Miss Naima El- Ayoubi, graduate of the Faculty of Law, visited the Probate Court of Egypt. She was accompanied by Ibrahim Abul- Einein. She then visited the lawyers chambers in the Court of Appeals and the Religious Court, where she was presented to her fellow lawyers by Abdallah Hussein. The lawyers welcomed her as the first Egyptian woman to become their colleague in this noble profession, the profession of law. She told them, 'I will only accept cases in which I defend victims of wrongdoing and injustice. I will dedicate my life to the service of the profession that I have longed to follow since I was a child and since I saw how my late uncle cherished his lawyer's robe above all else.'

"The lawyers were delighted that she had adopted this noble cause -- which symbolises the integrity of their profession, as her banner and welcomed her with open arms -- and with great admiration as a new and respected colleague.

"Later this week, El-Ayoubi will apply to the Court of Appeals to have her name entered in the register of public prosecutors. She will present a similar application to the Bar Association of the Religious Courts upon her return from her summer holiday in Alexandria, her native home.

"Professor Naima was educated in the Muharam Bek Primary School in Alexandria and then the Secondary School for Girls in Al-Helmiya Al-Gadida in Cairo, after which she was admitted in the Egyptian University. At the end of year exams in her first year at the Faculty of Law she was first in her entire class. Shortly before her recent licentiate examination she had fallen ill. However, she fought to recover and passed the exam with astounding success."

It is clear from the tone of the article that Al-Ahram was a supporter of El-Ayoubi and the cause she stood for -- a career that until then had been an exclusively a male preserve. At the same time, this profession had undergone many changes in modern Egyptian history. For one, it had not always enjoyed the prestige it had by the time the first Egyptian woman joined the bar. At the time of Mohamed Ali, lawyers were commonly referred to as "frauds". Although as the 19th century progressed they acquired somewhat more respectable titles, such as proxy or petition writer, they still did not require an academic certificate to qualify for practice.

It was not until the Egyptian judicial system grew more complex, with the establishment of the Mixed Courts in 1876 and, subsequently, of the National Courts, that codes were introduced to regulate the legal profession. The first of these laws, promulgated in 1888, was the first to use the term "lawyer". Five years later, a second law was introduced, stipulating for the first time that practitioners of law had to obtain a degree of law either from Egypt or abroad. Clearly, the lawmakers did not have women in mind when drawing up the provisions concerning lawyers' rights and duties, fees, confidentiality and all other matters pertaining to the ethics of their profession.

The prestige of the profession was given another boost with the establishment of the School of Law, which in 1925 was incorporated into the Egyptian University. Destined to be attended by the sons of the rural and urban elite, the school became the "incubator" for producing senior government officials, not to mention prominent politicians, as is evident from a lengthy list of illustrious names: Mustafa Kamel, Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed, Saad Zaghlul, Mustafa El-Nahhas, Makram Ebeid and Ismail Sidqi. To many of these and to other educated people at the time, women could become teachers, nurses and even physicians and civil servants, but it was unthinkable that they could become government ministers or political leaders.

El-Ayoubi, thus, had to wage an uphill battle on several levels. Apart from the conservative opposition to women in public life, in general, she had to fight the commonly held perception that the practice of law was an inherently male profession. Dealing with all sorts of litigants, wrangling in the courtroom, haggling in back chambers, speeding off memoranda, running after fees and the like were considered not only unwomanly but also beyond the capacities of a woman. Making matters worse for El-Ayoubi was the economic crisis that gripped the country in the 1930s. Law was one of the professions to have been hit hardest by unemployment. Jobs in the government were being cut back and lawyers' offices were empty. The last thing they needed were women to crowd them out of their jobs.

Perhaps it was these considerations that inspired El- Ayoubi's courtesy visits to the lawyers' chambers in the probate and religious courts and her statement emphasising her intention to concentrate on personal status cases. Nevertheless, that happy occasion would not be the end of her battles and the controversy surrounding her career choice.

Fortunately, she had on her side Abdallah Hussein who had presented her to her new colleagues. Hussein, a lawyer, also happened to be one of Al-Ahram's most prominent columnists and it was only natural that he avail himself of this forum to defend her right, and the right of women in general, to embark on careers that had been until then restricted to men. On 24 June, under the headline, "Naima El-Ayoubi's victory and the role of women in the service of humanity," he asks, "Is it in the interests of humanity that women work alongside men in jobs and positions that, 50 years ago, were considered to be fields of specialisation for men only? Is a woman's mission in life to be just a wife and mother? Is her sole function in the world to manage the affairs of the home, to cook, to bear children and to nurse and raise them? Is she not to work in factories, stand behind shop counters, or sit at office desks? Should she not become a doctor, journalist, lawyer, pharmacist, or engage in public affairs through political activity, the ballot box, government and the civil service? Is it in the interest of humanity that women pursue an occupation through which they can earn a living, without engaging in politics, or is it not in the interest of humanity that women share with men all rights and duties in work and in public affairs?"

It is not difficult to determine on which side of these questions, which would have preoccupied all of Egyptian society, Hussein lay. But he is careful to couch his support in a manner that reassures the public and lawyers in particular. The employment of women as lawyers, he says, "should not be regarded as competition, but rather as a laurel bestowed on the profession and a pearl in the crown of Egyptian womanhood... That this, in the far distant future -- more than 30 years from now -- will bring Egyptian women into competition with Egyptian men over the same jobs and positions is a matter of pure speculation."

Perhaps Hussein could not have predicted the extent to which El-Ayoubi's precedent opened the floodgates. By the end of the 1940s, many more women inspired by her example had made their mark in a career of law. Prominent among these were Mufida Abdel-Rahman and Tahani El-Gabali, Egypt's first female judge. Nor did this put an end to qualms over the prospect of women rivalling men in the same career. Indeed, the issue eventually gave rise to a film: Ustaza Fatma, starring Fatin Hamama and Kamel El-Shennawi, in which wife and husband, both lawyers, battle it out in the courtroom and at home.

To Hussein, who wrote long before the film came out, such qualms, if not baseless, were of secondary importance. He perceived women's right to work in the same careers as men as an important part of the process of progress. As he put it, "The rise of the status of women today is a reflection of the rise of the status of men. Knowledge, just as electricity or even an epidemic, cannot be prevented from spreading among all people. This is what has occurred in Egypt. The intellectual revival began with men who, after having become educated, realised that they cannot live with ignorant women and, therefore, must educate them." Thus, contrary to the belief of some, there was no cause to believe that by engaging in the professions of men, women would be unable to have a happy marriage or that they would somehow become unsuitable for marital life. Meanwhile, society only stood to benefit from their contributions. He thus concludes, "Certainly, we should not tell those intelligent and talented women who have so much to offer humanity, to which testify many illustrious examples in history, 'Go back to your homes and deprive mankind of your genius!'"

With this, the Al- Ahram columnist fired the opening salvo in a new round in that protracted war over women's rights. The first counteroffensive was not long in coming. On 28 June 1933, the newspaper blazoned, "The role of Egyptian women under scrutiny". The author, Khatab Attiya, appears at first to support a woman's right to work but soon reveals himself to believe only in the need to educate women, not employ them. "Should women participate as peers in the jobs of men or should they leave that field to men alone and dedicate their full time and energies to that fundamental mission for which nature has equipped them and their qualifications for which is above question?" He follows with another question that betrays his position: "Should a woman leave her home to go to work every morning, delegating her responsibilities for the management of the home and the raising of her children to a maid or servant?"

Clearly it was one thing to educate women to become good mothers, competent homemakers and loyal wives, and quite another to train them for jobs that would take them away from the home. "Women," Attiya declares, "were created to build families, which are the building blocks of society. If these blocks begin to fall, the entire edifice of the nation will crumble!"

It was precisely such opinions that provoked the ire of women's rights advocates, one of whom was Hussein Afif whose letter-to-the-editor airs convictions at odds with the prevalent attitudes of the time. Afif offers a sociological viewpoint that complements Hussein's appeal. Social freedom emanates from economic freedom, which includes the right to work and produce, he maintains, and goes on to argue, "Preventing women from earning a living forces them to rely on men for their economic needs. This renders women economic slaves and economic enslavement leads to social enslavement because a person's moral status is but the shadow of his material status -- whatever jeopardises the latter undermines the former." To this surprising argument he adds a second: "There are no grounds for maintaining that by not restricting a woman's freedom to work we restrict men's freedom, as represented in his commitment to support her. For that very commitment is also a form of enslavement, of men to women, in this case, as long as expenditure is one-sided and presumed to meet the demands of the other side. Moreover, this commitment, in effect, is but the prelude to usurping the freedom of women."

Before concluding his article Afif pauses to refute the commonly cited objection that sanctioning the right of women to work would aggravate unemployment. "Unemployment is not the product of an oversupply of labour. Rather, it is the consequence of the failure to organise mechanised production in a manner that benefits all mankind instead of certain groups to the exclusion of others... Let us suppose that women's entrance into the workplace does indeed begin to crowd us out. What right do men have to encumber women with burdens, of whatever nature, so that we can benefit from her suffering? What flagrant egotism, what shameless purposes are accomplished by such an act?"

Such arguments, however, did little to silence El-Ayoubi's critics and opponents to the right of women to work in general, and they were many. Not least of these was Prince Omar Touson who put all his social and political weight behind keeping women in the home. Women are meant for motherhood and nothing else, Prince Omar wrote in an article to Al-Ahram. "It is unwise for women to enter the field of employment and engage in occupations in which there are already too many men, thereby exacerbating the already existing complexities," he declared. He even went so far as to suggest that men who married working women did so in order not to have to work themselves.

The prince's opinion was echoed by an Al-Ahram reader, Felix Faris, under the headline, "The employment of women in the East." "It is wonderful to see women become educated and cultured, for there is nothing more repulsive than ignorance and turpitude in women. However, I do not understand why women think that education and refinement must compel them to work outside the home, when these qualities can be put to greater service to them and their society within the realm of the family, which however narrow physically is far broader in moral scope for the exercise of lofty talents than even the most expansive fields of this errant modernisation."

There were even a number of women opposed to female employment. One was Naima El-Maghrabi, the title of whose letter-to-the-editor sums up her position: "Oriental women, handle your honour with care!"

But in this round of the battle, the opponents to the right of women to work would not have the last word, at least on the pages of Al-Ahram. Indicative of the newspaper's position was the space it accorded to two more writers, one a noted geographer, Abbas Mustafa Ammar, the other a feminist, Zeinab El-Hakim. Each contributed two articles.

The titles of Ammar's articles -- "The role and education of women: freedom versus restriction," and "Women's role in life obstructed by male egotism" -- indicate the direction his arguments would take. Ammar opens his first article with a discussion of a book he had recently read: Woman and the New Sex, by the American birth control advocate Margaret Sanger. So enthralled was he by the ideas in Sanger's book that he was unable to put it down until he reached the last page, even though "it was marred by an element of fanaticism."

That fanaticism, however, did not prevent Ammar from subscribing to many of Sanger's views such as the notion that women were not meant solely to become good wives and mothers. However, in order to pitch his argument to a local audience, he takes as his starting point what was then considered a grave social problem, the drop in the marriage rate, then commonly referred to as the "marriage crisis". He asks rhetorically, "Has marriage suddenly become easier? If the numbers of unmarried women are high, a problem exacerbated by economic and social necessities, then by what notion of justice should men be favoured at the expense of women and what right should we allow our selfishness to close off the avenues of advancement for our daughters so that we can open the prospects for our sons?" He further found it difficult to believe that at a time when millions of women were unable to marry and could not, therefore, benefit society as mothers, "we then stand in their way to entering the labour force alongside men and earning a livelihood."

In his second article, Ammar abandons the more politic approach based on the marriage crisis and heads straight for the jugular. The opposition to a woman's right to work was motivated by men's greed, he charged. To drive the point home, he attacked the fascist and Nazi regimes in Italy and Germany, both of which moved to bar women from certain occupations, an action that was regrettably seized upon by some people in Egypt in order to support their opposition to the right of women to work. Then, taking another tack, Ammar suggests that perhaps the opinion of women on this issue should be solicited. Women, he said, should hold men responsible for whatever physical or mental weakness should afflict them. After all, "biology tells us that the female in the animal kingdom is stronger and more courageous than the male... Were the human female left free and unencumbered by the tyranny of the male perhaps she, too, would emerge stronger than he!"

The importance of Zeinab El-Hakim's articles resides in the fact that here was a woman speaking on behalf of herself without the intermediary of a man, however sympathetic. At the same time they were less impassioned than most of the articles written by men. She opens with Plato's dictum that there was no form of work in society that was exclusively male or female because nature created men and women to be equal. "Therefore," she writes, "women should have the right to engage in any job that men do, even though she is physically weaker."

El-Hakim goes on to cite other sages and literary luminaries. Paraphrasing she listed people like Gandhi: "I believe in the principle of equality between men and women;" Tolstoy: "A man may boast of producing a son but he cannot boast of nursing it;" Voltaire: "A woman is indeed to be praised for her ability to bear the injustices wrought upon her by man and for her fortitude in the face of her stolen rights."

Such thoughts led her to ponder, in her second article, the absurdities of man's determination to dominate women. "Were we to regard masculinity as an art then one of the greatest flaws of this art is its self-centredness. If man does not facilitate life for the world and its creatures he cannot even begin to understand its secrets. Were we to regard femininity as an art then its greatest flaw is the stunting and restraint of its creative impulse. If you think that the advancement of women a novelty bordering on heresy, forget not that this novelty is a precondition for progress."

As for the way to promote the advancement of women, El- Hakim advises, "Just clear the way and a woman will blossom by herself and her sun will shine after its long eclipse, which had cast its shadow over the earth. Let her walk where strongest inclinations lead her; let her choose for herself and you will see many more of the likes of Madame Curie and the many others whose names I need not mention, especially the names of the Egyptian women who are there in the field before you."

El-Hakim's appeal could have been a manifesto for the liberation of Egyptian women. In all events, it sounded the end of the battle of Naima El-Ayoubi, even if the war over women's rights continued and, indeed, is still being fought today.

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

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