Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1361, (21 - 27 September 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1361, (21 - 27 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Sex after industry

The Egyptian-American scholar Hanan Hammad told Rania Khallaf about women, the working class and the history of industry in Egypt

Sex after industry

The winner of a Sara A. Whaley Book Prize and an Arab American Book Award, Hanan Hammad’s Industrial Sexuality: Gender, Urbanization, and Social Transformation in Egypt traces the story of industrialisation and its effects on women in the factory town of Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra, the centre of the textiles industry in Egypt — where the author herself was born and grew up. It interacts with and responds to such recent studies as Egypt as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender, and Politics (2007) by Beth Baron, Workers and Peasants in the Modern Middle East (2001) by Joel Beinin and Women in Nineteenth-Century Egypt (1985) by Judith E Tucker.

A historian at Texas Christian University, Hammad earned her PhD at the University of Texas at Austin in 2009, and has since made remarkable contributions to the study of sexual and popular culture in Egypt. In Industrial Sexuality, her first book, Hammad explores sexuality, labour and gender during the transition from agricultural to industrial life after the 1919 Revolution, when the bourgeoisie established towns like Al-Mahalla — building up to the great strike of 1947. She emphasises an interesting bout of violence when conflict erupted between the original residents, the Mahallaweya and the factory workers, the Sharqaweya. She also discusses the status of women workers, who were paid less than men even when they were just as skilled at using the new machinery, and how the new living arrangements — reconfiguring private space — gave way to harassment and child abuse as well as extramarital sex and homosexuality, all of which Hammad writes into the 1947 strike.

“Moving aimlessly among the run-down desks at Al-Ahaly, my newspaper in Cairo,” the author said over e-mail, “many years ago, I found an abandoned copy of Fikri Al-Khuli’s memoir Al-Rihla, “The Journey”, in a pile of dusty publications. The publisher apparently had sent a copy to my leftist weekly, but nobody cared to read that unusual book on a child-worker in the largest textile factory in modern Egypt. The free book became my legitimate property.

“Al-Khuli’s story about his childhood in my hometown was like nothing I had ever heard of or read before. It is a lively depiction of the horrific work conditions at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company [MSWC] in the late 1920s. As a journalist with a keen interest in labour issues, I had never thought of the MSWC’s past except as a great contribution to Egyptian nationalist achievements.

“Growing up in Al-Mahalla engendered in me and in many others who attended public schools there a sense of national pride that our town successfully fought the British occupation through good work and an independent economy based, in part, on the success of ‘the Company’. Thanks to Al-Khuli’s book, I started to dig into the past. I was shocked to discover that all the old people of my hometown knew about the horrific years of the successful Company, but had chosen to forget. Their stories about the bitter rivalries between the people of the town and the workers never made it into the national memory. The nationalist narratives, as told through school books, official media and local and national exhibits, have glorified only the nationalist industrial capitalists, particularly the founder of the Company, Talaat Harb Pasha, and Bank Misr. The erased stories of thousands of nameless workers became a personal and professional obsession throughout my career covering labour movements; I collected oral histories of workers in Alexandria, Kafr Al-Dawwar, Al-Mahalla, Tanta and everywhere I visited.

“Years later, while I was choosing a topic for my dissertation to finish my PhD in the University of Texas, Austin I decided to write the social history of industrialisation in Al-Mahalla as a research topic. The study focuses on the period between the establishment in 1920 of Bank Misr, which was a driving force in the rise of large industry, and the eve of the 1952 revolution, when the regime introduced drastic changes to policies pertaining to gender, labour and urban planning. Like many towns with large factories throughout the study period, Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra changed dramatically with the establishment of the largest and most successful Egyptian textile factory (MSWC), in 1927. The rapid growth of the MSWC’s workforce and the simultaneous shift of Al-Mahalla’s handloom workshops to mechanical looms accelerated the proletarianisation of the town’s population.

Sex after industry

“The other significance of this period of time goes beyond my research. Currently, Egyptians look back to that period with great deal of nostalgia. TV shows and liberal discourses celebrate this period when Egypt had a king, “civilised” pashas and liberated women, etc. These celebrated images are very far from reality as lived by the majority of working-class Egyptians, as my study showed. Nostalgic illusion about that period ignores the limited independence Egypt had during that period and how working-class men and women worked for 13 hours a day for payment that was not enough for sufficient healthy nutrition and many of them suffered TB and malnutrition. The illusive images of this period depict the urban spaces as more civil and women enjoying more respect in public spaces. While this was true for upper-class women, many female workers faced sexual harassment in and out of work places. So, I think critically studying this period can help us understand the roots of many contemporary issues in Egyptian society based on a realistic assessment rather than illusive, nostalgic and fabricated images. 

“I have published scholarly articles that treat the same issues in later periods. My latest publication, an article entitled ‘Sexual Harassment in Egypt: The Old Plague in the New Revolutionary Order’, could be taken as a continuing chapter of the book. It traces sexual harassment throughout the twentieth century until today and how the rise of Islamist conservative discourses, the decline of public services, and increasing state security repression intensified sexual harassment against women. Because this study attempts to write history ‘from below’ and focuses on local people, I had to rely especially on local sources. I do not claim that I covered the voices of Sharqaweya and Mahallaweya, however. Aside from workers’ memoirs and petitions, this study draws heavily on state documents. I also consulted the archives of the Company, the Department of Corporation in the Financial Ministry and the Cabinet as well as other central and official sources. I also utilised contemporary periodicals based in Cairo and Al-Mahalla and drew intensively on court records, petition files of the Abdine Archive, memoirs and oral history. However, the major challenge was finding any discourses by illiterate and semi-illiterate citizens in written sources scripted mostly by state functionaries and afandeya employers and scribes. 

“The experience of Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra is a microcosm of the proletarianisation of Egypt’s peasant population and the making of an industrial-urban community. The experience of people in Al-Mahalla was similar to that of millions of other Egyptians who lived in towns hosting factories and witnessing rural immigration, urban population growth and rapid sociocultural reconfigurations during this time. As a large provincial town with a vibrant urban life and diverse economy, Al-Mahalla represents industrial transformation better than the two biggest cities, Cairo and Alexandria, which hosted the central government and had cosmopolitan milieus. Although it experienced urbanisation and population growth similar to Cairo’s and Alexandria’s, overall Al-Mahalla’s experience was more similar to that of Egypt’s provincial towns, such as Tanta, Mansoura, Damanhour, Kafr Al-Zayyat, Minya and Nagaa Hammadi, where the majority of the population lived.”

Hammad unexpectedly concluded that she is currently finishing a book on the life and legacy of the late singer Laila Murad (1918-1995):

“I’m a big fan of hers. My research employs her life and persona to analyse the crucial role popular culture, commercial cinema and celebrity publications in particular played in constructing an exclusive Arab-Islamic Egyptian identity and fastening virginity and sexual purity into the heart of this national gendered identity. I am also starting a new project, still in the early phase, on the social history of childhood in modern Egypt.”

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