Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1187, (6 - 12 March 2014)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1187, (6 - 12 March 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Once upon a time - Incomplete renaissance

The writer, editor, and novelist Amina Al-Said (1910-1995) was a tireless defender of women rights, as a particularly poignant article of hers shows.

Writing in the memorial issue of Al-Musawwar, celebrating the publication’s 20ths anniversary, Al-Said reviewed the changes that occurred in the status of women over the previous decades.

In the article, titled “Our Women’s Renaissance is still incomplete,” Al-Said argued that Egyptian women are far from gaining even a fraction of the status they enjoyed for centuries, before they succumbed to the combined influence of biased culture and social decay.

Society is to blame for women’s reduced circumstances, but women themselves must bear the true responsibility, she said.
In every other part of the world, women play their full role in society, and the level of their participation and emancipation reflects that of the countries in which they live, Al-Said noted.

But Egyptian women were finally becoming aware of their tribulations and willing to do something to reverse their fortunes.
Reluctant to blame the entire nation for the plight of women, Al-Said attributed the diminished status of women to historical factors, saying that stagnation in the country left its mark on women’s lives, confining them to their homes and blocking their chances for education and creativity.

Women in Egypt, she argued, have become socially comatose, unable to reclaim their status as citizens, needing someone to spur them and show them the road.

She argued that the hijab, was a definite barrier for full social engagement. The hijab, she insisted, was preventing women from having a satisfactory and mature interaction with society.

Egyptian traditions have barred women from formal education, so much so that affluent families have to find private tutors, preferably elderly and ugly, to educate their girls at home.

Railing against tradition, Al-Said said that women in Egypt were not being treated like a piece of furniture. They were given away in marriage as young as nine or ten to men that their fathers choose, thus cutting short their childhood innocence and replacing it with the perplexing chores of marital life for which they were ill-prepared.

Once married, women’s energy were channeled into cooking, and while honing their culinary skills, they gained weight, lose shape, experience health problems, and withdrew further away from social circles.

To shake Egyptian women from their deep slumber, a crisis had to happen. In 1919, the nation rose against British occupation and the revolt reverberated in every Egyptian home.

Faced with the prospect of losing husbands and children to the turbulence of revolt, women couldn’t but take part in the melee, and the first thing they did was to take off their hijabs, better to see and experience the world firsthand.

The shock of 1919 is what impelled women to demand rights and greater participation in society. Home making was no longer enough to encompass the opening horizon of women’s ambitions. They wanted to become doctors and lawyers, teachers and business owners, etc.

One by one, the shackles began to fall away. When women stood firm and demanded their rights, customs were reversed or at least relaxed.

Having taken parts in political demonstrations, women developed a taste for independence and freedom — for themselves and not just for the nation at large.

According to Al-Said, Egypt’s first formal school for girls opened in 1925. The Shobra Secondary School for Girls offer the same curricula for girls that boys had for several decades. And soon they were qualified to sit for the nation-wide finishing exams, known by their French name, baccalauréat, which made them qualify for college.

In 1929, armed with baccalauréats, the first batch of women applied for university and were accepted at once, amid a public reaction ranging from bewilderment to encouragement.

Female students sat on the same benches with their male colleagues, studying medicine, arts, and law. And knowing that the deck was stacked against them, they worked double time to prove themselves. Many graduated with honours and most went to serve with flying colours in various government departments, as teachers, administrators, and scientists.

Before long, the country changed its laws to accommodate the improved status of women. Girls were no longer allowed to marry before the age of sixteen, and upon divorce, women were allowed to keep the children in their custody for longer: boys until they were nine (instead of seven previously) and girls until they were eleven (instead of nine previously).

The right of men to divorce women was at least partially restricted. And prostitution was abolished.

All of this happened within 20 years or so, but the “renaissance” was incomplete. Women may have gained higher legal standing, but they failed to internalise the improvement in their conditions. They may have earned greater education, but they still dreaded the disapproval of society.

Egyptian women were still as vulnerable as were their grandmothers, Al-Said argued. They may look modern in their attire, but the burden of the past still rests awkwardly upon their shoulders.

Women were afraid of society, jealous of each other, conflicted in their roles as homemakers and public figures, and the independence they won remains unfulfilled and unfulfilling.

Al-Said said that Egyptian women deserved more. They deserved to be parliamentarians, ambassadors, and ministers. She wanted them to fight for their rights, for world peace and for the cause of pan-Arabism.
The renaissance was still incomplete, she said back in 1948.

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