Women and Islam: The Case of Egypt

Progress made by women in the Islamic world at the beginning of the century has been lost particularly with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the second half of the 20th century.

The process of the emancipation of Muslim women in Egypt began in the 19th century. For example in 1832 with the encouragement of Muhammad Ali [1769-1849], the reformist leader of Egypt, a school to train women to be medical assistants was opened. A little later in the 1860s Ali Pasha Mubarak and Shaikh Rifai al-Tahtawi paved the way, in two books, by educating the Egyptian public for the need for female education. The first state school for girls opened in 1873, though, of course, at first, only girls from families of state functionaries availed themselves of the opportunities, and even though the education programme and subject matter taught was not the same as in boys’ schools. Even the celebrated University of al-Azhar, the center for Islamic studies, showed significant interest in the education of women,, especially in the writings of the influential Muslim reformist Muhammad Abduh.

Perhaps the greatest advocate of women’s rights was Kasim Amin [ 1863 –1908 ]. During his stay in Paris, Amin realized that the raising of the social status and living conditions of women was one of the most urgent social questions that needed to be faced if the Islamic world was ever to witness a renaissance. But it was evident that every attempt at reform would come up against the traditionalists who considered every change and innovation an affront and outrage to tradition and religion in general. With courage, Kasim Amin pressed on and wrote two works that provoked the ire of the conservatives: Tahrir al-mar’a ( The Emancipation of Women, Cairo, 1899 ), and al –Mar’aal – jadida ( The New Woman, Cairo, 1901 ). Using both rational arguments of a juridical nature ( he was a trained lawyer ) and emotional ones, he pleaded for a more dignified social position for women by advocating educational equality, the abolition of the veil, revision of the marriage laws with its two most iniquitous aspects, polygamy and unilateral divorce. Unfortunately, Amin never lived to see his dreams of equality realized ; it was only in 1922 that the suppression of the veil was allowed, and « in 1925 that the first secondary school for girls was created with a programme and subject matter similar to those of the equivalent for boys. » His two works had an enormous on all later feminists.

One of the latter was Malak Hifni Nasif [1886 –1918].She was one of the first Egyptian women to receive a teacher’s primary certificate and became a teacher in the government girls’ school. Her marriage took her to rural Egypt where she keenly observed the life of women in such surroundings. She was faced with the problem of polygamy since her husband had married for the second time.

Under the influence of her father, her training and experience of rural life and her own marriage, Malak Hifni Nasif was compelled to to speak out publicly for the emancipation of women, perhaps the first Egyptian woman ever to do so. She often wrote articles on women’s issues in magazines such as al-Jarida, and even founded her own women’s organisation, the Ittihad al-Nisa’ al-Tahdhibi. In 1911, Malak "gave a speech before the Egyptian Congress in Helipolis, in which she developed a ten point programme for the improvement of the conditions of women."  Judged from the viewpoint of the 21st Century, her demands seem very modest indeed, and for most feminists they obviously do not go far enough. For example, she defended the veil but was totally opposed to polygamy ; she valued education for women but only of such subjects as household economics! She certainly never envisaged an independent professional life for women, and did not wish to see women in public life and politics.

Huda Shaarawi [1879 – 1947],born into an upper class family, grew up in a harem in the fashionable area of Ismailiyya of Cairo. Against her wishes, she was married at the age of 13,to a cousin many years older. After one year of marriage, Huda separated from her husband for seven years, a period during which she came to understand the real lot of women in Egypt and decided to devote the rest of her life to the feminist cause. She now took an increasingly militant stand and became involved in Egypt’s nationalist struggle until independence was achieved in 1922. Then came Huda ‘s supreme moment of defiance when she unveiled herself at Cairo railway station in 1923, marking the end of the years of servitude for herself, and for many Egyptian women.. She was the head of the Egyptian Feminist Union until her death in 1947.

With such an illustrious and long history of feminism, one would expect to see, in 2000, Egyptian women enjoying the fruits of the heroic struggles of Huda, Kasim Amin, and others. Unfortunately, the situation is disastrous. Nearly seventy five years after the first schools for girls, today 63 percent of all women are still illiterate. In 1979, Egypt passed the Law of Obedience, whereby a wife is obliged to submit totally to the authority of her husband, and a «  Law of Return «  empowers the police to return a woman to her husband even if the reason for her initial flight was physical abuse from her husband. Girls are still submitted to the gruesome practice of circumcision, less euphemistically called Female Genital Mutilation, rural girls probably suffering more than her urban sisters.

Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the conservatives in Egypt have pressed for more and more Islamization, which in practice means fewer and fewer human rights for women and non-Muslims ( usually the Christian Coptic minority.) Bowing to Islamist pressure the Government passed a constitutional amendment in 1980 whereby Islamic Law was enshrined as Egypt’s main source of legislation. This only emboldened the men who were able to revert to the barbaric tradition of being able to divorce their wives with a simple oath. Up to now, women were obliged to take their case to the courts if they wanted divorce, but this often took up to six years. Those who suffered most were battered women. According to survey done in 1995, a third of Egyptian women are subjected to physical abuse, sometimes of the most horrible kind. In recent years there has been an increase in attacks on women by men using sulfuric acid, that often leave the victims permanently scarred physically, and totally traumatized emotionally. Often the men are let off lightly or even never pursued in justice.

And yet, women are courageously fighting on, scoring victories against overwhelming odds. On December 28, 1998, the Egyptian council of state banned female circumcision or Female Genital Mutilation,( FGM ) even if the parents and the girl consent. The Koran says nothing about circumcision, and it is clearly an ancient custom predating Islam. But some conservatives, like Sheikh Yussef al –Badri of the al-Azhar Islamic University of Cairo, often quote the Hadith, the traditions of the deeds and words of the Prophet and his Companions, to argue their case for FGM. Unfortunately, the custom will continue particularly in rural Egypt until the whole of Egyptian society grows up, and begins to respect human rights, and we are a long way from that.

POLYGAMY : In Egypt, in 1995, there were 1200 polygamous marriages with four wives, 9000 with three wives, 12000 with two wives. In the same year there were 519 000 Marriage contracts were signed, and 83000 divorces pronounced. Source : Courrier International, No 488, 9-15 March, 2000. Page 27.

Finally, the Egyptian parliament is at present (March, 2000) examining a bill that will, if passed into law, substantially help women to initiate divorce proceedings for incompatibility of character, and that will also enable them to travel abroad without their husbands’ permission. Various conservative members of parliament are shaking their heads in disgust, one of whom said that he "refused to vote this law because it enshrines the triumph of woman over man."