From 2011 to 2014, breathtaking political changes transformed the lives of men and women in Egypt.

First, with the slogan “bread, freedom and social justice,” the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 brought together a wide range of constituencies to protest the three-decade-old regime of Hosni Mubarak and its authoritarian politics and repression.

In a mere 18 days, Egyptians—women and men, young and old, Christian and Muslim, secular, Islamic and Islamist—overthrew Mubarak and dismembered his National Democratic Party (NDP). The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a transitional military regime, assumed executive power for eighteen months after Mubarak fell on February 11, 2012).

Then, in the parliamentary elections that followed, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP)—the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm—and its presidential candidate, Mohamed Morsi (below right) won about 10 million votes, or 40 percent. The more conservative Islamist Salafis also had a strong showing, winning more than 7 million votes, giving the Islamists control of almost two-thirds of the seats in parliament.

Morsi was the winner of Egypt’s first competitive presidential election, but his government was short-lived. He issued a constitutional decree in November 2012 that gave him broad legislative and executive powers so he could hasten the passage of a new constitution. Many Egyptians criticized his government for its inability and unwillingness to form coalitions or to address the basic tensions in Egypt: between Islamists and secularists, between democrats and authoritarians, and between civilians and the military.

Millions of Egyptians participated in demonstrations demanding Morsi’s ouster. These protests exceeded the size of those against Mubarak (above left) in 2011, and culminated in a military coup d’état led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in July 2013.

An Egyptian criminal court then outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and banned all the activities it organized, sponsored, or financed. In March 2014, in the largest mass trial in the history of Egypt, the court sentenced 529 members of the Brotherhood to death. El-Sisi consolidated his power and was sworn in as president on June 8, 2014.

Women were actively involved in all these events and many saw the turmoil as a hopeful opportunity to redefine their place in Egyptian society. New forms of women’s rights activism emerged during the revolution, taking the debate over gender relations in new directions and building broader partnerships of women and women’s organizations.

However, this recent female activism has roots in a longer tradition of debates about feminism in Egypt and is part of a historical process in which Egyptian feminists participated in grassroots movements to confront the Egyptian patriarchy.

During the revolution that began in 2011, Egyptian women featured in the international media primarily as victims. Women were sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square and women arrested for participating in protests were subjected to degrading “virginity tests.”

But popular mobilization against these abuses also fueled collaboration among women’s organizations, uniting them under the larger revolutionary call for dignity, freedom, and justice.

On February 24, 2011, one such alliance came together to protect and support women. Called the Coalition of Feminist Organizations in Egypt, it was composed of 16 groups, including New Woman Foundation, Women and Memory Forum, Center of Egyptian Women Legal Aid, Women’s Forum for Development, Alliance of Arab Women, Egyptian Association for Family Development, and “Nazra” Association for Feminist Studies.

The coalition was effective in organizing against the cases of mob sexual assault and gang rape in Tahrir Square and the forced virginity tests on female detainees.

The Nazra Association for Feminist Studies, for example, documented around 500 cases of sexual assault from 2012 to 2014 during the protests. There is no statistical information about the number of detainees subjected to infamous virginity tests. El-Sisi, then the head of the Egyptian Armed Forces, defended these procedures unconvincingly on the ground that the tests were routine and the procedure was carried out “to protect the girls from rape, as well as to protect the soldiers and officers from rape accusation.”

The coalition brought together different anti-sexual harassment support groups such as OpAntiSH (Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault) and Tahrir Bodyguard, and other initiatives such as “The Daughters of Egypt are a Red Line,” Harass-map, and Shoft Taharosh(“I Saw Harassment”). Together, these support groups organized rescue teams, provided medical and psychological support to victims, and raised public awareness. They have also demanded investigation, prosecution, and fair trial of the crimes of sexual harassment and assault cases during the 2011-2014 demonstrations.

 

More broadly, the coalition endorsed and supported the demands of the January 25 revolution and called for the full participation of women in all efforts related to getting rid of the Mubarak regime, including its institutions and symbols.

The coalition set itself against the “state-sponsored” feminism represented by the National Council of Women (NCW) founded by a Mubarak presidential decree in 2000 and consequently led by his wife, Suzanne.

The NCW actually had progressive gender policies. These include empowering women in rural areas and facilitating the acquisition of identity cards, collecting data on illiteracy among women, providing information about health services and disease prevention, and important legislation proposing changes to the Personal Status Code, granting women the right to Khul’ (a relatively quick, unilateral, irrevocable, “no-fault” divorce) provided that a woman relinquishes all her financial claims on her husband.

Although state feminism and the first lady’s patronage had produced some successes, the coalition declared the NCW illegitimate because it had not denounced the violence perpetrated against the Egyptian people during the 2011 revolution. The coalition derided NCW legislation as “Suzanne’s laws.”

Consequently, the leading women’s rights groups articulated clear demands for the replacement of NCW with a more “transparent, democratic body of representatives” to represent Egyptian women at the local, national and international levels, outside of state control. Under pressure, the NCW replaced those of its members who were closely associated with the Mubarak regime with new ones as a moderate response to those criticisms.

Roots of the Egyptian Feminist Movement: Islamic Modernism

Egyptian feminism emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as part of several other intellectual currents swirling in the region. These included tensions between Islamic modernism and traditionalism, between Egyptian nationalism and pan-Arabism, and between Islamism and secularism.

Feminist consciousness was grounded in the framework of Islamic modernism. Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905), the Grand Mufti of Egypt and a vigorous disciple of Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, was one of the most systematic advocates of Islamic reform.

Muhammad ‘Abduh, circa 1890s

Influenced by Herbert Spencer, Leo Tolstoy, and Auguste Comte, ‘Abduh advocated for a comprehensive educational reform program at Al-Azhar (one of the world's oldest educational institutions), harmonizing faith and reason, European ideals with Islamic concepts, and creating what historian Indira Falk Gesink has called “a hybridized framework for an authentically Islamic revolution of thought,”

‘Abduh advocated abandoning taqlid (imitation, conformity to legal precedent, traditional behavior, and doctrines), and returning to the practice of ijtihad (independent inquiry and free exercise of reason) in matters of personal belief. For issues outside of personal belief, such as the law, he never intended the practice of ijtihad to be used by ordinary people. Like al-Afghani, he advocated reform of Islam from above, without splitting the community.

However, modernist pro-ijtihad reformers, including some contemporary women’s rights activists, “gave ijtihad a social definition and enlarged its franchise by encouraging laymen to proceed directly to primary sacred texts of their religion for guidance,” in Gesink’s words.

Feminist writing gradually developed within this modernist Islamist discourse. Heavily influenced by ‘Abduh, Qasim Amin employed modernist arguments for gender reform in issues like ending facial veiling, seclusion, abuses of divorce, and polygamy.

Amin published the famous Tahrir al-Mar’ah (“The Liberation of Women”) in 1899, and al-Mar’ah al-Jadidah (“The New Woman”) in 1900. Both ‘Abduh and Amin stressed the superiority of Western ways and advocated raising the level of education of Egyptian women to that of their European counterparts.

Qasim Amin, circa 1890s
Although Amin is acknowledged as the “father of Egyptian feminism,” scholars have pointed out that there are equally influential original works on gender by important Islamic modernists like Ali Mubarak and Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, who first mentioned “the woman question” in their writings.

Feminist consciousness was first articulated among middle- and upper-class women. A’ishah al-Taymuriyah (1840–1902) and Zainab al-Fawwaz (1860-1914) were among the pioneers who confronted women’s domestic seclusion. Hind Nawfal inaugurated a separate women’s press (written by women and about women’s issues) in 1892, when she founded al-Fatah (The Young Girl). Authors Malak Hifni Nassif (1886-1918) (writing under the pseudonym Bahithat al-Badiya), Nabawiyya Musa (1886-1951), Huda Sha’rawi (1879-1947), and Mayy Ziyadah (1886-1941) advocated public female roles, with women to repudiate domestic confinement, “unveil, and work in various professions.”

The goals of most women’s organizations in Egypt were charitable and educational. Egyptian women pioneered philanthropic activities and social welfare as a way out of domestic seclusion and became teachers and administrators in the state education system.

A cartoon from Al-Kashkul (Scrapbook), 1924. Women in burqa walk by and mention that they do not want freedom, if freedom means dressing like the women in swimsuits. (Photo by Gulsah Torunoglu, American University in Cairo Library) 

Some combined these activities with efforts for greater gender equality, like Jam’iyat al-Mar’ah al-Jadidah (The New Woman Society), al-Ittihad al-Nisa’I al-Tahdhibi (Women’s Refinement Union), Jam’iyat al-Raqy al-Adabiyah li-al-Sayyidat al-Misriyat (Ladies Literary Improvement Society), and Jam’iyat al-Nahdah al-Nisa’iyah (Society of Woman’s Awakening).Not all women’s organizations agreed on the proper role for women in Egyptian society or what gender relations should be.

Other, more conservative organizations idealized the constructed social roles for women and invented a “cult of domesticity.” These include Fatma Rashid’s Jam’iyat Tarqiyat al-Mar’ah (“Society for the Advancement of the Women”) and the Jam’iyat Ta’lim al-Banat al-Islamiyah (“The Islamic Society for the Education of Girls”).

The Colonial Encounter and the Egyptian Feminist Union

The ideological situation grew more complex when Islamic modernism intertwined with anti-colonialism, nationalism, and anti-imperialism.

The “colonial encounter” with Europe in the late 19th century profoundly altered the discourses and practices setting gender boundaries in the Middle East. Anti-colonialism and nationalism shaped the ways Egyptian women formulated the ideological bases of their activism.

In Egypt, nationalism fostered feminist solidarities. In turn, Egyptian women generated a nationalist discourse that legitimized their case. Nationalists and feminists collaborated to pursue their common goal of gaining independence from a colonial power. Growing Arab nationalism, especially after the 1950s, fostered pan-Arab feminist movements.

After the end of the First World War, during the major nationalist struggle known as the Revolution of 1919, Egyptians demanded an end to the British protectorate. Women’s groups attended nationalist protests. Women founded their first formal political organization in 1920, the Wafdist Women's Central Committee (WWCC), attached to the popular nationalist-liberal Wafd Party. The WWCC organized anti-British economic boycotts and coordinated support for the Wafd Party.

Women also expressed themselves through other means. They contributed to the women’s press, sponsored lectures and cultural events, and gave women a greater and more organized public presence. Their efforts in health, education, and job promotion encouraged governments to do more in these fields.

 
A more radical development of liberal feminism began with the Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU) in 1923, headed by a pioneering Egyptian feminist, Huda Sha’rawi. The EFU was the first formal feminist organization in Egypt and was part of the international organized feminist movement from the beginning.

The Egyptian Feminist Union published two important periodicals: L'Egyptienne (“The Egyptian Woman”), the first feminist journal in French aimed at an international feminist community; and Al-Mısriyah (also “The Egyptian Woman”), the bi-monthly Arabic journal promoting solidarity among different classes and communities of Egyptians.

The EFU campaigned for gender equality in education, woman’s suffrage, and reform of the personal status laws, marriage age, polygamy, divorce rights, and state-regulated prostitution.

Egyptian women’s organizations in general, and EFU in particular, brought significant changes in women’s employment, health, education, social services, philanthropic activities, and public roles. Their influence was more limited, however, in reforming the laws directly affecting women. The electoral law of the 1923 Constitution restricted voting and political office to men, and the Personal Status Code did not change.

The EFU shied away from openly challenging religiously ordained issues, and instead sought Islam’s legitimizing force in its agenda. Their critique of the family law was moderate, if not conservative. The EFU never “deviated from insistence upon reform within the framework of Islamic religious law, the Shari’ah,” or approved the secular family code Turkey adopted in 1926. The organization did not challenge the conventional gender roles, but instead “adhered to the mainstream view that women’s and men’s family roles were ordained by religion,” in the analysis of historian Margot Badran.

Ottoman Propoganda Poster in the “Cairo Punch,” al-Siyasa al-Musawwara, “Happy are the Free!!! Occupation in Arab countries and in Egypt, and other countries which are not occupied by the British and French.” Signed, First Egyptian Cartoonist, ‘Abd al-Hamid Zaki. (Photo by Gulsah Torunoglu, Egyptian National Archives, Cairo)

This was a wise strategic choice that prolonged the EFU’s lifespan and gradually consolidated women’s infiltration into the public sphere through philanthropic associations and voluntary social service. But this moderate feminism did not ease patriarchal pressures on women. Woman’s suffrage and eligibility for election had to wait until 1956.

On another front, Muslim Women’s Society (WMS), founded in 1936 by former EFU member Zainab Al Ghazali, and the Association of the Egyptian Woman’s Awakening also defined women’s liberation within an Islamic framework, and they sided with the Ikhwan Muslimin (Muslim Brotherhood) founded by Hasan al-Banna in 1928.