Pan-Arab Feminism

During the 1930s and 1940s, Islamic modernism intertwined with the discourse of Arabism, creating a new form of solidarity with the Palestine cause in the region. The pan-Arab feminist movement had origins partly in the Palestinian national struggle. This new form of feminism emerged as a regional alternative to the international feminist movement, of which the Egyptian feminist movement was part.

The EFU played a prominent role in the institutionalization of pan-Arab feminism at a time when international feminism was disintegrating, or so it seemed. Cracks in global feminism became clear when the International Alliance of Women (IAW) refrained from advancing a colonial critique of the lack of social justice in British-ruled Palestine. The Arab Feminist Union (AFU) was founded in 1944 and Huda Sha’rawi was selected as president.

Cartoon of Huda Hanim Sha’rawi and Safiyya Hanim Zaghlul chased by Egyptian policemen, in Al-Kashkul (Scrapbook) May 22, 1931. When Huda Sha’rawi calls Safiyya Zaghlul, “mother,” Zaghlul replies, she is not her mother, and that she is not even the mother of the generation of her children, satirizing the use of maternal nationalist rhetoric, as in “mother of the Egyptians.” (Photo by Gulsah Torunoglu, American University in Cairo Library)

The convention of the Arab Feminist Congress and the formation of the AFU aimed at consolidating a collective vision among Arab countries while promoting their unified involvement in the international feminist movement.

A decade after the consolidation of Arab feminism, in the aftermath of the revolution of the 1952, the state dismantled the EFU in 1956. The EFU has continued its activities to this day as a social welfare society under the name Huda Sha’rawi Association. In 2011, the Arab Alliance for Women (AAW) led by Hoda Badran revived the EFU, but its effects remain to be seen.

Feminism under Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak

While the British Protectorate was dissolved in 1922, the British continued to control and occupy Egypt until the revolution of 1952. In the wake of that event Gamal ‘Abdel-Nasser became first prime minister and then president of Egypt, a position he would hold from 1956 to 1970.

Some scholars and activists regard Nasser’s regime as a “golden era” for the advancement of women’s rights. Under Nasser, the 1956 Constitution and the new electoral law granted women the right to vote and the right to run for public office.

“Preventing Women the Right to Vote”The Military: “Go back to your homes … leave politics to men.” Date and Source Unknown. (Photo by Gulsah Torunoglu, Huda Sha’rawi Library, Cairo)

Like several other modernizing nationalists, such as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey, Nasser encouraged women to work outside the home for wages and offered women greater educational opportunities. The number of girls enrolled in primary and high schools rose rapidly, and women’s literacy rate increased. At the same time, Nasser’s regime promulgated new progressive labor laws, expanded women’s rights, and offered extended legal protections for working women (such as paid maternity leave, accessible childcare services, and affordable, state health care).

Nasser’s 1962 socialist Charter for National Action endorsed gender equality. It stated: “Woman must be made equal to man and she must therefore shed the remaining shackles that impede her free movement, so that she may play a constructive and profoundly important part in shaping the life of the country.” The charter also established a progressive agenda by approving, at least in principle, “birth control and family planning,” though with goals of economic development as the primary motivating force rather than an informed feminist program.

Although the state proclaimed important public advances for women, it did not question the patriarchal structure of Egyptian society institutionalized by the Personal Status Laws of the 1920s and 1930s. Gender relations at home remained unchallenged.

Fearing any autonomous political activity and non-governmental initiatives, the state suppressed all forms of independent politics, including major feminist organizations and radical Islamists.

It dismantled the Egyptian Feminist Union, but allowed it to exist as a small social welfare society under the name of the Huda Sha’rawi Association. Duriyya Shafiq’s Bint al Nil (“Daughters of the Nile”) Party was also closed down, and she was placed under house arrest. Others like Inji Aflatoun, for her association with the Communist Party, and Zainab al-Ghazali, head of the Muslim Women’s Society, were imprisoned.

Overall, state-sponsored feminism during the Nasser regime offered greater educational and employment opportunities, but, as scholar Selma Botman cautions, “gender-specific objectives remained outside the core of the revolutionary ideology.”

By the time that Anwar Sadat came to power in 1970, women had gained more public presence and intellectual, social, and professional experience to continue their activism under Sadat’s rule and during the regime of Mubarak.

Initially, Sadat consolidated his presidential power by suppressing Nasserites and secular leftists, and cooperated with the Islamists to do so. This alliance led to an increasing Islamist revival, which had serious complications for women and the secular democrats.

In a major setback for women, Sadat’s 1971 Constitution reversed women’s statutory equality guaranteed under the Nasser regime, and allowed gender equality only if it did not undermine the rules of Shari’ah law.

The 1971 Constitution stated: “The state guarantees a balance and accord between a woman’s duties towards her family, on the one hand, and towards her work in society and her equality with man in the political, social, and cultural spheres, on the other, without violating the laws of the Islamic Shari’ah.” Moreover, Sadat amended the Constitution in 1976 to make Islamic jurisprudence the principal source of legislation.

In the later 1970s, however, Sadat began to encourage women’s rights, in part for reasons of international relations. Sadat’s infitah (“open door”) policies, rapprochement with the United States, his strong pro-Western rhetoric, and continuous struggle to foster a global reputation as a Westernizer and modernizer, all played a role in his support of women’s rights.

The UN Decade of Women (1975-1985), pressure from Egyptian and international feminist groups, and advocacy of women’s rights by Sadat’s wife, Jihan Sadat, also induced the regime to promote gender issues. Sadat established the Egyptian Women’s Organization and the National Commission for Women to handle family planning, illiteracy, and child welfare.

At the same time Jihan, set up women’s welfare organizations and initiated a series of reforms, known as “Jihan’s law,” granting women legal rights in marriage, polygamy, divorce, and child custody.

This Personal Status Law of 1979 was implemented by a presidential decree when parliament was in recess and was short-lived. Facing strong opposition from the Islamists—who condemned it as Western-oriented and un-Islamic—and some nationalist leftists—who argued that it was passed unconstitutionally by Sadat—the Law was nullified by the Constitutional Court in 1985.

Despite the progressive laws of 1979, the state did not encourage independent feminist activism under Sadat’s regime. In September 1981, Dr. Nawal al-Saadawi—a medical doctor and a prominent feminist author, whose writings, including her famous book al-Mar’ah wa Al-Jins (“Women and Sex,” 1971), were censored by the state—was arrested and jailed for months.

Sadat was assassinated by a member of a militant Islamist group the same year, and was succeeded by Vice President Hosni Mubarak.

Under President Mubarak, gender-studies scholar Nadje Al-Ali finds that there was an “increased confrontation with the Islamists over the implementation of the Shari’ah law,” pressuring the Mubarak regime to “legislate and implement more conservative laws and policies toward women and to diminish support for women’s political representation.” As more conservative and fundamentalist voices gained importance, Mubarak canceled the Personal Status Law of 1979 and abolished the reformed laws under Sadat.

During early 1980s, there was a renewed visibility and organisation of independent feminism pluralized by competing discourses. The Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA) was founded by al-Saadawi during this period. AWSA held its first conference in 1986, with the slogan “unveiling the mind,” and organized a number of cultural seminars about women. AWSA was outspokenly critical about Islamist positions on gender.

At the same time, there were increasing numbers of Islamist women activists like Zainab al-Ghazali, Safinaz Qazim, and later, Heba Rauf Ezzat, who promoted traditional gender roles that buttressed the virtues of motherhood and the family. These competing discourses on the “women’s question” politicized under the Nasser and Mubarak regimes, gradually resulting in a proliferation of feminist politics in Egypt.

Finally, under Mubarak, the National Council of Women (NCW), a governmental body to advance women’s status, was formed in 2000 and an NGO law was passed giving the Ministry of Social Affairs the power to dissolve NGOs.

Egyptian Feminism: Current Debates

The tension between Islamic and secular versions of feminism remains thorny for Egyptian women. Marwa Sharafeldin, who is a board member in Musawah, the international movement for Muslim family law reform, and the co-founder of the Network of Women's Rights Organizations in Egypt, points to disagreements over basic frames of reference among different feminist organizations in Egypt.

As mainstream Egyptian feminists attempt to reform the Personal Status Law, should they take human rights and/or non-religious humanism as a point of reference or should they take Islam as a point of reference? According to Sharafeldin, the compromise is usually a combination of human rights and “enlightened” interpretations of religion. There is no reference to what “enlightened” means, but NGOs take it as meaning “gender-sensitive Islamic interpretations.”

Brief Documentary about Alia Mossalam and the “Whims of Freedom” Project. Alia Mossalam participated in the protests during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. Documentary prepared by the Women and Memory Forum in Cairo. Founded in 1995, the Women and Memory Forum (WMF) is composed of a group of women academics, researchers and activists concerned about the negative representations and perceptions of Arab women in the cultural sphere.

Some Egyptian feminists, like Omaima Abou-Bakr, advocate exploring the possibilities within Islam, and others suggest that the very act of rereading the Qur’an gives women an opportunity to deploy religious texts in defense of their rights, and allows them to derive agency and strength from within the Islamic tradition.

As proponents of modernist Islam and its natural extension, “Islamic feminism,” Islamic feminists consider it a powerful alternative to secularist feminism, the form most likely to succeed in Egypt.

Secular-oriented women’s organizations in Egypt argue vehemently against operating within an Islamic framework, which they believe would “either consciously or unwittingly delegitimize secular trends and social forces.” These feminists argue that religious doctrine should not be the basis of laws, policies, and institutions.

According to secular feminists, as long as religiously inspired feminists remain focused on theological arguments rather than socioeconomic and political questions, and as long as their point of reference is the Qur’an rather than universal standards of human rights, their impact will be limited, and their strategy will reinforce the legitimacy of the Islamic system. In the end, secularists argue, Islamic feminism will only make superficial changes for women, and will not adequately confront patriarchal power.

The Coalition of Egyptian Feminist Organizations (2011) provided a platform for women’s feminist organizations to reflect upon these competing discourses. Despite all appearances of consensus, centuries-old debates remain to be solved. Coalitions among feminist organizations are too often held to unrealistic expectations. They cannot be understood without recognizing their limits.

Debates among Egyptian feminists today reflect some of the unresolved issues that first arose more than a century ago. Questions about whether feminism ought to be religiously rooted and grounded in secular ideas—and the extent to which Egyptian women face particular issues or share their struggles with women throughout the Arab region and around the world—remain as pressing as they were when Egyptian women first raised their voices for change. They became yet more urgent in the revolutionary years of 2011-14.