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This essay will examine the political discourses surrounding women within Egyptian society, beginning with her British colonisation in 1882 throughout the emerging nationalist movements to the present day balancing act of authoritarian unsteady democracy and Islamic resurgence . It is an attempt to chart how successive patriarchal elite’s have used the question of women in Islam and Egyptian society to further their own political aims.
Colonialism used ‘imperial feminism’ in order to legitimise their repression and attack on Egyptian culture, nationalist projects used women as the site for cultural nationalism, preserving the position of women within the status quo while adopting more western elements in order to defeat colonialism.
Islamic groups who have called for a return to Shari’a law with repressive effects for women have done so in order to assert their opposition to neo-imperialism and the current geo-political world order.
In understanding current feminist political thought in Egypt it is imperative to understand its origins and transformations through different regime changes and nation building.
Why did western feminism fail so emphatically? Why has a return to shari’a law been advocated by women in Egypt following one hundred and five years of female agitation? Orientalism Edward Said’s Orientalism is a comprehensive analysis of the structures of varied Western discourses’ which represent the Orient and Islam as an object of difference and an object to be controlled.
Orientalism is the epistemological basis of how the West represents and perceives the Orient (or the Other) based on binary opposition in aspects of culture, politics, values and race.
Orientalism conceptualises the world as divided between the West and the Orient. Said’s work highlights the connotative meanings attached to the Orient by the West, which defines itself as the polar opposite. For example, the Orient was conceptualised as ‘barbaric’ the West was ‘civilised’.
Orientalism did not simple assign mythical traits, it divided the world for the West into a dichotomy of ‘us/them’, ‘self/other’, and its value-laden terms idealised Western culture while devaluing Eastern culture. Orientalism reached its peak with the onset of colonial conquests within Africa and Asia by the European ‘great powers’ of the day, Britain and France. It has been noted by many that Orientalism complemented the colonial political agenda: that of securing raw materials for the benefit of the west and political control of the relevant countries.
By viewing Oriental countries as barbaric and inferior to Western nation-states and empires, Robert Young asserted that Orientalism “justified colonialism in advance as well as subsequently facilitating its successful operation” (Yegenoglu: 1998: 15). The colonisers then implemented political measures aimed at ‘civilising’ and ‘developing’ the colonies along the superior Western ways, seeking to replace indigenous cultural practices with Victorian culture.
The British occupation in Egypt began in 1882 and economically aspired to secure Egypt as a producer of raw materials for British industry and as a consumer of finished British goods. Unlike the French colonial occupiers in Algeria, the British did not usually attempt a full cultural assimilation of the indigenous peoples; rather they preferred a more indirect form of rule. The British administration in Egypt was headed by the Consul General Lord Cromer (1882-1907), while the civil service was staffed by Egyptians with a secular Western education and were drawn almost exclusively from upper and upper middle-class backgrounds.
These Western educated Egyptians also formed part of the new intellectual elite which began to call for further modernisation and adoption of Western technological advances and sciences, portraying native culture as obsolete and regressive (Ahmed: 1992). The British law reforms generally bypassed traditional Shari’a laws rather than engage and reform it, but sought alternative Islamic interpretations for more serious crimes of murder.
Education (of both sexes) which had been advanced within the last 30 years in Egypt was scaled down significantly as the British sought to stem any nationalist feelings that might arise from educating Egyptians and for financial reason also (Ahmed: 1992). Political discourse at the time of British occupation within Egypt ranged from supportive (Al-muqattam newspaper) to the ultranationalist party (Al-hizb al-watani). The writers of Al-muqattam were very much in favour of the British administration and the adoption of a European outlook, though they were comprised of Syrian Christians.
The political middle-ground was occupied by the Umma Party, who favoured Western-style nation-state administration rather than religion-based collective identity and action. While the Umma Party advocated the British withdrawal, they enjoyed a more co-operative relationship with the administration. The National Party (Al-hizb al-watani) led by Kamil opposed outright the British occupation and espoused a type of secular nationalism rather than Islamic nationalism (Ahmed: 1992).
While most opposed the British presence in Egypt, there was considerable support for elements and certain practises within the administration. The fierce opposition of the National Party was not based on the essential means by which the British ruled but the fact that Egypt was occupied. The Umma party seemed content with the wholesale adoption of the Western political system, by and large. However, two important events are to change the shape of Egyptian nationalism, and by implication- feminist discourse.
Firstly, the articulation of Lord Cromer’s attitude to his Islamic hosts and the publication of Tahrir Al-Mar’a (The Liberation of Woman) by Qassim Amin. The British occupying force did not seek to convert to Christianity the Muslims of Egypt as part of their colonial project, they brought with them the desire to ‘civilise’ and modernise the society, not simply economically via capitalism and technology but culturally also. As noted above an Orientalist prerogative, that of the natural inferiority of the colonised and therefore the natural superiority of Western culture, legitimised the British presence.
Orientalism had helped the British and other European powers to develop their ideas of race, culture and a social evolutionary framework (Ahmed: 1992) which British culture and society was the pinnacle. From their vantage point as the pinnacle of civilisation they were able to decide what was civilised, or at least a good indicator of ‘civilised’. An indicator of the backwardness and inferiority of Egyptian (indeed of Islamic culture in general) was the fact that women in Islamic society were veiled and secluded.
The indisputable ‘Otherness’ of veiled women and their segregation was in marked contrast with the cultural ideal of Victorian womanhood and it is from this point onwards that women, the veil and segregation are to dominate feminist political discourse. “The activities of Lord Cromer are particularly illuminating on the subject, perfectly exemplifying how, when it came to the cultures of other men, white supremacist views, androcentric and paternalistic convictions, and feminism came together in harmonious and actually entirely logical accord in the service of the imperial ideal” (Ahmed: 1992: 152)
Cromer had definite views on Islamic culture, believing Islam (and by implication Islamic men) to be less intelligent than Western culture. He believed also that Islam as a social system, a culture and as a civilisation had been an abject failure. It was not Egypt’s lack of military advancement, technological development or educational opportunities that rendered Islam inferior. Paramount to Islamic inferiority, claimed Cromer, was its treatment of women.
Two important discursive areas which remain to the present day (from a Western perspective at least) concern the veiling of women and seclusion, a practise Cromer referred to as having a “baneful effect on Eastern society” (Ahmed: 1992: 153). Believing, as many Victorian Orientalists did, that these two Islamic cultural practises to be the source of misery and evil and a signifier of Islamic innate backwardness, they were to be removed as a starting point towards modernisation.
If Egypt was ever going to modernise along the lines laid out by the British, Lord Cromer insisted that women must unveil and seclusion must cease. “It was Islam’s degradation of women, its insistence on veiling and seclusion, which was [according to Cromer] the ‘fatal obstacle’ to Egyptians ‘attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilisation’ … [t]he Egyptians should be ‘ persuaded or forced’ to become ‘civilised’ by disposing of the veil” (Viner, 2002).
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