A Century After Qasim Amin: Fictive Kinship and Historical Uses of 'Tahrir al-Mara'

Malek Abisaab and Rula Jurdi Abisaab

At a time of Islamist scripturalism, political defeatism, and haunting economic divisions, the Egyptian government's Supreme Council of Culture organized a conference to claim Qasim Amin's ideology as its own and to invoke its kinship ties with the “liberation of women.” The six-day conference, which convened in Cairo on October 23, 1999, hosted 40 sessions, 14 round tables, and 10 workshops attended by more than 150 scholars and writers from Arab countries and around the world.*

Neither an invocation of the Renaissance spirit of Muslim reformists a century ago, nor homage to Qasim Amin, explains the true historical context of this occasion. On the eve of the 21st century, Amin remains relevant not because of the similarities between Amin's society and ours — as a number of panelists liked to note — but rather by how well we can use his society as a subtext to recover our own and come to terms with the dilemmas and social muddles that have rocked Egypt and the Arab world since then. Muhammad al-Shadhili commented that it was as if “time has not passed in the Arab world.” Another writer, Abdullah Nabhan, perceived the preoccupation of the conference with women's issues as an extension of the question of women's liberation raised during the Renaissance period. Jaber Asfour, the director of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Culture, likewise stated that Amin's convictions have not lost their credibility or their applicability, especially since “the grandsons of those who accused ‘Tahrir al-Mara' ' (The Liberation of Woman) of blasphemy” have multiplied since the days of the enlightenment. These men, Asfour added, have taken women writers to court, treating them like criminals, and threatening to destroy their liberation movement. Nonetheless — and despite the growing and mutating forms of oppression against women since the 1900s — the world of the conferees is hardly the domicile of Qasim Amin or Huda Sharawi.

The conference and the papers delivered have generated substantial interest mainly from the outside, particularly in the commentary elicited from Arab intellectuals as expressed in the Arab press. Given this interest, we will explore two distinct facets of the conference. The first is the historical relevance of Qasim Amin and his society to ours, including the way in which selective messages of “Tahrir” are appropriated to serve state feminism and governmental planning pertaining to women. Second is the attempt of women intellectuals and feminists to reflect on the past century, probing into their own history, struggles, and setbacks, and assessing future challenges. The conferees devoted much of their efforts to the discussion of women's confrontations with salafi (ancestral traditionalism), usuli (fundamentalist), islahi (reformist) andijtihadi (interpretive) Islamism (often treated as one uniform entity); the two-edged sword of shari'ainterpretation; the gendered struggle over legal frontiers; state policies on women; women's educational and occupational progress; links between Arab and Western feminism; and the merits and likelihood of eliminating gender from literature and language.

Rallying Force of Women's Liberation

Qasim Amin (1863-1908) was born into an aristocratic Ottoman family that had ruled in Kurdistan during the mid-19th century and later moved to Alexandria , Egypt , where Amin was born. He graduated at the age of 18 with a degree in law from the Khedival School and later occupied a high military rank in Isma'il's army.

A regular at the popular Cairene coffeehouse Matatya, Amin, along with figures like Saad Zaghlul and Adib Ishaq, engaged in the lively discussions and debates which Jamal al-Din al-Afghani initiated on the verge of Ahmad Urabi's 1880 uprising against the Khedive, Tawfiq. Next, supported by a four-year government grant, Amin left Egypt for France in 1881 to study at the College of Montpellier where he became closely acquainted with Western political and legal thought. At the college he had a short-lived love affair with a French woman known as Slafa. He worked on the magazine Al-‘Urwa al-Wuthqa (The Solid Bond) and was the special translator of Muhammad Abdu (1849-1905) during his residence in France .

After his return to Egypt in 1885, Amin married the daughter of Ibrahim Pasha Khitab, joining an aristocratic Egyptian family, and was appointed a judge. Another 14 years passed before he would lay down his infamous work, “Tahrir al-Mara',” which received severe criticism in leading Egyptian newspapers.   Amin devoted “Tahrir” to the conditions of the aristocratic Egyptian women whom he perceived as ignorant, idle, and in great need of educational guidance. He believed that reforming theumma (nation) started with the reform of the family and women's role within it; secluded and denied a certain level of education in the extended patriarchal homestead, women could not succeed in raising competent children, particularly male offspring, who would lead the Egyptian nation. This ignorance in turn led to the reproduction of archaic values and decadent traditions. But before a woman could have access to education and public life, Amin insisted that some aspects of veiling and seclusion had to be changed. A woman's face and hands must be free of coverings and unnecessary obstructions. He insisted that the Quran did not extend veiling to the hands or the palms. Women who were not secluded, he argued, succeeded in developing the necessary skills to manage their lives successfully even if they were uneducated.

“The reaction to ‘Tahrir'cannot be simply understood on the basis of Amin's espousal of Western ideas but rather on how his ideas were played out in Egyptian society at different class levels and shaped by his role as a judge and a nationalist.”

In order to understand the full significance of “Tahrir,” it is important to discover why and for whom was it produced, and what social groups and political discourses it served. Today we cannot simply reiterate that “Tahrir” attempted to establish a new gender structure or that it was a milestone in women's path to emancipation and independence. Beyond its importance for the aristocratic women of Egypt , was “Tahrir” truly the harbinger of new opportunities for Arab women across class, region, ethnicity, and race? Did women's voices and varied methods of resistance to male hegemony and attempts to renegotiate the gender structure go unmentioned? Why did Amin's “Tahrir,” rather than the writings of the Maryam al-Nahhas (1856-1888) or Zaynab Fawwaz (c. 1860-1914) become the rallying force and the symbol for the movement of women's liberation in the Arab world?

Four intertwined elements shed light on these questions. First, Amin tied the nationalist project to the reform of upper-class patriarchy, targeting some, but not all, practices of veiling and seclusion. Amin embellished the republican image of women as the nurturers and shapers of the “men of the nation” whose advancement meant that of a whole nation. Egypt's modern story features updated forms of male control and gendered consciousness that are packaged in new, albeit conditional, liberties for women within the domestic domain.

Second, in calling for an improved, partially ameliorated patriarchy, Amin was essentially denouncing the cultural “backwardness” of the archetypal harem which European colonialists attacked, projecting those “inferior” human qualities on Islam. As such, “Tahrir” was a political and ideological commentary about what colonized Egyptian society is not: namely, inferior and beyond cultural repair. The “civilizing force” which Amin envisaged in the Egyptian nation was predicated on changing the relationship of the dominant male elite toward their women. Abdullah Nabhan underscored the growing importance of the modern state in post-colonial Egypt where Amin's work was all the more relevant. As the Egyptian state takes form, so does a new gender discourse that attempts to prove that its women are central to the national economy and social development — on a par with advanced European nations.

Third, Amin's work is written by a male modernist to Muslim men, especially the traditional landed aristocracy of late Ottoman Egypt whose women observed different facets of veiling and seclusion. This social stratum was itself undergoing important changes and was gradually overcome by the nationalist modernists. The fact that Amin was one of the aristocrats and a distinguished official of the state, namely aqadi (judge), made his work the more significant. He held the reigns of interpretive shari'a and reformist Islamic politics of the highest form.

Indeed, the book was a shock to Egyptian society, as Mahmud al-Wardani noted, though in reality it was mostly a shock to the traditional landed aristocracy who did not yet realize that “modernizing” its control over women would in the long run be beneficial for its image and social position and its relations with the British. “Tahrir” must have had a different impact on other segments of the literate male population and the few working-class men in the rural regions who may have known about its contents indirectly. For the most part, the wives, sisters and mothers of these men were only partially secluded or veiled if at all. Amin denounced the religious dignitaries and conservative political leaders who resisted any attempt to change the old social norms. He urged his fellow men to understand that certain traditions had served the interests of their predecessors and but must be seen as transient and incompatible with the 1900s. Noteworthy was his insistence that the shari'a was inconstant — that in as much as it was based on social and human praxis, it was mutable and capable of accommodating new conditions without violating the fundamentals of Islam.

The fourth element, print culture, whose value the prominent qadi understood quite well, forced Egypt 's learned men to take note. Around this same time a female literary culture was blossoming in Egypt, and Beth Baron, a professor of history, made insightful conclusions about this culture in her book, “The Women's Awakening in Egypt,” showing that while upper-class women were authoring biographical dictionaries, novels, domestic literature, and translated works, the learned Arab society and later Orientalists gave precedence to men's works. Moreover, the print culture, accessible to the male literati, helped disseminate Amin's version of “Tahrir” at a time when actual female voices from below were able, due to their distinct class conditions and personal experiences, to exert more modest, incremental limitations on male authority. Many working women had already succeeded in overcoming seclusion and veiling. The reaction to “Tahrir” cannot be simply understood on the basis of Amin's espousal of Western ideas but rather on how his ideas were played out in Egyptian society at different class levels and shaped by his role as a judge and a nationalist. Furthermore, “Tahrir” cannot be seen as a mirror reflecting the overall conditions of aristocratic women, or the meanings of their veiling practices, which over the 20th century shifted from being insignias of class and status to signs of backwardness and confinement.

Today, behind the rhetoric of women's progress which most speakers felt they could recapture by evoking the spirit of “Tahrir,” it is doubtful whether the Egyptian government was proposing fundamental legal and political gains for women by hosting the conference. The conditional and selective developments permitted by state officials could be gleaned from the statements of Amina al-Jundi, the Minister of Social Affairs in Egypt , who explained that the government has formulated a plan to solve the problems facing women, “particularly those caused by women themselves” such as the practice of clitorectomy. The government has been using state feminism to pose itself as an alternative to the literalist Islamists, constantly redefining women's rights as it jockeys for the most favorable position. When the language of liberation means control of demographic explosion and dispersing the appeal of Islamism, then it is warmly adopted by the government. We have to remember though, that in most of its policies concerning women, the government had so far appeased Islamists in several areas, not the least of which is family law.

Rediscovering Women's Histories

Beyond the historical links between Amin's time and ours, and the role of “Tahrir” in women's emancipation or lack thereof, the conference became an occasion for evaluating women's conditions across national lines, casting their histories in terms of personal freedom and political control.

Two important groups of women found only a marginal voice at the conference: working women, and Islamist (reformist, militant, or traditionalist) women. The Islamist position was present only through representatives of official state-propagated Islam, such as Afaf al-Najjar, a professor of Islamic Studies at al-Azhar, who confirmed along with many panelists that there is an enlightened humanitarian Islam and another dark, reactionary, and male-tailored Islam. Jaber Asfour explained that Islam, as the religion of the majority, is not an obstacle to women's progress nor does it prevent them from exercising their social, economic, or political rights. Rather, the rigid and conservative interpretations of Islam that emerged in times of “backwardness, impotence, defeat and suppression” are the threat to women.

Arab-American anthologist and translator Salma Khadra al-Jayyusi too asserted that Islam is not responsible for stagnation and backwardness. This, she noted, was evident in the millions of veiled women who have invaded public space, attaining university degrees and assuming paid positions in various fields. In common with a number of other panelists, al-Jayyusi considered education and employment two significant criteria for measuring progress among Arab women. She attempted to separate the issue of veiling from women's progress and pursuit of modern goals without examining the full range of veiling practices in rural and urban Arab societies or the varied implications these practices have for women's sexuality and control over their bodies, according to a report in the London based weekly Al-Mushahid Assiyasi. Dismissing feminist interpretations of the scriptures, al-Najjar upheld the universal and obligatory nature of veiling which, in her view, remains valid for every time and place. She also endorsed the literal Quranic truism that women are inherently inferior to men because they are deficient — “naqisat” — in intellect and faith.

Many speakers saw revivalist Islam in all its different shades as anathema to women's progress. Leila Abdul-Wahhab lamented the alarming setbacks which the question of women's emancipation has suffered under the onslaught of the usuli vision and practices. The Islamist obsession with banishing moral corruption from Muslim society, she noted, did not allow us to see the social contradictions and economic dependency that have already undermined women's development.

In our view, there are several trends with different characteristics. These trends, depending on the internal social system in which they have functioned over time, have indeed taken varied approaches toward the issue of women. Notwithstanding, most of the modern Islamist movements have taken great pains and performed many legal gymnastics to define gender relations quite narrowly and to organize all areas of male control over women's sexuality, reproduction, and labor. To make the picture even more complex, a number of native Islamist movements have co-opted versions of “feminism” that led to either a partial or a false sense of female empowerment.

The conferees concurred that women have been subjected to systematic, multi-faceted oppression accompanied by women's failed attempts to reverse the situation. Al-Jayyusi noted that women are fighting on two fronts: against men who reject the principle of gender equality, and women who act upon the very social norms that undermine their own positions. Women who internalize the precepts of submission cannot be armed with courage.


Measuring Progress

Those who emphasized an incremental progress in women's history pointed to education and employment as two central expressions of such progress. Lebanese scholar Dalal al-Bizri noted that despite the great burdens women carry and the suppression they face, they continue to improve their social conditions and manipulate the law to their advantage, achieving a number of goals.

Cynthia Nelson, a Western scholar, argued that missing from the overall picture of women's development is the kind of education which leads to the creation of new principles of freedom for women and men. Basma al-Batriq tried to dislodge the myth that women who work in the media have achieved equality with men in terms of salary and benefits, and Najwa Kamil, an Egyptian writer, showed that women in the press continue to face problems pertaining to the nature of their work, as well as discrimination in benefits and salaries.

Another yardstick the panelists used to assess women's progress was political participation and leadership. Muna Makram Ubayd, an Egyptian political scientist, noted that for the most part, the espousal of women's rights is of marginal importance to Arab political movements and parties, and at times is exploited for male political gains. Unless women create their own political discourse, their cause will not be viable, she said.

In a round table on “Women and Authority,” chaired by Hisham Sharabi, the panelists agreed that the state was a major culprit in the regressive situation of women. Syrian sociologist, Muna Fayyad, highlighted the marginal representation of Lebanese women in the parliament, political organizations and parties. Similarly, Nimah Khalid reminded us that even among Palestinian women, whose record of political activism outweighs that of their Lebanese sisters, the Palestinian Union of Women does not include members from the larger mass of Palestinian women. Syrian scholar Georgette Attiyyah pointed to the significant psychological impact of subordination to male authority, around which grow myths about women's mental inferiority. These myths become self-fulfilling prophecies. This, she noted, is evident among many Arab women who, even when assuming leadership roles or decision-making posts, continue to feel defeated within.

Aside from discussions on education and employment, few if any of the speakers analyzed transformations in women's material conditions, in either rural or urban settings, that could be linked to decisive improvements in their social status, political power, and personal freedom. Little is also known about the opportunities and aspirations of working women in peasant and industrial labor. The conditions leading to the transformation of the family, patriarchal patterns of control, gender relations, women's domestic and market labor, class division and state policies, are all key factors in assessing women's conditions, the nature of their struggles and the extent of women's success in their struggle for liberation.

Violence is inflicted upon women world-wide, Hanan Jumah declared, and in the Arab World the penal code(qanun al-uqubat) encourages and protects male abuses and aggressions. She called for the establishment of “havens” for female victims of violence. Moreover, many of the laws implemented by Arab states contradict the international agreements they have signed to promote women's human rights. The Egyptian writer Radwa Ashour discussed her personal dilemma with the law after marrying Palestinian poet, Maryad al-Barghuti; Egyptian law prohibited both her husband and son from attaining Egyptian citizenship, permanent residence, or the right to study and work in Egypt. Both Fatimah Khaffaji and Munira Ahmad, two Egyptian intellectuals who focused on Egyptian and Gulf women respectively, underscored the limitations on women's personal status under the penal code and thus on their struggle for equality with men. For example, the law still gives a husband the right to prevent his wife from traveling.

“The fact that Amin was one of the aristocrats and a distinguished official of the state, namely a qadi (judge), made his work the more significant. He held the reigns of interpretive shari'a and reformist Islamic politics of the highest form.”

Jamal al-Banna, Hasan al-Banna's brother, felt that women could not fulfill their political rights and lost real opportunities for self-actualization on the basis of a conservative reading of the religious text. Kuwaiti novelist Laila Othman, who was interrupted and criticized several times by members of the audience, argued that in a small country like Kuwait , the activities of anti-feminist religious groups affiliated with powerful political parties prove to be detrimental to women's advancement. These groups have intervened in school curriculums, turning them into rigid conservative educational programs. In an interview with Al-Mara' al-Jadidah published by the conference, Othman discussed the harassment she had endured at the hands of Islamists who denounced her novels as pornographic. Indeed, there is a long list of Arab women novelists whose works have become much-awaited occasions for salafis and mujtahids alike to “expose” the moral decadence of female intellectuals as a sign of the degeneration of Arab Muslim society at large. Many women novelists have even received direct threats from Islamist groups.

Siham Qulaybu, a delegate from the University of Jerusalem, explained the oppressive conditions Israeli law imposes on Arab women of Jerusalem . If one marries a man who is not a native of Jerusalem, the husband is prohibited from living in Jerusalem with his wife. This puts the woman in the difficult position of deciding whether to leave Jerusalem to lead a normal family life or to stay and defend her rights as an Arab citizen of the city.

Empowerment or Isolation

Egyptian novelist Salwa Bakr argued that male biases and stigmas inherent in the Arabic language reflect deep-seated gender inequalities in Arab society at large. Although many panelists may have agreed with this statement, they were divided on whether a radical transformation of gender structure in Arab society should start within society or with the language itself, and whether a fundamental alteration of the latter would actually lead to a new gender awareness. Zulaikha Abu Risha, a Jordanian poet and critic, proposed “a new consciousness of language” as a means for social reform and gender equality. She noted that the elimination of certain grammatical rules promoting the male language of taghlib (dominance) would force men to understand the frustrations women feel whenever they are addressed in the masculine form. Author Hussa Munif opposed the feminization of the Arabic language, arguing that it would give a false sense of gender equality, making it easier to overlook the discriminations against women. Madihah Dus also questioned the call for the feminization of language as yet another version of domination.

A parallel debate emerged around literature in a round table chaired by Sabri Hafiz, a professor of Arabic literature. The panelists were divided between advocates of a feminine literature and humanitarian literature, strangely posed as distinct and separate entities. Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury encouraged women writers to put an end to writing invested in the emotional defense of women's rights. He urged them instead to join “the mainstream” by defining their private concerns and presenting their conditions critically and imaginatively. With this overarching generalization about the “emotionality” of women novelists and little appreciation for their varied social and ideological concerns, Khoury's invitation to his undefined “mainstream” lures women into a male “mainstream” within which female literature is not viable.

Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh asked: “If we discarded our feminine/feminist writing, then who will continue to write about our personal experiences?” Dhabyah Khamis, poet and novelist, pointed to the absurdity of literary critics who demanded the production of humanitarian rather than feminine literature when they live “in societies that prevent women from writing [creatively] except under suppressive conditions.” On the other end, Moroccan novelist and critic Muhammad Baradah found it necessary to search for a method of literary criticism devised exclusively to evaluate women's literature. Not unlike Khoury's views, Baradah's position leaves one wondering whether such views comprise an improvement in gender consciousness or a segregation that would demote women's literature or banish it altogether. Ashur felt that writing consciously feminine literature is a grave error because women have long suffered from narrow spaces and intellectual confinement, a marginalization they are deliberately continuing. Hanan al-Shaykh corroborated with this view, adding that women should be ashamed of characterizing their literature as nisa'i — feminine. She nonetheless embraced and took pride in women's and feminist literature.

Reconfiguring the Relations between Arab and Western Feminism

Cynthia Nelson argued that the interaction between the Third World and Arab society on the one hand, and Western modernization on the other, introduced to the latter new ideas about justice and women's rights which were hard to ignore. She emphasized, however, that the Arab feminist movement was not merely an echo of the Western precedent, despite the fact that women's demand for equal rights with men was considered an expression of the colonial period. Anwar Mughith, professor at the University of Halwan in Cairo, proposed that the women's movement internationally offered the best avenue for interaction among cultures and civilizations. The Arab women's movement, he said, interacts with its European and American counterparts on three distinct levels. The first is philosophical, emphasizing fundamental concepts of human freedom. The second is moral, proposing women's liberation as a way for the triumph of good against evil. Mughith explained that the moral argument attempts to show that confining women to the patriarchal household limits their abilities whereas work outside the house transforms them into complete and fulfilled human beings, as Muhammad Abdu and Faris al-Shidyak had advocated. The third level relates to the social value given to the liberation of women. Mughith, echoing the view of several other conferees, reminded us that colonialism gave the feminist Arab discourse a suspicious overtone as a manifestation of colonial penetration and control.

Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot, a history professor at UCLA, discussed three central elements in the American feminist movement, namely: the emphasis on women's control over their bodies including freedom of choice in marriage, including remaining single; the extent of their authority in comparison to men; and their access to job opportunities and equal material rights. American feminists insisted that without total equality with men, no liberation is complete. Marsot noted that as long as men monopolize centers of political power, the legal system, and the economy, equality is an illusion. As such, for Marsot, women must achieve some type of progress because ultimately freedom is a relative issue.

Nuna al-Bahir, who agreed that the concept of feminism cannot be discussed in isolation from the Western context that produced it, asserted that a real concern for women's rights did exist in the Arab world independently of the West. Al-Bahir noted that Western feminist movements looked at their Arab counterparts as backward and incapable of making decisions. The European feminists' perceptions of Arab women rest on the self-other dichotomy; the “self” is perceived as advanced and domineering, while the “other” is backward and inferior even if it does own critical economic resources.

In commenting on the conference, al-Bizri noted that for better or worse, the Western world remains “the model for imitation” as it was during the Renaissance period. She noted that such an “imitation” poses problems because the West has indeed advanced multiple and contradictory models, particularly regarding women's status and goals. She noted that “our soil is no more prepared to receive modernity (al-hadatha) than that of Amin's time because it lost its originality.” Al-Bizri, however, conceptualized historical change on the basis of levels of absorption of “tradition” versus “modernity” and how they are gauged by Arabturath , culture. She explained that several cultural layers had piled up above the “traditional” and the “modern” before political Islam rose to complicate the Arabs' relationship to modernity. In our view, the transformation of Arab culture, a question that is central to the question of women's liberation, does not follow a mechanical course of layer piling of static “traditions” or the coexistence side-by-side, without fusion, of the “traditional” and the “modern.” Rather, it involves processes of appropriation, amelioration, or rejection of “Western” values, culture, and traditions. This assessment is not determined by abstract intellectual attitudes toward the many “Wests” that exist but rather by the social processes in which society, economy, and polity are constantly interacting. These processes differ from one Arab society to another over the course of history, creating as such a dynamic and constant development of turath that is at once traditional and modern.

Finally, we need to appreciate the variety of Islamist and feminist-Islamist movements and ideologies. Indeed, the Tunisian Rashid al-Ghanushi's support for women's full particiption in governmental affairs, and the Sudanese Major Maryam al-Sadiq al-Mahdi's rejection of anything less than full equality with men at the level of political and military command, are a far outcry from the Wahhabi outlook on women. That said, we must not exaggerate the achievements of Islamist feminism which need to be cast first in terms of the larger population of women and not the elite — that is, even (especially!) the wives, daughters, and sisters of Islamist leaders — and second, in terms of fundamental legal changes pertaining to women's control of their sexuality, reproduction, labor, and political leadership across class, ethnicity, and race.


This article appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 6, No. 32, Summer 2000.

Copyright © 2000 AL JADID MAGAZINE