Doria Shafik, Egyptian Feminist: A Woman Apart, by Cynthia Nelson. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996. xxvi + 284 pages. Notes to p. 305. Bibl. to p. 310. Index to p. 322. $49.95.
The Mobilization of Muslim Women in Egypt, by Ghada Hashem Talhami. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996. xii + 146 pages. Notes to p. 155. Bibl. to p. 161. Index to p. 177. $39.95.
The women of Egypt have earned a reputation throughout history as strong and independent participants in their society, willing to fight to maintain and/or better their position. This was true as early as Pharaonic times, as Barbara Lesko demonstrates in Women of Ancient Egypt. Recent works have dealt with women in Islam (Leila Ahmed's Women and Gender in Islam); with women and the law (Enid Hill's Mahkama); women in parliament (Earl Sullivan's Women in Egyptian Public Life; women in kin groups (Andrea Rugh's Family in Contemporary Egypt); women in economics (Evelyn Early's Baladi Women of Cairo); and women in the current religious revival (Arlene McLeod's Accommodating Protest). Early feminist organizations are covered by Margot Badran in Feminists, Islam and Nation.1
Given this wealth of published material on Egyptian women, one might wonder, at first glance, what more the two books under review have to contribute to the subject. Doria Shafik, Egyptian Feminist, by Cynthia Nelson, is a biography of a remarkable, upper-class woman who was a member of Huda Sha`rawi's Feminist Union. Ghada Hashem Talhami's The Mobilization of Muslim Women in Egypt examines, according to the dust-jacket blurb, "the deliberate intensification of Islamic identity and its ramifications both for Muslim women and for Egypt's Coptic Christian minority." A perusal of these works reminds the reader that first impressions are often wrong, for both books do contribute substantively to the existing literature. Nelson and Talhami both tell us much about the changing attitudes and positions of Egyptian women and the differences among them. One small example: Doria Shafik was a Muslim but certainly did not problematize her "Muslim identity" in the ways current Egyptian women are shown to do by Talhami.
Nelson's carefully, almost lovingly, detailed biography of Doria Shafik is based on private papers given to the author by Shafik's daughter. It is a portrait of what the Western press might call a modern feminist heroine, one who used all the means at her disposal-money, education, talent, familial ties-to promote women's political rights in Egypt. This was especially true between 1947 and 1957, after Huda Sha`rawi died and her followers dispersed-some to religious organizations, some to charities, and some. like Shafik, to the media and to founding organizations advocating the right of women to vote and to serve in parliament. Eventually, however, Shafik lost out, for, as she says herself in one of her poems, she held "to the Absolute" and refused to compromise on several issues. For example, in the Constitution of 1957, President Jamal `Abd al-Nasir granted women the right to vote, provided they registered for the privilege. But Shafik refused. Since men did not have to register, she stated, why did women have to? A noble absolute, but, as biographer Nelson admits, it was "politically, a disastrous move. She lost whatever credibility she might have retained among her dwindling supporters" (p. 237).
Nelson sees Shafik as epitomizing "the dilemma of the double bind of the feminist cultural critic: ... the more she attempted to be a 'bridge' . . between two cultures, not as an imitator but as a mediator, the more she was distanced from her own society" (p. 283). But Shafik was also an activist, and one could argue that her life demonstrates that successful feminist cultural critics and activists benefit from pragmatism as well as ideological commitment. A pragmatist Shafik was not; her ideology remained intact and unresponsive to the changing political and social climate around her, unlike some of her contemporaries, such as Amina al-Sa`id and Inji Iftatun. …