Women in the 1919 Egyptian Revolution: From Feminist Awakening to Nationalist Political Activism

By Ramdani, Nabila | Journal of International Women's Studies, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Women in the 1919 Egyptian Revolution: From Feminist Awakening to Nationalist Political Activism


Ramdani, Nabila, Journal of International Women's Studies


Abstract

The formation of a feminist consciousness in Egypt ran parallel with the country's rapid development as a modern state at the start of the 19th century. Technological advancements within Muhammad Ali's increasingly capitalistic, secular country were accompanied by burgeoning intellectual thought among all sections of society, including women. By the end of the century, a middle-class female literary culture had become indelibly associated with a nationwide feminist awakening.

The feminist element to the wider independence movement was both vocal and powerful, as women rallied under the 'Egypt for the Egyptians' slogan. Elite women who had organised themselves politically had first taken part in nationalist demonstrations in March 1919, and were to become a critical force in achieving the partial removal of the British from Egypt in 1922. Nationalism also became a vehicle for specific feminist demands.

So it was that two dynamic and overlapping ideologies--nationalist and feminist--combined to create a formidable campaigning force which would have a compelling effect on the progress of Egyptian society. Radical calls for change being made by a pioneering women's movement strengthened the nationalist cause. In turn, feminists gained from their close association with the nationalists, using their connections to build up their own power base.

Keywords: Egypt, Nationalism, Feminism.

Introduction

The formation of a feminist consciousness in Egypt ran in parallel with the country's rapid development as a modern state at the start of the 19th century. Technological advancements within Muhammad 'Ali's increasingly capitalistic, secular country were accompanied by burgeoning intellectual thought among all sections of society, including women. The whole nation was united in criticising the way the occupying British had used their country for their own ends, demeaning the interests of the indigenous population, from the peasant masses up to the educated elites. This gave rise to numerous variations of Egyptian nationalism, all of which were eventually to play a part in seeing at least nominal native rule introduced.

The feminist element to this movement was both vocal and powerful, as women rallied under the 'Egypt for the Egyptians' slogan. Nationalism was certainly an obvious vehicle for feminist demands. So it was that two dynamic and overlapping ideologies--nationalist and feminist--merged to create a formidable campaigning force which would have a compelling effect on the progress of Egyptian society. Radical calls for change being made by a pioneering women's movement strengthened the nationalist cause. In turn, feminists gained from their close association with the nationalists, using their connections to build up their own power base.

Before 1919 there was a widespread perception that women were not involved in Egypt's nationalist struggle. Middle East historian Thomas Philipp noted the 'total lack of political involvement and the almost complete absence of patriotic nationalist expression' before 1919. (2) Other historians have largely drawn attention to the role women played in the Revolution of 1919 per se. That year was actually viewed as a turning point as far as Egyptian feminism was concerned. (3) The overlap between an emboldened nationalist consciousness and a women's awakening meant feminist progress was often blurred by nationalistic advancement. Thus the endeavours of women's rights campaigners in the decades leading up to the war have been largely overlooked in the scholarly debate. This article will attempt to bridge this gap in the literature.

This paper will examine how a women's movement started to take shape in Egypt at the end of the 19th century, with the appearance of women's journals expressing the feminist cause. It will trace its progress up until the early 1920s when the Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU) was formed. …

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