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A Lecture in the Club of the Umma Party

1909 — Club of the Umma Party, Cairo, Egypt


Ladies, I greet you as a sister who feels what you feel, suffers what you suffer and rejoices in what you rejoice. I applaud your kindness and accepting the the invitation to this talk where I seek reform. I hope to succeed but if I fail remember I am one of you and that as human beings we both succeed and fail. Anyone who differs with me or wishes to make a comment is welcome to express her views at the end of my talk.

Our meeting today is not simply for getting acquainted or for displaying our finery but it is a serious meeting. I wish to seek agreement on an approach we can take and to examine our shortcomings in order to correct them because complaints about both women and men are rife. Which side is right? Complaints and grumbling are not reform. I don’t believe a sick person is cured by continual moaning. An Arab proverb says there is no smoke without fire. The English philosopher, Herbert Spencer, says that opinions that appear erroneous to us are not totally wrong but there must be an element of truth in them. There is some truth in our claims and in those of men. At the moment there is a semi-feud between us and men because of the low level of agreement between us. Men blame the discord on our poor upbringing and haphazard education while we claim it is due to men’s arrogance and pride. This mutual blame which has deepened the antagonism between the sexes is something to be regretted and feared. God did not create man and woman to hate each other but to love each other and to live together so the world would be populated. If men live alone in one part of the world and women are isolated and another both will vanish in time. . . .

The question of monopolizing the workplace comes down to individual freedom. One man wishes to become a doctor, another a merchant. Is it right to tell a doctor he must quit his profession and become a merchant or vice versa? No. Each has the freedom to do as he wishes. Since male inventors and workers have taken away a lot of our work should we waste our time and idleness or seek other work to occupy us? Of course, we should do the latter. Work at home now does not occupy more than half the day. We must pursue an education in order to occupy the other half of the day but that is what men wished to prevent us from doing under the pretext of taking their jobs away. Obviously, I am not urging women to neglect their home and children to go out and become lawyers or judges or railway engineers. But if any of us wish to work in such professions our personal freedom should not be infringed. It might be argued that pregnancy causes women to leave work, but there are unmarried women, others who are barren or have lost their husbands or are widowed or divorced or those whose husbands need their help in supporting the family. It is not right that they should be forced into lowly jobs. These women might like to become teachers or doctors with the same academic qualifications. Is it just to prevent women from doing what they believe is good for themselves and their support? If pregnancy impedes work outside the home it also impedes work inside the house. Furthermore how many able-bodied men have not become sick from time to time and have had to stop work?

Men say to us categorically, “You women have been created for the house and we have been created to be breadwinners.” Is this a God-given dictate? How are we to know this since no holy book has spelled it out? Political economy calls for a division of labor but if women entered the learned professions it does not upset the system. The division of labor is merely a human creation. We still witness people like the Nubians whose men stay close for themselves and the household while the women work in the fields. Some women even climb palm trees to harvest the dates. Women in villages and both upper and lower Egypt help their men till the land and plant crops. Some women do the fertilizing, haul crops, lead animals, draw water for irrigation, and other chores. You may have observed that women in the villages work as hard as the strongest men and we see that their children are strong and healthy. 

Specialized work for each sex is a matter of convention. It is not mandatory. We women are now unable to do hard work because we have not been accustomed to it. If the city woman had not been prevented from doing hard work she would have been as strong as the man. Isn’t the country woman like her city sister? Why then is the former in better health and stronger than the latter? Do you have any doubt that a woman from Minufiya [a town in the Delta] would be able to be the strongest man from al-Ghuriya [a section of Cairo] in a wrestling match? If men say to us we have been created weak we say to them, “No it is you who made us weak through the path you made us follow.” After long centuries of enslavement by men, our minds rusted and our bodies weakened. Is it right that they accuse us of being created weaker than them in mind and body? Women may not have to their credit great inventions but women have excelled in learning and the arts and politics. Some have exceeded men in courage and valor, such as Hawla bint al-Azwar al-Kindi who impressed Umar ibn al Khattab with her bravery and skill in fighting when she went to Syria to free her brother held captive by the Byzantines. Joan of Arc who led the French army after its defeat by the English encouraged the French to continue fighting and valiantly waged war against those who fought her nation. I am not giving examples of women who became queens and were adept in politics such as Catherine, Queen of Russia; Isabel, Queen of Spain; Elizabeth, Queen of England; Cleopatra; Shajarat al-Durr, the mother of Turan Shah, who governed Egypt. Our opponents may say that their rule was carried out by their ministers who are men but while that might be true under constitutional rule it is not true under absolute monarchies.

When someone says to us that’s enough education it discourages us and pushes us backwards. We are still new at educating our daughters. While there is no fear now of our competing with men because we are still in the first stage of education and our oriental habits still do not allow us to pursue much study, men can rest assured in their jobs. As long as they see seats in the schools of law, engineering, medicine, and at university are occupied by us, men can relax because what they fear is distant. If one of us shows eagerness to complete her education in one of these schools I am sure she will not be given a job. She is doing that to satisfy her desire for learning or for recognition. As long as we do not work in law or become employed by the government would our only distraction from raising children be reading a book or writing a letter? I think that is impossible. No matter how much a mother has been educated or in whatever profession she works this would not cause her to forget her children nor to lose her maternal instinct. On the contrary, the more enlightened she becomes the more aware she is of her responsibilities. Haven’t you seen ignorant women and peasant women ignore their crying child for hours? Were these women also occupied in preparing legal cases or in reading and writing?

Nothing irritates me more than when men claim they do not wish us to work because they wished to spare us the burden. We do not want condescension, we want respect. They should replace the 1st with the second….

Men criticize the way we dress in the street. They have a point because we have exceeded the bounds of custom and propriety. We claim we are veiling but we are neither properly covered nor unveiled. I do not advocate a return to the veils of our grandmothers because it can be rightly called being buried alive, not hijab, correct covering. The woman used to spend her whole life within the walls of her house not going out into the street except when she was carried to her grave. I do not on the other hand, advocate unveiling, like Europeans, and mixing with men, because they are harmful to us….

Veiling should not prevent us from breathing fresh air or going out to buy what we need if no one can buy it for us. It must not prevent us from gaining an education nor cause our health to deteriorate. When we have finished our work and feel restless and if our house does not have a spacious garden why shouldn’t we go to the outskirts of the city and take the fresh air that God has created for everyone and not just put in boxes exclusively for men. But, we should be prudent and not take promenades alone and we should avoid gossip. We should not saunter moving our heads right and left. If my father or husband will not choose clothes I like and bring them to the house, why can’t he take me with him to select what I need or let me buy what I want?…

The imprisonment in the home of the Egyptian woman of the past is detrimental while the current freedom of the Europeans is excessive. I cannot find a better model [than] today’s Turkish woman. She falls between the two extremes and does not violate what Islam prescribes. She is a good example of decorum and modesty.

I have heard that some of our high officials are teaching their girls European dancing and acting. I consider both despicable — a detestable crossing of boundaries and a blind imitation of Europeans. Customs should not be abandoned except when they are harmful. European customs should not be taken up by Egyptians except when they are appropriate and practical. What good is there for us in women and men holding each other’s waists dancing or daughters appearing on stage before audiences acting with bare bosoms and love scenes? This is contrary to Islam and a moral threat we must fight as much as we can. We must show our disdain for the few Muslim women who do these things, who otherwise would be encouraged by our silence to contaminate others. . . .

If we pursue everything Western we shall destroy our own civilization and a nation that has lost its civilization grows weak and vanishes. Our youth claim that they bring European women home because they find them more sophisticated than Egyptian women. By the same token, they should bring European students and workers to Egypt because they’re superior to our own. The reasoning is the same. What would be the result if this happens? If an Egyptian wife travels to Europe and sees the children there with better complexions and more beautiful than children in Egypt would it be right that she should leave her children and replaced them with Western children or would she do her best to make them beautiful and make them resemble as much as possible that what she admired and those other children? If the lowliest Western woman marrying an Egyptian is disowned by her family shall we be content with her when she also takes the place of one of our best women and the husband becomes an example for other young men? I am the first to admire the activities of the Western woman and her courage and I am the first to respect those among them who deserve respect, but respect for others should not make us overlook the good of the nation. Public interest is above admiration. In many of our ways we follow the views of our men. Let them show us what they want. We are ready to follow their views on condition that their views do not do injustice to us or trespass on our rights.

Our beliefs and actions have been a great cause of the lesser respect that men accord us. How can a sensible man respect a woman who believes in magic, superstition, and the blessing of the dead and who allows woman peddlers and washer women, or even devils, to have authority over her? Can he respect a woman who speaks only about the clothes of her neighbor and the jewelry of her friend and the furniture of a bride? This is added to the notion imprinted in a man’s mind that woman is weaker and less intelligent then he is. If we fail to do something about this it means we think our condition is satisfactory. Is our conditions had the saccarii? If it is not, how can we better it in the eyes of men? Good upbringing and sound education would elevate us in the eyes of men. We should get a sound education, not merely acquire the trappings of a foreign language and rudiments of music. Our education should also include home management, health care, and child care. If we eliminate immodest behavior on the street and prove to our husbands through good behavior and fulfillment of duties that we are human beings with feelings, no less human [than] they are and we do not allow them to under any condition hurt our feelings or fail to respect us, if we do all this, how can a just man despise us? As for the unjust men, it would have been better for us not to accept marriage to him. . . .

Now I shall turn to the path we should follow. If I had the right to legislate I would decree:

1. Teaching girls the Quran and the correct Sunna. 

2. Primary and secondary education for all girls, and compulsory preporatory school education for all. 

3. Instruction for girls on the theory and practice of home economic, health, first aid, and child care. 

4. Setting a quota for females in medicine and education so they can serve the women of Egypt. 

5. Allowing women to study any other advanced subjects they wish without restriction. 

6. Upbringing for girls from infancy stressing patience, honesty, work and other virtues. 

7. A hearing to the Shariah concerning betrothal and marriage, and not permitting any woman and man to marry without first meeting each other in the presence of the father or male relative of the bride. 

8. Adopting the veil and outdoor dress of the Turkish women of Istanbul. 

9. Maintaining the best interests of the country and dispensing with foreign goods and people as much as possible. 

10. Make it incumbent upon our brothers, the men of Egypt, to implement this program.



Source: Al-Nisaiyat, 1910.


Also: Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing, ed. Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) 1990, pp. 227-238.


Also: Sources in the History of the Modern Middle East, ed. Akram Fouad Khater. (New York: Houghton Mifflin) 2004, pp. 91-100.