Answering Amin: Early Responses to and Reformulations of “The Women Question”

By Hoda Yousef
Submitted to Session P3945 (Women, Education, and Empowerment, 2014 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
Between the 1899 and 1900 appearance of Qasim Amin’s two works on women’s rights in Egyptian society, almost 30 critiques appeared in print. In his second book, The New Woman, Amin continues his fight against those “religious leaders [who] are quite ignorant of the meaning of their religion … and are unable to consider their country except through an ugly image of outmoded manners and ridiculous traditions.” However, Amin’s one-sided back and forth obscures the exact nature of his detractors arguments. Were his critics, as Amin presents them, merely traditionalist railing against the new ideas of the future?

In some cases they were. However, as Leila Ahmed and Juan Cole have shown, these responses also betrayed more complex investments in class interests and concerns with colonial machinations. In this paper, I argue that taken together these works also represent their own re-interpretation of women’s roles in society. Rather than simply regurgitating “traditional” bromides about gender relations in an idealized Islamic society, many of these rebuttals confronted the same social changes Amin was wrestling with: the question of education for women, the role of women in Egyptian public life, and the political contests engendered by colonial domination. Ultimately, these counterarguments were shaped by the same positivist and modernist discourses that Amin himself used.

This paper will survey some of the more prominent responses to Amin, like Talat Harb’s Tarbiyat al-Marʾah wa-l-Ḥijāb (1899) and Muhammad Wajdī’s al-Marʾah al-Muslimah (1901) as well as several of the lesser known reactions from these early years: works like Jalis al-Anis (1899) by Muḥammad al-Būlāqī, Fasl al-Khitab (1901) by Mukhtār al-ʿAẓmī, and others that took Amin’s challenges seriously and sought to answer them in the context of a changing Egyptian society. Indeed, by engaging Amin, in public, through the press, and by way of debate, they too were reflecting and impacting the course of the early women’s movement. In many cases and in ways that are often undetected by researchers focused on the literature produced by the “new elites” of the Egyptian effendi class, these works provide an explanation for the less-than-enthusiastic reception women’s rights found in other parts of the Egyptian public. Understanding how these writers sought to “answer Amin” brings to the fore the other half of the debate that Amin was most certainly engaged in, but which has been ignored by our historical recollection of early feminist thought of the Middle East.