Egyptian Feminism and the Struggle for Women’s Rights, 1923-1979

By Yasmin Shafei
Submitted to Session P4760 (Postcolonial Arab Feminisms: Past Meets Present, 2017 Annual Meeting
Gender/Women's Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Although much has been written about Egypt’s feminist movement during the twentieth century, few have explored the intersections between the state, the feminist movement and Islamist forces. The ‘woman question’ in Egypt has historically developed into a contested ideological battle between these multiple discourses, the dynamics of which have seldom been considered simultaneously in the literature.

This study explores how state policies have both reproduced gender inequalities as well as appropriated the ‘woman question’ within its own rubric of national priorities. The study argues that an adequate understanding of the status of women in Egypt must be grounded in a thorough analysis of the state’s historical transformation and its political project. The state’s relationship with the feminist movement has been characterised by its attempt to control these forces through a careful oscillation between granting women particular rights whilst avoiding the risk of offending the patriarchal interests of Islamist forces. Ultimately, the state and the various Islamist forces sought to retain patriarchal control over women, as evidenced by modest legislative reforms pertaining to women’s rights.

Specifically, the development of personal status laws in Egypt, which have mirrored the development of the Egyptian feminist movement and its relationship with the state, will be used as a key marker of the progress of women. Despite the literature on the historical development of the feminist movement, there has been no analysis of changes in personal status laws. This is particularly significant, given that the development of more equitable laws for women has been slow. The study will begin with the Constitution of 1923, marking the beginning of a recurrent process in which the state would solicit women’s political support, subsequently failing to grant them equal rights and reform personal status laws.

A number of relevant works have helped guide this study. The important work by Kumari Jayawardena, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, links the emergence of feminist movements to nationalist struggles. Laura Lee Downs work explores the significance of conceptions of power in analysing the development of gender history. The works of both Mirvat Hatem as well as Elizabeth Thompson will be instrumental in understanding how women have been co-opted into reproducing nation-state collectivities. In understanding the Egyptian feminist movement, the works of Leila Ahmed, Margot Badran, Nikki Keddie, Nadje Al-Ali and Beth Baron will be instrumental.