The Three Pleas of Jalila: Negotiating Poverty and Patriarchy, 1908-1913

By Hoda Yousef
Submitted to Session P4094 (The View from the Edge: Decentered Histories of Modern Egypt, 2015 Annual Meeting
LCD Projector without Audio;
Jalila, daughter of Jirjis Sa'd, was a mother of eight living in the provincial capital of Shibin al-Kum to the north of Cairo. In December of 1908, Jalila sent a petition to the Egyptian Khedive’s administration requesting free admittance for two of her sons at the only secondary school in her area. Within the month, the younger of the two, Nikola, was happily attending classes. However, Jalila had further concerns to attend to and, over the next five years, sent additional requests as she sought to improve her and her family’s financial situation. By her own account, Jalila wrote frequently between the years of 1908 and 1913. Three of these letters, saved in the Egyptian National Archive among the many thousands of petitions that the have survived from this period, tell the details of her affairs and ordeals over these years. The fortunate happenstance that she received a favorable response to her first plea encouraged her to write, and write often—to no avail. Her subsequent letters went unanswered.

Nevertheless, while of little recompense to their creator, fortunately for us, these petitions paint an evocative picture of what it meant to be a poor woman at the margins of the economic, political, and religious centers of her time. Jalila was an active advocate for her children, on paper and in person. She plotted and planned attempts to improve her family’s situation. And most of all, she did so by appealing to and subtly influencing the authority figures around her. Jalila was a woman who navigated the bureaucratic and discursive spaces available to her with a deft, if not always successful, awareness of what a woman of her position could possibly expect from her family, her community, and her government.

By tracing one woman’s struggles, this paper highlights how those at the periphery of Egyptian society sought to “work the system” in order to raise their economic and social profiles. Using what James Scott has called “weapons of the weak,” Jalila emphasized her poverty and gender as she negotiated with family members, local and central government officials, and school administrators. Despite her efforts, ultimately, her successes and failures were as precarious as the life she lived at the edge of Egyptian society.