Early Women’s Movements in Egypt and Morocco: Domestic Concerns, Transnational Currents

By Anny Gaul
Submitted to Session P5131 (Narrating Transnational Arab and Muslim Womanhood, 2018 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
Gender/Women's Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper revises understandings of early Arab women’s movements in two ways. First, it highlights the transnational nature of these movements by tracing flows of both women themselves and their ideas as they traveled beyond national and regional borders. Secondly, it connects the academic literature on modern domesticity in the Arab world with academic work on early women’s movements, detailing precisely how ideas about domesticity and domestic education travelled between metropole and colony and across south-south axes. Using examples from Egypt and Morocco, the paper draws on memoirs, oral histories, letters, periodicals, and archival documents to re-evaluate these movements through the lens of social class.

Egyptian activist Huda Sha’rawi is often referenced in terms of her advocacy for Egyptian independence and women’s political rights, as well as her charitable work. This paper, however, specifically explores Sha’rawi and her organization, the Egyptian Feminist Union, in terms of their attitude towards domestic science education and its role in the modern Egyptian educational system. Experiences informed by her travels in Europe and her circulation within transnational women’s organizing circles in the 1910s and 20s led Sha’rawi to prioritize domestic science as an essential component of women’s education. These experiences led her to create opportunities for multiple other Egyptian women to travel to England to study domestic science in depth and subsequently return to write new curricula for Egyptian schoolgirls. In turn, the work of Egyptian activists like Sha’rawi was referenced by Moroccan women activists in the 1930s and 40s, who like Sha’rawi were urban elites connected to prominent nationalists. Just as Egyptian activism was deeply informed by European and other Eastern reform movements, the work of early Moroccan women’s movements led by women like Malika al-Fassi––including their embrace of modern domesticity ideology––cannot be fully understood without attention to the Egyptian precedent.

Scholars of gender have described these kinds of actors and movements in terms of “relational feminism”: a gender politics advocating for women’s access to education and other rights, but in the context of a system of complementary gender roles in which women are cast as mothers and caregivers. By tracing one strand of this political field, domestic education, this paper highlights the shared class position of the elite women who promoted it while broadening the context of early Arab women’s movements as extending beyond national borders.