Sex Work and Protest in World War 1 Egypt

By Christopher S. Rose
Submitted to Session P5002 (Urban Imaginaries: Governing through Housing, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries; Gender/Women's Studies; History of Medicine;
On April 10, 1917, Dr. Alex Granville, director of the Alexandria Sanitary Service, filed sent a letter to the Ministry of the Interior regarding the fact that prostitutes were being treated in a government Lock Hospital in the Moharrem Bey district of Alexandria. Neighborhood residents, he reported, took exception to the treatment of prostitutes in their district and Dr. Granville demanded that the treatment facility be moved to somewhere less objectionable.

During the period of the British occupation, prostitution was legalized and well regulated by the Department of Public Health. Due to the influx of British troops during the war, the number of licensed prostitutes soared and special measures were taken to discover and treat both licensed and unlicensed prostitutes and, by late 1915, specific areas had been set off where licensed prostitutes could operate. With almost no exceptions, these red light districts were all located in Egyptian quarters of major cities—Alexandria, Cairo, Port Said, Ismailia, etc--away from neighborhoods where European administrators of the government and military were likely to live and to encounter them on a regular basis. A secondary factor of this relocation was that it (theoretically) made it more difficult for foreign troops to solicit the services of prostitutes and, when venereal disease infection rates became high among troops, to cordon off the red light districts entirely for a period of time.

What makes the complaint registered by Dr. Granville somewhat unique is that Moharrem Bey was a native quarter, and that the residents requesting the relocation of the hospital were native Egyptians, not Europeans.

This paper aims to discuss the implications of relegating legalized brothels and licensed sex workers (and their medical treatment) into native Egyptian quarters during the war. While European attitudes toward these quarters—routinely described as filthy, miasmic, smelly, etc.—are well documented and help explain why they were seen as appropriate sites for sex work, what is less documented is how the inhabitants of these quarters felt about hosting said brothels and sex workers in the neighborhoods where they lived and worked. As we have seen above, they did object, and they used legal means to do so when and where possible. What were the complaints and methods of protest? And what were the tensions with colonial and military administrators, as well as the troops, that resulted from this imposition?