From Cairo to Kabul and Back Again: Exploring Early 20th Century Women’s Movements through the Movement of Women

By Marya Hannun
Submitted to Session P5131 (Narrating Transnational Arab and Muslim Womanhood, 2018 Annual Meeting
Arab Studies;
Over the past three decades, the study of nationalisms and state-building in the Middle East and North Africa has benefited greatly from critical attention to women, gendered notions of modernity, and transformations of the nuclear family and domesticity. Scholars examining emergent forms of citizenship have increasingly centered women and their bodies, first as sites, and more recently as agents of reform. However, despite these advances, the study of nationalisms remains largely stuck within the bounded nation. While this may seem logical enough, as David Ludden noted in his 2003 presidential address to the Association for Asian Studies, historians, particularly those of Asia, must be careful not to “read our present-day national sentiments into the histories of previous ages.” National sentiments emerged and solidified in an increasingly mobile and connected world. It is this transregional dimension of gendered modernity that this paper explores. Specifically, by exploring the interaction between Afghan and Arab women’s reform movements, I decenter both the nation and the “Arab world”. I focus on the travels of Hanifa Khouri, an Arab writer and activist who published in the Egyptian press of the 1920s. She was invited to Kabul on behalf of the famous Afghan Queen Soraya, after the Queen’s visit to Cairo in early 1928. Queen Soraya was herself born to a Syrian mother and spent her early childhood in Damascus. I analyze these two figures’ narratives and the popular narratives surrounding them in the context of regional reform and transformations in women’s education, the press, and activism in both Egypt and Afghanistan in order to illustrate how new ideas about women’s education, domesticity, and activism circulated between national boundaries not just through Empire or the Pan Islamic press, but through the south-south movement of elite women themselves as both symbols and agents of modernity.