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The Women's Awakening in Egypt

The Women's Awakening in Egypt: Culture, Society, and the Press

Copyright Date: 1994
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 270
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  • Book Info
    The Women's Awakening in Egypt
    Book Description:

    Between 1892 and 1920 nearly thirty Arabic periodicals by, for, and about women were produced in Egypt for circulation throughout the Arab world. This flourishing women's press provided a forum for debating such topics as the rights of woman, marriage and divorce, and veiling and seclusion, and also offered a mechanism for disseminating new ideologies and domestic instruction. In this book, Beth Baron presents the first sustained study of this remarkable material, exploring the connections between literary culture and social transformation.Starting with profiles of the female intellectuals who pioneered the women's press in Egypt-the first generation of Arab women to write and publish extensively-Baron traces the women's literary output from production to consumption. She draws on new approaches in cultural history to examine the making of periodicals and to reconstruct their audience, and she suggests that it is impossible to assess the influence of the Arabic press without comprehending the circumstances under which it operated.Turning to specific issues argued in the pages of the women's press, Baron finds that women's views ranged across a wide spectrum. The debates are set in historical context, with elaborations on the conditions of women's education and work. Together with other sources, the journals show significant changes in the activities of urban middle- and upper-class Egyptian women in the decades before the 1919 revolution and underscore the sense that real improvement in women's lives-the women's awakening-was at hand. Baron's discussion of this extraordinary trove of materials highlights the voices of the female intellectuals who championed this awakening and broadens our understanding of the social and cultural history of the period.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16226-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. 1-10)

    When the monthly journalal-Fatah(The young woman) appeared in Alexandria, Egypt, in November 1892, its editor Hind Nawfal called it the “first of its kind under the Eastern sky” and promised to “adorn its pages with pearls from the pens of women.” Hind explained that she had establishedal-Fatahto defend women’s rights and express their views, and she called on women to send in their literary contributions. “Do not imagine that a woman who writes in a journal is compromising her modesty or violating her purity and good behavior,” she assured her readers.¹Al-Fatahwas the first in...

  5. Part One From Production то Consumption

      (pp. 13-37)

      Women’s journals appeared at a well-documented moment in Egyptian history. Yet the women who edited or owned journals generally sought to avoid the public eye and rarely left memoirs or autobiographical accounts. As a result, information about their lives is sketchy and must be patched together from a variety of sources, including biographical dictionaries, archival materials, and close readings of their own works. Syrians tended to write more about one another and left a longer trail than Egyptians, but even their record is sparse. This chapter sets the individual biographies of the women who founded the women’s press in the...

      (pp. 38-57)

      Although women had composed Arabic verse from pre-Islamic times and written throughout Islamic history in Spain and elsewhere,¹ women began writing in greater numbers in Egypt at the end of the nineteenth century. This first generation of women writers overcame social, psychological, and ideological obstacles to break out of isolation and generate printed texts. By 1920 observers no longer wondered why so few women wrote but marveled instead at the numbers of women who had joined thenahda.

      Many aspects of the general Arabic cultural revival known as the nahda remain matters of dispute. Was it a “renaissance” of classical...

      (pp. 58-79)

      The story of the emergence of the Arabic women’s journal as a recognizable form is one of transmission and appropriation of culture. The idea came from abroad but was reshaped according to regional tastes. In the hands of female editors and owners, it became a vehicle for giving women greater access to print culture. Women’s journals provided a group on the margins of the literary world with an opportunity to produce texts and disseminate ideas and thereby to promote their programs for social reform.

      Producing a journal was an economic as well as a cultural undertaking, a business made possible...

      (pp. 80-100)

      Reading was not a new phenomenon for women in Egypt. Daughters of the ulama and others had occasionally been taught by tutors in medieval times,¹ and this pattern persisted into the early nineteenth century. Edward Lane found in the 1830s that although female children were seldom taught to read or write, ashaykha(learned woman) sometimes instructed the girls of the wealthiest families, and that a few middle-class girls attended school with boys. The central text for these lessons was the Qur’an.² In the 1860s an ’alim(cleric) in Luxor told a traveler that he was teaching his little girl...

  6. Part Two Texts and Social Contexts

      (pp. 103-121)

      Articles onhuquq al-mar’a(the rights of woman) appeared in the women’s press from its first years.¹ Yet debates about women’s roles and rights in Egyptian-Islamic society were hardly new. A tradition of literature prescribing roles for women and criticizing behavior as Islamic or un-Islamic stretched back centuries and included juristic works, behavioral guides, and biographical dictionaries, among other texts. The medieval ’alim Ibn al-Hajj, for example, wrote a polemic attacking women’s customs and manners in fourteenth-century Cairo, evidence that Muslim scholars disputed women’s interpretations of social and sexual boundaries.² The historical record preserved only the male accounts of the...

      (pp. 122-143)

      One of the central concerns of the women’s press, and an important rationale for its creation, was the education of girls. Almost all the women writers promoted education of one form or another—at the very least in the home—as a necessary first step, or full step, toward women’s progress. Their discussions were part of a national debate about education under occupation. Nationalists attacked the British policy on education and in particular state funding; during the first twenty years of the British occupation less than 1 percent of the state budget went to schooling. Although this was increased slightly...

      (pp. 144-167)

      Debates on girls’ education led directly to discussions of women’s work roles. The two subjects were inextricably linked, for most advocates agreed that education should prepare girls for their role in life and most pushed for a practical training. The central issue was not, however, whether women should work, but whether they should enter the wage labor force in numbers or work at home. In Egypt, and throughout the Arab world, women have not entered the labor force on a regular or permanent basis in large numbers, and as a result the region has one of the lowest wage labor...

      (pp. 168-187)

      In the late nineteenth century, charitable organizations, learned societies, and other types of associations began to emerge in Egypt. Like older indigenous forms of collectivity such as sufi orders and guilds, they were generally constituted along religious and gender lines and had important social dimensions.¹ But they were founded for new purposes and often patterned after European institutions. In developing their rituals and activities, these associations made important contributions to Egyptian culture and society. They also set the stage for political parties and served as a springboard to public activism. During this period women as well as men started associations,...

    (pp. 188-194)

    The phrase the women’s awakening (al-nahda al-nisa’iyya) ran through the women’s press and appeared as the name of organizations and publications. The phrase meant different things to observers, but the women’s awakening can best be seen as a movement for greater possibilities and expanded opportunities for women. Some women opposed the direction of change, the slow but perceptible breaking down of the system of segregation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Others tried to encourage reform toward greater integration. This latter vision eventually prevailed in spite of the odds and the opposition from varied quarters. The women’s awakening...

  8. NOTES
    (pp. 195-246)
  9. INDEX
    (pp. 247-259)