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Muslim woman and intellectual in 20th century Egyptian public debate.

Lene Kofoed Rasmussen
University of Copenhagen


NB *This is the unedited paper as given at the Oslo conference. An updated and edited version has been published in Utvik and Vikřr, The Middle East in a Globalized World, Bergen/London 2000, 183-92. Please quote or refer only to the published article.*


Around the turn of the century a new public had emerged in Egypt. The forum for defining culture, i.e. values and meaning, had been moved from the circles of the teamed men of religion to the public with a wider audience and with various contributors. Among the new contributors to the public was the Muslim alim as educator and reformer, in the image of Mohammed Abduh and Rashid Rida; An intellectual with the task of promoting reform and education on the basis of Islam, his recognition conditioned by the perception of him having the moral capacity to speak on behalf of and to guide others.

What will concern me here is the question: Could the modem Muslim intellectual, inclined to reforms and education, yet taking Islam as a starting point, could this intellectual type be a woman?

This question grew out of my work on women Islamists in Cairo in the 1990s. I have been wondering why women activists of the Islamist movement are repeating, over and over again, that the 'true Muslim woman' is an educated woman with the above mentioned features of the intellectual? Most of these women are themselves professional and well-educated women, and those I will quote later in this presentation are as well contributing to the Egyptian public, through journalism, scholarly work and education, thus acting as modem Muslim intellectuals. Why this repeated claim of the obvious?

I will come back to these women and possible reasons for their repeated assertion of the Muslim woman as educated and educating. I will however in the beginning of this paper dwell a little on the decades around year 1900 as this period can be considered - for the woman question as well as other issues of the 20th century Egyptian public - as a formative period.

The questions I intend to answer are:

Did Muslim women contribute to the newly established public around the turn of the century? Was a new identity as modem Muslim intellectual cultivated by women? If yes, was the identity as Muslim woman intellectual recognized then? - and is this identity recognized today, not only as an exception, just tolerated, but as a commendable image of a Muslim woman?

The first question is an easy one to answer. A considerable amount of Muslim women did contribute to the public discourse around the turn of the century. Sufficient documentation for this has been presented by, among others, Beth Baron. In her The women's awakening in Egypt (1994) almost thirty journals between 1892 and 1920 "by, for, and about women" are listed. The women around the journals - writers and readers - made up a new community of educated women. In the early phase of this women's press Christian, mainly Syrian, women dominated, but after the first decade of the women's press Egyptians, both Christians and Muslims, became as prominent. The first woman's journal edited by an Egyptian Muslim woman appeared in Alexandria in 1901 entitled Shajarat al-Durr, (a medieval female ruler or sultana), but the editor, Sa'diyya Sa'd al-Din Zadeh, had, along with other Egyptian Muslim women, long contributed to other journals. In 1907 a journal entitled al-Rayhana(?) was the first one to promote women's rights within the context of Islam, also edited by an Egyptian Muslim woman, Jamila Hafiz. Only one year later the next journal of same orientation was launched, Tarqiyat al-Mar'a, The progress of woman, edited by Fatima Rashid. This was the monthly organ of The Society for woman's progress established same year, probably the first women's association in Egypt. Quoting Baron "the journal called for the application of the rights of woman granted by Islam, supported veiling and the separation of the sexes, and demanded a religious education for girls" (Baron 1994:28-29). And in 1910 a third Islamist woman's journal was founded: al-'Afaf (the virtue). Among the active female staff was Malak Hifni Nasif, later to be known under the pen name, Bahithat al-Badiya (searcher of the desert), as the most persistent advocate of women's rights within Islam in turn of the century Egypt.

According to Baron the women writers contributing to the women's press shared some features: First of all they belonged to the new middle class - the titles and professions of their fathers or husbands indicated so - and writings of the women reflected the concerns of this class. Regarding their education these women intellectuals attended sectarian, missionary and new state schools or were tutored at home. While male intellectuals studied subjects as law in government schools and often travelled abroad to earn advanced degrees and returned home to occupy positions as lawyers, judges, teachers and journalists, women, on the other hand focused in their studies on history, geography, language, and other subjects; they did not go abroad for further education and did not have many opportunities to take up a professional career. (ibid.:36)

The size and character of the audience of women's journals is hard to stipulate. The numbers printed, which did not raise above a few hundred for any of the journals, is not necessarily indicating that no more women read the journals. Reading aloud took place in cafés, from where women were excluded, but was as well practised at school and at home. It is however certain that the community of the readers was limited to the middle and upper classes, too - literacy and money for subscription were nevertheless prerequisites for taking part.

The audience, according to Baron, was active, contributing with inquiries, comments and critique on the readers page. In some occasions editors and waters "mingled with their readers in lectures, at philanthropic gatherings, during association meetings" and so on (ibid.:97).

However limited in reach a new public was established by and for women. But did it give raise to a new female subjectivity for the women involved? Did these women perceive themselves as intellectuals? This question is as well touched upon by Baron. But she, in my view, lessens the scope of the women's press unnecessarily when stating that these women writers did not see themselves as intellectuals. The argument is based on very little evidence. The only illustration given is one writers unwillingness to be portrayed by another on the ground that she did not perceive herself as being of "the people of knowledge". In a similar strain Baron is further diminishing the impact on women writers when stating that women were only accepted as writers, because this was not a "highly regarded profession", thus not carefully controlled either (ibid.:44). The status of the writing profession might have been more ambiguous. No doubt the writing profession was often condemned as immoral and decadent, but for both men and women the newly established public created a unique opportunity to assert themselves and in some cases to gain fame and celebration - which some women did as well as men.

When it comes to the Muslim women writers and editors Baron overemphazises the contradictions felt by women being Muslims and intellectuals, thereby revealing her own ambiguity towards veiled Muslim women. Most evident in her discussion of the practice of signing with pseudonyms. The practice of veiling and the practice of signing with pseudonyms are, on equal footing, put as a denial of the public existence of women: "Hiding a name in public by not pronouncing it was (also) akin to hiding a face in public by veiling and part of the same symbolic system" (ibid.:45). Men signed with pseudonyms as well, and not all women wrote under pseudonyms. But women might of course have had other reasons for doing so:

Many of the women writing in Egypt in this generation used pseudonyms to hide their family ties, with false names serving as veils. Cloaked in anonymity - faceless and nameless - the writers continued to deny their public existence.." (ibid.: 45).

Firstly - as Baron herself notes - there is no pattern indicating that those veiling also were those writing under pseudonym. On the contrary, the above mentioned Islamist journal first published in 1908, the Tarqiyat al-Mar'a, accepted contributions signed with real names only. Allegedly to "fight the tradition of referring to women only "by scornful allusions or whispers". They further argued "that signing a woman's name was not only permissible but obligatory, and that the appearance of women's names in the Prophet's time had set a precedent" (ibid.:49).

Secondly, and more important, those women writing under pseudonym did not conceal their sex; the signatures chosen by women were for example 'A woman from among you', 'An Egyptian woman' or 'A Muslim Egyptian Ottoman woman'... (ibid.: 46)

The former of these pseudonyms is stressing the collectivity of women readers and writers, the latter reflecting a developing sense of national consciousness; but significantly none of them are hiding the sex of the writer. In Barons own presentation a few examples of male writers writing under female names are given, but none of the opposite.

The widespread practices of hiding names and faces probably reflect the pressure on women to conform to the moral standards of society, but none of these practices excluded women from taking part in the cultivation of a new female subjectivity in public. We can assume that the women contributing to the public in this period, whether veiling or not, whether revealing their names or not, saw themselves as educated literally and morally, thus capable of educating others and reforming society.

This new subjectivity was asserted in a public concerned with creating a nation - a national identity under colonial rule. The woman question merged into a question of cultural authenticity and national identity. Leila Ahmed has better than any other analyzed the consequences. In the European cultural mission, which served as legitimation for the subjugation of parts of the Muslim world, a narrative linked the Muslim woman, symbolized by her veil, to Islamic backwardness. The language was that of the emergent feminism in Europe about the lack of rights of women, but the message was the backwardness of Islam. As a response a resistance narrative evolved in the Arab public in which the veil came to symbolize -

not the inferiority of the culture and the need to cast aside its customs in favor of those of the West, but, on the contrary, the dignity and validity of all native customs, and in particular those customs coming under fiercest colonial attack - the customs relating to women - and the need to tenaciously affirm them as a means of resistance to Western domination. (Ahmed 1992:164)

This narrative was evoked in the women's journals run by those who saw Islam as the appropriate weapon against all kinds of colonial domination, and later in the Islamist oriented women's movement established in the 1930s. An opposition evolved among those promoting the cause of women, between Islamic and liberal advocates. It seems - at least for a foreign observer - that the disagreement was not over women's issues:

Education of women were given highest priority by both strands. And both were concerned with women's rights in relation to marriage and divorce, though one promoting reforms, the other urging women to study the law, thus becoming capable of claiming their rights.

The cleavage seems more to be a matter of political loyalties and alliances, and the position of Islam in the Egyptian nation. The veil and the practices of Muslim women became part of another symbolic system than that of denying the public existence of women. The veil and the 'Muslimness' of the woman was now evoked as a symbol of resistance and national dignity. For some Muslim women a Muslim identity became a way of asserting a political and intellectual subject, a way to assert themselves as morally and intellectually equipped to guide others. This was the case in the first decades of the century. Remarkably, this technique of putting forward an absolute identity as Muslim woman is valid in the postcolonial present-day Cairo.

The question of women's public presence, their integration in the public, and the recognition of them as intellectuals have proved persistent themes, as evident in my interviews with women Islamists in the 1990s Cairo. I will quote a few Islamist women who have established themselves as intellectuals in the Cairene public in the 1990s.

Mona Yunis is, besides being an Islamic activist, a teacher of profession and author of the novel, Wagh bila makiyadj, 'A face without makeup' (Cairo: Dar al-tawzi'a wal-nasher al-islamiyya 1993). Though not autobiographic the novel is reflecting her own path to becoming an Islamist, and she presents in it an appeal to Muslim women to take upon them a role as intellectual avantgarde:

Where is the educated woman who is taking the problems of society into consideration and at the same time referring to good, honourable objective books, telling the truth in accordance with God in every word (... ) Where is the believing (woman) journalist and poet? Where is the creative (woman) scholar? (pp. 61-62)

To Mona Yunis this implies as well approaching the Islamic texts:

More and more women start to dig themselves. They are not satisfied with what they hear about what is right and what is wrong - or for that matter what Islam is. So they go back to the sources themselves and try to dig up real Islam.(Personal interview November 1995)

Her own projects of 'digging up real Islam', or doing research, include a paper given in for a competition at al-Azhar on the societal role of the Muslim woman, and a study of fine arts; the latter out of a worry that Islamic opposition to fine arts is not appropriate and too traditional; "fine arts please the human nature so it cant be in opposition to Islam". She aims at correcting the misunderstanding

A third research project initiated by Mona Yunis shall be mentioned here, al though it is not based on Islamic sources. It was an investigation of the Egyptian school curriculum. Mona was astonished by the importance given to obedience in the Egyptian school books. She wanted to provide an Islamic critique of this. According to her, other values are more important in Islam, children have rights and not only duties in Islam, and, as she puts it, disobedience is sometimes needed!

Another Islamic activist is Sawsan Ayyub. She provides Islamic teaching for other women in the form of weekly lessons in various mosques in middle class areas of Cairo. When asked about her position vis-a-vis the Islamic sources, she underscores that she is not herself an interpreter but rather a guide for other women.

When I am asked to give the Islamic answer to a specific problem, I prefer to put it this way: 'One represent this issue one way, another, in another fashion'. I feel better when giving them more than one point of view. I prefer to let people think themselves and decide for themselves. There are so many verses and there are so many interpretations and there is nothing wrong with that, because it urges people to decide themselves and to think thoroughly before deciding. (personal interview May 1996)

Among her own preferred sources are Muhammad 'Abduh and Rashid Rida and the later Muhammad al-Ghazali. She regrets, that there is no women among her favorite writers, but as she says:

The Arab world is dominated by men. Women are now coming up, but so far none of them has produced as thorough and well documented work as men. (personal interview May 1996)

One of these upcoming women is the social scientist and former editor of a women's page in the Islamist journal al-Sha'b, Heba Raouf. Heba Raouf unlike Sawsan Ayyub addresses not only Muslim women but also Islamist men. Here she is informing me how to frame various women's issues when arguing with other Muslim intellectuals:

When you defend women's issues within the Islamic frame you are actually defending Islam itself. It is not like, I am defending my right. I am defending the Quran and the Prophet and I don't accept anyone to intrude and say 'God said so'. No, he did not, I have my two eyes and I can read, as well. My reply then is: 'Please, don't corrupt Islam', not 'don't be unfair to me'. It is like placing your course in a wider context. So they will shut up. If you say 'women's problem', they will say, 'ah, you are a feminist'. But if you say: 'Where is the question, show me where it is in the Quran', it is no longer a matter of women-men talk, but a matter of talking about Islamic sources. So:'Show me where it is'. And then, if it is written, is it right according to the Islamic methodology? - even the orthodox one? Tell me where it is, and then it is not a woman's issue anymore, it is an Islamic debate. (personal interview November 1994)

All three women present the woman as a victim in Egyptian society today. Here Sawsan Ayyub:

There is a frightening tendency in society at the moment. Not everybody understands Islam correctly, and some just follow anybody. (... ) Many sheiks today move in the wrong direction, saying you follow me, I will tell you what to do, don't read anything else. They don't allow people to think, they don't give them a chance to use their mind, it is like going to a doctor and have an operation, do this and do that. And all of these advises aim at closing the way of women, from all sides, her dress, her movements, and even her mind she should not think. (personal interview April 1997)

This argument is sharpened by Heba. At a seminar on Tahrir al Mar'a, The woman's liberation, in 1991 at the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT, Zamalek in Cairo), she, according to the seminar report (ed. Qaradawi 199 1), said:

When ulama, the learned men of Islam, instead of addressing political seduction and the corrupt handling of the law of God, start talking about the fitna of women, (the chaos that the sexuality of woman cause in society), the reason is that it is less dangerous for them than to criticise the authorities. More and more is written about the fitna of the woman, her tricks and her sins, as if there was nothing else to write about. When everybody abstain from writing on other problems on the political and social level, the reason is that women are under control, while it is dangerous to talk about the rulers. (Qaradawi 199 1, s. 25)

Here the woman is portrayed as present days scapegoat.

Instead of fitna these women try to relate closely another Islamic notion to the Muslim woman, that of da'wa, invitation or invitation to Islam. The concept is often translated into mission, and these women would not object to this meaning of the word. In their argumentation though da'wa becomes a self-practice: While arguing that the Muslim woman can practice da'wa by constituting a good example for others to follow, da'wa is turned into cultivation of the self in addition to the meaning of persuading others. This implies that the individual must educate and cultivate oneself.

The overall message is: The Muslim woman is a moral creature, capable of being an example for others to follow. Neither fitna nor backwardness is the main feature of the true Muslim women, but rather willingness and capability to form the avantgarde of the women of Islam leading the umma into the future.

Concluding remarks:

These women Islamists of the 1990s still arrange their experience in the resistance narrative of the colonial period. The context albeit is different, and so are the enemies. If asked to point out the overall enemy, these women would still answer the colonizers, the West, US, or maybe the Zionists. But the opposition between the colonizers and the colonized has been internalized in the Egyptian public; the West represents various Egyptian agents such as the westernized elite or the authorities.

Maybe more curiously, this platform for asserting oneself has proved efficient for addressing and sometimes attacking Islamist men. The educated Muslim woman can as well argue with and state their own interpretations in exchange with male Muslim intellectuals over the correct understanding of Islamic texts.

The women Islamists do not only address various Egyptian audiences, but also the global community. They were present at the NGO forums of the 1994 UN population conference in Cairo and the UN women's conference in Beijing the year after. Here the absolute identity put forward by them is most appropriate. Is such an identity claim not a precondition for gaining a voice in the global public?

Ironically, it is nowhere more salient that the essentialized component of the absolute identity is shifting - from the experience of being a Muslim woman or a Muslim being, to the experience of being of the third world, or - and here the East-West dichotomy breaks down - being among those opposing the world dominant anti-family trend.

At the NGO forum in Beijing in 1995 Islamist women launched a new slogan: "As a Muslim woman I have an opinion" (Jansen 1996:245). This quest for recognition, I suggest, is the core of the arguments of the modem Muslim intellectual woman, whether addressing the Egyptian or the global public.


Ahmed, Leila (1992): Women and Gender in Islam, Historical Roots of a Modem Debate. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Baron, Beth (1994): The Women's Awakening in Egypt. Culture, Society and the Press. Yale University Press, New Haven & London.

Jansen, Willy (1996): Dumb and Dull. The Disregard for the Intellectual Life of Middle Eastern Women. Thamyris, vol. 3, no. 2. Najde Press, Amsterdam.


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