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A Glance at the State Of Egyptian Women Today, In Contrast To Their Role in Egypt's National Struggle across Eras, If Not Epochs, Reveals How Far Egypt Has Regressed In the Last 40 Years


By Ahmed El-Sayed Al-Naggar

19 Jun 2014

In Egypt, the initial three-quarters of the 20th century had shaped an era of struggle for enlightenment and the achievement of equality between women and men.

Such progress was a strong and swift extenuation to the harbingers of development in the 19th century. Yet starting from the second half of the 1970s, the values of enlightenment collapsed, as former President Anwar El-Sadat resorted to the help of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups in his confrontation with leftists and Nasserists. Such groups regard women as inferior, and are characterised by a backward view on the matter.

In addition, due to the mass migration of Egyptian workers to the Gulf, transporting back the conservative values of that region upon their return, and due to the high incomes of the men who travelled to find jobs in the Gulf, there was a decreased need for women to work, rendering a reduced percentage of women's economic participation. In the same vein, the humane and enlightened view of women as human beings and partners was replaced by a backward view, confining women's image to creatures fit only for procreation and pleasure.

Egyptian women were given full suffrage rights in 1956, which was early by comparison to the rest of the world. Still, up to the previous parliament, elected following the 2010 general election, and before adoption of a quota allotted to women candidates, women made up a mere two percent of seats in Egyptian parliament, compared to approximately 11 percent in Morocco, 23 percent in Tunisia, 12 percent in Syria, 45 percent in South Africa, 18 percent in Indonesia, 21 percent in Italy, 18 percent in France, and 33 percent in Germany, according to the World Bank. After the adoption of a quota system for women in the 2010 election, 62 women made it into parliament, alongside another woman who was appointed, and two women from the then-ruling National Democratic Party, (Amal Othman as Dokki and Agouza representative for "workers", and Laila El-Refai El-Morsy on the "peasants" list as a representative for Aga in El-Dakahlia governorate).

These wholly rigged elections, through which ousted dictator Mubarak sought to nationalise political life in a foolish manner, were a key factor in the escalation of a state of political tension with his regime, which ultimately detonated in the massive revolution leading to his ouster in 2011.

There is no doubt that the weakness of citizenship as the basis for social, economic and political relations has greatly impacted access, or a lack thereof, to a fair and equal share of opportunities in education, since all sectarian, familial, ethnic, racial and religious references are generally less equitable to women.

A civilisation's inheritance also shapes the development of a society's vision of women, their education and political, economic and social roles. In addition, the nature of the relationship between religion and the state strongly impacts the state's perception of the roles of women, their education, their participation with men on an equal footing in all fields, and its perception of its duty to cultivate, freeze, or confine such roles.

The changes in the order of the values of learning, education and justice in the value system of society reflect on the issue of women education also. Any decline in these values is doubly reflected on women, due to the chauvinism pervading conservative societies and the extended opportunities for men in sectors that depend on physical strength rather than skills cultivated through education.

Focusing governmental investment on infrastructure projects renders job opportunities biased to the uneducated, and decidedly based against women, since such jobs demand the physical aptitude of men, and hence, an environment that is inhospitable and non-conducive to the education of women is created. And with regression in the economic and educational role of women within the family, her standing in society also takes a tumble, and her image deteriorates.

Also, periods of economic crisis and rising unemployment rates, and the associated struggle for limited employment, are characterised with an intensified discrimination against women, particularly with regards to education and the penetration of educated women in the labour market. This is all despite the fact that the significant presence of women breadwinners amplifies the need to educate women, so that they could improve their chances in the labour market, and their potential incomes, and their ability to support their families and provide a decent life for them.

Women of the past two centuries: Symbols of struggle and enlightenment

The early pioneers of education in Egypt fought a real struggle for the dissemination of education in general, and women's education in particular, in controversial societies, for nearly two centuries. And this struggle has formed a crucial part of the leadership of Egypt in the Arab world and globally in that regard. Egypt was not a precedent merely for Arab states, but it overshadowed the vast majority of developing countries, as well as some countries in Southeast Europe.

And it is true that some women from the elite classes were home-schooled for many years, and that education in schools in its modern sense started around 178 years ago. In 1832, a public school was established for midwifery, designed to graduate women with the ability to provide medical services to women. French physician Clot Bey supervised the school. It was followed years later by the "Al-Seyoufeya" school for girls in 1873, which was founded with the financial assistance of the wide of Khedive Ismail. The school's name was later changed to The Saneya School for Girls, and it is the most famous school for girls in Egypt's education history, awarding the primary school education certificate and the teacher's certificate.

The school was established shortly after the release of the book The Guide to Educating Girls and Boys by one of the enlightenment pioneers in Egypt, Refaa Rafea El-Tahtawy. Tahtawy had called in his book for the necessity of "exerting effort to educate both girls and boys to improve relationships between married couples, for when girls learn to read and practice maths, this feeds their mind, and renders them more fit for conversation with men and enables the exchange of opinion among them, which elevates them in men's hearts and expands their standing." Tahtawy emphasised that, "Education can empower women to do the work of men, within the scope of her strength and energy."

Unlike these two governmental schools, there were schools for foreign communities and missionaries, which were private schools for girls. Yet these were not frequented by Egyptians. And there were religious schools such as the school established by Coptic associations in 1860 to meet the growing role of missionary schools that were contributing to the conversion of some Orthodox Copts to Catholicism or Protestantism, and the school established by Islamic associations in 1878. And within the convoy of education and culture pioneers in Egypt is Aisha El-Taymoureya, who had Kurdish roots but was by birth, life experience and culture loyal to Egypt. She was one of the pioneers of poetry and literature in the 19th century.

Nabaweya Mousa (1951-1886) was a relentless fighter for the rights of girls to education and equality with men in status and pay. And she was the first student to earn a high school certificate like men, and subsequently to earn comparable pay as a teacher in the Abbas Primary School. She wrote excellent books for primary school students, and her most famous book, besides her autobiography, was Women and Work, in which she presented a glorious defence of the right of women to work. And she had a strong and vibrant sense of national pride and patriotism, and she fought for Egyptianising the department of education, which was then controlled by British colonialists. The Ministry of Education punished her for her efforts, yet she did not yield and went on to manage the schools "Banat Al-Ashraf" and to write journalistically. She deserved to be one of the immortal names that were given to Egyptian schools in the enlightenment era until the mid-1970s, before religious and political names and the names of owners showed up on these schools, removing the values of education, enlightenment and patriotism that the names that belonged to the pioneers of education and the stars of enlightenment in Egypt represented.

In Egypt's history, there is a long list of education, culture and enlightenment pioneers fighting for the participation of women and their equality with men, including Malak Helmy Nassef. She was the first girl to receive the primary school certificate from the governmental Saneya School in 1903, and the teacher's certificate in 1910. She was a speech-giver and a lecturer with a strong presence, and she died too early at the age of 32.

The convoy of pioneers also includes Huda Shaarawi, Ceza Nabrawy, the great thinker and novelist Latifa El-Zayat, and Soheir El-Qalmawy, who was the first to receive a PhD in literature from the Egyptian University (what would later become Cairo University). Also among the list is Fatma Yousef or Roz Al-Yousef, with her strong character and her diverse artistic and journalistic skills, and who established the popular magazine in her name, which still exists. Also prominent is the Islamic thinker Aisha Abdel Rahman, famous as "Daughter of the Shore", and Esther Fahmy Wissa, who fought for Egypt's independence, caring for women in poverty, and equality between women and men. And Palestinian-born writer May Zeyada, who was one of the foremost symbols of culture and enlightenment in Egypt in the first half of the 20th century. And the prominent journalist Ameen El-Saeed, and Doreya Shafik, who was among the first women to earn a doctoral degree, and who was bold in her journalistic work and her views, and fearless of any ramifications in facing an oppressive government, while being very patriotic.

Also among the list would be visual artist Injy Efflatoun, unionist Aida Fahmy, the most famous rebel in rural Egypt, Shahenda Maqlad, and prominent unionist Ameena Shafik, and many others across Egypt and the Arab world.

In addition to all these, there are the pioneers in the arts, penetrating the field and becoming icons in the art world. In the field of music, Um Kolthoum emerged, as well as Asmahan, Moneera El-Mahdeya, Fatheya Ahmed, Lorda Cash, Laila Murad, followed by Sabah, Shadya, Fayza Ahmed, Nagat El-Sagheera, and the legendary Palestinian-born Lebanese singer Fayrouz, who left Palestine with her family as a refugee because of criminal Zionist gangs and moved to Lebanon. Also prominent was folk music leader Khadra Mohamed Khedr.

In theatre and cinema many leading lights emerged, such as Fatma Rushdy, Ameena Rizk, Fardos Mohamed, Rakia Ibrahim, Sameeha Ayoub, Madeeha Yousry, Sanaa Gameel, Taheya Karioka, Zeinat Sedky, and Wedad Hamdy. And the golden generation in the 1950s and 60s featured Shadya, Hend Rostom, Nadya Lotfy, Maryam Fakhr El-Din, Faten Hamama, Magda, Lobna Abdel-Aziz, and the legend Soad Hosny, and Nedal El-Ashkar, Hayat El-Fahd and many others who contributed to the development of cinema and theatre in Egypt and the Arab world.

As for Asia and Aziza Amir, they are considered to be the most important film producers in the history of Arab cinema, and they are to be credited with the development of the seventh art in Egypt, which is considered to be the real nucleus of Arab cinema.

There are many men and women who took part in the battle for women's right to education, and equality in education, employment and pay, and political participation. And during this struggle for independence and the societal battle for freedom, justice and equality, rebels emerged across the Arab world, from Egypt to Algeria, Iraq, Syria, Palestine and other Arab countries who ventured into this struggle and were repaid with their share of torture and imprisonment. And many were martyred for their national duty, just like men. The Algerian Gameela Bouhreid can be considered one of the fiercest Arab revolutionists against French occupation, and one of the most famous in the Arab world and with her, a group of rebels and martyrs from Algeria and the Arab world, chronicling the heroism of the Arab woman and her participation with men in defending their nations and in the fight for independence.

The struggle for the dissemination of education in general and for women’s education in particular is linked to social development in historical countries such as Egypt. It is linked to overriding tribal and clan societies, to forming nation-states in many other Arab countries. It has also been linked to the struggle against Ottoman and European colonialism, which left a shadow over the Arab world. Ahmed Lotfy El-Sayed, who was one of the students of Sheikh Mohamed Abdo, and the thinker Qassem Amin, a pioneer of women liberation and author of the two famous books Liberating Women and The New Woman, was of the opinion that whoever seeks independence should use his tongue, pen, energy and money to develop education, for education is the one and only factor to bring about independence.

And this vision stems from a deep-seated belief in education and its impact, although it may seem exaggerated, because without a strong social, patriotic and humanitarian stance, alone education would not lead to achieving independence. Ahmed Lotfy El-Sayed believed that the purpose of education was much higher than merely to graduate employable youth. He believed that the purpose of education is to reduce the disparities that naturally exist among the population of a single nation, and to increase the similarities between them so that their likes and hopes would converge, and they would share a vision of the events that surround them.

And Lotfy El-Sayed possessed a just and wise opinion with regards to the enrolment of girls in university education. When the Egyptian University was converted to a public university in 1925, many of the faculty deans who were supportive of women's education called for the university's acceptance of women students with high school diplomas. El-Sayed realised that the issue was a thorny one, and the force of rejection of the enrolment of women would be too massive, so he established an agreement with faculty deans to accept women students without an official announcement on the matter. Still, this agreement did not put an end to the commotion over mixing boys and girls in university. Yet he was unmoved by such grievances, because according to him, he was "certain that social evolution is on our side, and that that evolution cannot be thwarted, and the definition of justice is to equate a brother and his sister in their full rights, and that on our side, above all, is the welfare of the nation, and that can be achieved through the structure of the Egyptian family being of a state that matches our hopes for national development."

The truth is that the battle of higher education was not an easy battle. It was a real war between the forces of enlightenment and the forces of backwardness and darkness. Qassem Amin mobilised all his religious and secular arguments to push for the idea of women's education, so that they would become enlightened wives and mothers, able to manage the modern family budget and secure a healthy upbringing for their children. The national university initially accepted 32 female students without officially announcing it. In 1909, a department for women students was established. Yet it was closed in 1912, and after converting the national university into a public university — King Fouad I University, which later became Cairo University — girls were accepted into the university despite opposition from conservative forces.

The forgotten heroes of Menoufia, Mansoura, Beheira and Alexandria

This struggle, and the heroism of women, was an important factor in confirming the entitlement of Arab women to equality with men in all walks of life, particularly in the field of education. In Egypt, women from Menoufia in the "Ghamreen" and "Tata" villages participated in fierce fighting against French invaders in 1798, prompting one of the officers belonging to the French campaign to describe the incident as a valiant attack by the village women on French soldiers. Yet the army used its modern weapons for mass murder in both villages, and more than 400 men and women were killed by the criminal French invaders.

And in Mansoura, women participated with men in the revolt against the French garrison there in August 1798, attacking those garrisons in defence of their homeland and in protest at occupation, before the immoral and inhumane French army responded with an extermination expedition pitched against the valiant people of the city.

In Damanhour, which also fought the French army valiantly, the men and women of the city joined forces in a historic battle in which they achieved an influential victory for Egypt's modern history: they fought and defeated the forces of Mohamed Bey El-Alfy, leader of the Mamluks, who the Ottoman state, with British complicity, wanted to use to put a stop to the popularly supported rule of Mohammad Ali, and to regain its backward and diseased control over Egypt.

The participation of women in national wars against invaders, the French colonialists and later the British, highlighted the importance of the role of women in the crucial issues of the nation, and thus paved the way for the ideas of gender equality. Women played a significant role in helping men to resist Napoleon's expedition, which was by far the most horrid and dishonourable foreign military campaign in the modern history of Egypt. The French had killed many of those who called for development in Egypt; they killed around about 300,000 Egyptians in three years of barbaric murders and criminal acts against people who proved from the first moment that they are immune to occupation by these European colonists.

And women also played a significant role in the people's war against the British in their attack on Rasheed (Rosetta) in 1807.  The Fraser expedition was crushed and expelled from Egypt in shame and defeat, thanks to the coming together of men and women in their resistance in Rasheed, which became an exemplary case in popular resistance, not only in Egypt, but the world over.

In the British attack on Egypt in 1882, Alexandrian women participated in supporting men and the Egyptian army. Women participated in popular resistance against the British to prevent their progress within Egypt's land. Even upper class women contributed by donating to the army to support its resistance to the criminal British invasion of Egypt. Khedive Ismail's mother donated her carriage's horses to the army.

In general, women in Egypt and in many Arab countries have a proven track record in the arena of national struggle, which contributed to the promotion of equality with men in education, employment and their permeation into leadership positions in all fields.

Yet, what has already been settled on the issues of education and participation of women in all fields of work in an equal manner to men in both pay and rights is now revisited and threatened by the endless drainage of the Arab mind by conservative groups with religious references.

This seems strange in a country such as Egypt, in particular, where the battle for enlightenment and equality between men and women in the modern era started at a very early stage, dating back nearly 180 years. Women in Egypt got suffrage rights in 1956; only 11 years after women in France and Italy were allowed the right to vote. Also, Egypt's long history, which prologues the world's written history, features large roles for women, and a moral inheritance in equality with men on many issues that places Egypt as a frontrunner in the world since the era of the Ancient Egyptians, at which time women had the right to own property and manage it without guardianship, and reached the top of the social and political hierarchy, since there were queens at the head of the state in Egypt in different eras.

Many queens have filled important roles in governing the country, and many have performed critical roles in the national struggle against foreign occupation, particularly in the 17th Dynasty that lead to Egypt emoting the occupation of "Haqkhasot", which is translatable from hieroglyphics to "Rulers of the foreign country", which are known as the Hyksos, who occupied Egypt for two centuries before being expelled and erased completely in 1550 BC. This great role for Egyptian women in ancient history deserves to be the subject of an article on its own, to remind current generations of the progress of Egypt thousands of years ago.

Any who contemplate the history of struggle of Egyptian women, and survey the progress they have made, and their social, political, educational and practical participation in the struggle for enlightenment, would be overcome with sorrow over the current state of societal perception of women. It is certain that the massive participation of women in the great revolution of 25 January 2011, and its second massive wave on 30 June 2013, and in all political events, will open gates for a new future of enlightenment and gender equality, in reference to the new constitution, which is outstanding in this regard. As for all the remnants of backwardness, bullying, immorality and harassment and moral decay, society and the state must together fight relentlessly to crush them, and to uphold the values ​​of the enlightenment and gender equality, to build a future worthy of the value and stature of Egypt's culture and history.