Genesis of feminism in the Middle East
Feminism in the Muslim world emerged as a transnational movement through the work of several male and female scholars. Qasim Amin is historically considered the first intellectual who raised the issue of the women's question in the Islamic world. Egyptian born in Alexandria in 1865, he studied at Montpellier University in France and was among the founders of the first Egyptian university - Cairo University, founded in 1908 -, which allowed women to access the faculties of Literature and Medicine in 1928. At that time, Qasim wrote many texts to spread his thought, the most famous of which are Tahrir al-mar’ah (The emancipation of women) and al-Mar’ah al-gadidah (The new woman). Amin pushed to reform the laws related to marriage, calling for the raising of the minimum age, the regulation of divorce and the abolition of polygamy, thus arousing the anger of the conservatives.
In 1923 the Wafdist Women's Central Committee was formed, the only feminist political group, and, at the same time, on 16 March 1923, its president and well-known feminist Hoda Sha'rawi founded the Egyptian Feminist Union.
Among the feminists, we also find Malak Hifni Nasif, who, in the meeting room of the party "The Nation", held the first conference ever organised by an Egyptian woman for a female Egyptian audience. In 1901 she launched the first programme for Egyptian women wishing to become teachers, and in 1911 she was the only women to participate in the Islamic Congress in Heliopolis, Cairo. Here she proposed free higher education per women, the raising of the age for child marriages from 13 to 16 years and the possibility of not wearing the hijab. Even if she was not considered by the male majority, since she was the only woman present, she remained a symbol of the rising feminist debate.
Another woman who managed to get ahead was Nabawiyyah Musà, who became the first female Egyptian director of the municipal schools in 1909, the first female Egyptian director of the government schools in 1916 and the first female Egyptian inspector of the Ministry of Public Education in 1920. In 1923 compulsory education for both sexes was approved.
In 1937, it was detected that 91% of women could not read and write. This can be explained with the economic crisis of 1929 that had also affected Egypt - a country by then well integrated in the global economy -, and with the general preference of Egyptian families to get only the male components to work and study because they had better chances to ensure themselves a future; in particular in rural areas, women had to fight the prejudices of their families. However, it is necessary to highlight that the status of women - as in the West - differed according to the social class. The changes affected the middle and upper classes, and, with the push of the local schools promoted by the wealthy families, also a small part of the poor class that thus had the opportunity to get an education, learn crafts in laboratories and emulate the behaviour of their high-ranking benefactors. In rural areas, the peasant and bedouin classes remained unaffected by these winds of social reform.
However, it was thanks to the Egyptian Feminist Union and to the repeated social pressures - such as the decision of the two leading exponents Hoda Sha’rawi and Sizah Nabarawi to unveil on their return from the IX congress of the International Women Suffrage Alliance - that in 1926 there was a first reform to the Personal Status Code. Moreover, in 1929, as mentioned earlier, the access to university courses opened to women. To Sha'rawi, the veil was a social obstacle to the role of women in the public space. Women needed a better qualified education and a greater representation in the political arena. Hoda always recalled how in the Pharaonic Egypt and in the first Islam women were in a better status. The situation worsened with the domination of patriarchy on any other social hierarchy.
In those years, popular religious political movements were born as well; by taking advantage of the feminist push to a change of the country, they founded women's sections of the parties. A leading figure in this movement was Zainab al-Ghazali. The Muslim Sisterhood believed that the emancipation of women had to happen within an Islamic State, assuming that the Qur'an itself contained ideas of gender equality and protection of women. According to their leader Zainab, the state could and should be guided by religious precepts, not by the Western positive law. al-Ghazali was a cardinal point for the analysis of Egyptian women's movements as she pointed out the plurality of the Muslim society of that time. With her point of view, she reached all those women that did not feel comfortable with Western feminism - either for anti-colonial feelings or cultural backgrounds - but that were at the same time excluded from the Muslim Brotherhood. She offered them a space to connect their need for religious and cultural faith with their desire for the emancipation of women.
From the 1950s, the debate on the issue will be dominated by two currents, that of the Western feminism and that of the Islamic feminism. The experience of women in the Middle East will then evolve along these paths, and, in order to understand it, it will be necessary to analyse the historical and cultural contexts of each country.
Translated by Roberta Sforza