If by feminism is meant women's claim to the same rights as men enjoy
then the first feminists were those of ancient Egypt. The most casual observer
can hardly fail to notice how, in ancient monuments and inscriptions, queens
sat side by side with their royal consorts and received the same royal
honours. Women in ancient Egypt undoubtedly enjoyed a considerable measure
of freedom; their position was an honoured one and it may well be that
they had a voice in the councils of state. They certainly had such a voice
under the New Empire (1555-712 B.C.). During that period a woman, Queen
Hatshepsut (1495 B.C.) was co-regent with her father King Thutmosis. Hatshepsut
sought and claimed more than the power of royalty. She secured for herself
its outward attributes. Not only did she wear the insignia of sovereignty
but she also fastened to her chin the ceremonial beard of the Pharaohs.She
was a woman of
Wth the Arab conquest a new era set in. Women were more secluded; they
took little part in public affairs. But it would seem that the women of
Egypt retained their characteristics; they still liked to walk abroad,
they still liked to talk. For we find the eccentric ruler, Hakim (A.D.
996-1021) making laws forbidding shoemakers to make shoes for women. Hakim
hoped thus to prevent them leaving their homes but history does not relate
whether he achieved his purpose. He also forbade women to use the public
baths "so as to prevent them from gossiping"
The Mameluke period comprised the reign of a great queen. Shagaret Ed Dur
(literally "tree of pearls") seized the throne of her dead stepson and
when the country cried out against the rule of a woman she prudently invited
a Mameluke to share the throne with her. Shagaret's pilgrimage to Mecca
was the origin of the ceremony, now a yearly one, of the "Holy Carpet".
She also founded a military band which gave daily performances at the Citadel.
It is sad to record that Shagaret Ed Dur met a terrible death at the hands
of a rival's slave-women. One of the loveliest mausoleums in the Eastern
Cemetery of Cairo is, or rather was, (for only part of it remains) that
of Princess Toghay, the wife of Sultan En Nasir Mohammed. She also performed
the pilgrimage to Mecca and although she had been born slave it is said
that no queen's pilgrimage ever equalled hers for magnificence. She must
have been generous as well as great for her chroniclers tell that she freed
no fewer than one thousand female slaves.
A certain amount of misconception exists in many Western minds as to the
status of women in Islamic countries and, more particularly in Egypt, It
is true that until recent years a Western woman enjoyed a greater amount
of freedom in regard to leaving her home and choosing a career, But it
is not always realised that the Egyptian woman has always, in some respects,
enjoyed a freedom denied to her Western sister or only recently attained
by her. Her property for instance is entirely her own; she can dispose
of it as she pleases without having to obtain her husband's consent, Economic
independence of this nature is hardly compatible with the subservience
and indeed enslavement of women which has so often been described or implied
in books about Egypt,
enterprise and determination; under her rule expeditions set out from
Egypt to distant lands and she ordered the exploitation of the turquoise
mines of Sinai. Of lovely Queen Nefertiti we know little except her loveliness.
At any rate she did not disfigure her perfect features by wearing a beard
The beauty of Cleopatra is legendary and yet history does not record
whether she was dark or fair, tall or short. She, like Hatshepsut was an
ambitious Queen but, "having swayed the rod of empire" she was to die with
her ambitions unfulfilled. Perhaps the most eloquent epitaph to Cleopatra
was that of her waiting-maid. "How did she die?" asked a Roman officer.
"Right well" replied the maid "and worthily of the descendant of a line
of kings". The next great woman in Egyptian history was not a queen. Hypatia,
immortalized in Kingley's novel, was one of the finest characters in history.
It is sad to think that so much learning, so much wisdom and so much beauty
should have met with so brutal a death.
Actually, even when the system of the seclusion of women was in full
force, Egyptian women exercised very much more influence than is commonly
supposed. In the first place the early education of their children was
entirely in their hands for, at the time, no primary or elementary schools
were in existence, Interpolated among many somewhat critical remarks we
find in Lane's "Manners and Customs" the following significant sentence:
"It is important to observe that an affectionate respect for parents and
elders inculcated in the Hareem fits the boy for an abrupt introduction
into the world", And again: "It might be imagined that the women of the
higher and middle classes feel themselves severely oppressed and are much
discontented with the state of seclusion to which they are subjected; but
this is not commonly the case"
A case can undoubtedly be made out against the seclusion of women, Like
every other social system it had its drawbacks, In Egypt, at the present
day, it is little more than a memory. But it would be wrong to suppose
that now vanished system was entirely irksome to the women who lived under
it. Against the handicap of being unable to adopt a career they had the
comforting assurance that they would be provided for throughout life to
old age. Be that as it may, there are very few restrictions on the activity
of Egyptian women at the present day. The principle of compulsory education
for girls as well as for boys has been adopted by the Egyptian Government.
In 1945 there were under the control of the Ministry of Education, 4856
Elementary Schools, 60 primary schools for girls, and 15 training colleges,
27 Technical Schools for girls, 413,156 pupils were receiving tuition therein.
To these figures must be added the very large number of Egyptian girls
who receive their education at one or other of the many foreign schools
in Egypt. The latter schools and colleges, particularly those directed
by nuns, have already educated several generations of Egyptian women.
In the realm however of higher education Egyptian women receive the
same training, and under the same conditions, as Egyptian men. The Egyptian
university has its women undergraduates ,vhile Egyptian women are free
to qualify as doctors, lawyers and professors.Government service, in certain
Ministries, is open to women and trained Egyptian girls are claiming and
obtaining an ever greater share of positions in industry, commerce and
Egyptian woman writers are also making their mark. Curiously enough
the "best selling" works of Egyptian authoresses have been published not
only in Arabic but also in many foreign languages.
This is due partly to the education which many women of the Egyptian
upper classes receive and partly to the bilingual, and indeed trilingual,
character of Egyptian society. It is rare to find an educated Egyptian,
whether man or woman, who cannot speak one or two foreign languages as
well as the Mother tongue.
In what way will emancipation affect the future of the Egyptian woman?
The demand that, by means of the vote, she should have the same political
rights has not so far reached very considerable proportions. The trend
of feeling seems to be that political power is likely to follow rather
than to precede the Egyptian woman's assertion of her full economic and
social rights. In these directions, although much has been achieved, a
great deal remains to be done. The interest and activity displayed by Egyptian
women in everything appertaining to infant welfare, mothercraft, education,
hygiene and social work would appear to conJirm the impression that in
these directions rather than in political activities lie the immediate
outlet for feminine enterprise and labour.It is in regard to these
activities that the First Lady in the Land, Her Majesty Queen Farida,
sets a shining example. Every good cause connected with the physical and
moral welfare of Egyptian womanhood is assured of her active support. One
of the first functions which she attended after her marriage was a charity
fete which it is relevant to mention here because its organisation and
object were typical of the work done by Egyptian ladies on behalf of their
less fortunate sisters. In aid of the Oeuvre Mohammed Ali which is devoted
to the care of mothers and babies, the fete, under Queen Farida's patronage,
was organized by women members of the Royal Family and of the Egyptian
aristocracy. It was held in a palace which had once belonged to Mohammed
Ali himself and in that beautiful setting, the thousand-and-one nights
were revived. The dancing, the gorgeous costumes, the splendours of old
oriental scenes were, to the thousands of beholders an unforgettable delight.
The whole entertainment was a striking manifestation of art as the handmaiden
It has been mentioned elsewhere that Egypt is in many respects the
musical and artistic centre of the Near East. The Egyptian woman's contribution
in this domain is very considerable. One of the favourite singers in Egyptian
wireless programmes is a woman (Om Kalsom) whose gramophone records find
a ready sale from Tangier to Teheran. In Egyptian films great success has
been achieved by women actresses while much excellent work in recent art
exhibitions at Cairo has been the work of Egyptian women painters There
can be little doubt that, as time passes, the aspirations and talents
of Egyptian women will find more and more channels of expression and meet
with ever greater recognition in other lands as well as in their own. Egyptian
delegates have for some years past attended the meetings of the International
Council of Women; on at least one of these occ'asions an Egyptian woman
has acted as chairman. From this and other contacts with their sisters
in other lands Egyptian women gain the confidence which is a necessary
adjunct to their newly acquired emancipation ; they profit by the experience
and knowledge of other women. In return they show by their enterprise and
achievements that the Egyptian woman, without sacrifice of what is best
in oriental tradition and sentiment, is rapidly building up for the womanhood
and girlhood of Egypt an honoured place in the modern world.