“If reformers were to wait for the approval of public opinion, the world would be the same as it was at the time of Adam and Eve” – Qasim Amin, Kalimat
The recent Arab Awakening gave hope to the world that the Middle East and North African countries were in a state of internal reform—sudden change, a breath of fresh air from the dictatorial regimes now outdated. The change was coming from inside, where for the first time, young Arabs saw light, the beacon of hope that would forever change their futures. This light, stemmed from Western thought, the 17th/18th century Enlightenment that for some reason could not seem to take hold historically in the region, perhaps due to the stubborn and static nature of the Arabs—particularly Muslim Arabs—who associated Western thought with the unveiling of their women and greedy materialism. After all, desiring women's freedom is a recent altruistic concept among Muslims, right?
No civilization or country at some point or other is free of oppressing women. This is certainly true for the West as evidenced in 19th century Victorianism. Howard University historian Mervat F. Hatem references Carole Pateman’s ‘sexual-social contract’ –whereby women and the family became the symbols of modernizing Egypt and Arab civil society and used by colonial powers not necessarily to create true democratic societies, but rather to create subordinate colonized ones. What is interesting, however, is the societal changes that demarcated middle-class norms in the Middle East when it came to women. Just as women were fighting for their rights and projecting intelligent voices in Europe, so too, were women and men engaging in the same economic, political and social discourse in the Middle East. The subjects of veiling, polygamy, seclusion, suffrage, and women's education became synonymous with the character of the modern nation. The woman became the center of the nationalist movement after the break-up of the Ottoman Empire and continues to be the central issue surrounding American involvement in what they consider to be 'backward' Arab societies.
But so many examples in the 19th century prove that women and interestingly, men (as in the case of Egypt's Qasim Amin), became direct agents of modernizing their countries during the colonial period--whether they advocated Islamic norms or challenged them. Egypt’s A’isha Taymur (1840-1902), daughter of Ismael Pascha Taymur and learned in Turkish, Persian, and Arabic became one of the most prolific voices in acknowledging women’s rights and sensibilities in modern Egypt. Her writings focused on how women were the moral and virtuous examples who guided not only her children but her husband. In a society that often blamed women for immoral men, Taymur argued that it was men who deviated from their duties as husbands by becoming slaves to their temptations through gambling, drinking, etc. According to Taymur, it was Islam, the religion that would set people on the right path, and women not only had the duty to become educated in Quran and other subjects, but also had to pass on that knowledge to their children and husbands in order for the nation to modernize in a healthy way.
Qasim Amin is perhaps the most well-known 19th century Egyptian feminist in the world. Amin took a lot from Taymur and incorporated her ideas into his writings. But while Amin, a man, wrote on the need for women’s education, much like Taymur, he emphasized the importance of Western values and assimilation and their similarity with Islamic values. He wrote in his 1899 book, Tahrir al-mar’a (The Liberation of Women),
“The only obstacles that can hinder us from proceeding on this path are those we may create ourselves. If Egyptians have an interest in and a sincere desire for happiness, if they wish to preserve their existence and to strive toward security and survival, they should discard all unacceptable habits and eliminate every undesirable trait that hinders their progress” (Amin, 64).
In other words, Amin argues that it is not Islam that is hindering civil society, but certain practices as polygamy, seclusion of women, divorce, and forced veiling which had infiltrated Islam, making it a static and impervious religion. He wrote,
“When religion as the only common factor among Islamic nations, some Europeans and a large number of the Muslim elite (even those in Islamic countries) claimed that this was the sole cause of the apparent inferiority and backwardness of Muslims. None of these critics—intended to identify genuine Islam as the reason for the inferiority of all Muslims…They respect Islam and confess that its initial impact on various countries proved it to be the strongest driving forces of progress, development, and the pursuit of happiness. They also understand that what present-day Muslims (and the majority of their scholars) call Islam is in reality a conglomeration of many ideas, customs, and traditions that have no relationship to the genuine, true, and pure religion. In fact these contemporary conceptions of Islam are heresies, unprecedented features that have been attached to Islam. Thus it is the medley of beliefs, traditions, and m orals that people call religion and consider to be Islam that is in fact an obstacle to progress” (Amin, 65).
At a time when male Muslim imams monopolized the popular discourse on women’s status in society, Amin, a secular jurist who was educated in France, provided a less hostile approach to Western values thus precipitating a confluence between Western ideas and Eastern ones. It is also important to mention that only foreign powers at the time could nominate jurists to the mixed secular courts from which Amin was selected. Amin's pro-Western stance is no doubt a product of his nomination, but he also was careful to mention that outdated Islamic practices could and should not be eradicated overnight. This, he believed, would create the opposite of the intended end--to create a liberated society along the Western model. Although Amin has been criticized by contemporary historians like Leila Ahmed and Mervat Hatem as one who allied with colonial theories that Islam is to blame for the backwardness of Arab societies, his writings no doubt cast light into the mind of the 19th century Egyptian as one who was willing to criticize society from within and enable men and women to become outspoken advocates in the feminist movement overseas.
As a result of Amin's fervent views on emancipating and educating the woman, women like Huda Sharawi, Bahithat al-Badiya, and Nazira Zein-ed-Din would come to shape the women's movements of the Middle East in the 20th century. Zein-ed-Din, daughter of a high-ranking Lebanese judge, emulated Amin's views when she wrote in 1928, "God dislikes slavery. He dislikes polygamy and any violation of women's rights. God loathes divorce. His divine throne shakes every time the word is uttered on earth..." (Kurzman, 106). She goes onto to write,
"By enacting laws to eliminate those vile traditions, the Islamic governments were not in contradiction with God's message and the teachings of His Prophet. Those governments understood the reasoning behind those teachings. They abolished slavery and ended any discrimination between a man and a woman. Not only did they interpret the surface meanings of those Quranic verses and Prophet's teaching; but they also interpreted their essence in depth in the manner of people with insight and reason" (Kurzman, 106).
Women became the center of modernization in the Middle East in order to Westernize and simultaneously colonize the region, and to this there is little to no doubt. But the fact remains that regardless of the reasons behind the Woman Question, the question itself helped to facilitate new ideas and reformist trends particularly in the interpretations of Islam and the Quran.
Hatem, Mervat F. "The Nineteenth Century Discursive Roots of the Continuing Debate on the Social-Sexual Contract in Today's Egypt", Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2004.
Amin, Qasim. The Liberation of the Women and The New Woman: Two Documents in the History of Egyptian Feminism, The American University in Cairo Press, 2005.
Kurzman, Charles. Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook, Oxford University Press, 1998.