Women’s Rights
From Past to Present

Primary Sources

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Malik Hefni Nassef (1886 - 1918) Lecture, Egypt 1909
“Between Two Extremes”

At the turn of the century, Egyptian women of upper classes were striving for higher education and were moving out of the harem into the public sector. This was also a time of deep nationalism and antagonism toward the British colonial presence. Debates about gender issues centered on Western and international influence, on the one hand. and Islamic tradition on the other. While both secularists and Islamic feminists were in agreement about the importance of ‘rights,’ at this point many Egyptians preferred the words for a slow reform of Malik Hefni Nassef (pen name Bahithat al-Badiyya) which circulated in the harems and in women’s journals. In 1909 Malik began the first public lectures delivered to women only clubs. Her strong views on the rights for women within marriage reflected her personal experience when she was married unwittingly to a man who was already a husband and father.

“Ladies, I greet you as a sister who feels what you feel, suffers what you suffer and rejoices in what you rejoice...Complaints about both women and men are rife. Which side is right?...Men blame the discord on our poor upbringing and haphazard education while we claim it is due to men's arrogance and pride. This mutual blame which has deepened the antagonism between the sexes is something to be regretted and feared...Men say to us categorically, 'You women have been created for the house and we have been created to be breadwinners.' Is this a God-given dictate? How are we to know this since no holy book has spelled it out? Political economy calls for a division of labor but if women enter the learned professions it does not upset the system. The division of labor is merely a human creation....

After long centuries of enslavement by men, our minds rusted and our bodies weakened. Is it right that they accuse us of being created weaker than them in mind and body?...Men blame any shortcomings we may have on our education, but in fact our upbringing is to blame. Learning and upbringing are two separate things - only in religion are the two connected. This is demonstrated by the fact that many men and women who are well educated are lacking in morals....Education has not spoiled the morals of our girls, but poor upbringing, which is the duty of the home not the school, has done this...

If I cannot find anyone but a man to teach me should I opt for ignorance or for unveiling in front of that man along with my sisters who are being educated? Nothing would force me to unveil in the presence of the teacher. I can remain veiled and still benefit from the teacher....The imprisonment in the home of the Egyptian woman of the past is detrimental while the current freedom of the Europeans is excessive. I cannot find a better model of today's Turkish woman. She falls between the two extremes and does not violate what Islam prescribes. She is a good example of decorum and modesty.

I have heard that some of our high officials are teaching their girls European dancing and acting. I consider both despicable - a detestable crossing of boundaries and a blind imitation of Europeans. Customs should not be abandoned except when they are harmful. European customs should not be taken up by Egyptians except when they are appropriate and practical...

I would like to remind you of something that causes us great unhappiness - the question of engagement and marriage. Most sensible people in Egypt believe it is necessary for fiancés to meet and speak with each other before their marriage....but I am opposed to this and am convinced this is rooted in fallacy...Some might protest that one or two or more meetings is not enough for the two persons to get to know each other's character, but it is enough to tell if they are attracted to each other...What is the good of education if one cannot abandon a custom that is not rooted in religion and that is harmful. We have all seen family happiness destroyed because of this old betrothal practice. By not allowing men to see their prospective wives following their engagement we cause Egyptian men to seek European women in marriage...If we do not solve this problem we shall become subject to occupation by women of the West. We shall suffer double occupation, one by men and the other by women...Most Egyptian men who have married European women suffer from the foreign habits and extravagance of their wives. The European woman thinks she is of a superior race to the Egyptian and bosses her husband around after marriage...

If we pursue everything western we shall destroy our own civilization and a nation that has lost its civilization grows weak and vanishes. [Yet, some of our] beliefs and actions have been a great cause of the lesser respect that men accord us. How can a sensible man respect a woman who believes in magic, superstition, and the blessing of the dead and who allows women peddlers and washerwomen, or even devils, to have authority over her? Can he respect a woman who speaks only about the clothes of her neighbor and the jewelry of her friend and the furniture of a bride? This is added to the notion imprinted in a man's mind that woman is weaker and less intelligent than he is. If we fail to do something about this it means we think our condition is satisfactory. Is our condition satisfactory? If it is not, how can we better it in the eyes of men? Good upbringing and sound education would elevate us in the eyes of men.”

In 1911 Malik presented to the Egyptian Legislative Assembly a modest ten ways they might act to improve the condition of women. All were rejected by the all male Assembly.

Source:“Opening the Gates, A Century of Feminist Writing,” Margot Badran, Miriam Cooke, editors, Indiana University Press, 1990.


Discussion/Activity Suggestions
  • 1) Make a list of those areas where Malik Nassef wanted reform.

  • 2) Which of Malik’s ideas could be used today by those women in the Muslim world who criticize what they consider demeaning Western attitudes toward women while seeking to support changes within the concept of their religion and culture.

  • 3) Find the phrases that support the nationalists argument that uneducated women, treated by their husbands as chattel, would weakened the family; and, weak families ultimately would weaken Egypt.

Research:

  • 1) The lives and work of other Egyptian reformers. How were their ideas similar to Malik’s. How different? Qasim Amin (1863-1908). Huda Sha’rawi (1879-1947). Doris Shafik (1908 - 1975).

  • 2) What is the status of women’s Personal Status Laws, (those which regulate matters such as marriage, divorce, child custody, alimony) today.

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