Margot Badran: the History of feminism in contemporary Egypt

Zorba with Margot Badran, one of the most renowned scholars on the topic of feminism in the Muslim countries

Cairo.-Margot Badran did a very interesting presentation about the history of feminism in Egypt. To start with she defined feminism as the awareness that women are restrained for the reason of their gender and attempts to dismantle contrants.

She mentioned the first wave of Egyptian feminists led by Hoda Shaarawy and others most of whom belonged to the upper or privileged classes. A key moment for this first generation was the 1919 Revolution against British occupation in which they participated. Their militancy was seen as seen as an integral to countering the continued British occupation of Egypt. Badran made comparisons between women’s activism in the 1919 revolution and the revolution that broke out in 2011 noting the vast joint participation of citizens of all classes and the massive participation of youth in 2011.

In the late 19th and early 20th century women saw Islam—as articulated in Islamic modernist discourse–as an ally to fight the patriarchal norms that prevailed in Egypt. Like the Islamic feminists who came some decades later, they thought that the Qur’an offered a more progressive view about the role of women than that held by contemporary society. Badran argued that feminist must study and know the religious texts in order to be able to counter conservatives or reactionaries who use a patriarchal formulation of Islam.

The main gains of the feminist movement in Egypt in the 20th century were in the domains of education and work for women. However they lost other battles such as realizing a significant overhaul of the Muslim Personal Status Code. Following the 1952 Revolution, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the independent feminist movement was silenced and the Egyptian Feminist Movement created in 1923 was shut down by the state, along with other independent forces. The military regime wanted to have strict control over society, so it banned all the social movements that could breed dissent. This did not only mean banning political parties but also advocacy groups like the feminist societies.

Considering more recent decades Badran observed that conservative gender ideas and practices that Egyptian workers brought back from their years in the Gulf have impacted society. Although there has been some scholarly work done on Islamic feminism—a discourse of Islam that grounds ideas of gender equality in re-readings of the Qur’an and other religious sources—in Egypt, the wider spread of such thinking and activism built on it have been quite minimal in Egypt. She contrasted the Egyptian experience with that in Malaysia and South Africa where Islamic feminist thought and activism have made great headway on the ground.

Patriarchy or a hierarchal grid of power structured around gender, age, and class difference has been shored up by both secular and religious discourses. Patriarchy and the inequalities it perpetuates have been challenged in both 1919 and in 2011. The question lingers: how can a democratic state and society be built without the practice of gender equality, which is intrinsically linked with all other forms of equality among citizens, that feminists in Egypt have been struggling to attain since revolutionary days early last century?

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