Women's participation in radical Egyptian politics, 1939-1952 - Selma Botman

Egyptian feminist, Latifa al-Zayat.
Egyptian feminist, Latifa al-Zayat.

Article by an Egyptian feminist looking at the role played by women in Egyptian radical politics during the years 1939-52, with contributions and accounts from some of the women who were involved.

Submitted by Ed on November 6, 2013

THIS ESSAY WILL DISCUSS the role played by women in radical Egyptian politics during the 1940s and early 1950s. The 1940s was a period rich in political ferment, when women's political militancy was made possible by the very structure of state power itself. The state apparatus's weakness and ineffectiveness allowed women to engage in activity in opposition to that of mainstream society. In contrast, when the state's power was consolidated, under the leadership of Gamal Abd al-Nasser from 1952 to 1970, political life was transformed. With bureaucratic centralist philosophy dominant, the militancy of women receded. Indeed, almost all independent activity was quelled.

During the 1940s, small groups of feminists began assessing women's experience in Egypt. In response to the legally and socially based inequality suffered by the mass of Egyptian women, they took action, which meant setting up progressive women's groups and participating in broad-based nationalist and leftist activity. Leftist women, in particular, flourished as artists, political activists and student leaders. Although they were limited in number, their impact was considerable. They demonstrated, at least to those politically active and philosophically liberal, that the problems of Egyptian women were real and demanded serious attention.

Women's participation in the struggles of the Third World are often neglected. This essay, which is based largely on interviews with the activists themselves, is an attempt to acquaint a broad readership with the historic contribution of women in Egypt during a period of radical political upheaval.

The Background

THE PERIOD FROM World War II until the military coup d'étatof 1952 was a particularly important and dynamic one in Egypt's modern history because of the confluence of two currents: a growing social and political radicalism and a steady deterioration of state control.

The 1940s and early 1950s were years of relative political freedom characterized by a rising militancy among those dissatisfied with the political hierarchy's inability to win full independence from the British and among those committed to shaping Egypt into a strong and prosperous country. This was also a time when the intermittent weakness of state authority was the most significant fact of Egyptian political life. The state's lack of cohesion and the ineffectiveness of the political police allowed a dynamic nationalist spirit to prevail: new political organizations and philosophies were expressed and dissenting ideas were publicized through a vibrant oppositional press.

Although, according to the 1923 Constitution, Egypt had the forms of a semi-liberal society, that is the forms of Western democracy, it lacked its content. Freedom of speech, of association and of the press were fragile rights granted or rescinded depending on the strength and unity of the government itself. Political life was marked by an enfeebled and inexperienced party system represented by statesmen, some of whom had little commitment to the democratic process.

Instability in the political arena prevented parliamentary democracy from firmly taking root and from spreading beyond a narrow sector of political life. With the exception of the Wafd Party, which saw itself and was seen by others as the image of liberal democracy in Egypt and which at different times could count on the support of the entire nation, mainstream political parties in Egypt were little more than the expression of the personalities who monopolized and manipulated them. For the most part, they neglected social and economic reform, subjugating them to the lowest common denominator of Egyptian political life: the demand for independence.

With few exceptions, political work was performed by Egyptian men who, through family prominence, wealth, political connections or the patronage system, rose up the legislative ladder. Women participated in public affairs only sporadically, essentially because Egyptian society was socially traditional and highly conservative. Men and women were generally separated, both in the private domain of the house and in the more public sphere of the street. The family was the nucleus of society and most decisions were expected to derive from it. Marriages were still arranged and women were regarded as the legitimate object of men's possession. Having limited input into or experience with the higher levels of government, education, business or professional life, women on the whole did not exert a powerful force in national affairs.

The inequality suffered by women was both legally and socially based. While Islamic law allowed a woman to own property, carry out business and inherit a portion of her father's estate equal to half her brother's share, it put her at her husband's mercy in matters concerning divorce and the family. Even in their private lives, most women were not always afforded the same respect due any man; the majority of women were dependent and obedient, but there were exceptions.

Among intellectuals of the haute and petite bourgeoisie, the traditional ways of thinking existed with less force. Within the mere cosmopolitan world of leftist politics or in the French lycée and the university, men and women were mingling together socially and academically, barriers were breaking down and conventional roles were being challenged. While young, modern emancipated Egyptian women were a minority in the 1940s, they did exist and some went on to become leaders of the leftist, women's, and student movements. So while Egyptian women suffered their measure of oppression, they were not merely victims of male manipulation. Albeit in an unrecognized way, women have contributed to Egypt's modern development - despite the country's severe social backwardness and the traditional values which many ascribe to the Islamic religion.

Women's participation in grassroots Egyptian politics dates back at least to the 1919 revolution, when Egyptian women protested against the British occupation and demonstrated in the streets alongside male members of their families. A few women were even jailed for short periods of time in consequence oftheir political activity. Groups of 'gentlewomen' began a social revolution when they threw off their veils, rejected the harem and began organizing Egypt's social services. After World War I, a movement to emancipate women was organized and led by women from some of Egypt's most prominent families. They argued that the improvement of women's condition would contribute to the general welfare and must not be ignored. Women also belonged to the nationalist Wafd Party, participated in the anti-fascist groups which proliferated in Egypt during the 1930s, and in the 1940s joined the budding underground Communist movement.

Inge Aflatun, a well-known political activist, feminist and gifted artist described her background and introduction to politics:

'I was born in Cairo into a family of large landowners. Education was important and many of my family studied abroad. . . . The family spoke French which was typical of bourgeois families at that time. . . . My introduction to politics came through the social and economic conditions of the time. I was shocked by the poverty and by the differences between classes. I felt this by instinct. I began painting when I was young but I was not happy about it. . .. Then came an important event. . . in 1941 while I was still a student at the French lycée. A Trotskyite artist who was also very poor. . . gave me art lessons for two or three years. He opened the world to me by asking, "What is art? What is life?" . . . My art exploded at that time; I had now found painting. . . . I also began questioning and searching for solutions to questions that were raised in my studies and in my life. The dissatisfaction I felt was present in my first paintings. Even the critics commented on this, saying that the artist was in a state of revolt; some hinted that it was sexual frustration. At the lycée, I met people, discussed things, found Marxist books, was in contact with young Egyptian intellectuals. Then I became a Marxist. . . . My entrance into politics and my painting were two ways to search for my country. My Arabic language skills were not very good, so at the age of seventeen I began to learn Arabic.'

Latifa al-Zayat, a student leader in the university in 1946, later to become a writer and novelist, recollected:

'I was born in 1924, in a small down, Darnietta, overlooking the Mediterranean . . . into a lower middle class or upper petty bourgeois family. . . and I came to Cairo in 1936 for my education'. I began university in 1942-43 . . . By the time I was in university, I lost all hope in the existing parties because they failed to answer the national question. I became a Marxist or a Communist from a nationalist point of view. What appealed to me very much in Marxism. . . was the ethics. . . the absence of discrimination in religion, race, sex. . . . I was tired of the hypocrisy, cowardice, caution and trembling of the class I belonged to.'

It was World War II and its consequences that prompted leftist and feminist-minded women to become increasingly interested in and articulate about the problems affecting women in Egypt; particularly those which reflected prejudicial treatment in jobs, salaries, education and family life. Not only did the war stimulate industry and hasten the proletarianization of the masses, it also deeply involved Egypt in international politics and gave evidence of the continued dominance of the British in the Nile Valley. With shortages in food and the population increasing faster than the development of land or industry, the condition of the vast majority of the populace was worsening. The war aggravated social problems and made the reality of inequality even more jarring. The radicalism born at this time emerged directly out of the essence of war and dislocation.

Swelling the ranks of the dissatisfied were sections of the petty bourgeoisie, radical students, workers and women. Organizationally, the beneficiaries of this discontent were the Communists, the Muslim fundamentalists, democrats and radical nationalists. While they were separately participating in anti-British activity, giving new energy to the nationalist movement, by the war's end their complaints had become clearer. They opposed the staggering inflation, chronic shortages, increasing joblessness and massive social, legal and economic inequities. Moreover, they grew more combative as traditional political forces in Egypt were weakening and the policies they supported were being denounced. The King was discredited, the most important mainstream nationalist party, the Wafd, was divided by right-wing factionalism, other rival political parties were engaged in personality conflicts, and negotiations with the British for independence seemed doomed to failure. There was movement amongst workers in the form of labour disputes and strikes. There was a growing feminist response to gender-based inequalities. It was in this environment, then, that the illegal communist movement and the open feminist activity which it spawned developed and operated.

Women and the Communist Movement

THERE ARE TWO stages of Egyptian communist activity in the twentieth century. The first occurred in the early 1920s, when the Egyptian Socialist/Communist Party was created. The Party, with an almost exclusively male membership, played a radicalizing role in the nascent trade union movement, but because it refused to participate in broad-based nationalist activity to challenge the British occupation, it became isolated from the main currents of political activity. After a few years the Party was driven underground and then ultimately disappeared, leaving a vacuum in Egyptian Marxism from the mid-1920s until the late 1930s.

The communist movement revived during the early years of World War II. Despite the commitment and energy of its membership, it suffered from a number of weaknesses. First, there was no unified Communist Party in the 1940s. The movement was made up of separate, rival organizations. Diversity led to fragmentation and internecine hostility, which weakened the impact of Marxism in the country. Second, there was a noticeable dissociation between the communists and the Egyptian masses, which was most obviously reflected in the composition of the communist movement - middle class and, at least at the beginning of this period, led by one of Egypt's ethnic minorities - Jewish Egyptians. In essence, the movement was small in numbers, urban and highly intellectual, recruiting mainly students and professionals. Some skilled workers active in trade union affairs were organized, but they were decidedly in the minority. The village was virtually ignored, given the wide class and cultural gaps that separated the members of the communist movement from the mass of poor peasants.

Despite its structural and organizational limitations and its inexperience, however, the Marxist movement was capable of exerting sporadic influence on the nationalist, labour, feminist and student scenes. Moreover, communism had a significant ideological impact on Egyptian society and was able to help undermine Egypt's ineffectual political system and create an atmosphere in which radical nationalist military officers could operate and ultimately overthrow Egypt's royalist regime. Communists helped break down the country's exclusive social hierarchy through demonstrations, organization and the publication of oppositional newspapers and pamphlets. In fact, in an important way, the communists contributed to the tradition of dissident thought which has since become a significant part of Egypt's political, intellectual and artistic life.

The Egyptian communist movement of the 1940s and early 1950s was largely male - but the women who were involved in the movement were equally dedicated and hard working in their commitments. Sharing, for the most part, a common world-view, these young militants created a society of their own in which they made friends and chose spouses, in which they learned lessons and taught their experiences. In this context, plans - and dreams - for the future were developed.

Women were recruited into the communist movement, educated and given assignments on the basis of their commitment, not as a function of their gender. They were involved in committee work and in demonstrations, in leafleting outside factories and in agitating on university campuses. But the specific problems of women neither dominated communist activity nor captivated the leftist mind. Essentially, the Left focused its attention on ending the' British occupation of Egypt and it concentrated its resources on recruiting, besides already enlightened intellectuals, radical trade unionists who were overwhelmingly male.

The women who were organized in underground groups were self-sacrificing in the extreme. Involvement in illegal activity meant that every aspect of their lives was affected: family ties, work, friendships, and aspirations. A commitment to the Party implied promises of time, discipline, obedience, hard work and family disapproval. It also suggested a dual role for women - as general political activists and as feminists. While they grappled with the twin issues of national independence and women's liberation, within the communist movement, almost alone, women championed the social, legal, political and economic rights of women. Although communist men theoretically supported female liberation, they believed and convinced the women themselves to accept that the primary struggle of Egyptian Marxism was against the British occupation of the country. Leftist women, then, directed most of their efforts toward the general political front where they thought the greatest progress could be achieved. Also, because of the severe underdevelopment in Egyþt, with the bulk of women lagging far behind men politically and educationally, it was extremely difficult to build an effective national democratic women's organization. Latifa al-Zayat noted:

'It is a luxury to think of the liberation of women. . . when you see your brothers, fathers and children strangled, scorned and exploited by foreigners and local men and women. It is only when civilization reaches a certain level, that the problems of women, children and minorities become urgent. Women make the most noble contribution to the liberation of society when they embrace causes outside themselves and outside their families. . . . One of the basic teachings of Marxism is that the individual cannot be free or liberated without his society being free and liberated. Women's fight for liberation implies a fight for the liberation of society. '

Women participated at every level of the communist movement, from the highest level of the central committee down to the cell. This did not mean that every or even most communist men accepted the notion of equality with women. Indeed, within the leftist movement itself, women made efforts to combat reactionary ideology by circulating materials concerning women's role in the socialist cause and in society at large and by writing, in internal party newspapers, about exclusively female issues and problems.

In the main, the communist women were of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois origin. There were daughters of large landlords and there were even the children of a few distinguished pashas: but the majority were inescapably middle class. Their fathers may have been involved in business, the liberal professions, agricultural enterprise; they may have been employed by the public or private sector in 'white collar' positions.

Communist women had roots in Upper Egypt and the Delta, in Cairo and Alexandria. Although they originally came from towns and villages as well as the larger cities, for the most part, their involvement in underground activity dated from their arrival in Cairo or Alexandria to work or to study. Recruitment into the communist movement took place in the French lycée, in the university and at political clubs such as The House of Scientific Research, which was the legal front group for a clandestine Marxist organization. The House of Scientific Research, which served as an important 'theoretical school' for cadres, included a women's committee which comprised between thirty and fifty women. Discussions about feminism, the national movement, fascism, imperialism and the social situation in European countries were not uncommon.

Most women were attracted to the Marxist movement when they were under twenty-five years old. They were young and idealist and they had the leisure to think, question and discuss the issues of the day. What the Left offered women was an alternative to the mainstream political parties which many believed had failed Egypt. Marxist ideas represented a fundamental critique of the structure of Egyptian society and Marxism posed answers to questions of underdevelopment and political conservatism.

Women were often promoted and arrested in the same ways as their male colleagues, but not with the same frequency. Given the traditional nature of Egyptian society, where women were primarily wives and mothers, the Left considered it adventurous to place women in the forefront of communist activity. Still, the women who engaged in militant feminist activity camouflaged their communist ties for fear of official repression. Soraya Adham, active in the 1940s, recalled one of her experiences as a professional revolutionary:

'I left my house [in 1948] and had to live all by myself, which was difficult for a woman to do at this time. I remember once I was living in a furnished room in the Bulaq section of Cairo. One night the whole of Bulaq district was saturated by police who were looking for Marxists and Muslim fundamentalists. I was new in the house. It was two o'clock in the morning and I heard the landlady knocking on my door asking if the police could be let in to have a look. I told them one moment while I dress; when I opened the door, they saw a woman living alone. They asked me my name and why I wasn't living with my family. I gave them my name and explained that I had had a quarrel with my family. The police officer said: "Tomorrow I will come and take you home and make peace with your family because a girl of a good family should not live alone." I agreed. And in the morning I told the landlady that I was going back to my family and I left the house. When the police officer told the political police my name, his superior said: "She is the one we are searching for." When they came back to the house, I, of course, had left.'

Later, when she was found, she spent two months in prison; the following year she was jailed for ten months. Many of her feminist comrades were similarly apprehended and served their share of sentences as political prisoners.

Women were not mistreated in prison, but they could not expect any dispensations as a result of their sex. According to the communist newspaper al-Malayin (The Millions), the prison administration isolated political prisoners from the rest of the inmate population (which was against regulations), forbade all books and reading and writing materials, interrogated and hand searched the prisoners, forced some to wear prison clothing, provided the poorest food (consisting of lentils and ful beans with liquorice) and prohibited visits from families.

In sum, while there was at least formal interest in the women's movement among progressive men, in practice women received little more than organizational sympathy from the communist groups; there was very little structural cooperation. As a result, Marxist women took their ideas outside the leftist movement. Their intention was to raise the level of political consciousness of other progressive women who were not necessarily organized in political associations.

Radical Feminist Activity

WHEN PROGRESSIVE women began thinking about how they might effect improvements in the status of women in society, they concluded that broad-based and legal activity would offer the greatest results. Moreover, they recognized that membership in the communist movement would not necessarily guarantee successful work among women. The activity they planned was bifurcated in design, with the intention of reaching both domestic and international audiences. Within Egypt, leftist women formed small feminist societies essentially limited to women in higher institutes and universities - women who were most naturally predisposed to radical feminist ideas of change. Women also joined the staffs of newspapers and wrote columns devoted to the concerns of women, they participated in legal political and nationalist work in the academy and they made efforts to popularize such strictly female issues as equality in the workplace, improved day care facilities and greater female participation in the political process. Internationally, through delegations of Egyptian women travelling abroad to conferences, the world community was familiarized with Egyptian social and political problems.

In Egypt, progressive women did not work through existing women's organizations largely because of ideological differences which were too serious to bridge: while radical women advocated the social transformation of Egyptian society, mainstream feminists supported more limited emancipation. As a result, the Marxists set up new groups and The League of Women Students and Graduates from the University and Egyptian Institutes was created in 1944/45. The League included some fifty women and, although built on the achievements of earlier feminists, was the first women's organization in Egypt that adopted radical views about women and women's role in revolutionary society.

The group was set up to identify and defend women's interests. From the beginning, its radical, anti-imperialist complexion was apparent. A pamphlet published by the organization announced:

. . . Struggle for the widest freedoms, struggle for liberation from oppression, hunger and aggression; struggle by ourselves and for ourselves; . . . struggle to create a free, noble life for Egyptian women under the sovereignty of a free and noble country; struggle to realize democratic freedom for women in Egypt-that is the freedom which cannot arrive under the shadow of the imperialist and imperialism nor under the shadow of enslavement and exploitation.'

In a society as traditional and socially conservative as Egypt, these were exceptionally radical ideas. Since the vast number of Egyptian women, and men, either did not have the opportunity to think about such change or simply were not prepared to accept it, the League was restricted in membership and discreet about its activities.

Certainly, the ideas of women's emancipation had earlier roots in Egypt, but in the mid-1940s they began to take on more concrete and controversial dimensions. The issues embraced by the League spanned the social, economic and political realms: the right of all women to vote; the responsibility of the state to set up children's nurseries and guarantee social insurance and security; equal pay for equal work; the inauguration of democracy.

The League neither constituted itself as a political party nor aspired to become one. Although a number of the League's members were already active communists, the group did not have as its goal the recruitment of women into the underground movement. Instead, it conceived of itself essentially as a gathering place for young women who were interested in both the narrowly gender oriented problems of women and the larger difficulties challenging Egypt as a nation - in particular, the struggle against British colonialism.

The League, however, was never able to develop its potential, having lived only a short life; it was closed down by the Prime Minister in July 1946 when, from a temporary position of strength, the government struck down its political opposition. In total, twelve 'hostile' groups were brought to an end. It is interesting that the authorities thought that the women's organization was threatening enough to warrant closure.

During the existence of the League, the first World Congress of Women, organized by the Fédération Démocratique Internationale des Femmes was held in Paris in November of 1945. A number of Egyptian communist women were sent to the Conference. The two main themes of the meeting were the condemnation of fascism and imperialism and the end of inequality between men and women. Inge Aflatun described her experience in Paris:

'I was chosen to lead the Egyptian delegation. I was very excited; I saw many brave and famous women. The Soviet delegation, I remember, came in their military uniforms with their medals shining; they had just come from the war. All of what we saw there left a great impression. I made a very powerful speech in which I linked the oppression of women in Egypt to the British occupation and imperialism. I not only denounced the British, but the King and the politicians as well. It was a very political speech in which I called for national liberation and the liberation of women. My ideas were applauded. '

Immediately upon their return to Cairo, Inge Aflatun and several other communist women were detained by the police, held and questioned for three hours. The police, having somehow learned of the radical views expressed in Paris, apprehended the three as a demonstration of the authorities' severe disapproval of their behaviour. Taken into custody to frighten and perhaps intimidate them, they were later released as a result of insufficient criminal evidence against them. In reaction to the treatment she received, Inge Aflatun later brought a lawsuit against the political police accusing it of misconduct. In consequence, she was the subject of continuous harassment by the police for years to come.

After the war, there was a continuous female presence in the student and nationalist movements. In the 1946 nationalist demonstrations which momentarily unhinged the Egyptian authorities, women not only participated, but some became leaders. It was said that when the communist Latifa al-Zayat, for example, addressed a university audience, she set the students on fire with her dynamism and zeal. Al-Zayat was then elected to a university-wide student committee. She recalled:

'I stood for election, and not a man, because I had more chance of success than he. I had an appeal, an ability to deal with students, to talk to them, persuade and win them over. . . . I as a woman was accepted by the mass of students as a student secretary, at a time when the percentage of women at the university was only about 5 per cent.'

But there was not complete acceptance of women's participation in university politics. Al-Zayat continued:

. . . I fought against the Muslim fundamentalist groups which tried to defame my reputation - they called me a prostitute and other such things. I remember I went home and wept. But I said: "This is public work, this is not the last time I will be defamed." This turned me into a puritan. Really, because they said that. . . communists were immoral. . . communists became puritans, to maintain their image with the public, especially those who were working in close connection with the masses.'

Confirming the harassment to which politically active women were subjected by more traditional forces, another militant, Soraya Adham added:

. . . Everyone of the [leftist] girls used to walk circled by our male comrades and friends so that the Muslim fundamentalists would not obstruct us. . . . In 1948, I was beaten by some of them for participating in political activity.'

Provocation did not deter women from continuing their political activity. When the Peace Movement was established in 1950 in Egypt, it attracted women and included among its leaders Inge Aflatun. Also, the Women's Committee for Popular Resistance was formed in October 1951, to support the nationalist fighting which had broken out in the Suez Canal Zone: it was endorsed, in the main, by progressive women. The aim of the group was to help the resistance against the British occupation both materially and morally. Although women could not fight, they could visit the area and report on the conditions they found. Inge Aflatun stated:

'A women's delegation secretly went to the Zone for a day. There were two zones then - one for the British occupation forces and one for the people. We told the British that we were going to visit the wounded in hospital to give presents. In fact, without knowing anyone in advance, we went to the popular quarter, met some workers in the street and told them our ideas about forming this resistance group. They brought us to many women's houses and we talked. When we returned to Cairo we held a press conference. . . . People did not know that the men had poor clothing, too few jackets. We publicized the situation and our activity was successful. '

In the press conference they held, the women's delegation publicized the difficult conditions of the fidayin, the freedom fighters, denounced colonialism and demanded that the principles of the United Nations Charter respecting national sovereignty be enacted. The Committee was successful in focusing increased national attention on the Suez Canal not only in 1951 but also in 1956, in protest against the tripartite (British, French, Israeli) aggression against Egypt of that year.

The projects initiated by women in the 1940s and 1950s were shortlived partly because of the lack of mass support but also due to the occasional pressure of governmental interference. Still, women did have some success in bringing the feminist issue to the attention of the politically conscious through political agitation, organization and journalism. They demonstrated, at least to other intellectuals, that the problems of Egyptian women were real and deserved serious attention. To raise the women's issue to the realm of a respectable political cause was their intention – all the while embracing wider political questions and especially that of the national liberation of Egypt.


ALTHOUGH IT MAYBE SAID that Egyptian women in the 1940s were on the margins of political activity, they were not 'hidden from history'. In fact, women were active and creative during this time and what made their militancy possible at all was the very structure of state power itself. The state's vulnerability and periodic ineffectiveness allowed women to engage in political activity and to popularize views in opposition to those of mainstream society. In essence, when governmental weakness prevailed in Egypt, diversity was tolerated and even encouraged. But when the state's authority was consolidated and reinforced, political and artistic life was transformed. From the early 1950s onward, and especially during the rule of Gamal Abd aI-Nasser (1952-70), bureaucratic centralist philosophy dominated. With this, the state became stronger and the militancy of women receded. Indeed, almost all independent political action was quelled and the heterogeneity so attractive in the 1940s disappeared. Communism, and the important feminist voice within it, was subdued and even at times coopted. Under Nasser, the communist movement became further divided between those who upheld Nasser's efforts as progressive and those who could not reconcile these measures with his overtly anti-democratic and punitive ones. Likewise, the independent feminist activity so inspirational in the decade before Nasser's coup came to a sudden end with the arrival of the military government. It is only within the last few years that the Egyptian feminist movement has been revived. Still in embryonic form, it faces the difficult problem of how to organize and attract adherents in a country where the mass of the population lives on the margins of subsistence.