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Feminists, Islam and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt.

Reviewed by Salwa Ismail

Feminists, Islam and Nation narrates the story of Egyptian feminism as it unfolds from the turn of the Twentieth Century until the 1950s. The author divides the history of the movement into three stages: the first is marked by poems and stories voicing "feminist consciousness"; the second and third are characterized by women's public activism, their entry into society and the establishment of the Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU). Badran's stated focus is on the second and third stages. To this end, the book provides a chronicle of women's efforts in acquiring formal education and gaining access to institutions of higher learning. It also documents their struggle for citizenship rights, their attempt to improve the family code, their engagement in the international feminist movement and their position on various issues such as prostitution.

Badran identifies the feminist movement as an upper and middle class phenomenon. As such, she locates the first stirrings of feminism in the cultures of these classes and particularly of the upper class. The Harem becomes a starting point for this narrative and Badran finds a point of entry in the salon of Princess Nazli Fazil. This, however, represents a troubling beginning, for setting up literary salons and taking excursions on the Nile seem more to express the aspirations of a particular class of women rather than of Egyptian women in general.

The book explores two interrelated issues, namely the articulation of a feminist discourse with and within the nationalist frame, and the criss-crossing of gender and class lines in the nationalist ideology. Badran links the feminist agenda to the national activism of upper-class women. The latter's militancy was undergirded by a concern for their position vis-a-vis the colonial state and in society at large. Their nationalist political action was part of assuming their voice and role as women in society. The class positioning of the early feminists is something that Badran acknowledges, yet, at times, downplays. Her argument here is that these women "operated within... their classes" (p. 21) and in the case of middle-class women like Nabawiyah Musa, they attempted to change class. It is not clear, however, who constituted the middle-class at turn-of-the-century Egypt; the social and economic determinations of women from this class are not adequately explored.

Badran does not take enough of a critical stand toward her subject to show the class limitations of their feminism and how class interests clashed with a more comprehensive feminist agenda. For instance, looking into the activities of the upper-class feminists, she presents the charitable and philanthropic society as contributing to the uplifting of women in general. Yet, much of the work of these societies sought to regulate women in lower-class positions to menial jobs, training them to be good maids and servants. Rather than seeking to break down the class barriers which hinder women, this approach reinforced them. Thus Badran's objective to show "how the rising feminist culture transcends class" gives way to another and that is "how class infects feminist culture and agendas." To a large extent, the interests and needs of the lower-class women were not articulated in upper-class feminist discourse. In fact, there is a glaring absence of a social agenda in the feminist discourse discussed by Badran. At a time when Egyptian reformers and social thinkers were promoting the idea of land redistribution, the upper-class women of the EFU were asking the government to sell state lands to the landless peasants (p. 119). This reveals a limited vision of social reform in which the upper-class men and women regarded the peasants and the urban poor as objects of charity and not as partners in social transformation. The distinction in the class awareness between upper- and middle-class women surfaces in Badran's expose of educator Nabawiyah Musa's position on work and class. Clearly, education and work held different values as tools of emancipation for women of the various classes.

Badran's account of the feminist movement is largely restricted to the EFU and its two most prominent figures, Huda Sha'rawi and Saiza Nabariawi. This approach leaves out feminists who acted outside the fold the EFU or those who parted company with it. Although the attention given to Nabawiyah Musa partly remedies this, there remain gaps, as, for example, in the discussion of the fate of the Wafdist Women's Central Committee following the resignation of Huda Sha'rawi in 1923. Other aspects of the internal politics of the Egyptian feminist movement remain unexamined such as the role of organizations like Duriyah Shafiq's Daughter of the Nile and the Nationalist Feminist Party. In the end, Badran concludes that Sha'rawi failed to bring women together under an umbrella organization that would "promote their causes through collective action" (217). The book, as it unfolds, does not provide an analysis of this failure or of the inability of the EFU leadership to transcend its class position.

These limitations notwithstanding, Feminists, Islam and Nation represents a good introductory work on the Egyptian feminist movement and particularly on the history of the Egyptian Feminist Union.

Salwa Ismail is a lecturer at the Centre for Middle Eastern and Central Asian Studies, the Australian National University, Canberra.
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Article Details
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Author:Ismail, Salwa
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1996
Previous Article:Islamic Society in Practice.
Next Article:The Press in the Arab Middle East: A History.

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