Modern Egyptian Culture
– Part 9: The Liberation of Women
Of all of Mohammad Abdou’s students, Qassim Amin was one of the most outspoken and impactful.
Qassim Amin is known in Egypt as the most prominent advocate of liberating women. His project, however, went way beyond that. He wanted to liberate both women and men from oppression.
His idea about oppression, however, was quite innovative at the time.
Qassim Amin wrote about the need for proper secular education, reliable healthcare, and decent public transportation, which at the time were the key features of the modernity Egypt had been experiencing since the early nineteenth century. He compared and contrasted the state of education, health care, employment, and general living standards in Egypt versus these in developed countries in the West, particularly Britain and France. And his unsurprising conclusion was that the West remained after almost a century since the beginning of modernisation in Egypt, way ahead of the country in the most important matrices of living standards.
For Amin, the answer was to be found in the West’s societal structure.
This meant three things.
First, the West’s approach to science. Qassim Amin followed Mohammad Abdou in blatantly asserting that the West’s sidelining of religion was a key factor in its development. However unlike Abdou, Amin was not interested in how Islam was understood and applied in society in the period under the Ottomans. Amin wanted a serious separation between religion (under whatever understanding) and public affairs. For him, education, healthcare, public services, and public administration in the West had developed the way they did because the society had internalised the supremacy of science in decision making concerning public affairs. Religion, in this view, was a private matter, with hardly any bearing on public administration.
Second, the respect for the individual. Qassim Amin understood that one of the West’s breakthroughs and that had significantly contributed to the West’s advancement in the period since the seventeenth century was thinking about the individual as the unit of the society, and attributing to the individual the same importance as that to the collective, the society. Emphasising the centrality and importance of the individual ensured there were checks on the executive and limitations on the accumulation and exercising of power. Amin observed that in such political systems, public administration was way superior to that in systems of limited appreciation of the individual human being and that subsumed him/her in the society.
From this Amin arrived at his central idea. He saw that the deficiency of Egypt’s (and the entire East’s) developmental experience in the nineteenth century was that, despite the major efforts to advance education, healthcare, public services, and the organisation of the state, oppression continued to rule supreme.
Qassim Amin was part of the movement that Mohammed Abdou belonged to, that wanted Egypt liberated from Ottoman suzerainty and British occupation as well as from the Mohammad Ali dynasty’s absolute rulership. Amin wrote about the skewed dysfunctional state-society relationship in late nineteenth century Egypt. Like others of his contemporaries, he wrote about the often shocking treatment of Egyptian peasants at the hands of many landowners, let alone official representatives. But unlike any of Abdou’s followers, Qassim Amin saw that oppression was most damaging in Egypt (and in the East) at the core of the society, within the family.
Amin believed that Egyptian households nurtured oppression because they were oppressed and had been oppressed for centuries. And whereas fighting the macro oppression (of the occupiers, rulers, and their enablers) was a must, the more fundamental fight was against oppression at the level of the oppressed, at homes.
Amin had unequivocal views about how traditions, including understandings of religion - Islam as well as Christianity, and interestingly even remnants of Ancient Egyptian concepts - had engendered in the Nile Delta and valley a social code that prioritised the collective over the individual and paid little attention to the individual’s rights in society. For Amin, if that system changed, the bigger (political) oppression would be automatically weakened, and crucially, Egypt would have solved the fundamental problem that had plagued its developmental experience in the nineteenth century.
Amin was convinced that tackling the oppression at the core, in traditional Egyptian households, meant liberating women. For Amin, this was not a struggle of women against men, or even against an abstract patriarchy. Rather, it was liberating the women from traditions that had accumulated in the societal structure for centuries. And in liberating women, it was liberating the households, the families, and therefore men as well, from the essence of oppression that he viewed inherent in the social code that was prevailing at the time.
This meant, of course, enrolling girls in schools, changing regulations to endow women with political rights equal to men’s, and opening the job market to women so that they achieve financial independence.
In Amin’s view, only through such liberation at the level of the family and the individual could Egypt - or any Eastern society - destruct the oppression that had plagued her developmental experience in the nineteenth century, and reap the benefits of modernity.
Qassim Amin was acutely attacked; was often dismissed as a lightweight thinker; and repeatedly ridiculed as putting forward bizarre ideas that many Western societies at the time had not adopted.
His project bore fruit, however, albeit at a much slower pace than he had hoped. The ideas and arguments he broadcast grew into social movements that indeed resulted in major advancements in women education and their entry into the job market.
The link to oppression, however, remained contentious. And it was a struggle between, on one hand, classic interpretations of traditions and, on the other, innovative ideas about the past and its relationship with the future that gave rise to some of the fiercest intellectual struggles in the history of modern Egyptian culture.