Modern Egypt — (IX) The liberation of women

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 29 Nov 2022

Tarek Osman continues his series on the makers of modern Egyptian culture by looking at the career of social reformer Qassem Amin


Of all the Islamic reformer Mohamed Abdou’s students, Qassem Amin was one of the most outspoken and impactful. 

He is known in Egypt as the most prominent advocate of the liberation of women. However, his project went way beyond that. He wanted to liberate both women and men from oppression, and his ideas about this were quite innovative at the time. 

Amin wrote about the need for secular education, reliable healthcare, and decent public transportation, at the time key features of the modernity Egypt had been experiencing since the early 19th century. 

He compared the state of education, healthcare, employment, and general living standards in Egypt versus these in the developed countries in the West, particularly Britain and France. His unsurprising conclusion was that the West remained, almost a century after the beginning of modernisation in Egypt, way ahead on the most important measures of living standards. 

For Amin, the reason for this was to be found in the West’s societal structure, and this meant three things.  

First, there was the West’s approach to science. Amin followed Abdou in 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 under the Ottomans. Instead, he wanted a serious separation between religion, however that might be understood, and public affairs. 

For him, education, healthcare, public services, and public administration in the West had developed the way they had because society had internalised the supremacy of science in decision-making. Religion was a private matter, with hardly any bearing on public administration.

Second, there was the respect for the individual. Amin understood that one of the breakthroughs that had significantly contributed to the West’s advance since the 17th century was thinking about the individual as the basic unit of society and attributing to the individual the same importance as the collective. 

Emphasising the centrality and importance of the individual ensured that there were checks on the executive and limitations on the accumulation and exercise of power. Amin observed that in political systems where these things were in place, public administration was superior to that in systems where there was a limited appreciation of the individual, who was subsumed under the society. 

It was from observations of this sort that Amin arrived at his central idea. He saw that the deficiency of Egypt’s (and the entire East’s) development experience in the 19th century had resulted in the fact that despite the major efforts to advance education, healthcare, public services, and the organisation of the state, oppression continued to reign supreme.  

Amin was part of the movement that Abdou also belonged to, one which wanted to see Egypt liberated from Ottoman suzerainty and the British occupation as well as from the Mohamed Ali Dynasty’s absolute rule. 

He wrote about the skewed and dysfunctional state-society relationship in late 19th-century Egypt, and like many of his contemporaries, he wrote about the often-shocking treatment of Egyptian peasants at the hands of many landowners, let alone at those of official representatives. 

But unlike any of Abdou’s other followers, he also saw that oppression was most damaging in Egypt (and the East) in the core of the society and within the family itself.

He believed that Egyptian households nurtured oppression because they were themselves oppressed and had been oppressed for centuries. Whereas fighting the macro oppression of the country’s occupiers, rulers, and their enablers was a must, the more fundamental fight was against oppression at the level of the oppressed in their homes. 

Amin had unequivocal views about how tradition, including understandings of religion — Islam as well as Christianity, and, interestingly, even remnants of ancient Egyptian religious concepts — had engendered a social code in the Nile Valley and Delta that prioritised the collective over the individual and paid little attention to the individual’s rights in society. 

He thought that if this system changed, the problem of larger, political oppression would be automatically weakened, and Egypt would thereby solve the fundamental problem that had plagued its development experience throughout the 19th century. 

He was convinced that tackling oppression at its core in traditional Egyptian households meant liberating women. This was not a struggle of women against men, or even against an abstract patriarchy. Rather, it meant liberating women from the traditions that had accumulated in the societal structure for centuries. Moreover, liberating women meant liberating households, families, and therefore men as well from the oppression that he thought was inherent in the social code that prevailed at the time.  

It meant enrolling girls in schools, changing the law to endow women with political rights that were equal to men’s, and opening the job market to women so that they could achieve financial independence. 

In Amin’s view, it was only through such liberation at the level of the family and the individual that Egypt, or any other Eastern society, could destroy the oppression that had plagued its development experience in the 19th century and reap the benefits of modernity. 

Amin was often attacked or dismissed as a lightweight thinker, and he was repeatedly ridiculed for putting forward bizarre ideas that many Western societies at the time had also not adopted. 

However, his project bore fruit, albeit at a much slower pace than he had hoped. The ideas and arguments that he put forward eventually grew into social movements that did indeed result in major advances in women’s education and their entry into the job market. 

The link to oppression, however, remained contentious. It was a struggle between, on the one hand, classic interpretations of tradition, and, on the other, innovative ideas about the past and its relationship to the future that gave rise to some of the fiercest intellectual struggles in the history of modern Egyptian culture.

* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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