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ďAn Intelligent Manís Guide to Modern Arab FeminismĒ


Since I have attacked quite a few men for their sexist remarks on this blog, I feel I owe it to all the respectable men out there to acknowledge their efforts in supporting womenís struggle for their rights. To do so Iíll begin with our forefathers.

Here is an excerpt from Professor Fawwaz Traboulsiís ďAn Intelligent Manís Guide to Modern Arab FeminismĒ, published in the feminist Lebanese magazine AL Raíeda:

The Nahda
The womanís question was central to the problematic of the Nahdah, the Arab cultural renaissance of the mid-nineteenth century. The pioneers of the Nahdah regarded womenís inferior status as the basic cause for the backwardness of the Arab and Islamic societies and were unanimous in affirming that there will be no renaissance for Arabs and Muslims without the renaissance of Arab women. Bust‚nÓ, Taht‚wÓ, Afghani, `AbdŻ, Q‚sim AmÓn and T‚hir Hadd‚d.and otehrs shared the belief that the renaissance of women will be achieved mainly through education. This is the gist of the famous address by Mu`allim Butrus al-Bust‚nÓ on the Education of Women in the 1860ís. But the men of the Nahdah mostly envisaged an educated bourgeois or aristocratic woman confined to her home and whose education was mainly invested in educating her children.

One major break from this tradition is to be found, very early on, in the writings of the Maronite Lebanese converted to Islam, Ahmad F‚ris al-Shidy‚q (1804-1887). Shidy‚qís Al-S‚q `Ala-l-S‚q (Paris, 1855) acclaimed as a founding text in Arabic modernity, was written in praise of women and the Arabic language. More, the author declares that while writing his book, ďas if I myself had become a womanĒ. In contrast to the rest of the Nahdah pioneers, who emphasized education, Shidyaq considered Work as the main motor of the Arab renaissance. He urged the right of women to work; attacked segregation between men and women because it treats woman as a sexual object, called for the equal right of women to divorce, and critiqued the double standards in dealing with womenís infidelity. The radical novelty of Shidy‚q resides in his vision that the repression of womanís instincts was the basis of male domination. He defended womanís equal right to sexual pleasure. Not content with the formal equality between the sexes, he looked into the consequences of social inequality on women. In his moving pages of observations on the England of the Industrial Revolution, Shidy‚q discusses prostitution not only as a moral question but also as a consequence of poverty

Q‚sim AmÓn (1863-1908) is credited with the first work in Arabic devoted to the liberation of women. In his TahrÓr al-Maríah (The Liberation of Woman, 1899) to be followed a year later by Al-Maríah al-JadÓdah (The New woman, 1900), AmÓn rejected the notion of woman as an inferior creature and called for womanís equality with man. But, in direct contrast to Shidy‚q, he was a purist concerning relations between the sexes. Although he attacked polygamy as an impediment to the progress of women and of society, he nevertheless rejected sexual pleasure and approved of the veil (the head cover) but opposed the Niq‚b and the Burqu`. The anonymity imposed by these two forms of veiling, he argued, would encourage licentious behavior.

The Beginnings

The inter war period was a period of gestation for modern Arab feminism in more than one sense.

Great strides were made in the battle for education. As early as 1928, Egyptian Universities had opened their gates to girls. The immediate results were wider access by women to administrative posts and generally an increased presence in the labor force with the development of industrialization during WWI and its aftermath.

Equality of Rights was no more a slogan. A new era of womenís militancy started. As early as 1920, Egyptian women workers imposed the first legislation on working hours for women. Nabayiwwah Musa (Egypt) was among the many pioneers in the struggle for working womenís rights.

That period also witnessed the proliferation of womenís press, especially in Egypt and Lebanon: Hind Nawfalís Al-Fatat (November 1892), Rosa AntŻnís Majallat al-Sayyid‚t wa-l-Fatay‚t (1903-), Mustaf‚ `Abd-al-R‚ziqís Al-SufŻr, (1915-), Nabawiyyah Musaís Tarqiyat al-Fat‚t (1923-), and MunÓrah Th‚bitís Al-Amal (1925-)Ö

But the issue of the veil and segregation dominated the best part of that period. ďUnveiling or deathĒ! is the motto launched by the the Iraqi poet Ahmad SudqÓ al-Zah‚wÓ in a founding article, Evils of the Veil (1908) in which he accused sexual segregation between men and women of encouraging pederasty. In another article, In Defence of Women, a year later, he argues that freedom is a gift common to both men and women and derides the argument about manís superiority based on his superior physical strength. Animals are stronger than men, should they have superior rights over them? Al-Zahh‚wÓ opposed polygamy and called for womenís equal right to divorce, based on a simple argument: if women are given the right to approve their marriage, according to the Shari`ah, how can they be deprived of any say in its dissolution? Al-Zahh‚wÓ goes even further in his critique as he evokes the inequality inherent in the Islamic promise of Heaven in which men are promised the famous seductive houris (700 to 70.000 of them) whereas women are promised to desire only their husbands. Zahh‚wÓís writings on the woman question provoked demonstrations against him in the streets of Baghdad and the cityís Ottoman w‚lÓ ultimately dismissed the poet from his teaching post at the Law school.

Mansour Fahmi (1886-1959) dealt with the question of the veil from a totally different angle. In his doctoral thesis entitled La condition de la femme dans la Tradition et líťvolution de líIslamisme. (Paris, 1913) he resorts to ample philological and historic evidence in order to prove that neither in pre-Islam nor in the Prophet Muhammadís time, there existed a piece of cloth designed to hide womanís face from men. Among the evidence provided by Fahmi is that the hij‚b in ‚yah 52 of Surat al-Ahz‚b refers to a cloth partition inside the tent and the Jilb‚b in ‚yah 59 (of Al-Ahz‚b also) refers to a shawl for the body. Back in Egypt, Fahmi was bitterly attacked and forced to renounce his theory. His book is still not translated into Arabic.



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