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A Lecture in the Club of the Umma Party

Bahithat al-Badiya
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A Lecture in the Club of the Umma Party

Bahithat al-Badiya


Malak Hifni Nasif (Egypt, 1886–1918), who used the pseudonym Bahithat al-Badiya (Seeker in the Desert), was born in Cairo into a literary family. Her father, who had studied at al- Azhar with Muhammad ‘Abduh (see chapter 3), encouraged his daughter's education. She graduated from the first teacher training school for women in Egypt, the Saniyya School, where she later taught. On Fridays she gave women's lectures at the Egyptian University and elsewhere, which she published along with feminist essays in 1910. The present selection was one of these lectures, delivered to hundreds of upper-class women, and addressing some of the most sensitive social issues of the day: changing gender relations, the symbolic and practical implications of women's garb, and the need for legal change in women's status. The program listed at the end of the lecture formed the kernel of the more extensive set of demands that she sent in 1911 to the Egyptian Congress in Heliopolis, a meeting of (male) nationalists. Her life then took an abrupt turn when she married a Bedouin chief, gave up teaching, and went to live with him in the Fayyum oasis west of Cairo. She discovered he already had a wife—his cousin—and a daughter he expected her to tutor. Some of the sufferings she experienced and observed were expressed in her writings. In 1918, at the age of 32, she died of influenza. Her eulogy was the first feminist speech delivered by Huda Sha‘rawi (1879–1947), founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union.1 Soha Abdel Kader, Egyptian Women in a Changing Society, 1899–1987 (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1987), pp. 64–68; Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 179–185; Margot Badran, Feminists, Islam and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995); Beth Baron, The Women's Awakening in Egypt (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994); ‘Abd al-Muta‘al Muhammad Jabri, al-Muslima al-‘asriya ‘inda Bahithat al-Badiya (The Contemporary Muslim Woman, in the View of Bahithat al-Badiya) (Cairo, Egypt: Dar al-Ansar, 1976); May Ziyada, Bahithat al-Badiya (Bahithat al-Badiya) (Cairo, Egypt: Matba‘at al-Muqtataf, 1920).

Ladies, I greet you as a sister who feels what you feel, suffers what you suffer, and rejoices in what you rejoice. I applaud your kindness in accepting the invitation to this talk, where I seek reform. I hope to succeed, but if I fail, remember that I am one of you, and that as human beings we both succeed and fail. Anyone who differs with me or wishes to make a comment is welcome to express her views at the end of my talk.

Our meeting today is not simply for getting acquainted or for displaying our finery, but is a serious meeting. I wish to seek agreement on an approach we can take, and to examine our shortcomings in order to correct them. Complaints about both women and men are rife. Which side is right? Complaints and grumbling are not reform. I don’t believe a sick person is cured by continual moaning. An Arab proverb says there is no smoke without fire. The English philosopher, Herbert Spencer [1820–1903], says that opinions that appear erroneous to us are not totally wrong, but there must be an element of truth in them. There is some truth in our claims and in those of men. At the moment there is a semi-feud between us and men because of the low level of agreement between us. Men blame the discord on our poor upbringing and haphazard education, while we claim it is due to men's arrogance and pride. This mutual blame which has deepened the antagonism between the sexes is something to be regretted and feared. God did not create man and woman to hate each other, but to love each other and to live together so the world would be populated. If men live alone in one part of the world and women are isolated in another, both will vanish in time.

Men say when we become educated we shall push them out of work and abandon the role for which God has created us. But isn’t it rather men who have pushed women out of work? Before, women used to spin and to weave cloth for clothes for themselves and their children, but men invented machines for spinning and weaving and put women out of work. In the past, women sewed clothes for themselves and their households, but men invented the sewing machine. The iron for these machines is mined by men, and the machines themselves are made by men. Then men took up the profession of tailoring and began to make clothes for our men and children. Before, women winnowed the wheat and ground flour on grinding stones for the bread they used to make with their own hands, sifting flour and kneading dough. Then men established bakeries employing men. They gave us rest, but at the same time pushed us out of work. We or our female servants used to sweep our houses with straw brooms, and then men invented machines to clean that could be operated by a young male servant. Poor women and servants used to fetch water for their homes or the homes of employers, but men invented pipes and faucets to carry water into houses. Would reasonable women seeing water pumped into a neighbor's house be content to fetch water from the river, which might be far away? Is it reasonable for any civilized woman seeing bread from the bakery, clean and soft, costing her nothing more than a little money, to go and winnow wheat and knead dough? She might be weak and unable to trouble herself to prepare the wheat and dough, or she might be poor and unable to hire servants or to work alone without help. I think if men were in our place they would have done what we did. No woman can do all this work now, except women in the villages where civilization has not arrived. Even those women go to a mill instead of crushing wheat on the grinding stones. Instead of collecting water from the river, they have pumps in their houses.

By what I have just said, I do not mean to denigrate these useful inventions which do a lot of our work. Nor do I mean to imply that they do not satisfy our needs. But I simply wanted to show that men are the ones who started to push us out of work, and that if we were to edge them out today, we would only be doing what they have already done to us.

The question of monopolizing the workplace comes down to individual freedom. One man wishes to become a doctor, another a merchant. Is it right to tell a doctor he must quit his profession and become a merchant or vice versa? No. Each has the freedom to do as he wishes. Since male inventors and workers have taken away a lot of our work, should we waste our time in idleness or seek other work to occupy us? Of course, we should do the latter. Work at home now does not occupy more than half the day. We must pursue an education in order to occupy the other half of the day, but that is what men wish to prevent us from doing under the pretext of taking their jobs away. Obviously, I am not urging women to neglect their home and children to go out and become lawyers or judges or railway engineers. But if any of us wish to work in such professions, our personal freedom should not be infringed. It might be argued that pregnancy causes women to leave work, but there are unmarried women, others who are barren or have lost their husbands or are widowed or divorced, or those whose husbands need their help in supporting the family. It is not right that they should be forced into lowly jobs. These women might like to become teachers or doctors with the same academic qualifications. Is it just to prevent women from doing what they believe is good for themselves and their support? If pregnancy impedes work outside the house, it also impedes work inside the house. Furthermore, how many able-bodied men have not become sick from time to time and have had to stop work?

Men say to us categorically, “You women have been created for the house and we have been created to be breadwinners.” Is this a God-given dictate? How are we to know this, since no holy book has spelled it out? Political economy calls for a division of labor, but if women enter the learned professions it does not upset the system. The division of labor is merely a human creation. We still witness people like the Nubians whose men sew clothes for themselves and the household, while the women work in the fields. Some women even climb palm trees to harvest the dates. Women in villages in both Upper and Lower Egypt help their men till the land and plant crops. Some women do the fertilizing, haul crops, lead animals, draw water for irrigation, and other chores. You may have observed that women in the villages work as hard as the strongest men, and we see that their children are strong and healthy.

Specialized work for each sex is a matter of convention. It is not mandatory. We women are now unable to do hard work because we have not been accustomed to it. If the city woman had not been prevented from doing hard work, she would have been as strong as the man. Isn’t the country woman like her city sister? Why then is the former in better health and stronger than the latter? Do you have any doubt that a woman from Minufiya [a town in the Egyptian Delta] would be able to beat the strongest man from al-Ghuriya [a section of Cairo] in a wrestling match? If men say to us that we have been created weak, we say to them, “No, it is you who made us weak through the path you made us follow.” After long centuries of enslavement by men, our minds rusted and our bodies weakened. Is it right that they accuse us of being created weaker than them in mind and body? Women may not have to their credit great inventions, but women have excelled in learning and the arts and politics. Some have exceeded men in courage and valor, such as Khawla bint al-Azwar al- Kindi [a companion of the Prophet, died circa 655], who impressed ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab [second caliph, 634–644] with her bravery and skill in fighting when she went to Syria to free her brother held captive by the Byzantines. Joan of Arc [circa 1412–1431], who led the French army after its defeat by the English, encouraged the French to continue fighting and valiantly waged war against those who fought her nation. I am not giving examples of women who became queens and were adept in politics such as Catherine, Queen of Russia [reigned 1762–1796]; Isabel, Queen of Spain [reigned 1474–1504]; Elizabeth, Queen of England [reigned 1558–1603]; Cleopatra [queen of Egypt, reigned 51–30 B.C.]; Shajarat al-Durr, the mother of Turan Shah [reigned 1249], who governed Egypt [1250–1257]. Our opponents may say that their rule was carried out by their ministers, who are men, but while that might be true under constitutional rule, it is not true under absolute monarchies. When someone says to us, “That's enough education,” it discourages us and pushes us backward. We are still new at educating our daughters. While there is no fear now of our competing with men, because we are still in the first stage of education and our Oriental habits still do not allow us to pursue much study, men can rest assured in their jobs. As long as they see seats in the schools of law, engineering, medicine, and at university unoccupied by us, men can relax, because what they fear is distant. If one of us shows eagerness to complete her education in one of these schools, I am sure she will not be given a job. She is doing that to satisfy her desire for learning or for recognition. As long as we do not work in law or become employed by the government, would our only distraction from raising children be reading a book or writing a letter? I think that is impossible. No matter how much a mother has been educated, or in whatever profession she works, this would not cause her to forget her children nor to lose her maternal instinct. On the contrary, the more enlightened she becomes, the more aware she is of her responsibilities. Haven’t you seen ignorant women and peasant women ignore their crying child for hours? Were these women also occupied in preparing legal cases or in reading and writing?

Nothing irritates me more than when men claim they do not wish us to work because they wish to spare us the burden. We do not want condescension, we want respect. They should replace the first with the second. Men blame any shortcomings we may have on our education, but in fact our upbringing is to blame. Learning and upbringing are two separate things— only in religion are the two connected. This is demonstrated by the fact that many men and women who are well educated are lacking in morals. Some people think that good upbringing means kissing the hands of women and standing with arms properly crossed. Good upbringing means helping people respect themselves and others. Education has not spoiled the morals of our girls, but poor upbringing, which is the duty of the home, not the school, has done this. We have to redouble our efforts to reform ourselves and the young. This cannot happen in a minute as some might think. It is unfair to put the blame on the schools. The problem lies with the family. We must improve this situation.

One of our shortcomings is our reluctance to take advice from each other. When someone says something, jealousy and scorn usually come into play. We also are too quick to ridicule and criticize each other over nothing, and we are vain and arrogant.

Men criticize the way we dress in the street. They have a point, because we have exceeded the bounds of custom and propriety. We claim we are veiling, but we are neither properly covered nor unveiled. I do not advocate a return to the veils of our grandmothers, because it can rightly be called being buried alive, not hijab, correct covering. The woman used to spend her whole life within the walls of her house, not going out into the street except when she was carried to her grave. I do not, on the other hand, advocate unveiling, like Europeans, and mixing with men, because they are harmful to us.

Nowadays the lower half of our attire is a skirt that does not conform to our standards of modesty (hijab), while the upper half—like age, the more it advances, the more it is shortened. Our former garment was one piece. When the woman wrapped herself in it, her figure was totally hidden. The wrap shrunk little by little, but it was still wide enough to conceal the whole body. Then we artfully began to shrink the waist and lower the neck and finally two sleeves were added and the garment clung to the back and was worn only with a corset. We tied back our headgear so that more than half the head, including the ears, was visible and the flowers and ribbons ornamenting the hair could be seen. Finally, the face veil became more transparent than an infant's heart. The purpose of the izar [long outer garment] is to cover the body as well as our dress and jewelry underneath, which God has commanded us not to display. [Qur'an, Sura 24, Verse 31] Does our present izar, which has virtually become a “dress” showing the bosom, waist, and derriere, conform with this precept? Moreover, some women have started wearing it in colors—blue, brown, and red. In my opinion, we should call it a dress with a clown's cap, which in fact it is. I think going out without it is more modest, because at least eyes are not attracted to it.

Imams [religious leaders] have differed on the question of hijab. If the get-ups of some women are meant to be a way to leave the home without the izar, it would be all right if they unveiled their faces but covered their hair and their bodies. I believe the best practice for outdoors is to cover the head with a scarf and the body with a dress of the kind Europeans call cache poussière, a dust coat, to cover the body right down to the heels, and with sleeves long enough to reach the wrist. This is being done now in Istanbul, as I am told, when Turkish women go out to neighborhood shops. But who will guarantee that we will not shorten it and tighten it until we transform it into another dress? In that instance, the road to reform would narrow in front of us.

If we had been raised from childhood to go unveiled, and if our men were ready for it, I would approve of unveiling for those who want it. But the nation is not ready for it now. Some of our prudent women do not fear to mix with men, but we have to place limits on those who are less prudent, because we are quick to imitate and seldom find our authenticity in the veil. Don’t you see that diamond tiaras were originally meant for queens and princesses, and now they are worn by singers and dancers?

The way we wear the izar now imitates the dress of Europeans, but we have outdone them in display (tabarruj). The European woman wears the simplest dress she has when she is outside, and wears whatever she wishes at home or when invited to soirées. But our women are just the opposite. In front of her husband she wears a simple tunic, and when she goes out she wears her best clothes, loads herself down with jewelry, and pours bottles of perfume on herself . . . Not only this, but she makes a wall out of her face, a wall that she paints various colors. She walks swaying like bamboo in a way that entices passersby, or at least they pretend to be enticed. I am sure that most of these showy women do this without bad intentions, but how can the onlooker understand good intentions when appearances do not indicate it?

Veiling should not prevent us from breathing fresh air or going out to buy what we need if no one can buy it for us. It must not prevent us from gaining an education, nor cause our health to deteriorate. When we have finished our work and feel restless, and if our house does not have a spacious garden, why shouldn’t we go to the outskirts of the city and take the fresh air that God has created for everyone, and not just put in boxes exclusively for men? But we should be prudent and not take promenades alone, and we should avoid gossip. We should not saunter moving our heads right and left. If my father or husband will not choose clothes I like and bring them to the house, why can’t he take me with him to select what I need, or let me buy what I want?

If I cannot find anyone but a man to teach me, should I opt for ignorance or for unveiling in front of that man, along with my sisters who are being educated? Nothing would force me to unveil in the presence of the teacher. I can remain veiled and still benefit from the teacher. Are we better in Islam than Sayyida Nafisa [saintly scholar, 762–824] and Sayyida Sukayna [bint al-Husayn, great-granddaughter of the Prophet, died 736]—God's blessings be upon them— who used to gather with ‘ulama’ [religious scholars] and poets. If illness causes me to consult a doctor, and there is no woman doctor, should I abandon myself to sickness, which might be light but could become complicated through neglect, or should I seek help from a doctor who could cure me?

The imprisonment in the home of the Egyptian woman of the past is detrimental, while the current freedom of the Europeans is excessive. I cannot find a better model than today's Turkish woman. She falls between the two extremes and does not violate what Islam prescribes. She is a good example of decorum and modesty.

I have heard that some of our high officials are teaching their girls European dancing and acting. I consider both despicable—a detestable crossing of boundaries and a blind imitation of Europeans. Customs should not be abandoned except when they are harmful. European customs should not be taken up by Egyptians except when they are appropriate and practical. What good is there for us in women and men holding each other's waists dancing, or daughters appearing on stage before audiences acting with bare bosoms in love scenes? This is contrary to Islam, and a moral threat we must fight as much as we can. We must show our disdain for the few Muslim women who do these things, who otherwise would be encouraged by our silence to contaminate others.

On the subject of customs and veiling, I would like to remind you of something that causes us great unhappiness —the question of engagement and marriage. Most sensible people in Egypt believe it is necessary for fiancés to meet and speak with each other before their marriage. It is wise, and the Prophet himself, peace be upon him and his followers, did not do otherwise. It is a practice in all nations, including Egypt, except among city people. Some people advocate the European practice of allowing the engaged pair to get together for a period of time so that they can come to know each other, but I am opposed to this and am convinced this is rooted in fallacy. The result of this getting together is that they would come to love each other, but when someone loves another, that person does not see the faults of that person and would not be able to evaluate that person's morals. The two get married on the basis of false love and without direction, and soon they start to quarrel and the harmony evaporates. In my view, the two people should see each other and speak together after their engagement and before signing the marriage contract. The woman should be accompanied by her father, or an uncle or a brother, and she should wear simple clothing. Some might protest that one or two or more meetings is not enough for the two persons to get to know each other's character, but it is enough to tell if they are attracted to each other. However, anyone with good intuition can detect a person's moral character in the eyes and in movements and repose and sense if a person is false, reckless, and the like. As for a person's past and other things, one should investigate by talking with acquaintances, neighbors, servants, and others. If we are afraid that immoral young men would use this opportunity to see young women without intending marriage, her guardian should probe the behavior of the man to ascertain how serious he is before allowing him to see his daughter or the young woman for whom he is responsible. What is the good of education if one cannot abandon a custom that is not rooted in religion, and that is harmful. We have all seen family happiness destroyed because of this old betrothal practice.

By not allowing men to see their prospective wives following their engagement, we cause Egyptian men to seek European women in marriage. They marry European servants and working-class women, thinking they would be happy with them rather than daughters of pashas and beys [high officials and nobles] hidden away in “a box of chance.” If we do not solve this problem, we shall become subject to occupation by women of the West. We shall suffer double occupation, one by men and the other by women. The second will be worse than the first, because the first occurred against our will, but we shall have invited the second by our own actions. It is not improbable, as well, that these wives will bring their fathers, brothers, cousins, and friends to live near them, and they would close the doors of work in front of our men. Most Egyptian men who have married European women suffer from the foreign habits and extravagance of their wives. The European woman thinks she is of a superior race to the Egyptian and bosses her husband around after marriage. When the European woman marries an Egyptian, she becomes a spendthrift, while she would be thrifty if she were married to a Westerner.

If the man thinks the upper-class Egyptian wife is deficient and lacking in what her Western sister has, why doesn’t the husband gently guide his wife? Husband and wife should do their utmost to please each other. When our young men go to Europe to study modern sciences, it should be to the benefit, not the detriment, of Egypt. As these men get an education and profit themselves, they should also bring benefit to their compatriots. They should bring to their country that which will profit it and dispense with whatever is foreign, as much as possible. If a national manufacturer of silk visits the factories of Europe and admires their efficiency, he should buy machinery that would do work rapidly, rather than introduce the same European-made product, because if he does he will endanger his own good product.

If we pursue everything Western we shall destroy our own civilization, and a nation that has lost its civilization grows weak and vanishes. Our youth claim that they bring European women home because they find them more sophisticated than Egyptian women. By the same token, they should bring European students and workers to Egypt because they are superior to our own. The reasoning is the same. What would be the result if this happens? If an Egyptian wife travels to Europe and sees the children there with better complexions and more beautiful than children in Egypt, would it be right that she would leave her children and replace them with Western children, or would she do her best to make them beautiful and make them resemble as much as possible that which she admired in those other children? If the lowliest Western woman marrying an Egyptian is disowned by her family, shall we be content with her when she also takes the place of one of our best women, and the husband becomes an example for other young men? I am the first to admire the activities of the Western woman, and her courage, and I am the first to respect those among them who deserve respect, but respect for others should not make us overlook the good of the nation. Public interest is above admiration. In many of our ways we follow the views of our men. Let them show us what they want, We are ready to follow their views, on condition that their views do not do injustice to us nor trespass on our rights.

Our beliefs and actions have been a great cause of the lesser respect that men accord us. How can a sensible man respect a woman who believes in magic, superstition, and the blessing of the dead, and who allows women peddlers and washerwomen, or even devils, to have authority over her? Can he respect a woman who speaks only about the clothes of her neighbor and the jewelry of her friend and the furniture of a bride? This is added to the notion imprinted in a man's mind that woman is weaker and less intelligent than he is. If we fail to do something about this, it means we think our condition is satisfactory. Is our condition satisfactory? If it is not, how can we better it in the eyes of men? Good upbringing and sound education would elevate us in the eyes of men. We should get a sound education, not merely acquire the trappings of a foreign language and rudiments of music. Our education should also include home management, health care, and child care. If we eliminate immodest behavior on the street and prove to our husbands through good behavior and fulfilment of duties that we are human beings with feelings, no less human than they are, and we do not allow them under any condition to hurt our feelings or fail to respect us—if we do all this, how can a just man despise us? As for the unjust man, it would have been better for us not to accept marriage to him.

We shall advance when we give up idleness. The work of most of us at home is lounging on cushions all day or going out to visit other women. How does the woman who knows how to read occupy her leisure time? Only in reading novels. Has she read books about health, or books through which she can profit herself and others? Being given over to idleness or luxury has given us weak constitutions and pale complexions. We have to find work to do at home. At a first glance, one can see that the working classes have better health and more energy and more intelligent children. The children of the middle and lower classes are, almost all of them, in good health and have a strong constitution, while most of the children of the elite are sick or frail and prone to illness, despite the care lavished on them by their parents. On the other hand, lower-class children are greatly neglected by their parents. Work causes poisons to be eliminated from the blood and strengthens the muscles and gives energy.

Now I shall turn to the path we should follow. If I had the right to legislate, I would decree:

1. Teaching girls the Qur'an and the correct sunna [practice of the Prophet].

2. Providing primary and secondary school education for girls, and compulsory preparatory school education for all.

3. Instructing girls on the theory and practice of home economics, health, first aid, and childcare.

4. Setting a quota for females in medicine and education so they can serve the women of Egypt.

5. Allowing women to study any other advanced subjects they wish without restriction.

6. Bringing up girls from infancy stressing patience, honesty, work, and other virtues.

7. Adhering to the shari‘a [Islamic law] concerning betrothal and marriage, and not permitting any woman and man to marry without first meeting each other in the presence of the father or male relative of the bride.

8. Adopting the veil and outdoor dress of the Turkish women of Istanbul.

9. Maintaining the best interests of the country and dispensing with foreign goods and people as much as possible.

10. Making it incumbent upon our brothers, the men of Egypt, to implement this program.

Bibliography references:

Bahithat al-Badiya, “A Lecture in the Club of the Umma Party,” translated from Arabic by Ali Badran and Margot Badran, in Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke, eds., Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), pp. 228–238. Speech delivered in 1909 and first published in 1910. Introduction adapted from the same volume, pp. 134, 227.


1. Soha Abdel Kader, Egyptian Women in a Changing Society, 1899–1987 (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1987), pp. 64–68; Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 179–185; Margot Badran, Feminists, Islam and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995); Beth Baron, The Women's Awakening in Egypt (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994); ‘Abd al-Muta‘al Muhammad Jabri, al-Muslima al-‘asriya ‘inda Bahithat al-Badiya (The Contemporary Muslim Woman, in the View of Bahithat al-Badiya) (Cairo, Egypt: Dar al-Ansar, 1976); May Ziyada, Bahithat al-Badiya (Bahithat al-Badiya) (Cairo, Egypt: Matba‘at al-Muqtataf, 1920).

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