al-Badiya (born Malak Hifni Nasif, 1886-1918) was an Egyptian feminist
who lived during an era in which Egypt, though supposedly an autonomous
province of the Ottoman Empire, was in reality ruled by the British.
Al-Badiya was born to a middle class family and was encouraged by her
parents to acquire an education. She became a critic both of western
influence in Egypt and the manner in which traditional Egyptian culture
restricted women. As a political activist, whe sought to expand
educational opportunities and access to healthcare for Egyptian women.
Al-Badiya's 1909 lecture sets out her characteristic blend of feminism,
Egyptian nationalism, and moderate Islam. She died of influenza at the
age of 31.
Bahithat al-Badiya, Excerpts from "A Lecture in the Club of the Umma Party, 1909"
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 and
accepting the the invitation to this talk where I seek reform. I hope
to succeed but if I fail remember I am one of you and that as human
beings we both succeed and fail. Anyone who differs with me or which is
to make a comment is welcome to express her views at the end of my talk.
meeting today is not simply for getting acquainted or for displaying
our finery but it 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 in grumbling or not reform. I don't believe a sick
person is cured by continual moaning. And Arab proverb says there is no
smoke without fire. The English philosopher a, Herbert Spencer, 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 and another both will vanish in time.
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 and 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 wished 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 are 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 home I'd also impedes work inside
the house. Furthermore cama how many able-bodied men have not become
sick from time to time and have had to stop work?
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 entered
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 so close 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 and 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.
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 a 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 Delta) would be able to be the strongest man
from al-Ghuriya (a section of Cairo) in a wrestling match? If men say
to us 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 Hawla bint al-Azwar al-Kindi who
impressed Umar ibn al Khattab with her bravery and skill in fighting
when she went to Syria to free her brother held captive by the
Byzantines. Joan Of Arc 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; Isabel, Queen of Spain; Elizabeth, Queen of England;
Cleopatra; Shajarat al-Durr, the mother of Turan Shah, who governed
Egypt. 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.
someone says to us that's enough education it discourages us and pushes
us backwards. 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 and
occupied by us, men can relax because what they fear is distant. If one
of us shows eagerness to complete her education in 1 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 were become employed by the government were to 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?
irritates me more than when men claim they do not wish us to work
because they wished to spare us the burden. We do not want
condescension, we want respect. They should replace the 1st with the
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 be
rightly 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 come on the other hand, advocate unveiling, like Europeans, and
mixing with men, because they are harmful to us.
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?
imprisonment in the home of the Egyptian woman of the past is
detrimental well 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.
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 a gyptians 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 and 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.
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're superior
to our own. The reasoning is the same. What would be the result of 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 should leave her children and replaced them
with Western children or would she do her best to make them beautiful
and make them resemble as much as possible that would she admired and
those other children? Of 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 or trespass on 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 woman
peddlers and washer women, 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 and telligent then he is. If we fail to do something
about this it means we think our condition is satisfactory. Is our
conditions had the saccarii? 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 fulfillment of duties that we are
human beings with feelings, no less human [than] they are and we do not
allow them to under any condition hurt our feelings or feel to respect
us, if we do all this, how can a just man despise us? As for the unjust
men, it would have been better for us not to accept marriage to him.
Now I shall turn to the path we should follow. If I had the right to legislate I would decree:
1. Teaching girls the Quran and the correct Sunna.
2. Primary and secondary education for all girls, and compulsory preporatory school education for all.
3. Instruction for girls on the theory and practice of home economic, health, first aid, and child care.
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. Upbringing for girls from infancy stressing patience, honesty, work and other virtues.
7. At hearing to the Shariah
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. Make it incumbent upon our brothers, the men of Egypt, to implicate this program.
Source: Sources in the History of the Modern Middle East, edited by Akram Fouad Khater. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004, pp. 91-100.