The Liberation of Women and The New Woman (1899) were possibly the most important and controversial of all the writings of Qasim Amin. Amin was an Egyptian lawyer and was known best for advocating women's emancipation in Egypt. An important argument came out his writings in these books. I feel that his own reasons for suggesting the emancipation of women were not as noble as some would think. On the other hand, the overall cause he was fighting for was good. It is basically a case of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.
He appealed to those involved with pan-Arabism, education, and politics in general by using the premise that women's liberation needed to happen first in order for there to be an eventual liberation of Egyptian society from foreign domination. He both idealized the west and wanted Egypt to do things its own way. He also used arguments based on Islamic religious text and laws when demanding that the status of women be improved. By arguing for the cause in such a manner, he brought the argument of the status of women to the forefront, but he also made himself subject to harsh criticism from the government, religious leaders, journalists, and other writers. He wrote The New Woman one year later to defend his position. He took some of his ideas even further and relied less on the sayings of Muhammad for his argument. Instead he more openly makes it apparent that he likes the Western ideas and way of development. Even though the books were written over one hundred years ago, they are still a source of debates for much of the Arab world.
Amin's book outlined his claim that educating and liberating women was essential in order for Egypt to be emancipated from colonial British influences. He basically thought he was a western philosopher because he traveled and studied in Europe and saw the roles that women had in the West. He thought that men held women down in the Middle East, and the fact that women were oppressed in this way thus stunted the growth of society in general. Essentially, he wanted women to have the opportunity to be better not for the sake of their own betterment, but for the betterment of society and to make things easier for men.
“Our present situation resembles that of a very wealthy man who locks up his gold in a chest. This man unlocks his chest daily for the mere pleasure of seeing his treasure. If he knew better, he could invest his gold and double his wealth in a short period of time.” Notice that in this comparison he says that the man can double his investment by “freeing” a woman from oppression. It is the man who is to gain here, there is nothing mentioned of the fact that the woman would gain as well. A man who oppresses a woman is selling himself short because he could be getting more out of it.
The books were (and are) in direct opposition to the conservative trends that he believed stunted women's growth and progress and “discredited their potentials”. Some people would say that Amin's reasons for fighting for this cause were that he wanted to free the minds of women and let them break loose from men holding them down. This is where the matter becomes complicated. The aforementioned motives of bettering men's lives and society are clear, but he also expresses a belief that women have a potential to be equals to men, which was against popular thought at the time.
He said, "if women learn how to read and write, be acquainted with fundamental scientific facts and the location of countries, look around in the history of nations, become aware of something of astronomy, science and physics- all involved in a cognizance of creeds and religious morals- their minds would be prepared to consent to the right opinions and abandon myths and falsities which ruin women’s minds." I find that Amin is the master of the backhanded compliment. He thinks women have the potential to think like he does, if given the opportunity, but if they don't have good education they are stupid creatures filled with silly ideas.
I'd also like to note that Amin doesn't suggest that women have equal education to men, but only an elementary education, "as well as religious education, physical training and the training of artistic taste" , so that they could read, write, and teach the children. The concept of common sense or emotion over reason doesn't occur to him. I am not arguing that women should not be educated, but I feel that he underestimates those women who are not educated. Perhaps he is over-emphasizing the faults he finds with uneducated women in order to plead his case in a more dramatic fashion.
Amin was a lawyer, and thus came from the background of someone who would be familiar with law and politics. He also would have been well practiced in the art of persuasion. He makes a point to tie in women's liberation to the current concerns about Egyptian civilization and society. From his viewpoint, women's liberation was essential to the issue of civilization. If women weren't free to learn, there was a social problem that needed to be fixed. If it was not fixed, Egypt's society could not progress . In The New Woman, Amin said "Women are equal to men, their miserable conditions are due to the injustice of men, who never gave them the chance to act in freedom and in the spirit of responsibility, but rather forced absolute ignorance upon them by all sorts of means." With statements such as that, it is easy to see why he irked the ire of many people who had access to his book.
He also criticized his main audience, which are male, reasonably wealthy, scholars. "It is so strange that scholars have outstripped one another in binding and fettering women through all the inhuman laws and ordinances they could imagine, as though she were a devil to be locked up. If fact, they were shamefully ignorant of her circumstances." He also said that "the Islamic community is in decline. It is too weak to face the pressures surrounding it from all sides; and if it is weak it cannot survive in a world ruled by the laws of Darwinian natural selection." I find his use of the example of Darwinism to be especially interesting. Social Darwinism was a relatively new concept, and Amin tied it into his argument that not only would Egyptian society die off due to colonial rule if women weren't educated, that nature itself would be sure to take it's toll.
Amin thought that Islam was decaying due to the fact that social virtues and moral strength had disappeared. He believed that moral strength was caused by ignorance, which he said "begins in the family". I find it especially ironic that he says this and then basically says that women are responsible for fixing the damage already done. He said "The work of women in society is to form the morals of the nation,". "In our present society, and in Muslim countries in general, neither men nor women are properly educated and will therefore fail to create together a nurturing climate in the family; furthermore, women have neither the freedom nor the status to play a constructive role." He also said that the Sharia was the first book of law that mentioned that women and men should be equal, but people who brought their own "customs and illusions" to Islam had made the message corrupt.
I'd like to take a closer look at the rationale behind the argument that Amin makes. It seems as though the rationale he uses in arguing for Egyptian women's liberation is based in the assumption that Western society is superior and Muslim societies are inherently backward. Critics Ahmed and Baron reexamined Amin's books in 1992 and 1994. They pointed out that his support for the liberation movement came from his admiration of the West's development style; he wanted the Middle East to copy the West's gender system. I agree in that Amin's suggestions actually are a reproduction of Western thoughts about women's role/status in Muslim society, but I'd also contend that the application of those ideas may be more accurate in his use because he is actually a part of the Muslim society in question. Taking that into account, there is still a suggest male dominance either way. Throughout The New Woman it seems as though Amin just wants to substitute the Islamic style of male dominance with Western style male dominance.
Edward Said had critiqued the books in 1978 and came to almost the same conclusion as Ahmed and Baron. Said criticized the concept of civilization that Amin used to base his argument on. He thought Amin (amongst others who admired the British societal structure) was guilty of “Orientalism”. Said said that the “Orient” was a Western idea that was used to speak of their colonies in Africa and the Middle and Far East. He goes further to explain that Orientalism is a “way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient's special place in the European Western experience”. In other words, the idea of the “Orient” is an essential part of the West's society, ideology, material civilization, and culture.
Said said “Orientalism depends for its strategy on this flexible positional superiority, which puts the Western in a whole series of possible relations with the Orient without ever losing its relative upper hand” 13 I agree most with the fact that Amin want's to substitute one type of male dominance for another. The woman would still be expected to raise the family, teach the children, and take care of the household once she got married and reached adulthood. At this time the British were in the Victorian period, where women were far from liberated by today's standards.
Instead of coming up with his own terms for the liberation of women, Amin simply looked at Europe and tried to apply women's status there to the women in Egypt. I don't agree that that would necessarily work in all cases. Women who live in working class environments are usually permitted to enter the work world and carry an equal load to that of men. Education is not as big of an issue with the farming or working class people, because they must work and do what they have to do to survive. Amin is clearly only appealing to the upper class, where the husband works and brings home the money and the woman raises the children.
Amin thought that a woman who isn't educated not only can't relate to her educated husband, but she cannot effectively raise the children. He stated that if women were educated as he had described, they would not only be more useful in the home but they may be able to earn their own pay as well. He believed that earning one's own living was the only assurance that one would get any rights. He said that "Unless a woman could support herself, she would always be at the mercy of male tyranny, no matter what rights the laws gave her,". However, his statement about women earning their own pay is only one of few that are mentioned, he still primarily focuses on the children and the relationship between husband and wife.
There is a notion of the woman being primarily domestic and upholding her family as something that would be sacred and the most essential part of a nation. Such ideas of the construct of a nation, and the use of a woman and mothers as a symbol of a nation, are steeped in patriarchalpatriarchal thought. When women are used as icons of motherhood and the nation, men are associated with being fathers and the state.
When Amin ties family and state together, it is also tying public and private life together, as well as tying together the religious with the political. Arab states, historically, have not had the assumption of a seperate private/public life. Citizens become tied into gender roles due to the fact that religion/politics are tied together as well. When I take this into account, I can't help but think that Amin was a bit off his mark by wanting to apply a Western approach to women's liberation without somehow overhauling nearly every social construct that had previously been in place there. It becomes apparent that it would be difficult to apply the western standards of society to the way Arab life operated.
Qasim Amin was a contemporary of Mohamed Abduh in that he had an ardent desire to "reconcile" the teachings of Muhammad with the West's influence on Egypt. He didn't want people to move to secularism if they felt that the Quran could not be applied to a new and changing environment. He wanted Islam to fit in and be modern, so that there was no argument between the two. At times, Amin seems to be defending Islam more than he is defending women. He states with assurance that there have been different ways of interpreting the word of the Prophet, but past interpretations aren't necessarily sacred. He thought that if one used reason, one could choose the right interpretation and apply it to social interests. Past interpretations were nothing more than an indication of past customs, and people should adapt the Quran to present times without straying from what was said in the Sharia.
There were people who brought up the topic of women's rights before Amin, such as Mohammed Abduh, but Amin was one of the first Arabic philosophers focus primarily on women's liberation. Because of his admiration for the western treatment of women, he was labeled as being “Westernized” and also traitorous to the cause of Egyptian liberation from the West's influence (politically and/or culturally). Despite what I believe to be questionable motives, his book did get the attention of the right people. Soon after the book came out, many upper class Arabic women became part of the debate for their emancipation. Egypt became a center point for emerging feminist presses at the end of the nineteenth and twentieth century. There were about fifteen women's magazines by 1910.
1. Amin, Qasim. The Liberation of Women and The New Woman. Trans. Samiha Sidhom Peterson. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1992.
2. Ahmed, L. (1992). Women and gender in Islam. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
3. Baron, B. (1994). The women's awakening in Egypt: Culture, society and press. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
4. Al-Halawany, H. (2002 Fourth Quarter). Women’s Education in the different Egyptian feminist discourses of veil in late 19th and through the 20th century. In Focus Journal, Open Forum, Retrieved April 1st, 2003, from "http://www.escotet.org/infocus/forum/2002/halawany.htm"forum/halawany.htm
5. Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books 1979. A paperback reprint of the 1978 edition published by Pantheon Books.
6. Najmabadi, Afsaneh. Reconceiving Autonomy: Sources, Thoughts and Possibilities. Yale Journal of Law and Feminism. Vol. 1 No. 7 1989 page 7-36
7. Shakry, Omnia. Schooled Mothers and Structured Play: Child Rearing in Turn-of-the-Century Egypt. In Remaking women. Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East, edited by Lila Abu-Lughod. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1998