- Mona L. Russell Creating the New Egyptian Woman: Consumerism, Education and National Identity 1863-1922
It is not new to observe that in the area of Middle Eastern studies, the field of consumer and cultural studies is suffering from a great neglect. Cultural studies are picking up slowly in our part of the world, but Arab academics still mistakenly consider consumer studies as a trivial field. No doubt, the sociology of consumerism in the Middle East still is to come, but exceptions are the recent works (nevertheless in English) of Deniz Kandiyoti and Ayse Saktanber on Turkey and Walter Armbrust's edited volume, both of which deal pertinently with consumer culture and modernity. Nancy Young Reynolds' unpublished thesis on consumption from 1910 until 1960 suggests how significant a role consumption played in nationalist articulations with the issue of the boycott of foreign goods and the dumping of local products, by focusing on the history of department stores in Cairo, which she studied from the angle of the evolution of Egyptian cosmopolitanism in commerce and consumption. However, I have not come across any in-depth sociological or historical studies in the Arabic language that tackle the cultural effects of globalization on Egyptian consumerist attitudes. [End Page 149]
Mona L. Russell´s book fills this lacunae, and her book can only be praised. A dissertation turned into a book, it examines consumerism through the prism of the creation of the image of the "new" modern woman at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. A historical study on the consumer culture of elites in colonial times and the intertwined, intricate relationship to European consumer culture, Russell's book is well written and pleasant to read.
She begins her book with Qassem Amin's "feminist" writings to argue that he, to cite Arland Thornton, was reading history "sideways," and further argues that in Amin's views, the comparison to the West implied that the New Woman is an improved and superior woman. Russell develops two parallel arguments whereby she links consumer culture to the history of modern Western education, or the two-track, parallel educational system established by Mohammed Ali and, at a later phase, its Egyptianization. Her analysis of the impact of education and textbooks extends from the elites to the middle classes to draw important differences in world views and the difference in emphasizing (or not) foreign languages and women's participation in the public sphere. However, Russell's conclusion is that education reinforced class divisions in society, much like textbooks were not free from biased views about the fellahin as being simple, dirty, and ignorant people.
One of her pertinent observations is that if Turkish was the language of the ruling elites during Mohammed Ali, Khedive Isma'il encouraged French and Arabic. While Abbas Helmi II's first language was Turkish, in his memoirs he stresses the significance of the Arabic language. Thus, Russell discusses the complexity of language use among the ruling classes and its relationship to Egyptianization. However, she develops one main thesis, which associates the birth of the new consumerism of the al-Sayyida al-istihlakiyya, or the new (consuming) woman, with the inculcation of new education norms, hygiene, and household management. Russell argues that change occurred with the persistence of parallel structures whereby traditional structures continued to exist with modern ones, much like modern shops and department stores did not replace bazaars or higher primary school. Very useful, archival information about the establishment of schools is provided, particularly in regard to the history and proliferation of foreign-language schools. Russell points to the crucial fact that during Ismail's reign, between the [End Page 150] years of 1863 and 1879, 129 private schools opened in Egypt (109). In fact, Russell's work is an attempt to interweave consumerism with education and identity formation in relation to nation-building; shopping in person was a way to offer additional choices. A good review of literature on department stores in the West also is provided.
Russell analyzes at length the idea that at the turn of the...