- Egypt as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender, and Politics
Egypt as a Woman joins the burgeoning field of Middle East gender studies, exploring both nationalist iconography and the politics of women nationalists in twentieth-century Egypt. Thematically centered on questions of collective memory, national identity, and the gendered idioms of nationhood, Beth Baron’s engaging study identifies the exclusion of women from the public domain of politics at the very moment when gendered (female) visual and linguistic representations of the nation became more widespread. Baron situates the emergence of a distinctively Egyptian nationalist discourse with the supplanting of an Ottoman elite household structure and the mapping of an ethnic Egyptian nation that had to contend with Copts, Syrians, Bedouins, and Sudanese. “Nationalists juxtaposed a family rhetoric of the nation with debates about the family. These debates grew out of transitions [that] elite households had undergone in the long nineteenth century and marked the emergence of a new bourgeoisie. The ‘Woman Question’ became a frontline in the struggle among Egyptians to define and defend a national culture” (39).
In part 1, Baron analyzes a rich array of primary sources—archival, artistic, literary, print media, and memoir literature—to explore notions [End Page 106] of honor (familial and national) in the complex construction of the British occupation and the 1919 revolution in public discourse. The rhetoric of family honor provided a language with which to address colonial occupation and invasion as an assault on the nation’s honor. Such assertions proved powerful in strengthening national unity but clearly relied on a hierarchical and gendered language of protecting the nation’s women. Further, the iconography of Egypt in the early twentieth-century press mobilized various competing images, including Pharaonic and peasant women, and the “new” woman of the 1920s (worldly, educated), high-lighting national fissures as to which type of woman could best represent the nation. Thus, for example, Mahmud Mukhtar’s sculpture Nahdat Misr (unveiled in 1928) iconized the figure of the Egyptian female peasant or fallaha. Baron focuses on the rise of an illustrated press and the visual documentation of women in political culture (such as in funeral processions or “Ladies’ Demonstrations”), thus contributing to the nascent literature on the history of photography in the field of Middle East studies.
Part 2 relies on the same broad base of visual and textual evidence to analyze the actual activities of women nationalists, particularly in the heady days of 1919. While a voluminous historical literature exists on the revolution of 1919, the role of gender has been understudied (with the notable exception of Lisa Pollard’s Nurturing the Nation). Baron’s discussion of the revolution is indeed innovative. Rather than uncover the “truth” of women’s participation in the revolution of 1919, Baron explores the inconsistencies and contradictions in the historical data to address the more interesting question of how the collective memory of the revolution and women’s participation in it has shift ed over time in keeping with the feminist or populist agendas of the day. “The event proved malleable because all sorts of meanings could be attributed to it, and all sorts of identities and ideologies—liberal, populist, feminist, socialist, and Islamist became ascribed to marching veiled women” (134).
The remainder of the text deals with specific women or groups of women—Safiyya Zaghlul, wife of the exiled nationalist leader Sa‘d Zaghlul and metaphorical “Mother of the Egyptians”; the female partisans of the Wafd Party; and Labiba Ahmad, an Islamist social activist active in the interwar period. Baron demonstrates that despite having been ignored in the wider literature on nationalism, these women were crucial to the [End Page 107] nation-building project. “Nationalist politics must be conceived broadly, not just as party or parliamentary politics, from which women were often excluded, but as incorporating a range of ‘nation-building’ activities in diverse spheres, including education, journalism, feminism, and social welfare” (220).
While this text effectively addresses the question of women’s participation in nationalism, it deals far less adequately with the construction of gendered categories of...