- Egypt as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender, and Politics
The standing of Egyptian women on the cultural scales of early-twentieth-century modernity was a critical point of contestation in which the Egyptian nationalists and the British negotiated the “worthiness” of Egypt’s bid for national autonomy. The past decade has produced several books on gender and the formation of Egyptian national identity. Beth Baron’s The Women’s Awakening in Egypt, published in 1994, heralded a number of manuscripts by Margot Badran, Marilyn Booth, Selma Botman, and Lisa Pollard, among others. Baron’s Egypt as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender, and Politics stands apart because of not only its excellent gendered analysis and the expanded incorporation of women in the book’s narrative but also its reliance on images as a primary source of historical analysis. Printed images, [End Page 377] especially when mass disseminated in newspapers and magazines, garnered a significant influence on their viewers. People need not be literate to “read” a photograph, painting, or cartoon, thereby magnifying the impact and reach of these mass-mediated visual expressions. Despite the important role that mass-produced images played in shaping subjectivity, until recently, historians of the Middle East have overlooked them as sources. Baron’s study changes this dynamic by successfully presenting an innovative lens of pictorial evidence. In the process, Baron gives her readers a refreshing outlook on Egyptian nationalism in the early twentieth century. By exploring the connection among gendered images of Egypt, mythologized national narratives, and the politics and social movements of female nationalists, Egypt as a Woman makes a substantive contribution to the study of gender and Egyptian nationalism.
The book is divided into two parts. The first half, “Images of the Nation,” considers the representation of Egypt in the burgeoning national media, with an emphasis on female iconographic representation of Egyptian nationhood. The second part, “The Politics of Women Nationalists,” presents the extensive political efforts of female Egyptian nationalists by analyzing contemporary periodicals, memoirs, autobiographies, and especially popular newspaper and magazine images, including political cartoons and photographs.
The first two chapters discuss the rapid transformation of elite households and the eventual formation of a virtual “national family” whose honor was constructed and frequently defended in the public sphere (mainly on the pages of the national press). As Baron successfully documents in the second chapter, Egyptian nationalists employed the notion of women’s honor to rally the masses against the British occupation. Egyptian poets and balladeers, for instance, framed the 1906 Dinshaway incident as a gendered honor crime, with the primary emphasis on the wounding and hence “violation” of a female villager (43–44).
The second half of “Images of the Nation” attends to the various and complex ways that images informed and shaped nationalism and nationalist iconography. Chapter 3 centers on the gendering of Egypt as a woman in cartoons, photographs, paintings, postage stamps, and public statues. Baron reveals the changing depictions of Egypt as a woman, from fully veiled to lightly veiled and finally as an unveiled, “modern” woman. Baron is thus able to demonstrate the evolution of a new political culture that reflected and constituted the “shifting realities of women during this period” (71). While the representation of the nation as a woman was a prevalent symbol, women’s participation as political actors in the nation was highly contentious. Baron surveys the role of photography and photojournalism in creating and propagating new nationalist symbols in chapter 4. This is arguably the most innovative aspect of the study, since it highlights the importance of photojournalism in shaping subjectivity. At the turn of the twentieth century, illustrated Arabic periodicals became especially popular, primarily because of their inclusion of thousands of photographs. Through printing photographs of Egyptians of all social classes, the illustrated press allowed ordinary Egyptians to envision the human demography of the nation and in the process “helped shape the nationalist narrative and build a collective memory” (101).
Aside from contributing to the development of an “imagined community,” many of the photographs printed in the illustrated press were of...