- Gender and Class in the Egyptian Women’s Movement, 1929–1935: Changing Perspectives
Cathlyn Mariscotti’s Gender and Class in the Egyptian Women’s Movement offers a revisionist account of the rise of Egyptian feminism in the critical years between the 1919 Revolution and the signing of the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936, during which Egyptians endeavored both to achieve full independence from the British and to define a national identity. As part of Syracuse University Press’ Middle East Studies Beyond Dominant Paradigms Series, the book uses class analysis to illustrate both how elite, or ruling-class, Egyptian women’s feminist agendas created hegemonic standards for women’s behavior in the public and private realms, and how women of the professional and working classes later challenged those conventions. Mariscotti links her discussion of feminism to the rise of a dominant state culture, arguing that elite feminism be understood as complicit with the class agendas of Egypt’s male ruling elite—despite the fact that men locked their elite female counterparts out of the political realm. As part of the dominant state culture, Mariscotti argues, elite feminists used their status to define women’s agendas (indeed to define what it meant to be feminine) and to assign meaning to the public realm so as to keep women of the lower classes out of it. Peter Gran, the series’ editor, notes that Mariscotti’s account of Egyptian feminism is original not only because it insists upon bringing women in from the margins of discourse on class—an important contribution in its own right—but because it is the first “to base itself on the indigenous dynamic as opposed to simply the indigenous” (p. x). Indeed, the strength of the book lies not in its reliance on new source materials, but rather in their repackaging to make critical points about competing agendas among Egyptian women.
Gender and Class in the Egyptian Women’s Movement is organized into six chapters. The first chapter takes to task those historians whose accounts of the Egyptian feminist-nationalist nexus have failed to reckon with the hegemony of elite feminism or the struggles waged against it by professional and working-class men and women. The second chapter follows a similar logic, suggesting models from outside of Middle Eastern historical studies as alternatives to the paradigms which, to Mariscotti’s discernment, have heretofore hindered historians’ portrayals of Egyptian feminism. Chapters three, four and five illustrate the various ways in which elite women defined their agendas and maintained their positions, and narrate how women from the non-elite classes both colluded with and challenged their ruling-class counterparts. The final chapter summarizes Mariscotti’s theoretical materials and highlights the book’s salient points.
The book as a whole is well organized; Mariscotti uses the introductory paragraphs of each chapter to summarize the contents of previous chapters, making her project nicely coherent, and allowing the reader a clear path from introduction to conclusion. [End Page 306]
The book’s real strength lies in its reckoning with class. It has not been a mystery that Egyptian feminism began as an elite project; nor have elite feminists’ relationship with ruling-class men gone unacknowledged. But Mariscotti’s careful attention to the links between the economic interests of the ruling classes and those of the British administration affords her a critical reading of the actions and agendas of elite women—platforms which, Mariscotti convincingly argues, heretofore have been applauded as feminist but not criticized as elite or hegemonic. What emerges from Mariscotti’s portrayal is a public-feminist culture that excluded more women than it included and that portrayed properly “female” and “feminine” activities in ways that were out of most women’s reach.
The book’s weakness lies within the author’s portrayal of the paradigms that she wishes to tear down and to reconstruct. Mariscotti ignored a number of works on women, gender, politics, and the struggle for Egyptian independence...