- Revolutionary Womanhood: Feminisms, Modernity, and the State in Nasser’s Egypt
Laura Bier’s Revolutionary Womanhood: Feminisms, Modernity and the State in Nasser’s Egypt is a revisionist account of state feminism between 1952 and 1970 when the regime dissolved independent feminist organizations and blocked any effort to keep an autonomous, politicized feminist movement alive. Activists such as Inji Aflatun and Zaynab al-Ghazali were arrested, and Duriyya Shafiq was placed under house arrest. Independent social and charitable women’s organizations were dissolved, and their activities assumed by the Ministry of Social Affairs. Bier does not dispute these facts, but she does urge us to take a more nuanced view of Nasser’s state feminism and the stratum of women, mostly from the urban middle classes, the effendiyya, who benefitted from the reforms of the period and kept alive the feminist goals of an earlier era such as liberation, inclusion, participation, and citizenship. More importantly, Bier argues that the state feminism of the revolutionary period has to be understood within the project to modernize Egypt because the state regarded women as crucial to its plans for transforming Egypt into a modern nation state.
After 1952, the revolutionary state embarked on a project of secular modernization that regarded women as key to achieving its goals. Women of the middle classes were able to benefit from these policies and to achieve some of the aims that feminists of the pre-revolutionary period had demanded. These included the right to vote and the right to work, both guaranteed in the 1956 constitution. According to Bier, women were supposed to work alongside men to build a modern, socialist nation, and working women in particular mapped the contours of the socialist, post-colonial public sphere: “It was the unveiled and active presence of women in an outer sphere of progress that marked the Nasserist public sphere as modern, secular and socialist” (p. 62).
Middle-class women in particular were the chief beneficiaries of the expansion of public education and professional careers, although they were barred from certain upper-level positions such as judgeships and diplomatic postings. Eight years after the adoption of the National Charter in 1961, the proportion of professional women in the workforce had increased by 31% while the percentage of women in factory work remained low. Bier insists that women who made careers in the public sector were not dupes of the regime or renegades working to undermine the system. On the contrary, she argues, they believed they served the cause of national liberation, social justice, and revolutionary transformation.
Although women were considered by the state to be “ungendered laboring agents” in the task of building state socialism, in fact, state policies at times undermined traditional gender roles and at other times reinforced them (p. 66). This was especially clear in the workplace, in the state’s policy concerning reform of the courts and the personal status laws, and in its efforts to make birth control and smaller families the norm throughout the country. At work, the tension between men and women manifested itself in the issue of women’s dress and how women could retain their femininity without being seen as sexually provocative, which men argued gave women unfair advantages. In terms of birth control and making contraception available to women, professional [End Page 735] women were quick to see the advantages of regulating their fertility in order to complete their education, enter the workforce, and have a family. In the countryside, however, the state did not have a policy to counteract the gender inequalities in rural families. Although the state was promoting a “normal” family composed of a mother, father, and two-to-three children, masculinity among rural men meant large families with many sons. Thus, women’s power and status within the family were dependent upon her fertility and the production of many children, especially boys.
In 1955, the Nasser regime dismantled the religious courts and created a new unified court system. However, unlike Turkey and Tunisia, Egypt did not...