- Revolutionary Womanhood: Feminisms, Modernity, and the State in Nasser’s Egypt by Laura Bier
The gendered construction of citizenship under state socialism emerged during the middle decades of the twentieth century around the world, in places such as the Soviet Union, Cuba, China, and [End Page 488] several states of Eastern Europe. Laura Bier’s excellent book on Nasser’s Egypt is perhaps the first monograph to examine it in the context of a Muslim-majority Arab society. Historians have long relied on a model of rupture to understand the shift from Egypt’s postcolonial, secular public culture of the 1950s to its Islamic resurgence by the mid 1970s. Eschewing a focus on the formal politics that the Nasser regime increasingly consolidated at the highest levels of government in favor of a close reading of the ideological, cultural, and material work that women’s issues performed for the state, Bier provides us with a new narrative of Egyptian state culture in which secular, religious, traditional, and modern overlapped and intermingled in unexpected ways. At the same time, Bier explains why gender played such an important public role despite what appeared to be very slim gains in legal reform, workforce participation, daycare support, and public sector and political participation.
The book offers a rich selection of evidence and compelling arguments for understanding the continuities and changes in women’s roles as political subjects from their earlier portrayal as mothers in service to a modernizing but patriarchal nation to “women as symbols of the state and the successes of state-driven modernization” (p. 16) in Nasser’s new paternalist state. Building on Mervat Hatem’s work on state feminism in Egypt, Bier looks beyond formal state policies to locate state feminism in sites such as profiles and advice columns of the local press, film, literature, social scientific studies, conference proceedings, and government reports. In the absence of conventional state archival sources, which are largely unavailable for this period of Egyptian history due to state security concerns and an absence of protocols for depositing material into national archives, the more cultural and social sources Bier utilizes provide a dynamic picture of the quotidian and political struggles of Egyptian women in this period.
After substantive introductory and background chapters, Bier’s narrative focuses on four primary arenas: the construction of “the working woman,” legal reform in family/personal status codes, struggles around state attempts to regulate reproduction, and the depiction of international feminisms and Third World solidarities in the local press and regional conferences. The very strong chapter on the changing realities and depictions of women’s work provides a compendium of debates about issues such as daycare, domestic technology, fashion and behavior in mixed-gender workspaces, and the mobilization of female labor. This chapter effectively explains a central paradox of Egyptian history: women’s actual workforce participation remained relatively low in these years despite increasingly strong state promotion of the new [End Page 489] working woman. Bier answers that the ideological and symbolic work a few women performed in this period was crucial to demonstrating that the state “claimed new responsibilities for ensuring both the inclusion and the regulation of women in the newly defined spaces of revolutionary public life” (p. 62).
Equally compelling is the much shorter chapter on the absence of legal reform in women’s status in this period. In the twentieth century, most of the Egyptian legal system was based on secular law codes, and Nasser quickly nationalized the courts and abolished the religious court system. Governing the areas of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody, the personal status laws, however, remained the final province of religious law. Repeated calls to reform these laws to make them more equitable to women and children failed, Bier argues, “not because [reformers] used a language of secularism that was at odds with the religious foundations of family law, but because the laws were eminently compatible with the normative visions of gender roles and family relationships embodied...