How the Fashion of Egyptian Feminist Revolutionaries Fought Colonialism
By: Jordan AbuAljazer / Arab America Contributing Writer
As feminism progressed through the late 20th century, we have all begun to recognize that experience of women advocating for their civil and social rights is one that exists throughout all cultures and nationalities. With that, it is important to recognize that as cultures and nationalities change, the ideas and movements of women’s advocacy change as well. This is perhaps no better demonstrated than with Egypt, a country with an extensive history of influential women, who have contributed endlessly to the progress of the country. In fact, even in early Egyptian history, women had significant roles as rulers, mythological beings, artists, and so on. Feminism, however, is a much more recent movement in comparison. For Egypt, feminism as a civil rights movement truly began with the colonization of Britain in the 1800s.
Colonialism is the practice of exerting political influence and control over that of another country for the sake of exploitation, and the story of a colonized Egypt is not unlike that of many other North African countries. In 1882, Egypt found itself occupied by the country of Britain. Though they did not formally claim the country as a British colony, Egypt was forced under economic debt as a method for the British government to exert control. Egypt’s colonization lasted for 74 years, finally ending the Western social and political influences that oppressed the Egyptian people. Of course, these influences affected many groups of Egyptians in different ways. Of those groups, Egyptian women had a particularly storied and effective battle against their colonizers.
Feminism as it began in Egypt is closely paired with ideas of nationalism. This makes sense, of course, as the oppression of Egyptian women were largely a result of the foreign oppression of Egypt as a country. In the minds of Egyptians, to advocate for the rights of women was to advocate for the rights of their country, and vice versa. This is not to say that women did not often have to argue for their rights among other Egyptians, but the colonization of Egypt was a significant contributor to the inability of Egyptian women to make significant progress in achieving equality.
Another factor that impacted the beginning feminist movements of Egypt were the class structures of the time. When the first formal demonstrations of woman against colonial rule began in March 1919, the women demonstrating were almost entirely formed by Egyptian elites. Protests were organized through telephones, transported through chauffeured cars, and done primarily to make for an appearance of the wealth that opposed the British occupation.
These class-segregated protests began a discussion amongst Egyptian women revolutionaries on the fashion of women. The importance of these early protests as a presentation of the wealthy would naturally lead organizers to plan how they would present themselves physically. The fashion of dress chosen was that of black clothing with white veils, which demonstrated a series of ideas to colonists.
Organizers wanted to demonstrate a separation from lower class women, believing that doing so would appeal better to an international audience. Dressing in formal black and white clothing demonstrated a dignified unity amongst the country’s wealthiest while still maintaining a rigid class structure amongst Egyptians, something that the higher classes considered to be in their interests at the time. While the lack of solidarity with lower classes of women frustrated less privileged revolutionaries, the method proved to be quite effective in appealing to the Western world. As wealthy Egyptian women signed their formal petitions as “The Ladies of Egypt” and characterized themselves as mothers, sisters, and wives attacked by the British occupation, they successfully received the support of Westerners empathetic to their struggles.
While these protests were incredibly successful in setting an image that testified against the Western conception of Egyptian people as uneducated and culturally backwards, the work of lower-class women were much more forceful. The most predominant of their actions were that of sabotage. Railway lines, for example, were destroyed by the women who worked for their construction. It was also the work of lower-class women that led to the next development of feminist women performed their clothing as a form of protest.
As time progressed from the first few demonstrations in 1919, the demonstrations of wealthy women were intruded upon by the lower classes who demanded solidarity. This happened gradually, but soon protests organized by women were formed by Egyptians of all social classes. At this point, the uniform style of wearing a luxurious white veil along black clothing was no longer financially possible nor an accurate representation of what was not mixed-class group of revolutionaries. It was from this issue that the social practice of “unveiling” began.
Ironically, similar to the earlier practice of wearing a white veil, women protesting by not wearing one was still in many ways an attempt to appeal to the Western world. The goal of unveiling was not only a protest for the rights of women to present themselves freely, but it was also an imitation of Western standards. In doing so, Egyptian women hoped to convince Westerners they were not oppressed by their own culture. Instead, it was the British occupation that oppressed them.
This new change in the dress of women was a controversial one amongst Egyptians, to say the least. The change was also when Egyptian feminism finally matured into a distinct and powerful movement. This change was so controversial that the solidarity between men and women against British colonists began to diverge, and, by 1922, women were more or less abandoned by men who had begun a nationalist movement founded on a division of gender. In response, the first formal feminist organization of Egypt, the Egyptian Feminist Union, was founded by Hoda Shaarawi.
Because of the many cultural and religious implications of the ways women dress in the Arab world, the concept of women’s fashion as a vehicle for feminist demonstration has remained both controversial and popular in the modern world. Of course, it is a topic of debate reserved for that of Arab women themselves, the story of Egypt’s feminist origins offers great insight into the eventful history of that debate.
Thank you to Nabila Ramdani, who provided the research used in this article.
Check out our blog here!