Sunday, June 20, 2010

Vijay Prashad & Inji Aflatun

Anti-colonial nationalism, even in its reformist incarnations, worried about the woman question. An end to social oppression found its way on to the agenda of national liberation. At its most traditional, such an end looked like the modernization of patriarchy, with the new woman relegated to the domain of the home. On the more progressive side of national liberation, one finds many who argued that cultural traditions had ossified under the impact of patriarchy and feudal relations, and any opportunity to redress this had been suffocated by imperialism's alliance with the old social classes, which benefited from misogyny and status. Women and men, in this model, had to struggle against conservative domesticity and reconfigure what it is to be the public space of the nation and the private domain of the family.
-Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations

The chapter "Cairo" in The Darker Nations by Vijay Prashad provides context to "We Egyptian Women" by Inji Aflatun in the Feminist Theory Reader.

Prashad views women's participation in anti-colonial struggles as a "first step towards liberation", claiming that "imperialism made progress for women nearly impossible". Women fought alongside men for national independence in Algeria, Cuba, Guinea, Indonesia, Kenya, Korea, Oman, Venezuela & Vietnam. Women dominated street protests in Egypt, India & Zanzibar, etc. This was a basis for anti-colonial solidarity all over the world. The struggle for representative democracy provided an ideological basis for extending political rights to women. This setting needs to be taken into account when reading 20th century feminist theory.

Putting Aflatun's essay in this context is helpful.

Egypt briefly granted women the vote in 1923, after independence was established. The Egyptian feminist movement can be traced back to this time period. Women won the vote again in 1956.

Writing in 1949, Aflatun equates democracy & modernization with women's full political participation. She claims the enemies of women are enemies of democracy, arguing that women are citizens and that to deny them rights would be an "injustice to society".

Rejecting the public/private split of classical liberalism, Aflatun does not see family (the domestic sphere) in opposition to society. She points out that women deal with social problems on a daily basis, naming clothing, food, health care, education, children and housing as issues.

She identifies British imperialism as contributing to illiteracy, noting that rates were highest before 1923. Education and literacy are goals to strive for, not barriers to granting women the vote.

Aflatun concludes by examining the status of women in an international human rights framework, noting that the UN Charter (1946) names equality as an issue and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) claims that everyone is deserving of the same rights, regardless of sex.

Because I still don't know that much about 20th century Egyptian political history, I am not sure why Aflatun's feminism hinges on the idea of Egypt as a modern state. Following Prashad, I think it's important to view this as part of the larger struggle for Third World independence, but it's unclear to me why Aflatun is so focused on viewing Egypt as a civilized nation. What do "modernization" and "civilized" mean in this context? In order to understand this, I think I need to know more about Nasser's Pan-Arabism.

Prashad notes that Nasser's Egypt has been criticized for promoting "state feminism", where women became dependent on the state instead of the family.

Aflatun's essay ends by praising Syria as the first Arab nation to give women the right to vote, but notes that this was limited progress because it was only given to educated women. It's not clear if Aflatun believes that all women are equal, but she does advocate full political participation for all women.


  1. hmm...I don't know, maybe Nasserism or Pan Arabism in Egypt happened after Aflatun's essay...but really, from today's vantage point, "civilization", "progress" and "modernization" all have been used to further racism and justify Western imperialism in the Middle East, so it strikes me as odd to read this also makes me realize how much history I don't know

  2. Nasser and pan-Arabism started about ten years after the essay was written. The context could be ataturk's modernization of Turkey (perhaps people in egypt wanted to emulate it?) or as part of all the rebuilding and modernization programs that began post world war II. In either case civilization and modernization would probably mean some form of state/economy that resembled western europes allowing for some degree of Egyptian autonomy, independence and economic strength at least in so far as their dependence would move from colonial to neo-colonial.

    If this is the case, then she seems to use modernization, progress and civilization in terms of independence and autonomy from the imperialists. This was surely the same for many others.So despite the fact that this form of progress is problematic for many reasons, it does seem to have served as a means to criticize imperialism.

    Do you think her use is odd because its nobody uses the word anymore you think she should have used different words? do you think they shouldn't be used today or should they be reclaimed by anti-imperialists etc.?

  3. hey, I posted a quote from The Darker Nations...

    thanks for your comment Chris. I don't have any answers, just more questions!

  4. "During the period of intensified nationalist militancy to end British occupation, men welcomed the participation of women in the nationalist movement. The Wafdist Women’s Central Committee helped widen the base of support throughout the country and rendered vital services. However, after quasi-independence was declared in 1922, women were treated as second-class citizens. Although the Constitution of 1923 declared all Egyptians equal, a new electoral law subsequently granted the right to vote to men only."

  5. from the same article:
    "Anticipating a postwar world, the EFU spearheaded the Arab Feminist Conference in 1944. The liberation of Palestine and the liberation of women were at the top of the agenda, as was the cause of Arab unity. Later, when the Arab League was formed and there were no women among the delegations, Arab Feminist Conference President Huda Sha’rawi told the men: "You have widened the gap between yourselves and your women by deciding to build your new glory alone. The League is but half a league —a league of half the Arab people." The Arab Feminist Conference gave birth to pan-Arab feminism, creating the Arab Feminist Union that still exists today."

  6. more context:
    "In this postwar period, with the international rise of the Left and the mounting anti-imperialist struggles as countries of Africa and Asia fought to gain national independence, a more radical strand of populist feminism was in the making in Egypt. Young socialist feminist Inji Aflatun helped found Rabitat Fatayat Al-Jam’ia wal-Ma’ahid (The League of Young Women of the University and Institutes) in 1945, which student leader Latifa El-Zaiyat joined. Later, when the League was closed down in a drive to suppress the Left, socialist feminists created the Jam’iya Al-Nisa’iya Al-Wataniya Al-Mu’aqqata (The Provisional Feminist Association). Inji Aflatun was the first woman from within the Egyptian Left, which accorded no space to discuss women’s liberation, to link class and women’s oppression and to connect the two to imperialist exploitation. She elaborated her arguments in two books: Thamanun Milyun Imra’a Ma’na (Eighty Million Women with Us) and Nahnu Al-Nisa’ Al-Misriyat (We Egyptian Women), published in 1948 and 1949 respectively."

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. I guess my mistake is viewing mid-20th century anti-imperialist struggles through the lens of the late 20th century/early 21st century--I think of Third World struggles as being anti-development --which I think actually happened in reaction to the IMF/World Bank/SAP induced debt--and am thinking of cultural nationalist movements that happened after the (post-cold war ?) demise of the Third World project.

    Of course there was industrialization before this...the Soviet Union, China, India, Egypt...Iran? Probably a ton of context I'm missing here. Really feeling those 20 YEARS since I took Political Economy at was BEFORE the fall of the Soviet Union(!!?)!..AND missing my all my brainiac friends right I will keep reading and learning and posting...attempting to put these readings in context. Prashad's chapter on Cairo...he clearly ties the coup in '52 to Nasser's this wasn't too far off the mark