The study of women and politics has usually focused on the participation of women in the formal political arena — that is, in politics as practiced by political parties, by people holding political office or, at most, by political opposition movements. In the Middle East context in particular, the modern history of women in politics has been limited, by and large, to study of the role women played in the various nationalist movements in the region. [1] Surely the ways in which women participated in formal politics of male design forms an important part of their history, but exclusive attention to the formal sphere ends in the search for a few female historical actors: The “women worthies” who have achieved the status of “honorary males” — the Golda Meirs and Indira Gandhis — have usually entered the political sphere at the cost of adopting traditional male attitudes and minimizing their identification with women and women’s issues. [2]

If we consider only these women, we overlook another critically important dimension of women’s political activities. Women have also participated, throughout history, in informal political movements, in the often spontaneous, inchoate protests which arise in response to specific deprivations or acts of oppression on the part of a ruling class or state power. As mass-based movements, these protests often lacked a defined political program, but their demands, which frequently called for change in the established social order, were fundamentally political. Indeed, in the pre-capitalist era, this politics of the street and the field, the urban uprising and the peasant revolt, defined the sole political arena open to the bulk of the population. It is in this arena, then, that women have played a meaningful, albeit poorly documented, part in political history.

There is much evidence from Egyptian history to suggest that the extent and meaning of women’s political activity may be directly related to the shifting balance between the formal and informal spheres of politics. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the ordinary woman’s participation in political life slowly narrowed. In the early 1800s, when politics was characterized by the protests of the street and field, women played a visible role in political movements. By the later part of the century, as political processes became more formalized and entry into the political sphere was more carefully regulated, women, along with other disadvantaged social groups, appeared to move to the margins of political life.

Politics Against the State

Such a development was closely related to the process of Egyptian state formation. The Egyptian state waxed in power and repressive capacity during the 1800s: The evolution of an effective police force and court system controlled by the state, the codification of laws, and the expansion and rationalization of the penal system all contributed to the state’s newfound ability to intervene effectively, and repressively, into its citizens’ lives. As state power grew more present and powerful, the sphere of spontaneous mass politics diminished, with special consequences for women’s political activity.

The consolidation of the state in the first part of the nineteenth century sparked a series of rebellions in the Egyptian countryside. Corvee labor demands, military levies, more direct taxation and the sometimes whimsical exercise of authority by government officials represented, at the local level, the growth of state power. In many of the other developments most resented by peasants and rural artisans, such as land loss and the erosion of textile crafts, they could discern the hand of the state and its rural class allies; official means of coercion made possible consolidation of land and the creation of a wage labor force.

One response to state intervention in the countryside was revolt. Muhammad ‘Ali’s seizure of the grain crop in 1812 precipitated the first major revolt of his reign, when the peasants in Upper Egypt rebelled and were violently suppressed. [3] In 1820-1821, some 40,000 peasants in the province of Qina rallied behind one Sheikh Ahmad and established an independent government in the province until a military expedition crushed them two months later. [4] The most serious revolt of the era broke out in the same area of Upper Egypt in 1822-1823 under the leadership of another Sheikh Ahmad, who called for the overthrow of Muhammad ‘Ali. The rebellion extended from Isna to Aswan, lasting for over six weeks. Many of the fallah soldiers, sent to quell the revolt, deserted to the rebels; the government had to use Turkish and bedouin troops to calm the area. [5]

The following few years saw revolts in al-Minoufiyya and al-Sharqiyya; sporadic revolts against conscription policies continued throughout the 1830s. [6] Disorders stemming from resistance to conscription were reported in Upper Egypt in 1848, and the governor of the region, Salim Pasha, was assassinated, although it is not clear whether personal affairs or opposition to conscription and a “general hatred for his governship” served as the motive. [7] In 1865, one Ahmad al-Tayyib (“the Good”) led yet another revolt in Qina which contested state power and the religious establishment which had increasingly come to serve it. Although the revolt apparently never progressed beyond the stage of mass gatherings and one ambush of a Greek boat on the Nile, the expanded power of the state allowed for immediate and brutal repression: Army troops reportedly killed some 1,600 to 2,000 men, women and children. [8]

Rural areas later supported the ‘Urabi revolt in 1881-1882 by attacking tax collectors and refusing to cooperate with the corvee. Public opinion in the provinces of Upper Egypt also applauded the revolt of the Mahdi in Sudan in the 1880s, and the Egyptian government could trust neither the local population nor native soldiers in its campaign against the Mahdist movement. [9]

Throughout this turbulent course of events, rural women made their presence felt. In disturbances in the province of al-Sharqiyya during the French occupation, a group of 70 men, women and children, all “marauders,” were captured and brought to jail in Cairo. [10] At times, the role of women seemed pivotal, as witnessed in Muhammad ‘Ali’s plans for the inhabitants of a village outside Cairo where he constructed a new palace. His scheme of moving the villagers from near the site to a new spot under the pretext of promoting their health and wellbeing may have had quite different motivations:

By moving this village the Pasha will obtain another result which very probably contributes heavily to this decision: He moves away from his palace a swarm of women and children very disposed to revolt — which I have already once witnessed — and which, in certain circumstances, would form an obstacle to his secret plans. [11]

During repression of the 1865 revolt, officials held women as responsible as men, and stories of rape, massacre and the ripping-open of pregnant women’s wombs by soldiers circulated in the area. [12] In the wake of the ‘Urabi revolt, women were jailed in prisons at Mahalla al-Kubra and Tanta for “looting” and “rioting.” [13]

Urban Crises

Women also played a role in the urban uprisings of the time, which brought the population into direct confrontation with its rulers. As part of their activities in the urban neighborhood life, women became involved in the moments of revolt that accompanied the erosion of the old order and the establishment of the new state. While Egyptian cities, and particularly the administrative capital of Cairo, had long been under the relatively firm control of the ruling group, economic crisis coupled with shifts in the balance of political forces could breed urban unrest and even rebellion.

In the late eighteenth century, economic and political crisis greatly affected the life of the artisanal and working classes of Cairo. Poor harvests in the early 1790s brought famine and epidemics to the countryside, disrupting the supply of agricultural products to the city. High inflation in the post-1780 period hit hardest those on fixed wages, especially the humbler artisans and day laborers. Political anarchy wreaked havoc as warring Mamluk factions clashed repeatedly and increased their exactions. For the majority of the urban population, the standard of living declined as economic and social conditions fell to a level inferior to that of the seventeenth century. [14]

In a situation of crisis, the lower classes took to the streets and the city witnessed a series of urban revolts beginning in the 1780s and lasting until Muhammad ‘Ali was firmly ensconced as ruler. The guild organizations and Sufi orders associated with the poorer sections of the population took on a distinctly insurrectionary cast: The vegetable sellers’ guild and the Bayyumiyya order, for example, were implicated in demonstrations and street fighting against the Mamluk beys and their retainers. [15] As in the countryside, protest was often couched in religious terms, which helped established members of the ‘ulama’, upon occasion, to assume leadership roles and shape the course of popular political action. ‘Umar Makram, the naqib al-ashraf (official head of the group of descendants of the Prophet) played a signal role in Cairene resistance to the French occupations in 1798. [16] During the disorders of 1804, when rival factions struggled for power in Cairo, the French consul, after musing about the difficulties of keeping an artisanal population under arms for any length of time, noted the surprisingly belligerent nature of Cairo’s inhabitants:

The same enthusiasm reigns here as in France during the first moments of the revolution. Everyone buys arms, the children also follow the example of their elders…. The population made reprisals today against the soldiers, every day there are some people killed. It is the Cheik-Seid-Omar-el-Makrrem who directs everything. [17]

As the population battled Mamluk soldiers in Cairo, women played a role in street fighting by stoning soldiers from their perches on top of the barricades as the men attacked. [18] In a similar scene in Damanhur in 1806, they joined with the other inhabitants of the town to resist the Mamluk attack led by Alfi Bey:

The inhabitants pushed their boldness to the point of making sorties on the Mamluk batteries. The women as well took part in the fight, and, in the evening, from atop the knolls which functioned as the ramparts of the town, they sang couplets which they had composed about the cowardice and effeminate conduct of Alfi. [19]

Mamluk soldiers certainly regarded urban women as punishable members of the insurrectionary population: In Cairo, women on the street were stopped, stripped and even killed during mop-up operations. [20]

The proclivities of lower-class women for restiveness and revolt were recognized by state officials and could become a special source of concern. In 1840, when conflict with Istanbul loomed on the horizon, the police sent disguised agents into the city’s quarters to arrest women who were spreading false information or agitating against the government. [21] Similarly, in 1863, a visit by the Ottoman sultan to Egypt prompted the Egyptian ruler to take precautionary measures, which included ordering all women “of the lower orders” to stay indoors during his visit, for “Arab women are outspoken and might shout out their grievances.” [22]

Although the urban poor waged much of the street agitation and fighting, more affluent women could also take public political action when their interests were threatened. Women were among those who demonstrated in Cairo in 1801 in front of the wazir’s house against official changes in iltizam (tax farm) regulations. [23] It was the women, not the men, of the bourgeois class of Cairo who publicly protested Muhammad ‘Ali’s abolition of the iltizam and interference in waqf affairs in an 1814 demonstration:

[The women] repaired in large numbers to the mosque of al-Azhar, dislodged the students, and accused the Sheikh of pusillanimity and cowardice. Late in the evening, however, they were prevailed upon, by evasive promises, to return to their homes. This female tumult being regarded by the Kihaya Bey as the forerunner of a general insurrection, the Sheikhs, suspected of fomenting the disturbance, were convoked, and overawed by indistinct menaces. [24]

This male observer, and perhaps male officials alike, assumed that the ‘ulama’ pulled the strings of the demonstration. But many of these women, as multazims, traders and waqf administrators, had ample reasons of their own to protest the new policies.

Undisguised Hostility

After consolidation of the repressive apparatus of the absolutist state under Muhammad ‘Ali and his successors put an end to large-scale urban uprisings, Cairo remained fairly quiet, apart from the occasional quarter fracas. The urban population could still be partially mobilized at times of extreme crisis — the ‘Urabi revolt of 1881-1882 and the national revolution of 1919 brought numbers of men and women into the streets — but the protracted struggles which pitted urban masses against a ruling elite no longer occurred. Opposition to the consolidation of the state in general tended to take place on an individual or family level, and increasingly assumed the character of passive resistance to official policies and personnel.

In the latter part of the century, most popular opposition to the colonial state power took the form of attacks on the British soldiers and officials who represented the government installed with the British occupation of 1882. During the 1880s, British troops were stationed throughout the country. The local population was known to harass individual soldiers when circumstances permitted.

In 1884, for example, two “donkey boys” beat a British soldier with their sticks in Cairo one evening; the Egyptian police, summoned to the scene by a janissary in the employ of a British consul, intervened only with palpable reluctance and tried to discourage witnesses from testifying against the boys, all of which prompted the British consul Borg to remark: “I have been able, moreover, of late to convince myself that a feeling of undisguised hostility towards us exists among the lower classes, which feeling is cordially shared by the men who are supposed to maintain order.” [25] British soldiers complained that groups threw clods of earth at the trains or boats in which they traveled, and shouted insults from afar. [26] After two British officers, hunting in a village in Giza, shot, presumably by accident, a passing bedouin, a fight broke out in which a member of the bedouin’s party was killed by the officers. They were then taken to the village and “roughed up” by the bedouin and the fallahin; one officer reported that “women threw dirty water, which smelt of urine, over his face.” Official concern over such incidents was reflected in the severity of punishment for what amounted to manhandling of those responsible for a death: Lashes and imprisonment were prescribed for seven bedouin and six peasants, some of whom were tribal and village leaders punished for failure to halt the proceedings. [27]

Women as well as men were accused of petty offenses against the army of occupation. Out of a total of 108 “crimes” (felonies) committed against British soldiers and heard in the Native Courts between April 1885 and February 1886, however, only 12 involved women who had stolen small amounts of money from individual soldiers. In some cases, such as that of “Zemzem, daughter of Hassan,” a “woman of ill repute” who stole 2s. 6p. from a soldier, we can assume that the proximate and predatory nature of prostitution played a role. The other 11 women are not identified as prostitutes. In at least one case, a woman named Zaynab and two male accomplices had ambushed and robbed a soldier. The 30 “contraventions” (misdemeanors) recorded for the period included five cases of women using provocative or indecent language with soldiers. Although the charges are worded in ways which might include sexual proposition, it seems far more likely that the soldiers would report and take action against hostile and insulting behavior; indeed, in one case, five women were accused as a group of “provocation in addressing an English soldier.” Given the established reputation of Egyptian women in the realm of public taunt, we can assume that most of these women were verbally abusing the soldiers, an act of aggression for which they were usually fined five piasters each and court costs. Such infractions were peculiar to females; men were generally accused of refusing to transport soldiers or perform other services rather than of insult. [28]

Politics and Crime

Acts of resistance to the state or occupying forces were not always distinguished, and certainly not by the state itself, from common crime. Although we lack statistics from the earlier part of the century, there is little evidence of excessive concern about common crime until the 1880s. In 1884, however, special “Brigandage Commissions” were established to deal with a perceived rural crime wave of robbery and murder, perpetrated at least upon occasion by organized bands. By the early twentieth century, official statistics began once again to register alarming increases in crime. According to the Annual Reports issued by the British government on Egypt and Sudan, between 1900 and 1905, for instance, the number of ”crimes“ or felonies, a category which included murder, robbery, destruction of crops, poisoning of cattle, arson, and rape and indecent assault, rose from 1,290 to 3,011; by 1913, 4,096 such crimes were reported. While the number of such offenses relative to a population of some 10 to 12 million remained modest, an upsurge in murder, robbery, and the typically rural crime of arson is well documented.

Much of the evidence suggests that impoverishment and peasant resistance to landed interests underlay many of these attacks on people and property, rendering the distinction between political resistance and crime a fine one indeed. The brigandage of the 1880s was most commonly attributed to want which drove groups of men to robbery of the well-to-do. [29] Wealthy merchants and landholders often made requests for protection from hostile fallahin prone to harassment and sabotage. After the repression of the ‘Urabi revolt, its leader remained a folk hero to many: Four European merchants residing in the Egyptian countryside described how they had been “surrounded by a wild crowd of fellaheen, some of them armed with naboots…[who] had the impudence to say that Arabi has dishonored their mothers and that these fellaheen, his faithful followers, will shortly dishonor their sisters.” Such incidents, they complained, had become common occurrences in their district. [30] Foreign land purchase could also galvanize resistance among villagers. In 1898, after the firm of John Lagonico bought an extensive piece of land in the province of al-Gharbiyya over local protest, the company’s workers became the object of a systematic campaign of harassment waged by neighboring peasants who prevented them from opening canals and even, at one point, launched a coordinated attack of 300 strong. [31]

Pressure on the land and problems of debt endemic to the late 1800s and early 1900s undoubtedly exacerbated conflict among peasants as well. Quarrels over access to land, water, and irrigation devices were sure to grow in number and severity when destitution threatened, and such quarrels did lead, upon occasion, to assaults on the property or person of one’s fellow peasant. In general, the crimes of the period, regardless of who was the victim, owed much to the generalized demoralization and dislocation bred by economic insecurity and land loss.

How did the rise in crime affect women? As violence turned inward, women bore the brunt of popular frustration. While lacking complete statistics, we can conclude that women were far more likely to be victimized by, than to commit, violent crimes. Women might be murdered in the course of thefts or quarrels of village life, and were vulnerable as well to attacks from family members for reasons of honor, greed or simple anger. But women’s response to the turbulence and hard times of the period did not, apparently, often include recourse to crime. [32] Women accused or convicted of felonies and misdemeanors constituted a fairly constant two to three percent of the prison population, surprisingly low when compared to the 20 percent of nineteenth-century England. [33] Furthermore, these included prostitutes who had fallen on the wrong side of the authorities, and those accused of petty theft.

For both women and men of the lower class, faced with the overweening power of the colonial state, political protest grew ever more petty and ineffective, and the reaction to repression turned inward. But women in particular suffered a decrease in their capacity for effective political participation, and an increase in their vulnerability to crime. In the early part of the century, their familiarity with the politics of the urban quarter and the village had allowed them to play a significant role in protest in the public sphere and enjoy social acceptance of their activities. As the state grew more powerful and mass political movements were effectively repressed, women lost a major arena for political action and retreated to individualized and largely ineffectual forms of protest. In both number and kind, their acts of resistance to colonial troops reflected their social weakness relative to that of men: They used the strategy — passive resistance — and the weapon — the taunt — of the weak. This social weakness was underscored by the fact that women were far more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of crimes.

With the passing of mass political movements also came the expansion of the formal sphere of political activity: protest against the colonial state moved into elite educated circles where it was to give birth, eventually, to Egyptian nationalism. Women, regardless of background, were largely excluded from this formal sphere, for the nationalist movement, in its leadership and aims, was a male affair: Only a few “women worthies” played a supporting role. As politics became formalized over the course of the century, access to the political sphere was ever more strongly tied to gender. For lower-class Egyptians as a whole, the sphere of politics narrowed; for women, however, it disappeared almost altogether, exacerbating an already vulnerable social position.


[1] See, for example, Mangol Bayat-Philipp, “Women and Revolution in Iran, 1905-1911,” in Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie, eds., Women in the Muslim World, pp. 295-308; and Thomas Philipp, “Feminism and Nationalist Politics in Egypt,” in Beck and Keddie, eds., Women, pp. 277-294.
[2] See Alison Heisch, “Queen Elizabeth I and the Persistence of Patriarchy,” Feminist Review 4 (1980), pp. 45-56, for a discussion of the “honorary male” in a different historical context.
[3] Alan Richards, “Primitive Accumulation in Egypt, 1798-1822,” Review 1/1 (Fall 1977), pp. 3-49.
[4] Gabriel Baer, Studies in the Social History of Modern Egypt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), p. 96.
[5] Helen B. Rivlin, The Agricultural Policy of Muhammad ‘Ali in Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), pp. 201-202.
[6] Richards, “Primitive Accumulation,” p. 22.
[7] MAE, Correspond, pol. des consuls, Turq: Alex et Caire XX, Barrot a ministre, May 16, 1848.
[8] Lucie Duff Gordon, Letters from Egypt (London, 1983), p. 214-15.
[9] FO 141/192, Memo, Clifford Lloyd, 23 February 1984; FO 141/201, Mustapha Shahir to Baring, April 3, 1884.
[10] ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti, ‘Aja’ib al-athar fi al-tarajim wa al-akhbar (Cairo, 1879), vol. 2, p. 304.
[11] MAE, Correspond, pol. des consuls, Turq: Alex et Caire XIV, Gallice a ministre, March 23, 1841.
[12] Duff Gordon, Letters, pp. 212-215.
[13] FO 141/170, H. Chermside to Earl of Duffering, December 6, 1882.
[14] See Peter Gran, Islamic Roots of Capitalism: Egypt, 1760-1840 (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1979), pp. 18-24; Andre Raymond, Artisans et commercants au Caire au XVIIIe siecle (Damascus: 1973-74), pp. 103-106.
[15] See Andre Raymond, “Quartiers et mouvements populaires au Caire au XVIIIe siecle,” in P. M. Holt, ed., Political and Social Change in Modern Egypt, pp. 104-116; Raymond, “Deux leaders populaires au Caire a la fin du XVIIIe et au debut du XIXe siecle,” La Nouvelle Revue du Caire 1 (1975), pp. 281-298; Gran, Islamic Roots, pp. 24-26.
[16] See F. De Jong, Turuq and Turuq-Linked Institutions in Nineteenth-Century Egypt (Leiden: Brill, 1978), p. 12.
[17] MAE, Correspond, con. et com., Alex. XVII, Drovetti a ministre, 12 Prarial an 13 (1804).
[18] MAE, Correspond, con. et com., Alex. XVII, Drovetti a ministre, 18 Prarial an 13 (1804).
[19] MAE, Correspond, con. et com., Alex. XVII, Drovetti a ministre, April 20, 1806.
[20] MAE, Correspond, con. et com., Alex. XVII, Drovetti a ministre, 14 Floreal an 13 (1804); Ibid., Drovetti a ministre, 19 Floreal an 13 (1804).
[21] MAE, Correspond, pol. des consuls, Turq: Alex et Caire XI, Bourville a ministre, September 13, 1940.
[22] Duff Gordon, Letters, pp. 72-73.
[23] al-Jabarti, ‘Aja’ib, vol. 2, p. 494.
[24] James Augustus St. John, Egypt and Mohammed Ali (London, 1834), vol. 2, p. 461.
[25] FO 141/202, Borg to Egerton, July 9. 1884.
[26] FO 141/228, Stephenson to Baring, July 4, 1885.
[27] “Correspondence Respecting the Attack Made on Two Officers of Her Majesty’s Army at Keneseh, in Egypt,” Parliamentary Papers 1887, xcii.671.
[28] FO 141/240, Nubar Pasha to Baring, March 6, 1886.
[29] Milner, England in Egypt, pp. 278-279; “Reports by Col. Johnson on Brigandage (so called) in Egypt,” Parliamentary Papers 1884-1885, lxxxix.1.
[30] “Further Correspondence Respecting the Affairs of Egypt,” Malet to Granville, Letter from 4 European merchants, November 2, 1882, Parliamentary Papers 1883, lxxxiii.375.
[31] FO 141/337, A.J. and E. Argenti to Borg, Alexandria, August 6, 1898.
[32] Muhammad al-‘Abbasi al-Mahdi, al-Fatawa al-mahdiyya fi al-waqa‘i al-misriyya (Cairo: 1883-86), vol. 5, pp.404-464.
[33] See Estelle Freedman, “Their Sisters’ Keepers: The Origins of Female Corrections in America,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, pp. 13-14.

How to cite this article:

Judith Tucker "Insurrectionary Women," Middle East Report 138 (January/February 1986).

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