Judith Tucker, Women in Nineteenth-Century Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

This is more than a general treatise about women in Egypt. It is a subtle and adroit analysis of gender and class during the transformation of Egyptian society in the nineteenth century and it is this underlying theme that makes Judith Tucker’s work challenging reading. She provides an interesting theoretical approach in which both an anthropologist, used to working on women’s issues within peripheral, local community settings, and an historian, concerned with the social and economic history of women and social class, can find a common ground. “The history of women,” Tucker states in her introduction,

demands an immediate awareness of a multitude of forces, institutions and activities, which elude analysis at the level of official political institutions, mainstream intellectual movements or economic overview: Rather the world of informal networks, popular culture, and basic forces of production and reproduction define the arena of women’s activities and therefore women’s studies…. Without understanding the forms and dimensions of women’s activities, we cannot grasp the contours of society as a whole.

In the five chapters that follow, Tucker evaluates change in women’s roles in ninteenth century Egyptian society by exploring four interlocking determinants of women’s position and power: 1) access to property, 2) position in the family unit, 3) participation in social production and 4) the prevailing ideological definitions of woman’s roles. She discusses each of these determinants against the backdrop of broad social and economic changes arising, in part, from the ongoing integration of Egypt into an economic system dominated by the West. Her resources are written materials, especially the minutes of religious court proceedings. As the century progressed, the state was transformed from absolutist to interventionist. It had a growing impact on the lives of both men and women and Tucker had to rely increasingly upon materials generated by the state apparatus.

This methodological strategy is particularly relevant to anthropological perspectives on the study of women in Egypt. Tucker argues that sweeping studies based on ideological definitions of women’s position, or aggregate data impervious to close analysis, must be supplemented by careful research on the actual situation of women — as workers, family members, and social actors — in the various periods of Egyptian history. In the minutes of the religious court records she discovers the subtle modifications of law as it has evolved in response to actual social conditions over time. To me, this is the closest approximation that the historian has to the ethnographer’s “from the native’s point of view.” To a perceptive interpreter, like Tucker, these court records reveal much more about what women were actually doing than the derivative and ideological definitions of woman’s roles embodied in formal law per se. “The religious courts, the mahakim al-shari‘a,” Tucker points out, “constituted the single institution with extant records to which women of all classes had access, and where they could tell their stories and lodge their complaints.” Traditionally these courts were the locus of popular appeal and “by the sheer number of cases preserved in the archives, stand as convincing proof that many Egyptians viewed it as their institution, a place they could go for redress.”

From these archives (listed in the appendix with an overview and sample notes), Tucker analyzes women’s position in relation to the four interlocking determinants chapter by chapter. Chapter one, “Ploughs and Shares: Women, Agricultural Production and Property,” reconstructs women’s relation to property — that is, her rights to the use or control of certain portions of family or individually owned property — in the context of the women’s role in agricultural production. Tucker samples roughly 500 cases for one year per decade from 1800-1860. Women of all classes were principals in about half; using money they acquired through inheritance or labor, women bought and sold, loaned and borrowed, and pursued thieves and debtors.

In chapter two, “Spindles and Songs: Women in Urban Occupations,” the author studies the family in its reciprocal relation to society. She argues that the developed market economy of nineteenth-century Egypt in which women participated as producers and traders lent women economic independence and habits of dealing with the world outside the household. Women felt they could turn to the shari‘a courts with some confidence to defend their property and inheritance rights. From these records Tucker puts to rest once and for all the stereotyped imagery about Egyptian women being mere passive, powerless victims of the historical process. She describes the role women played in nearly all aspects of Egyptian economy, from petty trade to waqf and iltizam administration. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the female role in production in the urban economy contracted, service activities multiplied and working women were concentrated in the realm of casual services and informal networks.

In chapter three, “Private and Public Life: Women and the Growth of the State,” Tucker takes up the dimension of women’s participation in social production by sketching the prevailing forms of social organization: family, quarter, guild and religious group. She then explores how these institutions were modified or eliminated by the rise of an interventionist state in the latter quarter of the century. This proved to be a double-edged sword for women, weakening some guilds (especially the textile industry) and straining the family and neighborhood organizations by increasing landlessness and urbanization.

This historical trend, which has continued unabated throughout the present century, had an adverse impact on access to health care, on educational and professional opportunities and on the evolution of traditional social institutions which would serve women’s needs.

Chapter four, “Women’s Resistance and Repression,” looks at family participation in the public sphere of rural and urban uprisings and examines the way state repression subsequently dealt with women. Women were certainly involved in the acts of revolt, protest and malaise common in the nineteenth century but the degree and character of the involvement reflected the particular roles in the family and society as well as attitudes of state officials toward them.

Although the institution of slavery crumbled in the course of the nineteenth century, Tucker shows in chapter five, “The Practice of Slavery: Women as Property,” that slavery’s vision of female subservience meshed very well with the prevailing views of women and reflected the “patriarchal nature of social consciousness in its starkest form.”

By taking Egypt as a specific case, Thicker has examined a broader historical phenomenon — the impact of Western penetration on Third World women during the nineteenth century — and has gone a very long way in correcting those sweeping generalizations reflecting a double sex bias: male dominance in theoretical perspectives that relegate women’s activities as marginal to the “important” forces of history; and male dominance which permeates the literature and social ideology of the society under study.

Women in Nineteenth-Century Egypt challenges those stereotyped images that portray women as succumbing to nineteenth-century economic, political and social transformations with docility and passivity. We learn of these women’s ability to manipulate existing institutions to activate support for their interests, to construct their own institutions or even take struggles to the street. By focusing on women’s own reality and their role in shaping it, Tucker has defined a promising field of inquiry not only into women’s history in Egypt, but also to those anthropological studies that seek to “let Middle Eastern women speak.”

How to cite this article:

Cynthia Nelson "Tucker, Women in Nineteenth-Century Egypt," Middle East Report 152 (May/June 1988).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This