Published in MERIP Reports 58 (June 1977):

From the end of the nineteenth century to the present, there have been two characteristic attitudes in Egypt toward the emancipation of women, each associated with a particular social class and with a particular nationalist ideology. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, liberal and moderate nationalists of the upper and upper middle classes tended to view education and social reform along liberal, Western lines as prerequisites for independence. According to this view, women’s emancipation—by which was meant, above all, reform in marriage and family structure—was a desirable corrective to some of the weaknesses in Egyptian society. The “radical” nationalists of the lower middle class, on the other hand, demanded an immediate end to British rule and tended to idealize and defend “indigenous” values. Radical nationalists generally opposed women’s emancipation, arguing that it was an imitation of the West that would weaken the nation by weakening its basic Islamic unit, the family. [1]

From each of these two tendencies, there is a direct line of descent that extends through the twentieth century. The liberal nationalist, “pro-emancipationist” view has been associated with the upper classes and upper middle classes (the large landowners and the upper bourgeoisie). Its lineage can be traced from the circle of Muhammad ‘Abduh through the Hizb al-Umma to the Wafd, the party that dominated Egyptian politics from the 1919 revolt to the revolution of 1952. The radical nationalist view has been associated with the petit bourgeoisie. [2] It was represented in the early twentieth century by al-Hizb al-Watani, although slightly different permutations have existed in the Society of Muslim Brothers and the Free Officers’ movement. All three combined a petit bourgeois social base, the demand for an immediate end to foreign control, and conservative attitudes towards women and the family.

Egyptian urban society is divided between an upper middle-class, liberal segment in which women are relatively liberated socially, and a petit bourgeois or lower middle class segment that clings to Islamic, conservative values in family life and sexual behavior. This bifurcation developed and persists in spite of the entry of large numbers of Egyptian women into the labor force since World War II. A curious, and somewhat contradictory fact in present-day Egypt is that petit bourgeois women have become professionally liberated to an impressive degree, perhaps surpassing their upper middle-class counterparts. They are found in increasing numbers in the technical professions such as medicine, the sciences and engineering. This apparent contradiction can be explained by showing how it is linked to the development of Egypt’s relationship to the world market.

The Impact of Western Capitalism

During the late nineteenth century, Egypt’s integration into the world market as a supplier of raw material (cotton) for European industry resulted in a sweeping transformation of Egypt’s agrarian social structure. From the elite of large landowners emerged an agrarian capitalist class, producing cotton for the market, and branching out into banking, commerce and other activities related to their agricultural interests, including, eventually, light industry in the towns and cities. Large numbers of smaller landowners and tenant farmers were forced off the land and migrated to the cities. Most could find employment only in the tertiary (services) sector, since industrial development lagged behind the other sectors. At the same time, the competition of Western industrial products was devastating to the urban artisans and small merchants. These dispossessed members of the “traditional” urban and rural middle classes became the nucleus of the urban petit bourgeoisie. Educated in the emerging modern school system, members of this class became in turn civil servants and other functionaries. The civil service was expanding, but the lower middle class was blocked from advancing beyond a certain level by competition from the British and members of the Egyptian elite.

The two parties that were formed around the turn of the century, the Hizb al-Umma and al-Hizb al-Watani, represented the agrarian capitalist elite, and the frustrated urban petit bourgeoisie, respectively. It is not surprising that the landowners, who had so many interests in common with Europe, should have been more receptive to Western ideas than the petit bourgeoisie, whose income, social status, and autonomy had suffered from the Western impact.

What were the implications of these developments for women? The scope of the upper-class woman’s responsibilities widened along with the expansion of her husband’s economic activity and his contacts with Western capitalists. Even the nineteenth-century upper-class woman, veiled and secluded in the harem, was the manager of a large household who participated actively in a social network of other women of her class. [3] As Egypt’s involvement in the world market deepened, upper-class women became involved in new activities that complemented those of their husbands. Eventually, upper-class women began moving out of the home, but not so much into the professions as into social service and voluntary activities. Afaf Marsot’s study of the evolution of Hidiya Barakat and other upper-class harem women from efficient household managers to managers of social service organizations shows very clearly the talents and resources that these women had to offer their society. [4]

The liberal, upper-class movement for women’s emancipation of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries grew up in response to this process. A consistent theme of the writings of liberal nationalists in the early twentieth century was the call for the education of women—for in the harem, women had rarely been taught even to read and write. But the emancipationists’ understanding of Women’s education was basically to train upper-class women to be more effective as “modern” wives and mothers. [5] The emancipationists realized the crucial role that women must play in bringing up their children (especially their sons) in the new habits and values required by capitalist transformation. [6]

The evolution of the women of the petit bourgeoisie during the early twentieth century is more obscure, but it appears that as women of the upper classes were moving out into public life, women of the lower middle classes were becoming more isolated and secluded. Sawsan El Messiri’s portrait of the women of the (pre-capitalist) artisanal and smaller merchant classes in present-day Cairo shows them as quite well integrated into the economic life of their quarter, moving easily between work in the home and work outside the home, sometimes even working in the same jobs (butcher, vendor) as men. [7] That this is the case should not be surprising. In the pre-capitalist economy, which the old quarters of Cairo still represent in vestigial form, the family and the basic unit of production were often coterminous. In such an economic structure, it is natural for a woman to share her husband’s craft, inherit it from him if he should die, or set up—perhaps together with some of her children—a similar “family trade” of her own.

The advent of capitalism widened the gap between the domestic unit and the unit of production. The sexual division of labor rigidified. Men produced goods and services for the commodity market; women reproduced labor for the labor market. The wife of an artisan or small merchant might participate directly in the production of goods and services, the wife of a civil servant or functionary participated only indirectly by reproducing the labor power of her husband and children. Her contribution to the exchange value of her husband’s labor was, moreover, obscured by the fact that her work was wageless. [8] Functionally, geographically, and psychologically, women became more isolated from production, from men, and even from each other. Capitalism led to an expansion in the upper class woman’s horizons, but to a contraction in those of the lower middle class.

The petit bourgeoisie defended and justified this situation by appealing to the traditional Islamic upper-class values of veiling and seclusion. They had little to gain from educating women along “modern” lines as advocated by liberal nationalists such as Qasim Amin and Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid. They could scarcely have afforded to do this even if they had wanted to. Education would not provide a daughter with economic security—this was scarcely an issue in the debate between pro- and anti-emancipationists, since there were hardly any jobs in the modern professions open to women at the time. Lacking property, the petit bourgeois woman’s prospects of economic security depended on arranged marriage, in the husband’s obligation to support his wife as provided by Islam. Nor could lower middle-class women draw on the resources, the contacts, or the experience in managing a large household that equipped upper-class women to do volunteer social service work. To argue that lower middle-class men should have worked for more equality between the marriage partners by educating women ignores the alienation that these men must have felt from the routine work for which their “modern” education had prepared them. Most men of this class were struggling to maintain a minimal degree of domestic propriety and privacy in the face of declining real income. Ideas such as education of women and marriage for love were objectively disruptive of their precarious situation. [9]

The 1952 Revolution

During the period from World War I to the 1952 revolution, the income of the large landowners and the upper bourgeoisie continued to rise, while that of the rest of the urban population continued to decline. At the same time, education spread and Egypt’s economic development broadened and deepened. There was more and more demand for women in modern professions—as teachers, nurses, social workers and other roles created by economic development. The demand for trained personnel accelerated after the 1952 revolution, especially after Gamal Abdul Nasser committed the government to industrialization, nationalization and expansion of the public sector. Moreover, the Free Officers were of petit bourgeois origin themselves and relied on petit bourgeois support. It has been a political necessity for Nasser and post-Nasser governments to guarantee employment for all university graduates.

Gradually it became practical for petit bourgeois parents to educate their daughters to the highest possible level, for a civil service job provides more economic security than any dowry. Erosion of real income made it increasingly difficult for the lower middle-class family to survive without the wife’s income. Since higher education is free in Egypt, urban parents are not forced to choose between educating sons and educating daughters. Even rural parents can often manage to send their daughters to the university by housing them with relatives in the city or in a hostel for students maintained by their villages.

Education for the lower middle-class woman has always been vocational. It has not aimed at helping the woman to be a better wife, mother, and member of the community. Educating large numbers of women for these purposes is a luxury a poor country cannot afford.

Women now enter the different faculties of the university on the same basis as men; entrance is strictly by numerical scores on competitive examinations. In the scientific and technical faculties, which are the most prestigious and require the highest scores, the proportion of women is impressive by Western standards. In 1970-1971, the percentage of women students in the faculties of medicine and pharmacology (the two with the highest entrance requirements) was 23.6 percent, which is close to the overall proportion of women students in all university faculties in that year (26 percent). (In comparison, the percentage of women students in US medical schools in 1970 was about 11 percent.) Slightly more than 10 percent of the students in engineering faculties were women; in agriculture and the sciences, the figures were 20.8 percent and 22.9 percent respectively. [10] These figures include enrollment in the provincial universities, which draw students from a conservative social milieu.

The lower middle-class woman’s education is usually entirely in Arabic, at Egyptian public schools and the national universities. Upper middle-class women also attend the national universities but many attend foreign-language primary and secondary schools, followed by study at the American University in Cairo, a private English-language institution. Graduating with a general liberal arts degree rather than a specialized technical skill, AUC graduates often work for foreign corporations, where their fluency in foreign languages is an asset. In these companies, the women usually work as secretaries, desk clerks or flight attendants, rarely or never as executives or managers. This division of labor along sexual lines (with women in clerical, subordinate positions, men in professional and managerial positions) reflects a pattern developed and followed by American and European corporations at the center of the world market. In the foreign companies, women generally do not compete directly with men.

In contrast, in the civil service women are more likely to hold the same positions and do the same work as men, and many men feel threatened by them. As yet only a few women have risen to the highest ranks of the bureaucracy, but at the lower ranks there is resentment among male bureaucrats at the rapidity with which young, educated women are advancing. There is a chronic surplus of university graduates in Egypt, particularly liberal arts graduates. Although the government guarantees every graduate a job, many graduates are assigned a post that is not commensurate with their training and abilities.

For the lower middle-class woman, professional progress has not yet led to social or sexual liberation, as defined in the West. Young women of the petit bourgeoisie are conservative in dress and sexual behavior. Many young women of the lower middle class are not allowed to attend mixed social gatherings unchaperoned, much less go out alone with men. Among the upper middle class, men and women usually marry for love, while for the lower middle class marriage is often by family arrangement. Among the upper middle class, there is a relaxed, informal camaraderie between young men and women. They mingle freely and sexual liaisons are far from unknown. Among the lower middle class, the double standard is still deeply entrenched. Relations between young men and women are uneasy, marred by suspicion, mutual reserve, jealousy and even hostility.


What does the present augur for women’s future in Egypt? Will the gulf between the two strata, one socially liberated but professionally “unliberated,” the other professionally liberated but socially and sexually conservative, continue to exist?

Egypt’s infitah economic policy of the mid-1970s (the “opening up” to foreign investment and more freedom for the private sector) has coincided with a more conservative “official” attitude toward women’s work outside the home. During the 1960s, the Nasser regime emphasized the right and obligation of all citizens to work. This injunction was included in the National Charter and the 1964 provisional constitution, with no qualifications regarding its applicability to women as well as men. Even al-Azhar (the foremost Islamic authority in Egypt) supported the policy that women should contribute to national development by working in the professions. [11] But the constitution of 1971, which was drawn up and ratified under President Sadat, is more conservative on the subject of women’s rights and duties. Section 2, article 11 states that “the state shall be responsible for maintaining the balance between women’s duties towards the family and her activity in society, as well as for maintaining her equality with man in the fields of political, social, economic and cultural life, without detriment to the laws of the Islamic shari‘a. Sadat’s economic policies have de-emphasized the importance of Egyptian technicians, professionals and managers, and have encouraged instead the proliferation of a whole spectrum of intermediaries and brokers between foreign capitalists, local capitalists, and the Egyptian government and public sector. The opportunities open to both men and women of the petit bourgeoisie have declined, while the economic pressures on them have intensified.

Such a situation is likely to set the stage for a “back-to-the-home” movement aimed at working wives. Such a movement is assisted by a great reservoir of petit bourgeois false consciousness. All evidence to the contrary, many petit bourgeois men seem firmly convinced that professional women would actually prefer to stay at home. Since most of the Egyptian intelligentsia is petit bourgeois, working women in Egypt do not receive the cultural reinforcement which they deserve. The press often treats the subject of working women unrealistically, conjuring up negative scenarios, rather than emphasizing the positive gains to the family from the mother’s employment. Egyptian literature to some extent reflects the bifurcation in attitudes characteristic of the two wings of the nationalist movement. The authors who have promoted improvement of the social position of women have tended to be upper class and politically conservative, like Muhammad Husayn Haykal and Mahmud Tahir Lashin. Politically progressive writers such as Yusuf Idris, ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sharqawi and even Naguib Mahfouz have been relatively indifferent to the problem of women’s oppression. [12]

But, ironically, if economic pressure on the petit bourgeoisie induces misogynist ideological reactions in the short run, in the long run it makes women’s work outside the home more indispensable than ever. The rampant inflation encouraged by Sadat’s policies has eaten deeply into the incomes of the lower middle class and threatens the upper middle class as well. In response many Egyptian professionals—both men and women—are migrating to other Arab countries to find work. The rewards of working in Saudi Arabia, Libya or other oil-rich countries—high salaries and the opportunity to buy foreign goods—are especially attractive to the professionals of the lower middle class.

Finally we should note the existence among some Egyptians of a more integrated concept of women’s emancipation, a view which rejects both the subordination of women through mystification of her sexuality and her subordination through an irrational division of labor based on sex. Socialist writers such as Nawal El Saadawi, a physician, fiction writer and activist in the physicians’ syndicate, and Ibrahim ‘Amir, a former editor of al-Hilal and one of Egypt’s most respected journalists, have challenged the preoccupation of men with premarital chastity, which they charge, reduces woman to the level of a commodity, valued for its “newness” at the time of acquisition. [13] At the same time, their nationalism is radical and anti-imperialist. They have managed, in fact, to synthesize in a single radical social analysis a critique of women’s subordination and a critique of Western imperialism. Perhaps one day their integral vision will prevail over the partial visions that have characterized other schools of nationalist thought.


[1] For an account of the arguments of these two schools of thought, see the unpublished paper by Hollis Granoff, “The Feminist Movement in Egypt in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” pp. 17-35; and p. 30, where Granoff argues that the pro-emancipationist view was an integral part of the liberal nationalist program. Granoff shows that the pro-emancipationists were associated with the circle of Muhammad ‘Abduh, with the Hizb al-Umma and the Umma party organ, al-Jarida, and its editor, the pro-emancipationist Ahmad Lufti al-Sayyid. Opposition to the emancipationist argument came from al-Liwa, the organ of al-Hizb al-Watani; and from al-Manar, the organ of the Islamic fundamentalist school of thought. Both al-Liwa and al-Manar argued that emancipation was a strong attack on Islam encouraged by admirers of the West. There is strong evidence that this link between feminism and liberal pro-Western nationalism, on the one hand, and anti-feminism and radical nationalism on the other, is not accidental but is part of a pattern general to the Middle East and even the Third World as a whole. Nikki Keddie has shown that this dichotomy exists elsewhere in the Middle East in “Methodological Problems in the Study of Middle Eastern Women,” and has explored the larger question of the “traditionalism” or idealization of “indigenous” values among Asian radical nationalists in “Western Rule Versus Western Values: Suggestions for Comparative Study of Asian Intellectual History,” Diogenes 26 (1959).
[2] This paper follows Michel Kamet’s definition of the petit bourgeoisie in the Arab world as comprising “the entire small-scale productive sector,” that is, “poor peasants, small landowners and tenants, artisans and owners of small workshops,” as well as by extension “small merchants, public service employees, the great majority of functionaries, officers and other military personnel…students and, finally, intellectuals.” M. Kamel, “Le role politique et ideologique de la petite bourgeoisie dans le monde arabe,” Renaissance du monde arabe, ed. A. Abdel-Malek, A.-A. Belal, and H. Hanafi (Gembloux: Duculot, 1972). This definition, however, fails to distinguish between the pre-capitalist segment, which would include many peasants, artisans and merchants, those whose economic activity is conducted without reference to the world market; and a capitalist segment whose economic functions may be referred to the world market. This paper deals only with the latter segment and with the urban as opposed to the rural petit bourgeoisie. The terms “petit bourgeoisie” and “lower middle class” are used interchangeably.
[3] See Sophia Poole, The Englishwoman in Egypt: Letters from Cairo (Philadelphia: G. B. Zieber & Co., 1845), pp. 140-41, 167.
[4] Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot, “The Revolutionary Gentlewoman,” in Nikki Keddie and Lois Beck, eds., Beyond the Veil: Women in the Middle East (forthcoming).
[5] Hollis Granoff, pp. 27-29, and Thomas Philipp, “Egyptian Nationalism and the Liberation of Women,” in Keddie and Beck, op. cit., pp. 9-10.
[6] Nikki Keddie and Lois Beck, “Introduction,” in Keddie and Beck, op cit.
[7] Sawsan El Messiri, “The Self-Image of Bint al-Balad,” in Keddie and Beck, op. cit.
[8] For a theoretical discussion of these distinctions, see Wally Secombe, “The Housewife and Her Labor Under Capitalism,” New Left Reyiew 83 (January-February 1973), pp. 3-24. I am also indebted to the writings of the Wages for Housework movement for their perspective on the place of housework in the relations of production and the relationship of housework to capital. See Mariarosa Delia Costa and Selma James, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (Bristol: Falling Wall Press, 1972), and Nicole Cox and Silvia Federici, Counter-Planning from the Kitchen (Bristol: Falling Wall Press, 1975). These works place the isolation and privatization of the bourgeois family within the context of the development of capitalism. They show that the wagelessness of housework has obscured the fact that the housewife contributes to the exchange value of labor through her labor in the home. This process of mystification leads both men and women to view the work the housewives do as based on love or biological destiny rather than on the organization or production.
[9] The reader may wonder what the relation of the “national bourgeoisie” exemplified by the Misr group was to the above analysis, particularly since Tal‘at Harb, the founder of the Bank Misr, wrote two books attacking Qasim Amin and defending seclusion, lt would be tempting to link the national bourgeoisie with the petit bourgeoisie, since both had an apparent interest in lessening Egypt’s dependence on Europe. But this would be too simplistic, since the Misr group also cooperated with foreign capitalist interests, and since many of them, including Tal‘at Harb, had close personal and family ties with the so-called compradorial bourgeoisie and agrarian capitalists. For an analysis of Tal‘at Harb and the economic role of the Misr group in the interwar period see the forthcoming doctoral dissertation by Eric Davis, “Bank Misr and the Political Economy of Industrialization in Egypt, 1920-1941” (University of Chicago).
[10] Arab Republic of Egypt, Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, Statistical Abstract of the Arab Republic of Egypt, 1951/52-1970/71 (Cairo: Nahdat Misr Press, 1972), pp. 144-146.
[11] The Charter stated that “woman must be equal to man, and the remains of the shackles which impede her free movement must fall, so that she can share deeply and positively in constructing life.” Gamal Abdel Nasser, al-Mithaq (Dar al-Qawmiyya, 1962), p. 77. Muhammad Mukhtar Amin Makram, al-Mithaq fi daw’ al-Qur’an (The Charter in the Light of the Qur’an) (Cairo: Anglo-Egyptian Press, n.d.), claimed that this provision of the Charter would “give women back Islamic law's provisions for them,” and added that “honorable productive work” protects women’s virtue rather than threatening it (pp. 70-71).
[12] See Hilary Kilpatrick, The Modern Egyptian Novel (London: Ithaca Press, 1974), pp. 172-178.
[13] Nawal El Saadawi, al-Mar’a wa al-Jins (Woman and Sex) (Cairo: Dar al-Sha’b, 1972), and Ibrahim ‘Amir, “Nazra ishtirakiyya ila al-mar’a al-‘arabiyya (A Socialist View of the Arab Woman), al-Hilal 79 (April 1971), p. 30.

How to cite this article:

"Impact of the World Market on Egyptian Women," Middle East Report Online, February 17, 2016.

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