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British Colonial Notions of Egyptian Women: Doğa Öztürk, Marilyn Booth, and Sahar Sobhi Abdel-Hakim

Colonial Discourses on Egyptian Women, Islam, and Gender

The assessment in which the British colonial administration in Egypt (1882-1945) portrayed Muslim women is difficult to synthesize in a few pages. On the other hand, it can also be straightforward and reduceable to only a few words. The irony behind this dichotomy comes to light at the intersection between the remains of the previously stated colonialization, and also today’s dialectics, as they reflect the image of Muslim women that continues to respond to taxonomies from those colonial times. A clear example can be found in contemporary advances where law is used to clearly benefit majorities in the name of what politicians call “state laicity.”[1] Aside from the actual historical suppression that Muslim women have been facing throughout history, there have been a bastion of strong and resilient female voices that have loudly opposed those repressive regimes.

This paper aims to underline a few notes on how much the “British colonial administration brought with it the notion which equated the ‘backwardness of Egypt with the ‘backwardness’ of Egyptian women.”[2] In order to depict this topic, which today endures as a remnant of colonialism, I will first feature a synopsis of the subject by quoting three important academics of the field: Doğa Öztürk, historian and researcher of Egypt’s Ottoman Past; Marilyn Booth, Professor for the Study of the Contemporary Arab World; and Sahar Sobhi Abdel-Hakim, Professor of Cultural Studies at the Department of English of Cairo University. Second, I will specifically underline examples within these researchers’ studies on the subject of women in Egypt through British colonialist aims, where the voices of women reflect their experiences.

The first of the three scholars to examine is Doğa Öztürk, who offers the unique case of Kadriye Hüseyin, a “largely forgotten figure”[3] who identified herself as an Ottoman and was widely aware of the situations surrounded the weakening Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century. One crucial subject this case highlights is the struggle to develop solutions for the integration of Muslim societies with so-called ‘civilized’ nations. In other words, the ongoing debate where there is, on one side of the spectrum, loyalty to ‘true Islam’ and, on the other side, adopting today’s practices (i.e., capitalism and technology). Öztürk traces Hüseyin’s history as ‘a privileged member of an elite Ottoman-Egypt scholarly circle,’[4] which in a general sense included Islamic reformists who pondered similar debates, such as how to reconcile Islamic practices with modernity. Öztürk explores several notes on Hüseyin and her broader thoughts about persuasion toward compatibilities between classic Islam and the demands of today’s world. In all, he observes what Hüseyin identifies as internal causes within this argument; Hüseyin seems to stand behind a compromising point where “Eastern cultures should adopt only the technology necessary for the advancement of their societies while rejecting the moral values of the West.”[5] However, as Öztürk observes, I too find that Hüseyin praising the relationship between tradition and modernity seems somewhat “ambivalent.”[6] On the one hand, she does view modernity as an enemy of freedom while appear to be in favour of “the abandonment of some old habits”[7] due to their unforeseen future. Aside from Hüseyin’s notes, what one can observe in Öztürk’s research is that, if we dig deeper into nineteenth and twentieth-century history, we will be able to find female scholars raising their voices among male academics. The reader may argue that Hüseyin’s position of privilege as a female intellectual and a member of the Egyptian ruling family, who played an active role in the wider Ottoman cultural world in the early twentieth century, had plenty to do with that exposure. Nevertheless, is this not the case for all academics who nowadays wish to project their ideas beyond the walls of a university? We all depend on and expect to find the right niche at the right time; in Hüseyin’s case, it is much more admirable due to the timeframe.

In “Locating Women’s Autobiographical Writing in Colonial Egypt,” Marilyn Booth bares an account of an undercover world we do not often explore in religious studies. The author underlines the importance of self-reflective writings by Egyptian women during colonial times, mostly using rhetoric messages, to emphasize personal constraints they denounced in the early nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The examples Booth offer expose texts with traces of autobiographical perspective, although not implicitly exposed due to the societal constraints from (here we go again) the male-dominant establishment. Seeing it from a different angle, with the enormous transformations in Egypt at the beginning of the twentieth century,[8] the collective society sees the emergence of a powerful mechanism to ‘spread the word,’ i.e., the print industry. Publications were vehicles to expose “shifting normative conceptions of the appropriate intersection of gender status, national society and economy [dependence], and class,”[9] which of course included the appearance of organized feminism in the country. Female writers started to project their voices under pseudonyms or ambiguous-non-gendered characters; simply bright and absolutely clever. One of the most intriguing subcategories of these autobiographies arose from the writing style, where “these women insist on themselves a non-gendered individuals while invoking constraints and possibilities for making a feminine voice,”[10] using, one might say, a socially acceptable way to present the divisive subject of women’s rights. What I find fascinating the most is how eloquent and efficient this technique was for these bold women to project their voices under an autobiographical veil that can be lifted under careful scrutiny.

Lastly, an example of a woman portraying women - a unique portrayal of Egyptian women by a Christian-European woman. The depictions of “Sophia Poole: Writing the Self, Scribing Egyptian Women / ﺻﻮﻓﻴﺎ ﭘﻮﻝ: ﻛﺘﺎﺑﺔ ﺍﻟﺬﺍﺕ ﻭﺗﺪﻭﻳﻦ ﺍﻟﻨﺴﺎﺀ ﺍﻟﻤﺼﺮﻳﺎﺕ” reveals an oppressor unaware of being oppressed herself by those who celebrated her writing. Said delicately, it is a situation of a woman depicting women of colour in a way a male writer, her brother could not have done it, including even her disguise adopting oriental dress, which “…was deeply disturbing for her as it suggested her proximity to Egyptian women.”[11] Oh, the horror! The author Sophia Poole, the centerpiece of the writings, entered the publishing field with The Englishwoman in Egypt (1844-46) which gave a personal experience of interacting with Muslim Egyptian women, especially in the Harems - a house or a section of a house reserved for women members of a Muslim household, where of course ‘no other than females can access;’[12] and the one who cannot access is precisely Poole’s brother, Eduard William Lane. In short, this provoking case offers a partnership where the sister and brother join a long residence in occupied Egypt by the Brits; Lane “supplied the ‘objective’ in form of geography and history, [while] his sister supplied the female, personal and domestic, simultaneously diluting and fetishizing [the male] authorial account.”[13] Abdel-Hakim observes that her text showcases a double-standard where the oppressors, the British-Victorian male reviewers of her book, celebrate with impetus how a European woman reports the apparent suppression of Muslim Egyptian women by men while Poole herself is the exploited one. The British obsession with religion fueled this pseudo-missionary exploration, an ethno-cultural and-religious-centric examination, where the only objective is to reinforce the justification of the British Empire’s own European-Christian validity and truth. What’s more, the whole exercise provides no other than a Darwinian dissection of comparative juxtaposition of cultures, where the superior species is self-exposed when labelling ‘the other.’ The irony in this case remains in Poole, a Victorian Englishwoman visualizing “herself in the mirror of the opposite culture”[14] while becoming a puppet of the colonial males as a dominant class. What one can observe is that Poole might see the suppressed Muslim woman in Egypt as a self-reflection of her own restraints within the British-Victorian frame. In the end, she is celebrated for accomplishments that suit her oppressors. Paradoxically, she sees the subjugated male Egyptian by the colonist as “the oppressed becoming the hardest of oppressors,”[15] referring to their treatment of women.

The cases from Doğa Öztürk, Marilyn Booth, and Sahar Sobhi Abdel-Hakim examine some of the many constraints women in Egypt have endured, either from external oppressors of colonial influence, or within their own circle of patriarchal inheritance that recycles a self-appointed male control. If I neglect the aforementioned, what remains is the superb power Egyptian women carry from with in themselves; the essay by Marilyn Booth only scratches the surface of what women can do in order to be heard, especially by facing the “difficulty of displaying the feminine self when narrating as an early twentieth-century Arab female subject.”[16] referring to their treatment of women.

Some [male] intellectuals–and especially people

who have convinced themselves

they are intellectuals have gone too far,

detaching women from the human species and virtually

narrowing it down exclusively to men.” –Mayy Ziyada*

* Early 20th-century Lebanese intellectual, active in literary and feminist circles in Egypt and Lebanon, who advocated the education and employment of women and celebrated the accomplishments of 19th-century female Arab writers.


[1] Alexander Beck, “Quebec’s Bill 21: An Overview,” The McGill Policy Association (MPA), January 31, 2022, [2] Doğa Öztürk, “Kadriye Hüseyin: a Forgotten Female Intellectual and a Representation of Ottoman Consciousness in Early Twentieth Century Egypt” in Middle Eastern studies 58, no. 6 (2022), 897. [3] Öztürk, “Kadriye Hüseyin,” 900. [4] Öztürk, 890. [5] Ibid., 895. [6] Ibid., 896. [7] Does not clarify which old habits she refers to. [8] In part due to the long-lasting occupation by the British since 1882. [9] Marilyn Booth, “Locating Women’s Autobiographical Writing in Colonial Egypt” in Journal of Women's History 25, no. 2 (2013), 36. [10] Booth, “Locating Women’s,” 38. [11] Sahar Sobhi Abdel-Hakim, and ﻋﺒﺪ ﺍﻟﺤﻜﻴﻢﺳﺤﺮ ﺻﺒﺤﻲ, “Sophia Poole: Writing the Self, Scribing Egyptian Women / ﺻﻮﻓﻴﺎ ﭘﻮﻝ: ﻛﺘﺎﺑﺔ ﺍﻟﺬﺍﺕ ﻭﺗﺪﻭﻳﻦ ﺍﻟﻨﺴﺎﺀ ﺍﻟﻤﺼﺮﻳﺎﺕ,” in Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, no. 22 (2002), 114. [12] Abdel-Hakim, “Sophia Poole,” 108. [13] Ibid. [14] Ibid., 121. [15] Ibid., 123. [16] Booth, 38.


Abdel-Hakim, Sahar Sobhi, and ﻋﺒﺪ ﺍﻟﺤﻜﻴﻢﺳﺤﺮ ﺻﺒﺤﻲ. “Sophia Poole: Writing the Self, Scribing Egyptian Women / ﺻﻮﻓﻴﺎ ﭘﻮﻝ: ﻛﺘﺎﺑﺔ ﺍﻟﺬﺍﺕ ﻭﺗﺪﻭﻳﻦ ﺍﻟﻨﺴﺎﺀ ﺍﻟﻤﺼﺮﻳﺎﺕ.” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, no. 22“Quebec’s Bill 21: An Overview.” The McGill Policy Association (MPA), January 31, 2022.

Booth, Marilyn. “Locating Women’s Autobiographical Writing in Colonial Egypt.” Journal of Women's History 25, no. 2 (2013): 36-60.

Öztürk, Doğa. “Kadriye Hüseyin: a Forgotten Female Intellectual and a Representation of Ottoman Consciousness in Early Twentieth Century Egypt.” Middle Eastern studies 58, no. 6 (2022): 890–903.

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