Women in the Renaissance Literature of the 19th Century
The eve of the 19th century witnessed many important events which shook the region, upset its tranquility and spurred its stagnation generating a shock in its development process and planting the first seeds of the future overwhelming change. Among those event was the French campaign in Egypt in the late 1700s; monopolization of power by Mohamed Ali Basha in Egypt; and the European interference in the Arab orient affairs especially Bilad al-Sham, which took different shapes including political interference, religious missions and building school and universities.
In spite of the rapid military failure, the French interference in Egypt was not merely a military campaign. This interference shook the recession of the Egyptian society through scientific and social missions which made the local people aware of what was going on outside Egypt and of the scientific progress already achieved in Europe.
Soon after the French campaign, Mohamed Ali Basha was inaugurated as ruler (Wali) of Egypt then became a sole effective governor after eradicating the Mamaleek in a well-known pogrom. Mohamed Ali established comprehensive development moving the country strides forward. He modernized the state administration, opened and generalized schools, built universities, sent study missions to Europe (especially France), translated different scientific, literary and cultural books already published in Europe, focused on different branches of science, modernized the army and fleet and expanded the harbors, build bridges on the Nile and dug channels to benefit from its water and modernized agriculture.
When he became confident of Egypt strengths, Mohamed Ali tried to drive the Ottomans out of Hejaz and al-Sham through mobilizing armies and almost managed to realize this objective were it not for the Europeans and Ottomans concern against any mighty Arab state. However, Egypt renaissance under Mohamed Ali's rule as well as his military campaigns had direct and considerable impact on the political, economic and social life in both al-Sham (ruled for 14 years by his son Ibrahim who tried to launch a development process similar to that of Egypt) and the Arab Peninsula.
In al Sham the Ottoman had established a tyrannical feudal government where the country suffered much from the despotism of Walis state employees and tax comptrollers. Illiteracy was overwhelming and schools were seldom and teaching in Turkish language and there were no private schools. Culture was stagnant, and poverty, backwardness and regional, religious and sectarian seclusion is the main aspect in society. The influence of European Renaissance had reached only a few individuals or parts of certain sects in major cities.
However, the most important and influential event was the coming of the Egyptian army led by Ibrahim Basha during the first half of the 19th century. Ibrahim Basha drove the Ottomans out of Bilad al-Sham and reshaped the political alliances. He opened schools and promoted education, stressed the freedom of belief and respect of different religions and sects, triggered the process of renewing and modernizing the Arabic culture and facilitated the entrance of European intellectual trends with their new concepts and values.
Another significant development in al-Sham was the European attempts to interfere in the region affairs under different excuses and arguments: to protect the minorities or religious interests; enforce specific settlements for certain geographic areas or sectarian minorities. A core aspect of this interference was the European missions which was accompanied with the establishment of universities (St. Joseph University, American University) and schools (which spread in most main cities and introduced modern curricula), the use of printers, publication of newspapers, the transfer of the European knowledge. This made the Arab societies aware of the European principles of freedom, equality, justice, renaissance, evolution and renovation, which triggered the movement of the Arab Renaissance.
The first renaissance pioneers called for linguistic and religious renovation, nationalistic wakeup and, most importantly in our context, for a new attitude toward women. They called for ending the unjust treatment which deteriorated the women's situations and actually stopped their contribution to social life and to making the future of the nation. Women were confined to home as a part of the Hareem structure. That is why the thoughts of those pioneers were comparatively innovative in a society where the mere thinking of gender equality was a rebellion against the collective opinion if not blasphemy or heterodoxy. And that is why the today' axiomatic slogan of women education was a sublime objective and a big demand which needed hard struggle and huge efforts especially because it was unacceptable by the general social traditions. Likewise, the demand of women employment in workplaces beside men not to mention polygamy, divorce and the men's guardianship right on women.
During the second half of the 19th century there emerged two renaissance currents regarding the women's rights. The first was the liberal current which consisted of intellectuals who had studied in Europe or visited it and were acquainted with the European lifestyle and received the principles of the French revolution (freedom, equality, justice, education, awakening, renovation and separation between religion and politics). Among those pioneers we have: Rifa'a Rafé' Al Tahtawi, kheiruddin al-Tounisi, Ahmad Fares al-Shidiyaq, Butros al-Bustani, Shibly Shmayyel, Fransis Marrash, Farah Anton, Adib Ishaq and others. The second current called for religious renovation through a new concept of religion based on a sound comprehension of Islam. The most outstanding figures of this current include: Rifa'a Rafé' Al Tahtawi, Jamal Eddin al-afghani, Mohamed Abdo, Mustapha Lutfi al-Manfalouti, Abdul Rahman al-Kawakibi and others.
The liberal Arab (enlightened) intellectuals paid attention to the women problem; they constituted the seed of the Arab bourgeoisie which grew later and assumed power in a number of Arab countries at the beginning of the 20th century. Those enlightened were in general supporters to the idea of imitating Europe and benefiting from its cultural and civilizational renaissance. They called for reforms in the Arab societies based on the principles of justice, equality, personal freedom, intellect, separation between religion and politics and separation of powers. They supported the called education and enlightenment of women to help them improve management of their homes and bringing-up of their children and keep up with the men's talks and ideas.
However, these pioneers in general failed to tackle the core issues such as women's participation in social activities, equality, guardianship, polygamy and divorce, not to mention their failure in ending unjust treatment. The level of development during the second half of the 19th century as well as the prevailing values and socio-economic conditions would not have allowed more than calling for women education. On the other hand, the priority for those intellectuals was the political issues including freedoms, justice and liberation; they could only look at the women's problems as a secondary issue. Yet, they were the first to trigger the process of women liberation.
Rifa'a Al Tahtawi was among the first intellectuals who paid early attention to the women's role in renaissance in general and to injustice against women since he had lived in France and realized the importance of such a role in society. He also witnessed the tragedy of oriental women and knew how much resources were missing because of women isolation and marginalization. Tahtawi thought the first and urgent step was to educate women then allow them to work and meet with men.
In 1873, Tahtawi published his famous book "Reliable Guide to Bringing up Girls and Boys" which called not only for gender equality in education but for mixed schools as well because they enable the girls to better understand the society and life and help her know the other sex and facilitate the marriage, which was the natural end of relations between the two sexes. Tahtawi maintained that teaching the girl how to read, write and learn mathematics and grammar would raise her awareness and cultural level, enable her to provide opinion in personal and social matters, strengthen her position in the men's eyes and protect her from "perish in the precipice of illusions and violence and turn her from ignorance into an educated woman".
Tahtawi also called for the right of women, especially educated women, to work outside home, because work would "protect the woman and bring her closer to virtue. If male unemployment is denounced, female unemployment is big shame". He supported the elimination of hijab and called for putting an end to women's house confinement and allowing them the chance to meet with men.
Tahtawi had realized that the rules applied on women in the Arab countries were human-made and had nothing to do with the right Islam. He played an important role in opening modern schools in general and female schools in particular. He wrote: "we should try our best educating boys and girls together. Girls will learn reading, writing, counting and others, which will strengthen their intellect and values and enable them to share talks and opinion with men. The latter will show more respect and more love towards them and this will enable women to practice the same jobs as men within their capacities (they will do whatever work they are able to endure) and will reduce unemployment among women. Work will keep women away from the vice and get them closer to the virtue. If male unemployment is denounced, female unemployment is big shame."
kheiruddin al-Tounisi (1800-1890) was a minister in Tunisia then a Great Sadr in Acetana who tried to adjust the situations in the Islamic countries. He published a magazine in Tunisia, which frequently wrote about women, the disastrous effect of their ignorance and the necessity to educate women at least in primary schools to help them become good housewives and typical child educators. However, the magazine used to criticize the European countries fro granting women "too much freedom" and the ultimate end of Al-Tounisi's thoughts was the necessity to enroll girls at schools in an attempt not to oppose the objective conditions of his era.
Ahmad Fares Al Shidiyaq (1804-1887) lived in Lebanon, Tunisia and Acetana. As a writer and journalist, he demanded to make the women's conditions in Tunisia more human. He talked about the "women's virtues and vices and the role of educating women in realizing progress", because improving their situations is a great action and their education will help them manage their homes and bring up their children. Al Shidiyaq shed light on the differences between western and eastern women, considering that the stability of western societies was based on two pillars: man and woman, while the eastern society was lame and staggering in its attempt to develop because of the inherent ignorance of woman though God has endowed the woman with "the same mental, literary and moral capabilities as man. She enjoys good judgment, memory and learning/teaching skills. God would never bestow these talents and then block her from using them." Al-Shidiyaq, like Al-Tounisi, thought that the core problem is the woman education and refinement and he did not ask for more.
Butros Al-Bustani (1819-1883), the writer, journalist and author, was among the first enlightened Arabs who realized the dimension of the women issue and deeply believed in the necessity to change their conditions. During a lecture in 1849, he highlighted the necessity to "promote the women's interest in building knowledge that would enhance their position. They will be able to make men change their situations and save them from loss," and this was considered a must for developing the public as a whole. In 1869, he wrote: "the Western Europe history shows that the starting point for the European civil success and progress was when the woman began to assume a better position in the society which has been reflected in the care to educate women."
According to Al-Bustani, women should in general learn everything necessary to complete their specific duties easily, informedly, smoothly and wisely and to turn them into members in a civil society … the benefit of education is that it develop the women's mental capacity, refine them, awaken and revive their conscience, straighten their will and literary compassions and regulate their behaviour and demeanour." He said women are not for flirtation and their backwardness was because of depriving them knowledge. Reforming the world starts with reforming the woman; she is the mistress of the universe. Al-Bustani called for teaching women with the basics of religion, and warned women against being haughty or trying to surpass the man's position.
Fransis Marrash (1836-1873) was a physician, writer and journalist from Aleppo who studied in France. He undoubtedly was enlightened but a little bit more conservative as regards women renaissance. He called for educating women but thought that such education should be limited to reading, writing, counting and some science. Moreover, he thought that "it is not odd to limit women education to primary stage" since deeper knowledge would lead to "undesirable" results because it would awaken the women inclination to freedom and willingness to "act as the men and hence neglect her household duties and children, and may even think of being superior to men." Worth mentioning here, Mariana Marrash, Fransis' sister was a writer, journalist and novelist who encouraged women to write and tried to promote this talent in them.
Farah Antoun (1874-1922) was a writer, novelist and journalist. He lived in Lebanon, Egypt and America. Being among the first Arab intellectuals to call for separation between religion and politics, Antoun underlined the necessity to introduce the principles of freedom, justice and equality. He thought that reforming the social structure could only be achieved through educating women which is more important than educating men.
However, Antoun thought that the woman was dedicated for household and her mission was only to "bring up children, do housekeeping work and acting as the man's companion" as he wrote in Al-Hilal magazine. According to him, the woman was born to be a wife and mother "and it is only for this mission she was born not for anything else." The family system was build on the basis of male authority because he is the home manager. The woman should obey him; otherwise, the family would collapse. Yet, Antoun maintained that women were "the queens of the universe and fragrance of existence who hold the future of the nations and crises of the peoples in their hands because they are the governesses of generations and builders of men."
In brief, the ultimate issue of the liberal enlightened men of the 19th century was "woman education and refinement". They thought this was necessary for the development of the whole society and it was sufficient for the woman. Apart from some rhetoric, they did not ask for more. However, it is unjust to underestimate such a demand under those conditions where all people (men and women) were lacking education and women were isolated in their houses not able to go out unless for an emergency. In a society governed by oriental despotism, feudal rule, social and cultural backwardness, Harem phenomenon, intellectual degeneration, and women subjugation in terms of rights and as a human being, such ideas were really enlightening and even revolutionary. They were undoubtedly a step forward that leveled the ground for the intellectuals of the late 1800s and early 1900s to realize great strides toward women's rights and freedoms.
The second enlightenment current had an Islamic background. Its pioneers were innovators and renaissance supporters who called for a new understanding of Islam which would remove all deformation, myths and heresies and make Islam the right religion for every time and place. They tried to restore the Moslems' right of discretion and interpretation to help them understand their religion using contemporary scientific and epistemic tools.
They refrained from accepting everything brought by ancestors building on their ability to judge and provided interpretation: "we are men and they are men" Mohamed Abdo and his teacher Jamal Eddin Al-Afghani would say.
Regarding women issues, they claimed that the right Islam would not admits the situation of women in their time in terms of laws and jurisprudence and relevant applications. They called for a new attitude and new laws that would promote the woman's position, establish her rights and create conductive condition for her role in the family and society.
Major issues tackled by the religious enlightenment current were: women education and refinement; women employment, Hijab, home isolation, limiting polygamy with certain conditions and reducing divorce. The reference background to start from was Islam and the Sunnah in addition to their judgment in interpreting them.
The great renaissance figure, Jamal Eddin Al-Afghani dealt with women problems as a secondary issue, his main concern being the Moslems' awakening and development and the attempt to establish a sound understanding of Islam after removing all falsity marring the religion. He called for women education and putting an end to their isolation. Moreover, he called for equality with men in the light of the Qur'an rules and did not object the removal of Hijab provided this would not lead to moral deterioration. Jamal Eddin Al-Afghani seemed to share women related ideas with his student Mohamed Abdo.
Sheikh Mohamed Abdodealt with the women's issues with care and responsibility. He spared no effort in supporting such issues and benefited from his position as a judge, chancellor and mufti to learn more about them. He made many fatwas which reflected his high understanding. He had unquestionable impact on his student Qassem Ameen who took the women's issue as a core objective and main obsession.
Mohamed Abdo was convicted that most woman-related rules, legislation and traditions working in the name of Islam needed change because they were not valid either in terms of religious reference or in terms of their relevance to social needs. He wrote articles in the press (he was for a while the editor-in-chief of Al-Muqtataf magazine) supporting his ideas. Later, he issued many fatwas that set the legal and jurisdiction framework for those ideas, which had great influence during his life and after his death.
Sheikh Mohamed Abdo maintained that "men and women are equal in rights, actions, person, senses and intellect. Men who try, through tyrannizing women, to become masters at home have simply been born slave to others." He called for educating women similarly to men because "the lack of education has stuffed women's brains with superstitions and their talk with trifles except for a few of them who can be numbered in one minute". He proposed the establishment of women associations focusing on female education and the opening of new schools for this purpose.
Sheikh Mohamed Abdo claimed that Islam gives women the right to request divorce if abandoned without legitimate reason and also in the case of assault, insult and unsolvable conflict. He asked the divorce decision to be in the hands of the judge not the husband. The judge should make the husband aware of the divorce risks and harm and advise him to change his mind leaving a delay of one week during which two arbitrators from the wife's side and two others from the husband's side try reconciliation. Only in case of failure, the judge will decide the divorce and confirm it officially. To know the importance of such an opinion we should remember that divorce at that time was within the man' power and it needed no reasons to be effected.
Mohamed Abdo called for preventing polygamy unless an absolute necessity. He explained this necessity as the wife's sterility definitely. He argued that the Sharia put equity among wives as a precondition to polygamy and equity is almost impossible. He claimed that the Sharia permission is conditioned that the man should be sure he will be able to ensure equity; otherwise, he should marry only one woman. "they must marry only one wife if they are not able to ensure equity.. or be aware what their legal obligation are in terms of equity before marrying more than one wife", given that absolute equity is a precondition stipulated by the Qur'an and that equity is very rare and cannot be taken as a rule. On the other hand, polygamy will inevitablely cause harm to women and hence rivalry among children. Building on this, the ruler or scholar (religious man) can prevent polygamy completely.. unless the wife is sterile; here, the man can be permitted by the judge to marry another woman."
Qassem Ameen took the banner from his teacher and adopted the women's issue with full responsibility and unprecedented dedication. He called for equality between men and women and that women should have their rights within the Qur'anic teachings. He wrote two books in this regard: 1) Woman Liberation which contained Ameen's ideas, aspirations and vision 2) The New Woman which was a refinement of the ideas of the first book in addition to in-depth enlightening approach. The two books are still published in different Arab countries and constitute a reference for researchers in several woman-related areas.
Below there is a detailed presentation of Ameen's ideas which have had a deep impact on the situations of Arab women and their role in the society.
Qassem Ameen claimed that the reason of backwardness was the wrong interpretation of religious rules, so restoring the substance of the religion would lead to legislative and jurisdiction results different from what was prevailing in the first era of Islam. Other reasons of backwardness include the long rule of autocratic regimes in the Arab and Islamic countries.
Ameen explained that unfortunately the religion was overwhelmed by bad manners inherited from other nations, which followed Islam but maintained their old illusions. The most important factor behind perpetuating those bad manners was the autocratic regimes in our countries. The main reason behind wronging women is that the human being respects only the power and is deterred only by fear. Since the woman was weak, her rights were oppressed by the man and her personality was tread with his feet.
As a result, the woman lived in heavy depression without any respect or opinion. She was subjected to the man simply because he was a man. Her personality melted in his and nothing was kept fro her but the house corners where she was kept ignorant and lived in darkness. The man used her for his pleasure, and treat her capriciously: sometimes enjoying himself and sometimes throwing her to the street. He was master and she was a slave; he had education and she had ignorance; he had intellect and she had simplemindedness; he had light and open space and she had dimness and prison; he made orders and she had to obey and be patient. Meanwhile, the Sharia teachings show that the woman has been gifted with the same brain as the man.
Ameen challenged the idea repeated by Moslem men that women were born for the house and their roles end at the doorstep. He said that who had such a conviction was simply living in illusion and raising a thick veil between himself and the reality. Ameen also denounced the idea that women education cannot be combined with chastity. He highlighted the interrelation between liberating the woman and liberating the whole society: "there is interrelation between the political case and family case. The type of government affects the household manners and the latter affect the community. In the east, women are enslaved by men and men are enslaved by government. Wherever women have personal freedom men will have political freedom: the two cases are totally interrelated. A despotic government is not expected to ensure the women's freedoms and rights. Every time the man degrades the woman and treats her as a slave, he is degrading himself and losing the emotion of freedom. Conversely, in the countries where women enjoy freedom, men also enjoy the same; the two cases are totally interrelated.
Ameen maintained that the only reason that may prevent the Egyptian woman from practicing sciences, literature, fine arts, trade and industry, just like western women is her ignorance and lack of education. If she is helped into the active society and if she makes up her mind to practice those professions using her mental and physical strengths, she will turn into a living and vivid soul producing not only consuming, while today she is living as a burden on the others' production.
Women can do all what we, men, can do; everything allowed for us should be allowed for them; everything prohibited for us should be prohibited for them. Unemployment, which has become so familiar with today's women, is the biggest vice. If our women do not practice a work indoors, do not have a profession, do not know any art, do not practice any science, the what can they do?88 Vol. 9, No. 36, Mar ch. 2011 Al-Mashriq
Qassem Ameen claims that the Sharia does not have a ruling imposing the Hijab, the latter being just a habit we inherited from certain nations. Women living in the Egyptian and Arab countryside and handling the same jobs as men, like in Europe, have less inclination toward corruption than the urban women wearing the Hijab. The Arabs picked up the Hijab from certain nations and then they liked it and exaggerated using it by lending it a religious dimension, while the religion has nothing to do with Hijab.
The Hijab is a social not a religious attitude, and every era has its own attire. Ameen wondered why we do not ask men to cover their faces when meeting women now that they fear seduction. Is the male will more fragile than the women's? He explained that putting a veil is not an Islamic practice whether for worship or for decency reasons; it is rather a pre-Islamic custom which survived after the advent of Islam.
Qassem Ameen called for social relations between men and women to raise the latter's awareness and enable them to get acquainted with social issues. He thought such relations would lead to such situation where "men do not move anything inside women". He criticized the religious people who turned the marriage into a contract where the man owns the woman. He was astonished at the level of degradation women might fall into if we apply the opinion of religious jurists. He explained that marriage is a good thing based on friendliness and mercy between the couple, while those jurists have turned it into a tool for pleasure. He preached for giving the woman the right to choose her husband, and considered polygamy as heavy contempt towards women because we can never find a single woman who agrees that another woman might share her husband with her exactly as we can never find a single man who agrees that another man might share his wife' love with him. Any refined and knowledgeable man cannot endure the burden created by marrying two women not to say three or four. The best a man can do is to choose one woman. Marrying a second wife can never be justified unless an absolute necessity such as sterility or chronic disease (and even the latter is not recommended because men usually ask women to care for them when they are ill). Amen declared that no one in the future would regret the elimination of polygamy.
He explained that divorce was prohibited by nature and justified only upon necessity. It is the ugliest legitimate thing for God. The rule is prohibition unless a necessity, so if it happens without a reason, it will be stupidity, idiocy and mere ungratefulness. Ameen adopted the ideas of Sheikh Mohamed Abdo regarding divorce.
This has been an overview of the most important ideas of the enlightened intellectuals with Islamic background. Those ideas look as compromise, but given their context, they were undoubtedly a revolution and a pilot initiative aimed at providing women with some of their rights and one step in a long route where our countries are still passing.