New Women

Dr. Gaber Asfour*)

QASIM Amien published the book “al-Mar`ah al-Jadîdah” in 1900, or around 100 years ago, one year after the publication of “Tahrîr al-Mar`ah” which compliments the “al-Mar`ah al-Jadîdah” in establishing a basic project for the condition development of Arab women. The basic overview of this project is that it is not only limited to one side of the women issue of culture renewal, education for example, should not only propagate the particular social demands associated with the hijab, or revisit the absolute rights of men in divorce, or to determine the law of polygamy, and so forth. But all of the above and among other things should be integrated into a basic, holistic, and integral perspective for the women liberation process, be it in theory, social, economic, and political spheres. The root of this project stands on five principles that will not lose its efficacy even after a century of its creation

First, Islam—as the majority religion—should not be a hindrance to the liberation and advancement of women, irrespective of their level of intelectuality compared to the men’s, and should not prevent them from social, economic, political, and cultural rights, except in ta’wil jumud or extreme interpretations which dominated in times of retardation, infertility, defeat, and dictatorships.

Second, that the first step in the liberation of women is to open the doors to education and civilization from early childhood; and this is something that can replace dogmatic priorities with an ijtihad (independent reasoning) priorities in one’s conscience, to replace the rigid transmission of texts (al-naql) with a more rational mind, to freeze fanaticism by introducing tolerance, to replace seclusion and self-isolation with an effective presence that is open to a world of progress.

Third, that the issue of women liberation is the issue of “civilization” that does not contradict with the sanctity of divine religions or the tolerance for authentic spiritual values. In priority, it remains to be a civilization issue, so long as it is still the first requirement in the development of civil society or in the search for its characteristics of progress. This means that the issue of women’s liberation is in touch with the whole issue of civil society and is a prerequisite for its existence at the same time.

Fourth, that the advancement of women in civil society does not have to rely on the past in any way. The past consists of future stagnation and underdevelopment, aside from strength and glory. The past is not always relevant, for all the constantly changing conditions with its contemporary complexity or the terms to its modernity. The more important aspect of measuring with the past, is measuring by today’s progression. Which means measuring the progress of Arab women through what has been achieved by women in all developed countries, by relying on the foundations of future capabilities that were expected by the pioneering Arab women.

Fifth, that the liberation of women cannot be separated from the liberation of men and is an integral part of the liberation of society in all aspects of political, social, economic and thoughts. Therefore, Qasim Amien stressed that underdeveloped women is the root of an underdeveloped society as a whole, including its social enslavement and the enslavement of its men, their feeble political power shackled by the men’s dominance through the government in power, and that when women can enjoy personal freedom then the men would also benefit a political independence; these two things are related.

Until now, the above principles have not lost their value and deserves a retrospect as a dynamic principles that should be emphasized at this time when women is being dragged back to the Harem era and a tyrannical social, gender, and thought restraints. In addition, these principles can be used as a starting point to the next step of the liberation of Arab women. Hence, we do not view the principles as a basis that needs to be followed without careful contemplation, yet we view them as a revisitation of the Qasim Amien project in relations to his era, and from the perspective and priorities of our time. Not to stop at what he has accomplished since 100 years ago, but so that we can start from what he has accomplished and from what has been achieved by other liberation movement thereafter. This needs to be done in order to go beyond the a full that has shown more than what Qasim Amien expected beyond his imagination, both in positive and negative sense. This shows that the century of “Tahrîr al-Mar`ah” has passed on and is part of the past, leaving its state—in history—for a new century; a promising era with its requirements for change and a completely different relationships, especially as our planet earth transformed into a cosmic village, where no one can hide, or to slow down amidst the rapid movements. This circumstances ask for a review of everything, starting from the principles of Qasim Amien’s project in women liberation, as a starting point instead of an end point. Thus, laying down the principles in the realm of analysis, studies and criticism, in the conference, is a no less important issue compared with the issues in the future projects.

The Qasim Amien project is an early conclusion and an idea on the rise for all reform efforts that have preceded it, whereas since the second half of the nineteenth century, there have been simultaneous efforts taking part in it, in addition to figures such as Rifa’at al-Tahtawi in Egypt, Boutros al-Bustani in Lebanon, pioneers the caliber of Aisyah al-Taimuriyah, Zainab Fawaz, Hindun Naufal, Labibah Hasyim and other women figures. In a similar capacity, the Qasim Amien project is none other than an absolute milestone of the new era of women’s achievements that never stops proving its existence and to defend their rights throughout the Twentieth Century. It was no coincidence that the University of Egypt was founded just nine years after the publication of “Tahrîr al Mar`ah” and eight years after the publication of “al-Mar`ah al-Jadîdah”. It was also no coincidence that Huda Sya’rawi asked the Administrative Council of the University of Egypt, the following year after its establishment, for a woman to be granted permission to give lectures for women which was later granted by the Administrative Council of the university that Qasim Amien helped establishing. This was the university’s early step in setting up a promising paradigm for the new generation of women that soon rebelled against the hijab and chose to take it off their faces, just ten years after Univesity of Egypt’s inauguration. This happened during the 1919 revolution and regarded as the Arab Egyptian women’s initial political contribution in public life and their initial social liberation, in an extraordinary rebellion that still continues until today, despite the numerous difficulties, risks, danger, and challenges.

There is no doubt that as the “new women” stands at the gate of the twenty-first century, third millenium AD, they are required to rethink the results that have been achieved for over a century and to contemplate the formulas of the past and the present in an effort of new liberation, which makes a positive contribution in shaping their outlook of the future and who enters it with bold steps and raised heads, to the coming centuries with their beautiful dreams.

*)Thinker, critic and Chairman of the Translation Center and Chairman of the Culture Committee in the National Assembly of Women of Egypt