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The Role of Women and Women's Rights in Egypt

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For centuries, Egyptian women stood independent and individually from their male counterparts, thus allowing the progression of the Egyptian women’s rights movement. Notable key figures from this campaign range from Cleopatra to Hoda Shaarawi, and these influential women faced the adversary of political instability in their efforts to further advance women’s rights for Egyptian women. For example, Cleopatra navigated the political circus in an effort to remain the sole ruler of Egypt, and her romantic liaisons and military alliances with Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony solidified her status within Egyptian history.

However, the involvement of both historical icons for Cleopatra’s life reflected the external pressures that the Egyptian women’s rights movement faced. These external pressures also highlight the force behind the internationalization of women’s rights movement. Specifically, the combination of the internationalization of women’s rights with political turmoil of Egypt regressed the national women’s rights movement within Egypt. Over the course of its history, Egypt experienced three periods of political instability: its colonization by the British Empire, the Egyptian revolution of 1952, and lastly its involvement with the Arab Spring, a period of anti-government protests throughout the Middle East, and each period of political upheaval symbolizes the effect of the international women’s rights on the Egyptian national women’s rights movement.

From 1882 to 1952, the British Empire controlled Egypt, and this imperialistic giant imposed their customs and beliefs upon their new conquest. The tumultuous relationship began due to the fact Great Britain desperately needed a connection to the Asian trade market. Specifically, Egypt’s location allowed this colonialistic empire to further pillage new environments for resources. However, the relationship between Egypt and the United Kingdom hinged on its imperialistic narrative, such as with their interest in the Suez Canal. With the opening of the Suez Canal, the lives of the British drastically improved. From the alterations of their maps to simply quicker sail time to Bombay, the British remained determined to become the majority shareholder for the Suez canal, so they outmaneuvered the French.

The imperialistic empire’s interest only exponentially grew from that point, and eventually, British controlled the Egyptian government personnel, finances, and armed forces of the country, thus reflecting the complete dominance that the British displayed over the Egyptian people. At one point, the French and British came to an agreement that the British get Egypt while France gets control of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. For a moment due to World War I, the British increased their imperial control of Egypt, but following the Great War, the period of peace led to an exponential rise of nationalism. Rather than attempt to resist the boding Egyptian opposition, Britain slowly began to relinquish control; however, they left their mark on Egypt through their alteration of beliefs, economic structure, as well as the political climate of Egypt.

The conquest of Egypt by the British not only profoundly impacted by the Egyptian women’s rights movement through a myriad of different ways but also reflect the impact of the international women’s right movement upon Egypt. Throughout its period of control, the British continually imposed its ideals upon Egypt as well as made decisions on its behalf without its consent, similar to the international women’s rights campaign. Comparatively, this global women’s rights movement provided definitive guidelines, in documents such as Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, that countries strove towards achieving. For example, Article 5 states,

“States parties shall take all appropriate measures: (a) To modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women”

Within this international document, it calls for the “modification” of social patterns of each respective country, reflects the lack of sympathy towards other cultures. The internationalization of women’s rights maintained a stark, rigid point of view that many countries fail to achieve. Specifically, the foundation that CEDAW attempted to eradicate gender roles in countries such as Egypt, but moreover, in actuality, it simultaneously progressed and regressed the Egyptian women’s rights movement.

Egypt faced yet another political upheaval with its revolution of 1952, which symbolized the ambiguity of the effect of the international women’s rights movement on the Egyptian women’s right campaign. This uprising began with the Free Officers Movement, a group of army officers led by Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser, trying to overthrow the current regime, King Farouk. However, as the revolution progressed more aspirations exponentially appeared, such as the abolishment of the monarchy. King Farouk reluctantly abdicated the throne and relinquished power to General Muhammad Naguib, the figurehead of the coup. Keeping their promises, the revolutionaries redistributed the land, tried politicians for corruption, and in 1953, proceeded with the eradication of the monarchy. Furthermore, following the revolution Nasser emerged as prime minister with the removal of Naguib. His usurp of power reflected a desire for stability after a period of uncertainty throughout Egypt, and this political upheaval led to progression and regression for Egyptian society. Specifically, with the revolution Egypt received the ability to reconstruct their governmental struggle to address the needs of the people, rather than allow for the continual poor distribution of wealth and resources within Egypt.

The internationalization of women’s right simultaneously progressed and regressed women’s right in Egypt, similar to the effects of the 1952 revolution in Egypt. The advancement of women’s rights in Egypt begun around 1940’s when a vast number of women’s organizations were established. For example, Madame Hoda Shaarawi established the Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU), and the creation of the EFU allowed for her participation in international feminist conferences. This iconic Egyptian feminist leader notably inspired a vast number of women to unveil themselves throughout Egypt; to clarify, Sharaawi caused mass outrage especially with Egyptian authorities in her gesture when she through her veil into the sea. The simple act of a woman shedding her veil reflects the perpetual struggle for the Egyptian’s women rights movement; meaning women were being liberated progressively, but simultaneously being oppressed by societal norms.

This idea can also been in the International Women’s Year 1975: The Egyptian Woman in Two Decades, as it states, “Great efforts were exerted during the past two decades to great women many of their privileges, equating them with me in all political, social, financial, and cultural spheres of life.”[4] The idea behind the words, “great efforts,” can be broken two into really two components, the legalization of women’s rights and the actual reality for women within Egypt. With the pressures from the international women’s rights movement, the Egyptian government not only allowed women better access to education and healthcare but also increased employment opportunities. The International Women’s Year 1975: The Egyptian Woman in Two Decades highlights the evidence of this advancement through statistics such as, “As it can be seen in Table (9), there is a rapid increase in maternity and child welfare centres. In urban areas, these centres increased from 79 in 1951/52 to 201 in 1970/71.”[5] These progressions drastically assisted women’s rights in urban areas, but for rural areas, women saw progress on a slower pace, simply due to their environment. Overall, the internationalization of women’s rights progressed the national women’s rights movement, but societal norms as well as gender roles acted as restrictions for complete progression.

The Arab Springs, the most recent period of political turmoil for Egypt, reflects the lasting impacts that decades of political uncertainty had upon Egypt, similar to the lasting impacts that the international women’s rights movement had upon the national Egyptian women’s rights movement. Specifically, the Arab Springs was a period of anti government protests throughout the Middle East in early 2011. At its core, this movement emphasized a “deep seated resentment towards aging Arab dictatorships, anger at the brutality of the security apparatus, unemployment, rising prices, and corruption following the privatization of state assets.”[6] The Arab Springs showed the deep rooted desire for change felt throughout the entirety of the Middle East. Rather than outline a definitive conclusion for the Arab Spring, most people would say its full ramifications are yet to be be seen. However, the Arab Springs are labeled as a failure for those who believed immediate change would come. People believed the removal of the corrupt leaders throughout the Middle East would led to an improvement of living standards, but the chronic instability of this region added additional strains to local economies. However, change never happens overnight, and sometimes alteration of societal or governmental structure does not happen the way that it has been envisioned.

Although the Arab Springs reflect the status of contemporary Egypt, the issues surrounding Arab Springs correlates with the full effect of the international women’s rights movement on the national women’s rights movement in countries such as Egypt. Specifically, the international women’s right community strived towards the idea of continual progress for women’s rights, and many countries, typically Western countries, begun to adopt new goals for their countries. For example, countries such as the United States gravitated toward ideas such as pay gap or equal employment opportunities while other countries struggled to help girls can the right to education. Furthermore, Egypt made significant changes to improve the rights of women within their country, but they continually faced obstacles such as gender roles within Egyptian society. The gender roles that subdue women stems from religious law, or Sha’ria law, provides a structured patriarchal sets of regulations that people in authority in Egypt tend to adhere to.

From colonialism by the British Empire to the Arab Springs, Egypt’s political upheavals symbolized the effects of the international women’s rights movement upon the national women’s rights movement within Egypt. Furthermore, Cleopatra represents the organization of women throughout Egypt. Standing as one of Egypt’s most memorable pharaohs, Cleopatra utilized all of her resources, from her name to her sexuality, to advance her political career; similarly, the national women’s rights movement within Egypt used all available resources in its fight for equality with their male counterparts.

This unforgettable female icon also navigated external pressures during her reign. Some of these outside influences had positive effects on Egypt while others aggravated pre-existing issues, and the international women’s rights movement both progressed and regressed Egyptian society. Specifically, the progression stems from better access to education or healthcare for women, and the international women’s rights movement was hindered by societal norms. However, this global movement provided stark rigid guidelines that did not necessarily address the needs of Egypt. With that being said, the international women’s rights movement acts as a platform for the exchange of ideas for women internationally, and continually fails in its efforts to establish a collective identity for the women’s rights movement because each country should address its respective needs.

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The Role of Women and Women’s Rights in Egypt. (2018, August 03). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 2, 2022, from
“The Role of Women and Women’s Rights in Egypt.” GradesFixer, 03 Aug. 2018,
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