Thank you again for
I don't always agree
with her analyses. However, in this essay, she offered a set of rather
balanced points of view. This time, her views were successfully motivated
by her personal experience and sincere empathy with the subject matter.
However, my personal
criticism on the subjects of the "veil" and "history of Egyptian Women"
in general, rests on a simple distorted reality. Throughout the years,
we have been taught in school an extreme and narrow version of our actual
history, which has been written basically with "Ahl
al-zawat" or al-khasah (people
of good stock, or the Aristocracy) in mind. Actually this group, though
vocal and affluent, represented only a minute section of the Egyptian society
and therefore could not be considered a true repesentation of the whole
of Egyptian society.
Egyptians and especially foreigners, are simply oblivious of the true history
of the majority of Egyptians or `amat
al-sha`b. The latter, representing
a major group of people whose history is seldom breached or adequately
For example, when
dealing with subject matter such as "Egyptian Women's Liberation",
and the Veil or the lack thereof, we traditionally tend to talk
about the roles of the likes of Huda al-sha`rawiy,
Qasim Amiyn, etc. Anything else falls by the wayside and/or is conveniently
swept under the rug. As a result we end up with a "Parallel universe"
or "alternate reality" version of our history which is a self-contained
separate reality coexisting with our own, but not necessary a true reflection
of our own world.
The following essay
entitled, "The World of Na`sah," is not about validating whether
or not an Egyptian woman should wear the veil. Rather, it is about
the true reality of the life of a typical Egyptian Fallahah,
living at the turn of the last century. Hopefully, her harsh living
conditions and abject poverty will illuminate our understanding of this
complicated subject matter.
is a mother of four. Who, along with her husband and children, lives
in a typical Egyptian village. This is her story.
In the village where
lives, mud is used as a building material. Her village borders a
filthy artificial pond (mustanqa`)
from which mud for bricks is dug. In a cluster of such huts, along
a branch of the Nile, lives Na`sah
and her family including her husband `Uways
and their four surviving children (five others died in infancy).
The mud huts of Na`sah's
village huddle tightly together near the river, some of the houses sharing
a common wall. Stretching out in three directions behind the village are
lush green fields, beautifully laid out in crops of cotton, corn, beans,
or clover, intersected by irrigation canals. These crops are carefully
rotated from season to season. The village itself is bare, except
for a single cluster of gracefully swaying date palms. The "lanes"
between the huts are ankle-deep in dust and pulverized dung, teeming with
fleas, lice, bedbugs, flies, and mosquitoes.
Her house has a wooden
frame door, but otherwise it is made exclusively of mud and straw.
An external staircase leads to the flat roof, where Na`sah
squats to pat camel dung into flat discs to dry in the sun and later to
use as cooking fuel. When you enter the house proper, you step into
a rather large reception room, running the width of the building which
and her husband `Uways and her children
share with their animals.
At one end, Na`sah
cooks over a mud-plastered oven called tannuwr
and somewhere towards the center,
her husband and his male guests sit on a straw mat sipping, shayy
Kushariy bil ni`na`, heavily-brewed
tea with mint. Their only source of social intercourse is spending their
spare time, in the evening,gossiping. Occasionally Na`sah
will interject herself in the conversation with her husband's guests and
contribute with her comments if the subject matter concerns the family
or topic of marriages.
At the other end of
the room is a motley assortment of chickens, a sickly, one-eyed kitten,
two geese, and a goat. The queen of the animals in the house is the gamuwsah,
the beautiful bluish-black, broad-backed water buffalo, the Fallah's
chief work animal and provider of milk, yogurt, and white cheese.
and her husband get their rare bit of cash from selling the calf the gamuwsah
produces yearly. Keeping these animals inside the house means that the
dirt floor is littered with animal dung of every description. But the family
cannot take a chance on them being stolen, and Na`sah
never considers her animals secure unless they are locked inside the house
with the family. The loss of a gamuwsah
is of a traumatic consequence to any peasant family and hence is treated
as the equivalent of a member of the family. No wonder this is a serious
matter on which all Fallahiyn
are adamant; the animals-must live inside the house. Losing a gamuwsah
amounts to a death in the family.
This peasant family
dresses simply. `Uways wears
a full length cotton gown called a gallabiyah
and usually a skullcap on his head. Sometimes, he winds a white turban
around the cap. His four children dress like miniature
`Uwayses, in little gallabiyahs
(gallaliyb) and knitted caps and, like their father,
all are barefoot. Na`sah drapes
herself in a black sheet "milayah"
and/or tarhah covering
her head and falling on her shoulders, underneath which she wears a
"mandiyl" bi tirtir
(a sheer black or colored headscarf adorned with sequins).
Her dress is a black or colorful cotton gallabiyah.
does not wear a veil (1) and
wears her hair in braids (dafa`iyr)
hanging down her shoulders. Within village life, she
is NOT segregated (see picture below). Anyone who has
intimate knowledge of the village knows that both sexes in rural families
have to work closely together and therefore segregation would be unworkable
Exigencies of life
have taught Na`sah to be practical.
Though, like her husband, she is illiterate, she knows how to make
herself useful. She works hard beside her husband `Uways
in the fields. She goes into the rice paddy, grabs her gallabiyah
from the back hem, pulls it through her legs to the front and tucks it
in, her legs are visible up to the thigh. Not far from her,
and his neighbor Hammuwdah strip
and wade into the water.
Egypt's rice output at the dawn
of the 20th century (1905-1909) toped 1,020,000 ardabs.
The crop is entirely credited to the Egyptian Fallahat
(women peasants). Thanks to the gifted hands of a woman, the Fallahah
an essential part of the Egyptian agriculture work force. Her additional
contribution in harvesting the legendary Egyptian cotton, which hits a
record output of 6,372,000 qintar (2),
is credited to her expertise and delicate picking of the cotton blossoms
and extracting the seeds from them.
All her children bathe
in the filthy irrigation canal, while Na`sah
squats in the mud on the bank and does the family laundry. For cooking
and drinking, the long-suffering Na`sah
carries water to the village in a pottery jar (Ballas)
is neatly balanced on her head. She has to walk hundreds of yards
back and forth, and with every load of water, she unknowingly carries a
fresh injection of disease to her family. Na`sah,
and some ten million Fallahiyn (3)
like her, knows so little of sanitation that in the early 1900's
they are among the most diseased people on earth. It is little wonder that
half their babies die before they reach the age of six. Debilitated by
disease, the Fallah mechanically
and monotonously does his farm work in a pattern laid down by his ancestors.
At night, `Uways
and his family leave the animals in the big room and withdraw to the small
bedrooms in the rear of the house. A rare moment of wealth, found
and nervous for fear that her husband might take another wife. But thanks
to God, `Uways instead has bought her
an iron-posted bed in which both sleep. Before that, the whole family,
including the children, shared straw mats on mud ledges projecting from
the walls. Na`sah is relieved this
time, and thanks God for her husbandís choice of an iron-posted bed and
not another woman, but still she cannot totally rid herself of the fear
of abandonment. Because Na`sah,
deep inside her, knows that the Fallah
in general counts his wealth in children, and no amount of statistics can
convince him that there should be any limits to the number of his offspring.
is saved from sharing her husband with another woman by the stark economic
facts of life facing her husband.
rents three acres of land from the owner of his village, and that tiny
plot barely keeps the family alive.
The silt-laden Nile
provides water for this family's drinking, washing and cooking. This
murky water is literally crawling with tiny marine life, but Na`sah,
like her ancestors in ancient times, swears by this water as a nutritious
beverage. For six thousand years, the Fallah's
biggest problem has been getting water to his thirsty fields, and through
the ages he has used the same methods of irrigation.
It is a literal truth
that a Fallah is strong and
relatively healthy if he has only one disease. The vast majority
have at least one chronic eye disease and one chronic intestinal.
Snails in the canals carry the parasite of bilharzia, a debilitating
internal disease said to reduce Egyptian productivity by at least a third.
Sixty-five to eighty-five per cent
of the Egyptian population is infected with
bilharzia, and there
is little hope of getting rid of the disease so long as the fallahiyn drink,
bathe, and work in infected canals. Amebic dysentery in varying
degrees of intensity is well-nigh universal in the villages, and trachoma
and opthalmia are widespread. Undernourished Egyptian peasants are
an easy prey to typhoid, malaria, and
The average span life of a Fallahah
in the early 1900's is 40 years, her male counterpart is
Glimpses of ancient
are present when she follows her husband among the furrowed fields scattering
the seeds, or at harvest time when she throws the grains against the wind
into the air with a winnowing fork, the chaff blown away and the wheat
remaining. Or when the blindfolded gamuwsah walks tirelessly around
and around to tread out the grain on the threshing floor.
As years pass away,
the more children she has the less each member of the family has to eat.
For in general, the Fallah's
production, low as it might be is going largely to others. Na`sah's
family rarely work their own land, they sharecrop, rent or work by the
day on the land of Egypt's fabulously rich landlords, who have the
their mercy. Na`sah realizes that her
family has being working all their lives to provide a life of incredible
luxury for those strong enough to usurp the land.
Overwhelmed by poverty,
ignorance and disease, and quite ignored by the enlightened members of
the society, Na`sah is still resilient
and endowed with remarkable fatalism and patience. She leans upon
her husband's shoulder and gazes out onto the land, the emptiness of the
ages in her face, and on her back the burden of the world.
In my opinion, any
fair assessment of empowerment of women's material and spiritual development
in the Egyptian society ought to be carefully measured against how far
and how deep the world of Na`sah has
changed to the betterment not only of women's condition, but to the peasant
life in general.
No matter how much
prosperity came to Egypt, very little of it really trickled down
Na`sah's world. While the
so called feminist movement concentrated on symbolic gestures such as discarding
the Yashmak (the arstocratic Turkish version
of a veil), the movement was completely anesthetized in one
respect. It failed to understand that Na`sah
could not read the tracts written by the movement
in French. Instead what Na`sah
needed was a pair of sandals or shabashib
to enable her to walk free of disease to the nearest school.
According to a Chinese proverb: "The
journey of a thousand miles begins with one step." Preferably wearing
comfortable footwear, I should add.
above photos, vintage of late 19th- early 20th c. and a drawing by
T. W. Holmes from the middle of the 19thc.
figures for crops in this article for state and private domains and
demographic accounts are available in the Minister of Finance, Monthly
Return on State & Prospects of Agriculture crops (1913) pp.14-15
population of Egypt in the pre-war period 1904-13, was averaging between
10,484,000 - 11,998,00. At that time 90% of the population lived in rural