Book essay: Women in Nineteenth Century Egypt by Judith Tucker

Professor of History, Judith Tucker, graduated Harvard University with a Ph.D. in History and Middle Eastern Studies. She has written many books on gender and women in the Arab world, including the book this essay is going to examine-Women in Nineteenth Century Egypt. She has also published multiple articles focusing on the Ottoman Period of the Middle East.
The time period being explored is between 1800 through 1914. Dividing the nineteenth century into four different time periods, Tucker discusses women’s role in society, and how they differ from period to period. She begins with the period of 1800-1820, and 1820 -1850 under which Egypt was ruled by Muhammad Ali, next 1850-1852 a period characterized by European influence and lastly, 1882 which was the start of the British Occupation of Egypt.
The geographical location discussed by Tucker pertains to what is today the modern nation state of Egypt. Egypt during the 19th century was stuck at a crossroad between the Islamic traditions of the past and the modernization that came with European colonization.
The purpose of this book is not only to explore the positions and power of women in Egypt over the 19th century but to also show the significance they played in the history at that time. Tucker stresses the importance of understanding the role of women, as well as men, in order to understand society as a whole. She does this by observing the way women adapted to the changes they were experiencing over the course of the century, which were brought about by the increasingly widespread European presence at that time.
Tucker analyses the four aspects of power and positions for women: ‘women’s access to property, their position within the family unit, their participation in social production and the prevailing ideological definitions of their roles.’ Although she focuses on the way high-class women attempted to revolt against the repression at the time, she also looks at how slaves and prostitutes lived as well.
Tucker examines the role of women in the nineteenth century using a social and economic approach. Initially, she states that women started off with a strong role in society owning vital positions in industry, trade and agriculture. Women were also an active part of society publically and politically. Towards the end of the century, they experienced repression and a decrease in power. This was a result of intervention of government powers in the family structure and unit, whilst men were being drafted for military service.
This decline was demonstrated in several ways, the first being women made subject to the rule of their male partners and refused jobs they were previously granted. An additional example Tucker gives of women’s repression was that whilst at the beginning of the century protest and political activity by women was acceptable, later under the British occupation this was disapproved of and frowned upon.
Despite the limitations women faced, they found ways to adapt. Women had to find money elsewhere in order to support their families and to gain independence. Many of them resorted to prostitution and were controlled by pimps while others fell into slavery and domestic service. While all this was happening the government failed to recognise the severity of the situation ignoring this growth of prostitution and the subservience of women across the region.
In conclusion, Tucker explores women’s roles and positions in Egypt over the nineteenth century as well as discussing how women were repressed socially and economically. Tucker succeeds in providing a clearly written description of women’s lives in nineteenth century Egypt, indicating how their role in society declined, to the extent where they even became ‘property’. I was amazed to learn that the status of women was initially strong in society throughout a great part of the nineteenth century both in their families and their communities. Women had rights and played crucial roles. Only later, were their roles downgraded and subjugated to patriarchal dominance.

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