Preferred Citation: Starrett, Gregory. Putting Islam to Work: Education, Politics, and Religious Transformation in Egypt. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.

Education and the Management of Populations

Women: An Educated and Enlightened Motherhood

Finally, having addressed the moral needs of the pupil, the ignorance of the criminal, the enthusiasm of the malcontent, and the diligence of the worker, the school was directed to a final group whose betterment represented perhaps the best hope for the reconstruction of the nation. In 1831–32, when the French expatriate Clot Bey established within his four-year-old School of Medicine a division for the training of midwives, he could find no females in Egypt willing to attend the institute. Fortunately, Egypt's social structure still allowed for the creative staffing of such experiments, and the problem was solved by the enrollment of “ten Abyssinian and Sudanese girls bought in the Cairo slave market, together with two eunuchs sent by Muhammad Ali from his palace.” [121] By the beginning of the twentieth century, the supporters of female education had, by their own estimation, made great strides. In 1905, for example, there were eight times more schools admitting girls, and six times more female students, than just five years before.[122] In order to encourage female participation in schools, government grants-in-aid (disbursed on the basis of enrollment) counted the attendance of one girl as equal to two boys.

Officials cited increasing demand by parents for facilities for the education of girls as one of the most surprising and heartening developments in the educational field, and strove to provide practical programs in “housewifery” or “domestic economy,” hygiene and child care in addition to basic training in reading, writing, and arithmetic. But they saw the provision of female education as more than an issue of equal access to public facilities, or even an issue of public health (the combating of high infant mortality through basic health education). Predictably, Victorians were both fascinated and repelled by “oriental” systems of marriage and family life, particularly by polygamy and the seclusion of women. When discussing outreach to Muslim lands, missionaries often made the degradation of women through polygyny—rather than doctrinal questions—the central justification for Christian proselytization. “Time would fail me to enter into the whole subject of the marriage relationship in the Mohammedan races,” declaimed the Reverend Robert Bruce at an 1888 London conference on Protestant missions,

and of the evils which spring from the immense difference between the glorious state which our Lord introduced into Christianity when He raised woman to her proper state in society, and on the other hand, the opposite effect in Mohammedanism, caused by Mohammed when he degraded women even lower than she had ever been before.[123]

His colleague, the Reverend G. E. Post, M.D., of the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut, articulated later that day the theoretical basis for missionary concern with women:

Women determine the social condition of any country and any race. No race has risen above the condition of its women, nor can it ever be so in the history of the world. The boy is father of the man, but the woman is mother of the boy, and she determines the whole social state, not only of her own generation, but of the generations that are to follow.[124]

The environment of the harem, “with its unpalatable gossip and frequent intrigue,” was felt to be psychologically damaging to young boys raised in its midst, to predispose young girls to idleness and mental deterioration, and to be harmful to social life in general.[125] “The element in [the Egyptian boy's] education which is lacking is that imparted by an educated, pure, and dignified motherhood,” who realizes “the important part she should play in her son's home education and moral training, from his infancy upwards.” [126] The work of regenerating Egypt, therefore, required a regenerated Egyptian woman who could take advantage of a state-sponsored education “aim[ed] at preparing them for the duties of home-life.” [127] This, in turn, called for an alteration of the family unit that would allow girls not only to attend school, but to stay in school, and to help filter new ideas and outlooks into the heart of the family. The challenge was to open up the family to the modern influences that were beginning to encompass the rest of the social order, to crack open the shell of secrecy and isolation past which reformers had not been able to see, and expose the family, the last remaining stronghold of native male authority, to the rule of law and progress. “It is not possible,” wrote Cromer, near the end of his tenure in Egypt,

neither perhaps is it desirable, that every feature of national character should undergo a complete transformation in a quarter of a century. In so rapid a process, the good is very liable to disappear with the bad. Nevertheless,… forces are now at work which have already modified, and must eventually still further modify, the Egyptian national character.…How far the movement now rapidly progressing in favour of female education will eventually modify the ideas, the character, and the position of the next generation of Egyptian women remains to be seen. Should any changes in their position take place, it is greatly to be hoped that they will be gradual.…In this case, hurry might produce a moral cataclysm. Nevertheless, it is…true that, until a gradual change is effected in the position of women in this country, the Egyptians, however much they may assimilate the outward forms, can never hope to imbibe the true spirit of European civilization in its best aspects.[128]

For missionaries, Leila Ahmed writes, the targeting of women with the Christian message would lay a trail of gunpowder into the heart of Islam and prepare the way for the conversion of future generations. For colonial administrators, this “Colonial feminism, or feminism as used against other cultures in the service of colonialism,” [129] complemented what might be called “colonial populism,” their expression of concern for the fate of the peasantry whom they wished to liberate from the grip of landowners and local officials in order more efficiently to extract their labor for production directed toward a world market. But in either case, whether for the Christianization or the rationalization of Egyptians, an emphasis on educating women as potential mothers was a strategy that promised revolutionary results. It endures today, as a vision of a back door to cultural change, in economic and social development schemes of many types, and has been articulated by colonizers of Muslim populations well into the 1980s. “[I]n the tradition that has evolved [in Central Asia],” wrote Soviet Islamic specialist Sergei Poliakov in 1989,

the woman is the chief shaper of the next generation. By depriving this educator of a public life, traditionalism also deprives her of new information; in fact, it deprives her of any information that is not controlled by the traditional institutions of the village. The subject of the major role women play in the material education of children has been overlooked by theory and practice alike, but it is precisely here that we may find the foundation of all our mistakes, failures, and powerlessness, in atheistic and other propaganda.[130]

Education and the Management of Populations

Preferred Citation: Starrett, Gregory. Putting Islam to Work: Education, Politics, and Religious Transformation in Egypt. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.