Points of View, Literary Reflections

The Harem and the Revolutionary Gentlewomen of Egypt

About This Resource

The harem has been a subject of fascination to western audiences for well over a century. In this excerpt, Egyptian historian Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot (1933- ), who is a contemporary of Fatima Mernissi and Leila Ahmed, writes about the harem in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Egypt. Like Mernissi and Ahmed, Marsot writes from her experience as a member of an upper class Egyptian family, and from interviews conducted for her research. In her mother’s and grandmother’s time, the harem was a fading institution, but the author sees it as a source of strength and a foundation for the work of social reform and nationalist struggle in which Egyptian women participated at the end of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century.

Born in Cairo, Egypt, Marsot’s father was a government official, and her uncle Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot was a philosopher and important nationalist figure. Marsot experienced the advantages of her class, including a modern education, becoming the first Egyptian woman to earn a PhD from Oxford University, in 1963. Marsot has written on gender, class, culture, and religion in Egyptian history, and critical analyses of Western views of the Middle East. The photograph's subjects are the leading Egyptian feminist Huda Sharaawi with friends and fellow activists at her villa in Cairo, ca. 1947.


Because Muslim women in Egypt have controlled their property, or rather because some of the wealthy women controlled their property, we find women as well as men setting up charitable endowments which are known as awqaf [plural]. A waqf [singular] is property held in perpetuity.

... Most social services in Islamic societies were thus dependent on charitable endowments which set up hospitals, schools, drinking fountains, libraries, funds to endow penniless orphans upon marriage, to bury the destitute, to feed the poor, to educate the poor, to help the blind, to recite prayers for the dead, and so on. Among the powerful and the rich it was a noblesse oblige sentiment throughout the ages that part of one's wealth be expended on charitable works, generally after one's death, but not exclusively so. Aside from specific property that was endowed, the wealthy were also expected to undertake a continuous stream of charities that formed their share of the zakat, the alms that every Muslim is enjoined to defray and is one of the five pillars of Islam.... Thus, there was a definite tradition of public service on the part of the rich both men and women. ... In the twentieth century the tradition of helping the less fortunate members of society was to cause the affluent women to found the social services that are necessary to any modern society, as will be seen below.

A question that jumps to mind is: how did women who were secluded in a harem learn to run their property, and how did they learn to run such complex establishments as the hospitals and schools which they founded later on?

The answer is to be found in the life of the harem, which is where these women learned to become managers. Authors of books dealing with harem life have tended to describe the harem in terms of extremes. The harem was presented either as a lascivious place where odalisques reclined in voluptuous poses in expectation of their master's visit, or in tones of revulsion as a place of idleness and apathy. No doubt there was a partial truth in both extreme descriptions for some of the royal harems. Life in an average affluent harem, as described to me by the women who lived it, was a very busy and gregarious one. The lady or ladies of the household had to exercise a number of executive and managerial decisions to ensure the smooth running of the household. An "average" household, if such a thing existed, numbered indoor and outdoor servants of both sexes, some free, some slaves both black and while, some manumitted, wives, children, and "poor relations," plus a variety of aunts, perhaps a mother and a grandmother. Ultimate decisions rested with the first wife, who sometimes chose the other wives for her husband. Squabbles among wives and among their progeny were frequent, as one would expect in any large household, but these were not based on Western concepts of love and jealousy for the husband's attention, but rather on more concrete factors such as precedence, favors for their offspring, and material benefits. There was a rigid hierarchy within the harem and a strict protocol reigned. Freeborn women had precedence over mamluk (white) slave women; Turco-Circassians, whether free or not, had precedence over freeborn Egyptians. Wives and established concubines addressed each other as "sister" or as "hanim" (lady). Each wife had separate quarters within the family residence, and had separate servants. Each child had its own personal servant, and each infant had a wet nurse. Every wife had her visiting day, when her friends flocked in to be treated to a day’s festivities and entertainment which included music and dancing.

Harem life, however, was not entirely devoted to idleness and gossip; it also had to deal with the practical details of everyday living. Household kitchens had to be supervised, and three separate meals a day prepared. In most affluent households open house was held, and the master would bring friends in to meals and be sure that the food presented to them would do him honor. In all the households that have been described to me the amount of food that was prepared and consumed in one day sounded like the activities of a fair-sized hotel or restaurant. Food was bought in wholesale quantities. Meat came by the carcass, fruit and vegetables in cases, mostly from the master's estates. Aside from the sheer logistics involved in serving meals to each lady and her children in their quarters, serving the master and his guests in the salamlik (the guest quarters or the men's quarters), and feeding the family retainers (each chore being entrusted to a separate set of servants), there was also the daily distribution of food to the poor, for leftovers were an unknown factor in the lives of these families. After every meal the remains were distributed to the poor, and in some households separate meals were cooked specially for distribution to the poor. The cleaning of these large establishments was likewise a daily chore, especially in Cairo where the dust is a constant presence unless assiduously whisked away. When the khamsin winds blew, this task was performed several times a day, and while all these chores and many others were carried out by the servants, they were supervised and planned by the women themselves. Labor was divided among the women of the harem, but ultimate responsibility, the settlement of inevitable squabbles, the organization of special events, all these rested with the leading wife, who was the dynamo of the entire establishment.

The children of the household likewise received a great deal of attention. The boys lived in the harem until the age of seven, and had a resident shaikh teach them the rudiments of learning and religion. When they grew older they went to school or into the care of other tutors, and were guarded by special servants, each boy having his own, Little girls were also taught religion by a resident shaikha, who also recited Quran to the ladies, Teachers of embroidery and music were brought to the house to instruct both young and old. Later in time these teachers were supplemented by teachers of foreign languages, in general French. It also became fashionable to acquire a governess for the children: English nannies and Swiss frauleins were the most popular.

The master of the house entered the harem at nightfall, and left it in the morning, unless he was addicted to night life, in which case he seldom showed up in the harem. The master's advent was a signal for every wife to scurry into her quarters and prepare herself for the husband's visit, social or otherwise, for the husband, if courteous, would pay a call to every wife, and visit for a while, before choosing where to spend his night. In some households there was a regular routine in which it was known that on such and such nights the husband went to such a wife, so that each wife knew her appointed day for receiving her husband. The ladies of the house left their establishments veiled and chaperoned, in closed coaches, so that no eye could penetrate the darkness of the carriage and inspect the beauties inside it. Nonetheless, the women did have numerous outside activities. They visited one another on visiting days to condole in case of a death (for three days and every subsequent Thursday for forty days), and to congratulate on a betrothal in the family. ...Visits to the bathhouse were also allowed although most affluent ladies had their own baths at home.

The image of a harem was thus one of a very busy household, where people continually bustled around and where no one could remain idle on pain of being charged with a chore. Even the "jeunes filles" of the household had to be busy with some embroidery, music, or whatever, or else they were given something to do by their elders. Daily routine and the efficient management of the house were the women's first concerns. These women therefore grew up with the notion that they would in time have to plan and organize their own households on a similar scale. They were accustomed to giving orders and to making their own decisions, for the master seldom if ever interfered in their lives. so long as everything functioned smoothly and above all unobtrusively, with an apparent effortlessness that belied the hard work that went on behind the scenes and the degree of organization that ensured a constant flow of services. The household and its organization were the domain of the women, their testing ground so to speak. How they ran it was a test of their efficiency and initiative as compared with their friends and relations. To this day one of the worst things that can be said about a woman is that she is incapable of managing her house; behind this apparently innocent expression lie visions of generations of efficient housewives who had no trouble in managing their houses.

The above image of the harem presses upon the reader the concept of the gentlewoman as someone who was accustomed to organization and to planning, for that is what they had been trained to do in life. That quality was to stand them in good stead when they later on sat down in a committee to plan how to set up and run a hospital or a dispensary. They may never have learned to cook, but they knew how to run large kitchens and serve a variety of meals. Above all, they knew how to manipulate people and how to delegate authority. The first talent allowed them to raise funds to finance their projects and marshal support for them from among their vast circle of friends and relations, while the second helped them to find the necessary staff to run their outfits with success. If one is therefore to understand how these women were able to succeed in public service after a cloistered life in a harem, one must perforce reject the stereotype of the harem as a warm cocoon and come to regard it simply as a microcosm of upper-class Egyptian society, a society in which women felt at ease, and which they controlled. The outside world was simply a larger arena in which the women exercised their talents, and one which did not differ save in magnitude.

Throughout the history of Egypt the chroniclers report that in times of hardship the whole populace demonstrated in public before the authorities. Very few women had public roles or developed a primary political role... Nonetheless, women did play a secondary role in times of crisis when they sought the authorities to complain of some measure of injustice or of hardship. Women became politically involved when their interests were at stake, This limited involvement was to become more extensive in this century, and was to allow them to partake in the political movement that followed Egypt's cry for independence from British rule in 1919. That is why this article is called the "revolutionary gentlewomen" for the women had become politically involved in the events of 1919, but had also started a social revolution on their own when they discarded both veil and harem and set about organizing the country's social services.

In November 1911, some Egyptian nationalists founded a group to determine Egypt's political future once the war was over. ...When their request for a hearing at the Paris Peace Conference was turned down by the British authorities, [they]...turned to public demonstrations, of a peaceful nature, to show the British that they meant business. The British authorities sent the leaders...into exile and met the demonstrations with gunfire, thereby triggering off the "revolution of 1919." ...While the political elite of Egypt had joined the Wafd [nationalist political party], their wives also became involved in the movement and created a women’s committee. The veiled gentlewomen of Cairo paraded in the streets shouting slogans for independence and freedom from foreign occupation. They organized strikes and demonstrations, they organized boycotts of British goods, and they wrote petitions which they circulated to the foreign embassies protesting British actions in Egypt; in brief they agitated side by-side with their men.

The existence of a revolution brought the women out of their harems and into the public arena, with the approval of their husbands, who in normal times would not have tolerated such a public display on the part of their womenfolk. The emancipation of women, which had been an intellectual issue over the past two decades, from the time-when Qasim Amin (1865-1908) had published The Emancipation of Woman and The New Woman, then became a nationalist issue, closely allied to the nationalist movement. Thus it was a radical shock, like a nationalist uprising, which catapulted harem ladies into public life. From that moment onward their emancipation became a reality, and when the revolution had come to an end, the women continued to exercise their talents in public life. ...The history of their deeds is written elsewhere...However, there are unsung female activists in Egypt, women whose achievements rank equally with those of the Women's League, because they were directed toward benefiting the whole society. not only establishing women's rights, important enough though that was. There is something fine and inspiring about a group of women fighting the political establishment—which comprised their husbands and relatives—to gain recognition of their right to education and to political equality, to say nothing of their right to earn a living were they so inclined.

A less glorified but more concrete contribution was that made by the women who set up so-called charitable organizations, which among them covered the large majority of social services that exist in Egypt today. There they did not have to fight any establishment, but were on the contrary encouraged by the establishment: they merely had to cope with ignorance. disease. poverty, and apathy--much tougher opponents than any establishment could muster.”


Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot, “The Revolutionary Gentlewomen of Egypt” in Nikkie Keddie and Lois Beck, eds., Women in the Muslim World (Harvard University Press, 1978, pp. 264-269; Photo courtesy of Naela Allouba hanem at “Egyptian Feminist Huda Shaarawi (1879-1947) | WOMEN’S LENS - Un Coup D’oeil Féminin”, n.d. http://womenslens.blogspot.com/2010/12/egyptian-feminist-huda-shaarawi-1879.html.

How to Cite This Page

"Muslim Journeys | Item #83: The Harem and the Revolutionary Gentlewomen of Egypt", June 20, 2024 http://bridgingcultures-muslimjourneys.org/items/show/83.


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