Dhenin (Marianne)

Marianne Dhenin (Leibniz-IEG, Mainz), “Rearing Modern Egypt: Women-Led Child Welfare Programs as Sites of Political Participation and Transformation in the Early 20th Century”

In August 1925, an Egyptian delegation attended the First General Congress on Child Welfare in Geneva and delivered a report detailing the state’s efforts to address infant mortality and ensure children’s welfare in Egypt.[1] The initiatives described in its report represent some of the earliest efforts of the Egyptian state to provide maternal and child welfare to its people. Many of its programs were dedicated to the education of mothers, whose supposed ignorance was often blamed for the exceedingly high infant mortality rate in the nation at the time.[2] When the Egyptian Public Health Administration founded a child welfare section in 1927, its stated aims included “attention to motherhood and education of mothers … together with encouraging them to fully perform their duties as mothers.”[3] My chapter traces the evolution of the Egyptian government’s provision of maternal and child welfare programs from its earliest efforts, detailed in the report given to the Congress in Geneva in 1925, into the 1940s. During this period, government-operated welfare programs proliferated, growing from frameworks built since the turn of the century by nongovernmental social welfare organizations that had taken responsibility for mitigating the infant mortality rate under a colonial administration that spared no expense and expressed little care to address the issue. My chapter argues that the state progressed from emulating existing welfare programs to regulating and subsuming them, depoliticizing a burgeoning Egyptian civil society and extending its reach into women’s homes and intimate matters of children and the family to an extent never before achieved.

My chapter first traces the histories of some of the women-led organizations that made the earliest and most significant inroads into the provision of maternal and child welfare in Egypt in the early years of the twentieth century. It then details the rapid expansion of the Egyptian government’s provision of maternal and child welfare. A final section shows how the government’s relationship to civil society changed with the founding of the Ministry of Social Affairs in 1939 and subsequent legislation on the regulation of benevolent and social societies.

Dozens of women-led social welfare organizations were founded in early-twentieth-century Egypt, allowing elite Egyptian women a new means of entering the public sphere and contributing to the creation of a vibrant indigenous civil society. Aziza Hussein reported delightedly in 1953 that “there are at least one hundred social organizations run entirely by women,” and that the many successful projects led by these organizations were “a tribute to the efficiency of the new Egyptian woman.”[4] Historian Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot, writing in 1958, remarked that the elite Egyptian women operating social welfare organizations during the period “were more successful in their projects than their husbands were in running the country.”[5]

Some of the first groups that offered maternal and child welfare programs were the Society of Compassion for Children, founded by Zaynab Anis in 1908, and the Muhammad Ali Benevolent Society, founded by Princess Ayn al-Hayat Rifʿat with the support of other royal and aristocratic women in 1909.[6] These organizations and others like them characterized their work as a nationalist and feminist undertaking and means of civic participation. Others also understood their work in religious terms and as a response to that of European and American missionaries in Egypt during the period.[7] Labiba Ahmad, who founded the Society of Egyptian Ladies’ Awakening in the wake of the 1919 Revolution, claimed that she was “inspired by God” to do so.[8] She believed that women’s and national progress in Egypt would best be achieved through a return to Islam and not, as others argued, by following the path of Western nations.[9] Many Copts also established social welfare organizations with religious missions, like Esther Fahmi Wisa’s Work for Egypt Society, founded in Alexandria in 1924.[10] Altogether, these organizations provided a dense constellation of maternal and child welfare programs that targeted poorer classes of Egyptian women: outpatient clinics, dispensaries, orphanages, and schools that taught basic hygiene, domestic cleanliness, and infant- and child-rearing.

As the Egyptian government moved to provide maternal and child welfare in the 1920s, it imitated the activities of these groups. When the Ministry of Social Affairs published a book about its yet brief history in 1964, it acknowledged its roots in turn-of-the-century civil society and recognized that charitable organizations had first offered the services it provided.[11] However, before long, the Egyptian government began to circumscribe their activities and subsume the organizations, particularly after the Ministry of Social Affairs was established in 1939. Hanna Fahmi Wisa, Esther’s son, revealed in his family memoir, for example, that the Work for Egypt Society was audited annually beginning in 1939. Eventually, the premises on which its outpatient clinic operated in Alexandria were appropriated by the Ministry of Social Affairs. At the time, the director of the ministry told the Wisa family that the aims of the organization had grown outdated and were “irrelevant to the Ministry’s plans for the development of social affairs.”[12] The space was transformed into a handicraft school for girls.[13] The histories of the other women-led social welfare organizations traced in my chapter similarly reveal that their programs were brought under Egyptian government control or otherwise dissolved following the foundation of the Ministry of Social Affairs and the promulgation of Egypt’s earliest laws on the regulation of benevolent and social societies.

Through the histories of maternal and child welfare programs in twentieth-century Egypt, my chapter explores relationships between colonialism, nationalism, and modernity and their effects on the Egyptian family and civil society. It engages the work of others who have explored the effects of these structures on women, the family, and public life in Egypt and draws on diverse primary sources, including government reports and correspondence, legal records, and memoirs to substantiate its arguments.[14]

[1] Report from Official Egyptian Delegation to the First General Congress on the Welfare of Children 3-4 (August 1925) quoted in Omnia El Shakry, The Great Social Laboratory: Subjects of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Egypt (2014) at 176.

[2] According to a report published in 1921 by the Public Health Department on the state of public health in Egypt from 1914 to 1918, “over one quarter of the children born in the 20 principal towns never reach the first anniversary of their birth.” Nearly two decades later, in 1937, infant mortality was estimated to account for 65% of all deaths in Egypt. The rate of infant mortality during this period surpassed those of infectious diseases, accidents, and other causes of mortality combined. Ministry of Interior Annual Report (23 February 1921) FO 141/586/4 (on file with the British National Archives) 21; Omnia el Shakry, “Barren Land and Fecund Bodies: The Emergence of Population Discourse in Interwar Egypt,” (2005) 37(3) International Journal of Middle East Studies 351 at 359; Beth Baron, “Perilous Beginnings: Infant Mortality, Public Health, and the State in Egypt” in Esther Möller, Johannes Paulmann and Katharina Stornig eds., Gendering Global Humanitarianism in the Twentieth Century: Practice, Politics, and the Power of Representation (2020); Marianne Dhenin, “The Construction of Motherhood in Semi-Colonial Egypt,” (2021) 47(1) Australian Feminist Law Journal.

[3] Naguib Bey Mahfouz, The History of Medical Education in Egypt (1935) 88-89.

[4] Aziza Hussein, “The Role of Women in Social Reform in Egypt,” (1953) 7(4) Middle East Journal 440 at 444, 446.

[5] Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot, “The Revolutionary Gentlewomen in Egypt” in Lois Beck & Nikki R. Keddie eds., Women in the Muslim World (1978) at 272.

[6] Beth Baron, The Women’s Awakening in Egypt: Culture, Society, and the Press (1994) at 172; Nancy Gallagher, Egypt’s Other Wars: Epidemics and the Politics of Public Health (1990) at 10.

[7] Mine Ener makes this argument in Managing Egypt’s Poor and the Politics of Benevolence, 1800-1952 (2003) at 103.

[8] Labiba Ahmad, “Al-Nahda al-Nisaʿiyya” 1(3) (1921), quoted in Beth Baron, “Islam, Philanthropy, and Political Culture in Interwar Egypt: The Activism of Labiba Ahmad” inMichael Bonner, Mine Ener & Amy Singer eds., Poverty and Charity in Middle Eastern Contexts (2003) at 241.

[9] Beth Baron, “An Islamic Activist in Interwar Egypt” in Kathleen D. McCarthy ed., Women, Philanthropy, and Civil Society (2001) at 225.

[10] Beth Baron, “Women’s Voluntary Social Welfare Organizations in Egypt” in Inger Marie Okkenhaug and Ingvild Flaskerud eds., Gender, Religion, and Change in the Middle East: Two Hundred Years of History (2005) at 96.

[11] Idarat al-Ma‘lummat wa-l-’Alaqat al-’Amma, Wizarat al-Shu’un al-Ijtima‘iyya fi 25 ‘Aman (1965) at 87, quoted in Lisa Pollard, “Egyptian by Association: Charitable States and Service Societies, Circa 1850-1945,” (2014) 46(2) International Journal of Middle East Studies 239 at 252.

[12] Hanna Fahmi Wisa, Assiout: The Saga of an Egyptian Family (1994) at 258.

[13] Ibid.

[14] On women, children, and the family see Heidi Morrison, Childhood and Colonial Modernity in Egypt (2015); Kenneth M. Cuno, Modernizing Marriage: Family, Ideology, and Law in Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Egypt (2015); Hanan Kholoussy, For Better, For Worse: The Marriage Crisis that Made Modern Egypt (2010); Lisa Pollard, Nurturing the Nation: The Family Politics of Modernizing, Colonizing, and Liberating Egypt, 1805–1923 (2005); Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt: With a New Preface (1991) at 105–107; Baron, “Perilous Beginnings,” supra note 2; Laura Bier, “From Birth Control to Family Planning: Population, Gender, and the Politics of Reproduction in Egypt” in Kathryn M. Yount & Hoda Rashad eds., Family in the Middle East: Ideational Change in Egypt, Iran, and Tunisia (2008); Renate Lunde, ‘Building Bonny Babies – Missionary Welfare Work in Cairo 1920–1950’ in Nefissa Naguib and Inger Marie Okkenhaug eds., Interpreting Welfare and Relief in the Middle East (2007); Hanan Kholoussy, “The Nationalization of Marriage in Monarchical Egypt” in Arthur Goldschmidt, Amy J. Johnson and Barak A. Salmoni eds., Re-Envisioning Egypt 1919–1952 (2005); Omnia el Shakry, “Schooled Mothers and Structured Play: Child Rearing in Turn-of-the-Century Egypt” in Lila Abu-Lughod ed., Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East (1998). On women, nationalism, and the construction of a new public sphere see Beth Baron, Egypt as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender, and Politics (2005); Margot Badran, Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt (1994); Mervat F. Hatem, “The 1919 Revolution and Nationalist Constructions of the Lives and Works of Pioneering Women Writers” in Re-Envisioning Egypt. On the new boundaries of the public sphere see Ziad Fahmy, Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture (2011); Mona L. Russell, Creating the New Egyptian Woman: Consumerism, Education, and National Identity, 1863–1922 (2004); Baron, The Women’s Awakening supra note 6.

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