The brave women of Egypt: A history in pictures

Ola R. Seif

As social norms were in constant metamorphosis in the first half of the 20th century, Egyptian women seeking to ride the modernity wave became subject to problems of identity, particularly in appearance. Long-established dress codes, after all, inevitably had to change to reflect newly acquired lifestyles.

In order to comprehend the social developments of the times, two sources of information have proven invaluable: private family albums – where snapshots of ordinary women document their lives – and media records, which actively updated the public with the news and photographs of leading women activists and feminists. 

As the evolution in photography technology around the 1920s yielded portable cameras, images taken in diverse outdoor locations captured an ever widening range of social and political changes in Egyptian society. 

A case in point is the 1919 uprising. In an unprecedented development, Egyptian women took to the streets to join their male compatriots in demanding the political rights of the nation. In so doing, Egypt’s women also paved the way towards a new life for themselves, becoming vigorously more active in the public domain.

In the mean time, street photographers were stealthily capturing paradoxical images of veiled women riding the traditional horse-drawn hantour while chanting slogans and holding aloft Egypt's green Khedival flag. Some even boldly posed to be photographed in a challenging declaration of opposition and rebellion. 

The full spontaneity of the women’s revolutionary street manifestations starkly contrasted with the studio photographs which had hitherto seen them portrayed in limited stereotypes. They were either part of staged family photos and school group pictures, or the “orientalist” subjects of late 19th-century French photographers: belly-dancers, harem girls, street vendors or menial workers known to carry out “petits métiers”.

Interestingly, or perhaps intentionally, none of the famous professional studio photographers – who were all either European or Armenian – were present to record this memorable revolutionary moment. Their absence only made the photos of the avant-garde role played by women in the 1919 demonstrations – where an unveiled lady was near impossible to find – all the more rare. 

In the images that captured the 1919 uprising, women were uniformly dressed in black knee-level gowns and strictly covered their faces with either a white or black burqa’, as was the prevailing tradition then. Unlike men, whose socio-economic class could be detected from their clothing and head covers, the homogeneous appearance of Egyptian women who partook of the 1919 Revolution hindered any such deduction.

With the gradual emancipation of Egyptian women, which started to bear fruit in the aftermath of the 1919 Revolution, new trends also emerged in photographs of women, documenting the earliest careers that had become accessible to middle class women in the 20s and 30s. Photographs of women particularly in the nursing and teaching professions are commonly available as they were annually photographed in front of their respective work institutions. While women teachers usually taught girls’ classes, nurses posed more liberally for group photos where male physicians were also present.

By the late 20s and mid-30s, Egyptian women belonging to society’s higher echelons began to enroll in sporting clubs and practice various sports. While swimming was gaining popularity in Egypt’s big town sporting clubs, women wearing bathing suits were more commonly photographed on the beaches of Alexandria and other coastal cities than around club pools. Private swimming pools were still unheard of. 

Swimming was not the only sport that attracted higher class Egyptian women, however, as can be seen in the society sections of feminist magazines like Bint Al-Nil, published by activist Doria Shafik. Some recently found family albums in private collections reveal photos of Egyptian women who practiced even aggressive sports such as boxing, fencing and shooting.

By the 1940s, 50s and 60s such sports had become commonplace among Egyptian girls, especially those enrolled at Egypt’s leading university, Fouad I, currently Cairo University.

Away from the capital but sharing the Nile River stream, Nubian women featured in the photographs of 19th-century European photographers as icons of shining beauty and pride. They were neither influenced by the recurring waves of emancipation and political changes, nor by the previous harem-like depictions of their counterparts in upper Egyptian and medieval urban settings. The privilege of heading out to work daily, even if in their own land, had been embedded in their culture for centuries. Nubian women had long contributed to the construction of the family home, its annual painting and refurbishing, as well as to the age-old tradition of carrying water in earthenware.

Photos of Nubian girls in the first half of the 20th century reveal them exposing their braided hair while performing daily outdoor activities. The documented everyday life of Nubian girls evidently shows that the advent of modernity was not to intercept their traditional dress codes – adornment, jewellery and uncovered heads proudly held as high as ever.