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Back | Programme Area: Civil Society and Social Movements (2000 - 2009)

The Women's Movement in Egypt, with Selected References to Turkey

Women’s movements in the Middle East vary in terms of specific historical trajectories as well as current ideas and practices. Yet, they are similar in that they share several historical and political factors, such as their links to nationalist movements, their links to processes of modernization and development, and tensions between secular and religious tendencies. Specificities and differences can be found in overarching general themes, as becomes obvious in the context of two case studies—Egypt and Turkey—explored in this paper.

The analyses of the women’s movements in Egypt and Turkey entail a brief exploration of the historical context, that is, the emergence and development of women’s organizations and feminist thought. The discussion of the historical context sheds light on its continuing significance in terms of understanding present-day women’s movements in the region. Turkey, unlike Egypt, has not been colonized in modern times. Regarding other historical factors that influence the current parameters of feminist discourses and activities, Kemalism, and the specific ideology of Turkish nationalism employed by the Kemalist regime, differ decisively from Nasserist and Arab nationalist ideologies associated with the Egyptian state. Yet, in both countries, as in many other parts of the region, women’s organizations were co-opted in the general effort to achieve modernization and development.

The contemporary context involves a discussion of the specific national political topography, which provides the backdrop to present-day feminist activism. In addition to questions pertaining to political economy, state-society relations, party politics, and legislation, the question of international affiliations and relations is also taken into account. The Egyptian women’s movement is particularly influenced by the state’s ambiguous role toward women’s organizations; the growth of civil society and the severe restrictions on it (Law 32); international pressures and expectations, particularly on the part of donor organizations; and the increasing influence of Islamist constituencies. In the Turkish case, the women’s movement has been able to work much more closely through existing state structures and institutions, particularly the municipalities. The Turkish women’s movement seems to have been particularly influenced by the polarization between Islamist and secular constituencies, the struggles for democratization and for the institutionalization of feminist activities, as well as debates concerning the Kemalist legacy.

Comparison of the two case studies suggests that despite differing historical and political contexts, women’s movements in both countries have in recent years challenged prevailing notions of political culture and institutions. By looking at the broader picture and also considering feminist activism in other parts of the region, it becomes evident that women’s movements in the Middle East are potential agents for democratization, yet they are highly constrained by prevailing social and political structures, lack of clear institutional targets and ambiguous state policies.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Apr 2002
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8178
    From: UNRISD