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Civil Society and Social Movements Programme Paper 5: The Women’s Movement in Egypt, with Selected References to Turkey

15 Aug 2002

  • Author(s): Nadje S. Al-Ali

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 are found in overarching general themes, as the two case studies—Egypt and Turkey—show.

The discussion of the historical context and differences sheds light on its continuing significance in terms of understanding present-day women’s movements in the region. For example, 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 in this new paper.

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.

Nadje Al-Ali is Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, United Kingdom.

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