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LHMP #309 Hatem 1986 The Politics of Sexuality and Gender in Segregated Patriarchal Systems

Full citation: 

Hatem, Mervat. 1986. "The Politics of Sexuality and Gender in Segregated Patriarchal Systems: The Case of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Egypt" in Feminist Studies vol. 12, no. 2 250-274.

I pulled this article in part to see if it had lesbian-relevant content (it does) but even more as deep-background research for my Franco-Egyptian character in Mistress of Shadows (Alpennia #5, in process). Triangulating on the everyday material and behavioral culture of an unmarried working-class Egyptian woman, living in a very mixed-culture Franco-Egyptian community first in Marseilles and then in Paris is proving to be quite a challenge. So every bit of research I can find that speaks to various aspects of her identity is valuable. For this reason, the summary of this article covers more details outside of sexuality than I might ordinarily cover because it’s doing double-duty.

* * *

Hatem looks at systems of institutionalized male control of female sexuality in 18-19th century Egypt, considering issues of class and ethnicity, as well as large-scale political shifts and disruptions. Moreover, patriarchal systems are not only about relations between men and women, but about how relations among women and relations among men support or resist power structures.

Although patriarchal cultures present themselves as idealizing heterosexuality, and engage in varying degrees of homophobia, the dynamic structures are more complex. Moreover, close relations between men are crucial to maintaining patriarchal control, but that doesn’t mean that such relations necessarily involve genital homosexuality. Even rivalry between men can be a form of homosocial bonding that includes as its purpose the maintenance of male solidarity.

On the female side, patriarchal structures are often designed to disrupt and undermine alliances among women, often by fracturing them along class lines and requiring women to compete with each other for localized power and security.

As a social system, patriarchy can be understood to have two primary concerns: the ideal of heterosexual intimacy, and the domination of one sex (women) by the other (men). These concerns are in constant tension.

Hatem’s study here uses this understanding of patriarchy to discuss and compare various types of patriarchal systems in 18-19th century Egypt, focusing on three distinct periods: 1760-1798, the French expedition to Egypt in 1798-1801, and the post-expedition era from 1805-1860. (The period immediately following the French departure was marked by chaotic transition and so is excluded.) Within this framework, Hatem identifies one possible interpretation of the social and sexual dynamics of women’s lives in Egypt.

18th Century Egypt

18th century Egypt had a sexually segregated culture that dated back in some form to pre-Islamic times, though the segregation is often associated in popular imagination with Islam specifically. But segregation was largely a feature of the sedentary parts of society, while the more mobile tribal groups featured less segregation, in part for practical reasons. The need for freedom of movement and for greater cooperation between the sexes for communal work made strict segregation unworkable. In addition, both women and men were viewed as identifying primarily with the larger clan, rather than smaller family groups, which meant less direct and individual control of women by immediate male family members.

As societies became more settled, responsibility and control of families was taken over by individual male heads of household, with women understood as belonging to them. In this context, segregation was a more practical and inexpensive means of controlling women as well as protecting them. Under traditional Islamic law, the family patriarch had legal control over family members and women’s modesty was emphasized.

Although this sexually segregated system still held in 18th century Egypt, it was also shaped by economic and social forces. Several identifiably distinct parts of Egyptian society experienced patriarchal control in different ways. These divisions included a significant agricultural peasant population, an Arab mercantile class integrated with broader regional trade networks, and the de facto ruling class of Mamluks, who managed the military and administrative functions of Ottoman rule.

These divisions involved distinctions of ethnic origin that affected sexual dynamics. The Mamluks were Turco-Circassian in origin, originally freed slaves, who operated as a military caste and worked to maintain their ethnic distinctiveness. Urban centers were dominated by an ethnically Egyptian merchant class which also was the primary source of scholars and intellectuals. As Egypt re-focused its economy on export and the provision of tribute to the Ottoman Empire, an alliance was formed between the Mamluks, merchants and intellectuals to implement and maintain control.

Gender segregation was affected by these divisions, as the political balances meant that social and sexual control was largely devolved onto individual family heads, including those in the large peasant class. Different structures and patterns of gender control manifested in the different social divisions.

Three gender-related institutions cut across these class lines to cement patriarchal ties: family, slavery, and sexual segregation. Segregation and the seclusion of women was, in theory, universal, but was more strictly practiced by the upper and middle classes.

The Mamluks originally came to Egypt as an enslaved military caste that was racially distinct from the Egyptian population. To maintain this distinction (Mamluk men who married Egyptian women lost their status), there was a constant influx of Turco-Circassian slaves, generally brought in as children. Men were given military training while women generally joined the harems of high-ranking Mamluk men and were only freed if taken as wives or when they bore children. While the wives and upper-class concubines of Mamluk men were generally of Turco-Circassian origin, their households also included Ethiopian and African slaves.

The position of women in these households was mobile and depended on their relations to men. Divorce was easy (for men) and might be used as a means of control, as well as creating power struggles among women. Generally if a woman bore a son for her owner she would be freed, and often would become a wife, whereas concubines who had not borne children had fewer rights. This made sexuality a political matter within households: a concubine was motivated to do anything possible to become pregnant, while men were motivated to avoid producing children except by their wives, to reduce their financial responsibilities.

Slavery was another context where sexuality was a source of conflict. Slaves could marry, and enslaved women could even marry free men, though their children would remain enslaved. This meant that multiple men might be involved in negotiations around the welfare of an enslaved woman and her children.

Men’s role within household dynamics was minimal, but the women of the household related to each other in hierarchical ways that often put their priorities in conflict, undermining potential sources of solidarity. At the same time, connections between the women of extended families created a large, female-dominated social world in which women were expected to be each other’s primary emotional and social support. Sexual segregation created incentives for same-sex relationships among both women and men, although homosexuality was, in theory, condemned in Islamic society. [Note: as other papers on this topic show, “condemnation” is a vastly oversimplified understanding of the multiple dynamics.]

Women’s same-sex relations were threatening to patriarchal control (to the extent that they had the capability of subverting heterosexuality). There are a few historical accounts of lesbianism within Mamluk harems of the 14th century which are instructive (though well removed from the time period of this article). [Note: I’ve seen references to this topic before and have identified the reference cited for further follow-up.]

Hatem has a discussion here of the ability of lesbians among the Mamluk harems to disrupt patriarchal structure by refusing the participate in the male traffic in women to create ties. But her discussion here seems to assume two things: that such women would necessarily have exclusively lesbian identities (i.e., that they considered their interest in women to exclude the possibility of accommodating heterosexual power dynamics), and that they had the agency to refuse to participate in such structures. I don’t know that either of those requirements has been demonstrated in this thought-experiment. In any case, Hatem identifies this as a potential cause for why male homosexuality was accepted among Mamluks and the Egyptian middle class, but lesbianism “remained underground and was viewed with contempt.” [Note: as if misogyny alone couldn’t account for the distinction? I think this is another case of “not proven.”]

Mamluk society involved a great deal of internal instability due to the mechanisms by which power was acquired and passed on. One practice addressing this was for Mamluk men to legally transfer property to their wives to protect it under law, which became a means for women to amass economic power. It also meant that women were drawn into open political maneuvering that had previously been the domain of men (with women participating in more indirect ways). This experience later became useful during the French expedition when Mamluk women were involved in direct negotiations with the French.

Middle class Egyptian households were comparable in size and internal dynamics to the Mamluk households, at least at the upper end. The dynamics of wives vs. concubines and the use of marriage and divorce to exert power over women were similar as well.

Veiling and seclusion were other practices where Mamluk and middle class Egyptian practice aligned. For female slaves in wealthy households, veiling was justified as protecting valuable property, but for free Egyptian women it was rationalized as an expression of modesty. Veiling and seclusion were associated with the need to protect women’s chastity and thereby the honor of the men responsible for them.

Cross-class cooperation among women included interactions with working class women outside the household that supplied essential services (mystics, matchmakers, beauticians, messengers, or peddlers of luxury goods). These women, in turn, used access to upper class women in order to obtain political favors or services for their families.

Among wealthy middle class families, women might be privately educated and have access to religious lectures. Inheritance rights of women in this class were respected due to the use of dowries in marriage negotiations. And there is evidence that some women managed their own property, or even in some cases their husbands’ property.

Accounts of working class women’s lives are scarce in the 18th century, but there is evidence that they did not follow the same rigid requirements for veiling and seclusion as the other classes. Peasant women did agricultural labor as well as household crafts. On the other hand, they had less control over personal property and marriages were generally arranged within the extended patrilineal family to maintain control of resources.

In general, working class women interacted more freely with men and leveraged legitimate reasons for mobility, such as religious festivals, to stretch the bounds of control. Urban working class women had even more mobility and engaged in occupations that made them key elements in larger women’s social networks--occupations such as midwives and entertainers, as well as those mentioned previously. In these roles, they had contacts with more secluded middle and upper class women and expanded their social networks by that means.

The French Expedition

Napoleon’s presence in Egypt was relatively short in objective terms--only three years--but is seen as a turning point in Egyptian history due to the disruption of the existing political systems. The successful French invasion not only disrupted the Mamluk military system directly, but undermined its authority as a bulwark against Christian power. The French introduced a new administrative structure that was inherited by the state introduced after their departure by Muhammed ‘Ali. But some historians argue that this phase may not have been the causal factor in the observed changes, only perhaps an accelerating one.

With regard to sexual dynamics, the French presence was disruptive while not being feminist in any meaningful sense. The requirement to billet French soldiers in private homes resulted in social mingling of the sexes and both formal and informal relations between French soldiers and Egyptian women had lasting consequences, including a violent, conservative backlash against women following the French departure.

During the course of the occupation, the Egyptian society incorporated French participation in patriarchal structures, with some French officers converting to Islam to marry women from prominent middle class Egyptian families. On other points, the culture clash was notable. French husbands expected their Egyptian wives to unveil in public, but that didn’t mean they supported women’s independence, and there were other aspects of sexuality where the French felt Egyptian women took liberties.

The French presence affected women of different classes differently. Some middle class women saw French interactions with women as encouraging greater freedom and social mobility and (vainly) petitioned Napoleon to support women’s interests. Upper class Mamluk women turned their political experience to direct negotiations with the French to support their families’ interests--to some extent, an extension of pre-existing dynamics made more overt--but as part of the older establishment they did not see the French as allies. Working class women clashed with, or benefitted from the French presence in a variety of contexts.

The 19th century

The French presence in Egypt ended rather abruptly with a British naval blockade. In the aftermath, there was a strong backlash against women who had “collaborated” which resulted in a conservative social climate in following decades. Women were executed for associating with the French and the threat of this violence helps explain why social segregation continued even as the practical basis for it eroded under the half-century of rule by Muhammed ‘Ali. [Note: the political dynamics of post-Napoleonic Egypt are complex and should be reviewed if you really want to investigate this era.]

The administrative and economic systems were overhauled in ways that affected all levels of society and all genders. Skimming over the details, some results included extended geographic separation of men and women due to economic dynamics, which resulted in raising the age of marriage for women, creating new hazards for women’s chastity before marriage, failed attempts to improve public education for girls and an accompanying interest from upper class women in private schools run by missionaries.

But overall, the patriarchal power systems were resistant to change and resilient. In shifting ways, women were defined as essentially sexual creatures, and that theme colored every social change.

Time period: 

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