Qasim Amin (1865-1908) remains one of Egypt’s most controversial figures in the early modern women’s rights movement. His use of Orientalist arguments to support the advancement of women’s rights and to reform veiling was inflammatory to Egyptians demanding their rights for self-determination. Yet embracing aspects of the imperial value system did not mean that Amin succumbed to colonialism. Instead, he found compatibilities between his interpretations of Orientalism and Islam regarding women’s morality and the nation’s strength. The fusion and hybridity of indigenous and colonial epistemologies can be found in Amin’s demand for reforming women’s rights in Egypt.
It is difficult to avoid Qasim Amin’s name when discussing the early women’s movement in modern Egyptian history.1 A jurist, philosopher, and social reformer, he remains best known for his two controversial treatises demanding the reform of women’s rights. In 1899, Amin published The Liberation of Women, in which he maintained that the decline of Egypt’s status as a strong global power was directly correlated to the subjugation of Egyptian women. He argued that Egypt could regain its past status only when women had the right to a basic education and to unveil. He reiterated his position in 1900, when he published The New Woman as a rebuttal to the numerous criticisms he had received for The Liberation of Women.
Alone, Amin’s position on women’s education was not particularly controversial. What prompted intense criticism was his use of pro-European arguments and Orientalist stereotypes to critique Egyptian society at a time of rising Egyptian nationalism. This, in addition to his condemnation of Egyptian customs and practices of Islam and veiling, was particularly inflammatory. But Amin’s Orientalist suppositions were not the product of anti-Islamic or anti-nationalist sentiment; rather, they were formed out of an imperial dogma and structure attempting to mold colonialized bodies into a loyal – yet subservient – class dedicated to the British Empire.
Yet despite the empire’s best efforts, indigenous cultural, social, and religious norms were not obliterated and replaced with western mores. Instead, local suppositions and imperial rhetoric were reevaluated and reformulated and, at times, indigenous values found compatibility within colonial rhetoric. In this discussion, I argue that the hybridity and fusion of indigenous and colonial thought can be seen in Amin’s work, for he relied on both Orientalist and Islamic arguments to support the reform of women rights.2