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“They Threw Her in with the Prostitutes!”: Negotiating Respectability between the Space of Prison and the Place of Woman in Egypt (1943–1959)

« Ils l’ont jetée avec les prostituées ! » : négocier sa respectabilité entre l’espace de la prison et la place des femmes en Égypte (1943-59)
Hannah Elsisi

Résumés

Les mémoires des prisonniers politiques articulent généralement la lutte de dissidents individuels et celle de groupes politiques pour atteindre plusieurs buts, simples et souvent récurrents : la liberté d’expression et d’association, la sécurité économique et sociale, des traitements humains et le droit de donner son avis sur les affaires de l’État et de la société. Cela est vrai des mémoires écrits par des hommes et par des femmes également. Toutefois, des échos de luttes particulières transparaissent dans les récits des prisonnières politiques, et donc des mutaqalāt : comment elles se sont efforcées de concilier leur expérience de prisonnières avec la construction personnelle et publique d’elles-mêmes comme étudiantes sérieuses, mères de famille aimantes, épouses consciencieuses, filles obéissantes et femmes respectables de la classe moyenne, parcourent l’ensemble de leurs témoignages. Les manifestations étudiantes de 1945-1946 ont confronté l’État égyptien semi-colonial à un problème unique et nouveau : jusque-là les prisonnières étaient considérées comme des criminelles de droit commun – revendeuses de drogues, prostituées (sic) et meurtrières. Il n’y avait aucune possibilité culturelle, ni même logistique ou infrastructurelle, d’incarcérer une femme de la classe moyenne comme révolutionnaire. De leur côté, les femmes de la classe moyenne, pénétrant dans l’espace de la prison pour la première fois, risquaient leur réputation et leur honneur si elles ne pouvaient affirmer le caractère spécifique de leur emprisonnement. Il s’ensuit par conséquent que le combat pour la respectabilité mené par ces pionnières mutaqalāt et le désarroi moral causé par leur emprisonnement se montra fondateur du paysage post-colonial des régimes de genre et de citoyenneté nationaux. Cet article pose deux questions qui sont liées entre elles : comment la prison fut-elle impliquée dans la production de régimes de genre nationaux et comment les mutaqalāt  défiaient-elles à leur tour ces régimes de genre nationaux depuis leur prison ? Je définis ici les mutaqalāt comme des femmes qui s’identifiaient elles-mêmes comme emprisonnées pour ce qu’elles-mêmes ou l’État considéraient comme des crimes liés à une identité ou une activité politiques.

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1Blue Lorries, a novel by renowned Egyptian author and former political prisoner Radwa Ashour, showcases the author’s native Cairo from the 1950s to the early 2000s. As the years tick by, one conflict or political cause gives rise to another, with the novel gradually revealing itself to be a history of Egyptian protest in the latter half of the 20th century. Ashour’s first person narrator is Nadā. We first meet her as a five-year-old, travelling on a crowded train across the western desert to visit her political activist father, Abū -Nadā, in al-Wāhāt prison. Ashour interweaves Nadā’s recollections with comments on the tedious and brutal reality of the author’s own incarceration under Sadat, extracts from real security case files and snippets of other political detainees’ memoirs. We soon learn that the novel’s blue lorries, with their tiny metal grilles, are vehicles for transporting prisoners. Her twin step-brothers—twenty years her junior—also end up in Mubarak’s prisons towards the turn of the century.

  • 2 Radical domesticity is a term I use to define the particular gendered divisions of labour which ari (...)

2At one level, the novel is about prison and the experience of incarceration over three generations of the same family. That is to say, it is a commentary on the pervasiveness of political imprisonment in Egypt’s recent history, where incarceration and torture form the preferred methods of the Egyptian state in containing dissidents and oppositional movements. At another level, it is the story of four women: Nadā, her mother, her stepmother, and her aunt; and the manifest ways in which Abū -Nadā’s time in al-Wāhāt prison generates a hodgepodge of hurt, responsibility and fear, which serves to imprison them as well, even as they are on the ‘outside’. Ashour skilfully renders the wide-ranging ramifications of imprisonment for a detainee’s family, comrades and loved ones. Having a father, son, or husband in prison implies a highly gendered ante-prison experience: a set of responsibilities which fall solely upon women, but which at once break the boundaries which delineate their gender—or what I refer to elsewhere as ‘radical domesticity’.2 While the latter falls squarely in the realm of reproductive labour—it presents as particularly harsh or unfair, precisely because it is no longer encased in the realm of the everyday and the tyranny of normalised hegemonic domesticity. Still, the novel is also a tale of agency, as embodied in the image of consecutive generations of hopeful youth whom history had called to arms and as exercised by these four women.

  • 3 Nadā, a fictional character roughly representing Radwā ‘Ashour, shared a cell at al-Qanātir with Ar (...)

3Of particular note in Ashour’s novel are the lengths she goes to not just to document her own time at al-Qanātir prison, but that of an entire generation of women activists who were imprisoned in the seventies and eighties. Negotiating their position as women political prisoners is still a laboured and thorny exercise, even as she writes in the 21st century. Thus, when Nadā relates to her aunt the story of Arwā’s suicide following her release from prison, expecting a sermon on the ‘sin of taking one’s own life’, her aunt surprises her by falling silent.3 The following day, she brought the subject up again:

  • 4 Radwa ‘Ashour, Blue Lorries, Doha, Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation, 2014, kl. 1773-1774. I take up the (...)

“‘And where,’ she asked me, ‘were you all, when she killed herself? . . . . My brother’s daughter, you either have to choose our way—marriage, children, kith and kin—or else you have to look after one another, each one being a mainstay to his comrade. No one can live alone and unsheltered!’”4

  • 5 Indeed, recent scholarship has begun to undermine earlier scholars’ tendency to locate sea-change s (...)
  • 6 Marilyn Booth, “Women’s Prison Memoirs in Egypt and Elsewhere”, MERIP, 17, Nov-Dec, 1987, p. 35-41. (...)

4Nadā’s aunt poses her vision of womanhood—here identified with respectable domesticity and motherhood—and activism as mutually exclusive. Nadā is to choose between two lifestyles, or, two irreconcilable identities. The possibility of leading both: impossible. That Nadā/Radwā is faced with this choice several generations after the first women activists entered prison in 1946-9, points to long-term continuities in Egyptian national gender regimes that cut across the established binary between colonial and post-colonial, and later on between welfarist (roughly 1956-1973) and neoliberal (from the onset of IMF-inspired infitah policies of 1974) periodisations of Egyptian history.5 As Marylin Booth observes, this ‘struggle’ between activism and domesticity—a permanent fixture of activist women’s writing in the century since the first feminist organisation was created—is as real as it is symbolic: by challenging the roles assigned to her by malestream society, in which ‘woman’ and ‘prison’ can only be reconciled through the figure of the sexually deviant female criminal, the female political prisoner’s subjectivity is at permanent risk of erasure, her experience is persistently denied, and she is reconstituted as a criminal subject with all the trappings (gendered, classed, sexualised, racialised) that might involve.6 The dialectic relationship between this latter reconstitution and women’s tenacious resistance to it, is the subject of this paper. To that end, it is instructive to explore that relationship in the context of the earliest incidence of middle-class Egyptian women entering the mutaqal between 1943-1959. How did the existing spatial production of gender codify the prison as a place for fallen women, and in turn how did the entry of these middle class women alter and reset the gendered nature of the prison space itself, whether by reorganising its material and architectural facets and the embodied experience of living in and later ‘with’ prison or by carving a space for female respectability in representations of the prison within the cultural imaginary. In other words, what is the relationship between the ‘space of the prison’ and the ‘proper place of woman’, and how did each of these mutually reinforce or undermine the other?

  • 7 And indeed, of good from bad citizens. See Souad Joseph (ed.), Gender and Citizenship in the Middle (...)
  • 8 I borrow this phrase from Carolyn Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman, London, Virago, 1986.

5The following section, then, is concerned to trace prevalent national tropes around the ‘proper woman’ in relation to the space of the prison, and the cultural mobilisation of the kind of women who ended up there. It explores how the prison and repertoires of criminality more generally were indeed central to the operation of these moral tales as a disciplinary mechanism for the differentiation of honourable from fallen women.7 To establish this ‘landscape for a good woman’, I trace the evolution and distillation of a national gender regime in the first half of the 20th century in which criminality played an essential role.8 The space of the prison was figuratively reserved, and materially organised for the purpose of housing working women—petty thieves, murderers, sex workers and drug-dealers.

6The rest of the paper explores the experiences of these pioneer mu’taqalāt [woman political prisoners] as recorded in oral history interviews conducted by the author and members of the communist movement between 1980-2018, party-organisational archives held at the International Institute of Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam, memoirs, art and fictionpointing to some of the ways in which they fashioned respectability as women activists against generalised assertions of deviance among the female prison population writ large. Firstly, it is concerned with their embodied experience of the prison, or the material ways in which they inhabited and reorganised the space of the prison to stake a claim to respectability. Secondly, it outlines some trends in their discursive engagement with ‘the place of the proper woman’ vis-à-vis the space of the prison. In their attempt to assert the possibility, indeed their reality, of a respectable female prisoner, against family members, state jailors, interrogators and a media hell-bent on gaslighting them; these women effected, in turn, a new imaginary of the space of the prison in national gender regimes. Mutaqalāt constructively adopted, co-opted and resisted various discrete components of this landscape for a good woman, to which we turn next.

Landscape for a Good Egyptian Woman

  • 9 See Lila Abu Lughod’s argument on hybridised modernity in Lila Abu-Lughod (ed.), “Introduction” in (...)
  • 10 See especially Marilyn Booth, May Her Likes Be Multiplied: Biography and Gender Politics in Egypt, (...)
  • 11 Scholars have differed in their interpretation of Amin, with Margot Badran arguing that men’s preoc (...)

7At the turn of the twentieth century Egyptian nationalist elites became progressively anxious to construct a national identity which at once differentiated itself from that of the coloniser whilst also assimilating those elements of modernising discourse that were held by the British to be necessary for any future prospect of self-government.9 The woman question, and increasingly women writers, were central to this entire configuration.10 Qasim Amin’s widely circulated 1899 text, The Liberation of Women, usefully distils this emergent landscape for a good Egyptian woman: she was first and foremost a mother; she would be educated in the sciences and world affairs so that she may school the next generation of men to fight the national cause; she would also be familiar with the arts and high culture in order to fulfil her role as a dutiful wife to a husband who was now recast as companion and intellectual interlocutor; she would be versed in the skills and know-how of home-economics and hygiene so that she may scientifically manage the household; she would not be veiled although she would adhere to a strict spatio-temporal regime of where she could go, when, for how long and with what purpose.11

  • 12 See especially, Omnia El-Shakry, “Schooled Mothers and Structured Play: Child Rearing in Turn of th (...)
  • 13 The scholarship abounds, see especially Beth Baron, Egypt as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender and Polit (...)
  • 14 Nira Yuval Davis, Gender and Nation, London, Sage Publications, 1997, p. 67.

8A spate of historians have explored the various ways in which these tenets of the modern woman, the modern man, the nuclear family, companionate marriage and the new cult of domesticity were worked out by reformist intellectuals and bureaucrats in the public arena in the lead-up to, and aftermath, of the First World War.12 Of particular purchase was the maternal imagery which recast women as ‘mothers of the nation.’13 I won’t rehearse here the by now well-known argument that gender relations are at the centre of cultural constructions of social and national identities, where women tend to constitute their symbolic ‘border guards’ and where women’s bodies become the subject of intense public scrutiny and contestation. Suffice it to say, that having been constructed as the biological reproducers of the nation, carriers of its collective ‘honour’ and the ‘intergenerational reproducers of its culture’, specific visual and discursive codes came to delineate the ‘proper woman’ and the ‘proper man.’14 Here we are concerned to elucidate the role of criminality and the space of the prison in delineating what constituted a ‘proper woman’.

  • 15 Baron, Egypt as Woman, op. cit., p. 2.

9
Following the outbreak of the 1919 revolution, the exile of Saad Zaghlūl and other leaders of the Wafd party, and specifically after the promulgation of the first Egyptian constitution in 1923, which did not grant women’s suffrage, it quickly became clear to the women of the Wafidst Women’s Central Committee that their contributions to the nationalist struggle and to a nascent national identity would not necessarily translate into representation in politics. In other words, while they would be mobilised to represent the nation, they would not actually be included in it. Lamenting the proliferation of discourses and images of Egypt as a woman, especially following the erection and unveiling of Mahmūd Mūkhtar’s Nahdat Misr statue in a national ceremony at which no women were present, Beth Baron argues that Egyptian women nationalists were faced with an all too familiar paradox, namely, an “inverse relationship between the prominence of female figures in the allegorization of the nation and the degree of access granted women to the political apparatus of the state.”15

  • 16 Badran, Feminism, op. cit., p. 82-88.
  • 17 See especially Omnia el-Shakry, The Great Social Laboratory, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2 (...)
  • 18 See for example, Soha Abdel Kader, Egyptian Women in a Changing Society, 1899-1987, Boulder, Lynne (...)

10This would soon lead women to organise independently from the Wafd under the aegis of the Egyptian Feminist Union, with such figures as Hudā Sha’rāwi, Nabawiyya Mūsā, Saiza Nabarāwi and Safiyya Zaghlūl, ‘Mother of the Nation’ at its head.16 As the decade progressed, the continued British presence, industrialisation, rural-to-urban migration, an organised labour movement, increased unemployment and crime, anxieties about population health, degeneracy and reproductive capacity, and a perceived proliferation of prostitution, narcotics, debauchery and other social ills all lent a new urgency to the question of social reform.17 As more and more school-educated girls and elite women sought to join the nationalist and reformist effort, a plethora of women’s associations sprouted up across the country and their feminist activities focused on the instruction of working-class women in proper practices of domestic hygiene, child-rearing and family planning by way of inculcating them with the new ideal of middle-class domesticity.18

  • 19 Lucie Ryzova, “I am a Whore but I Will be a Good Mother”, The Arab Studies Journal, n°2/1, Spring 2 (...)
  • 20 Baron, Egypt as Woman, op. cit., p. 80.
  • 21 Ibid., p. 82-105; Ryzova, “I am a Whore”, art. cit. and Lucie Ryzova, “Boys, Girls and Kodaks: Peer (...)
  • 22 This is widely recorded in fiction and film, see especially Latifa al-Zayyat, The Open Door, Cairo, (...)

11Parallel to this entry of women into the public sphere, was an increased ‘visual and textual presence of women in public culture’ or what Lucie Ryzova terms the ‘visual public sphere’.19 Far from taking issue with the nationalist iconography representing the nation as a woman and mother, this first generation of elite public women took pride in the images as ‘shown through their production and reproduction of them’ in women’s journals of the 1920s.20 With the proliferation of photography studios however, women could also exert some control over their visual presence: family poses in the domestic setting of the home, and in traditional Bedouin or fellāhīi garb were most popular amongst this class of women at the time.21 The schoolgirl was a particularly cherished national commodity, photos of whom, in addition to the girl scouts of Munīra ābet’s Girl Guides and female doctors, circulated widely and proliferated in line with the exponential increase of girl’s enrolment in schools and later universities. However, as we will see, the nation was not fully prepared for these schoolgirls to mature into agentive and politically active university graduates.22

  • 23 Shaun Timothy Lopez, Media Sensations, Contested Sensibilities: Gender and Moral Order in the Egypt (...)
  • 24 Ryzova, “I am a Whore”, art. cit., p. 83.

12Meanwhile, a wholly different kind of woman had started to break into the visual public sphere, and specifically in the crime pages of the burgeoning nationalist press. Shaun Lopez outlines the far-reaching implications of the hawādith (fait divers) pages for the representation and production of a national gender regime between 1920-55.23 Hundreds of newspapers and magazines told stories of fallen working women: thieves, adulterers, sexual deviants, domestic servants, prostitutes, murderers and murder victims. Five case studies highlight how these vignettes factored into a mass culture in which debate centred on female criminality. Such criminality was everywhere apparent in the depravity of women’s sexuality and the proliferation of prostitution, in ‘swarms’ of women in busy, non-segregated public spaces—as time wore on this was modified and adapted to specific spatio-temporal repertoires of the appropriate—in the degeneration of the marriage relation and the downright debauchery of performers, singers and cinema stars. The thrust of this veritable media frenzy is exemplified in Lucie Ryzova’s statistical compilation of women in the visual public sphere: serialised literature, cheap magazines, newspapers, dailies and cinema. Of the 1500 photographs she finds in a survey of al-Musawwar magazine in 1925, only thirty were of women, all of them of pin-ups and models, actresses, white women and sports women. Her most damning finding? From a survey of another magazine al-Latāʾf al-Musawwara in that same year, she finds only three close-ups of Egyptian women: two were criminals sentenced to prison and the third was dead.24

  • 25 Hanan Hammad, “Disreputable by Definition Respectability and Theft by Poor Women in Urban Interwar (...)
  • 26 Ibid., p. 383.

13In the 1920s then, women’s presence in the material and visual public sphere was coded with stark class implications, associated as it was with either elite social activity or downright criminality. The former would be models of the respectable but rather than form the norm against which the deviant was pathologized as lacking, it appears the disproportionate place of hawādith in public culture inverted this process: women in the public sphere—de facto working women -were coded as sexually deviant criminals whose fate was prison or death; all women would have to avoid the spatial repertoires of these fallen women to maintain the integrity of their respectability. Theirs was a fragile femininity. To be sure this was never merely a discursive construction of woman-as-criminal or woman-as-body, but the extent to which it reflected the material reality of that period is still debatable. For example, in her study of working-class respectability in Maḥalla (the largest textile industry district in Egypt), anān ammād shows how, despite the exclusive focus on sex work in studies of female criminality, a meagre offering in any case, petty theft was in fact ‘the most frequent crime committed by imprisoned Egyptian women in the interwar period.’25 She argues that the women who committed these thefts did not risk much in terms of respectability, as they had already forgone ‘satr’ or sexual honour in the course of working outside the home.26 Yet the prison clearly posed the largest threat to women’s sexual honour, as Hammād herself finds that the legal system took female criminals less seriously and frequently commuted prison sentences to fines.

  • 27 Ibid., p. 394.

[Judges] “argued that avoiding jail time offered a woman a second chance to live respectably. One judge explicitly stated that leniency was necessary ‘lest the jail corrupts her morality and destroys her future.’ Judges assumed that women in prisons would mingle with professional criminals who might corrupt them and that no respectable man would marry a woman with a prison history.”27

  • 28 Ashwini Tambe, Codes of Misconduct: Regulating Prostitution in Late Colonial Bombay, Minneapolis, U (...)
  • 29 See also Biancani, Sex Work in Colonial Egypt, op. cit., p. 89 and ch. 6-7 on the prostitution abol (...)

14So not only were most female criminals petty thieves rather than sexual deviants, but the apparatus of the state, evidently cognizant of this reality, still reproduced a discourse of the mutability of imprisonment and sexual dishonour. Indeed, Ashwini Tambe argues that the restriction of prostitution in 19th century Bombay was a project that was always ‘bound to fail’, its purpose being never to be efficacious as law, but rather to force a public debate that would ‘generate corrective discourses and devices of surveillance by members of the populace.’28 From this lens, the explosion in Egypt of social and legal campaigns around prostitution, and the moral panics they incited around female sexuality and criminality can also be viewed as having less to do with sex-workers than they did with everyone else.29

  • 30 Until their revocation at Montreux in 1937, the capitulations provided for an extraterritorial lega (...)
  • 31 Baron, Egypt as a Woman, op. cit., p. 52.
  • 32 Ibid., p. 108-134.
  • 33 Badran, Feminism, op. cit., p. 210.
  • 34 Ibid., p. 210-211.

15By the mid-1930s the insult of continued capitulations and the repressive policies of Ismā’īl Sidqī’s government brought anxieties about the integrity of the nation to a head.30 The prostitution abolition campaign had by now become mainstream, feminists who were ‘themselves fearful of being labelled prostitutes for unveiling and mixing in society’31 took the occasion of this moral panic as a unique opportunity to forge an unlikely alliance with religious representatives: for how could they be cast as fallen women if they too were fighting prostitution? This was co-eval with new generations of girls entering the nationalist movement and altering the spatial organisation of protest: from the closed carriages, veiled faces and segregated marches that had characterised the twenties to the widely circulated images of youthful, mixed and increasingly promenading protests in the 1930s.32 Following Sidqī’s suspension of parliament and the constitution, and his statement in the press that ‘henceforth women would be treated like men, without consideration of rank or sex,’ women in elite associations joined together to form a coalition of protest.33 It was on one such protest in 1935 that changed social mores, and the entrance of new generations of women onto the political scene would mark an early shift in practices and discourses of criminality. As Badrān notes, the unveiling of women brought new and perceptible possibilities and dangers. The criminalisation of unveiled women was no longer taboo and many of them, some still in their carriage, were arrested and taken to Darb al-ʾAḥmar police station. When more of their comrades descended on the police station shouting anti-government slogans, they too, were arrested.34 Although this was only a brief stint in jail, for Saiza Nabarāwī it was nevertheless a decisive turning point:

  • 35 Ibid.

“For the first time in our history women were imprisoned for a political question. This inaugurates a glorious page in Egyptian feminism that henceforth will only [further] develop— recognition of the equality of duties inevitably implies equality of rights. . . Everyone, rich and poor, came together in the various provinces of Egypt to energetically defend the constitution of 1923. They [the women] have also proven that they are citizens conscious of their responsibilities and worthy of defending the liberties of their country, and that they are capable of arousing the oppressed.”35

  • 36 In broad terms, efendiyya refers to a new class of school and university educated men characterised (...)
  • 37 See Nancy Y Reynolds, A City Consumed: Urban Commerce, the Cairo Fire, and the Politics of Decoloni (...)
  • 38 See Baron, Egypt as Woman, op. cit. and Khaled Fahmy, “Prostitution in Egypt in the Nineteenth-Cent (...)

16That this was a nationalist protest and that Saiza was an established and publicly recognized member of the elite implies that this episode did not leave too much of a dent in the edifice of her respectability. Still, her statement clearly captures the reality that this was indeed the first time her kind of woman had entered the space of the prison, and perhaps the hope that it would not be the last. From this point forward the public ‘political’ woman would increasingly come to occupy the space of the prison, physically and in the visual public sphere. In any case, following the Second World War and in the throes of decolonization, Saiza’s kind of woman would become a rare breed. As new generations of university graduatesmany of whom were the daughters of upwardly mobile efendiyya36emerged onto the political scene, the social, class and racial repertoires of the politically active woman were already bringing her ever closer to that of the fallen woman: she would consort with men at university and political gatherings, she would get a job on graduation, she would shop from the same stores as the cinema stars of the day, she would be loud and assertive.37 So, what happens when the prison is added in the mix? The female criminal and the women’s prison had thus far only been associated with sexual deviance and dishonorable behavior. Indeed al-arar, or ‘the free’, was a legal term of art developed in the inter-war period to denote all women who were not licensed prostitutesadding a further linguistic layer to an already dense socio-spatial equivalence between imprisonment and sexual dishonor.38 The post-war inauguration of a new age of widespread political arrest and imprisonment irrespective of gender would have extensive ramifications: the state would soon have to re-organize the space of the prison itself; society would be faced with a new socio-spatial grid for the production of gendered bodies; and Egyptian women prisoners would have to develop strategies that enable them to preserve their gender identity in prison and to negotiate their respectability in the public sphere.

Politicals not Prostitutes: Negotiating Respectability in Prison

  • 39 ‘Letters from WIDF to Nasser and UN General Assembly 1959’ International Institute for Social Histo (...)

17When confronted with the carceral state, the limits of Egyptian women’s revolutionary agency soon became apparent. Beginning in 1946, when the first cohort of women activists entered the prison, and through to the present day, the principal strategy that mu‘taqalāt developed to defend their gender identity was to deploy a poetics of contrast, which can be summarised as ‘politicals not prostitutes’. Rather than articulating a critique of respectability from the liminal vantage point of the prison, mu‘taqalāt mostly ended up buttressing the gender and class tropes which pathologized subaltern women prisoners. To be sure, the reinforcement of normative femininity in prison was a contingent outcome precisely because mu‘taqalāt had agency in that process. It could have gone the other way and, as I later show, in their subversion of the ideals of motherhood, to some extent it did. Still, the overwhelming emphasis of legal and political defences offered by, or on behalf of, mu‘taqalāt was that the prison was no place for the political womanwho is perforce proper—. Advocacy letters from the fifties and sixties, penned by imprisoned women or international organisations, never failed to stress that as mothers, educators, students and journalists they were ‘out of place’ amongst the common criminals. One letter, written by the secretariat of the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) and addressed to Nasser in 1959, argued that their imprisonment (and only theirs) ‘violated the integrity of the home’, thus intimating that the wider female prison population always-already fell short of respectable domesticity.39

  • 40 To compare across five cohorts from the 1940s to 1980s see for example, Inji Afatun, Min al-Tufūla (...)

18Perhaps one of the most confounding aspects of my findings, then, is the intergenerational durability of a tactic initially devised for the inter-war setting, which lends a certain timeless quality to mu‘taqalāt’s testimonies.40 In a 1984 article commemorating the life and achievements of the pioneering feminist Nabawiyya Mūsā, afinaz Qāẓim, a leftist-turned-Islamist activist of the seventies generation, describes the circumstances of Musa’s imprisonment in 1943 thus:

  • 41 Ṣafināz Qāzīm, “al-Rā’ida Nabawiyya Mūsā wa In‘āsh ḏākirat al-Umma”, al-Hilāl, January 1984, p. 119 (...)

“Nahhas pasha ordered her arrest and threw her in the foreigners’ prison in Alexandria, where she stayed for almost ten months amongst the prostitutes and the bent [fallen] foreign women! She was 57 years old.”41

  • 42 Nabawiyya Mūsā, Tārikhī bi-Qalamī, Cairo, Makatabat al-‘Usra, 2003.
  • 43 See also Ṣafināz Qāzīm, “Fa Kharaj ‘ala Qawmihi” in ‘An al-Sijn wa-l-Hurriyya, Cairo, al-Zahra’ li- (...)

19Qāẓim makes no mention of Musa’s suspension from the Ministry of Education or the termination of her career, nor her post-release pauperisation as she was denied her government pension.42 The implications of Qāẓim’s statement and article are three-fold: first, this clearly had nothing to do with dispelling or casting aspersions on Nabawiyya Mūsā, who was by then an exalted national figure; second, it serves the purpose, characteristic of women’s biographical writing, of situating Qāẓim as Mūsā’s successor, and who is also clearly no prostitute despite having been in prison; third, and most importantly, it assumes that all of Mūsā’s fellow inmates were prostitutes and ‘bent’ women, thus instantiating the socio-spatial linkage between the space of the prison and the fallen woman, even as Qāẓim is writing towards the end of the century.43

20Implicit in Qāẓim’s text, then, is that a woman prisoner must perforce be a prostitute until proven or stated otherwise. This has been a resilient trope, one which has evidently withstood the test of both radical politics, and time. As the following section demonstrates, throughout the latter half of the 20th century, mu‘taqalāt consistently opted against calling for structural improvements in prison conditions in favour of various positive strategies for asserting their class differences from the non-political criminals (for whom prison life was not too different from life outside): mu‘taqalāt have exams to sit; professional lives to lead; need routine access to the best specialists, gynaecologists and psychologists; they have different bodies with different standards of hygiene, treatment and health; and have been torn from middle-class homes whose sanctity has been violated. As well as negative poetics of contrast: the criminals are prostitutes; they are thieves; they are bad mothers; they are poor and thus accustomed to such misery.

  • 44 Indeed, the overwhelming evidence, of which some is discussed in the following pages, does not sit (...)
  • 45 In testimonies see for example Bakr, al-‘Araba; Aflatun, Min al-Tufūla; Farida al-Naqqāsh, al-Sijn (...)

21This might be surprising, given that a more direct—some would say feminist—strategy might have been to form alliances with the ‘non-political’ prisoners.44 However, it seems that such avenues were foreclosed from the moment female criminality became tied to sex-work in the inter-war years, and with long-lasting effect. Be that as it may, mu‘taqalāt still had to traverse a discursive and material gender regime which constantly threatened their respectability now that they were in prison, a space which they insisted should be reserved for ‘murderers and prostitutes.’45 So how did they go about achieving this tall order?

  • 46 Yunan. Rizq, “When Papers Shift”, Al Ahram, 17– 23 nov. 2005, accessed 14 June 2014 at http://weekl (...)
  • 47 Anthony Gorman, “Confining Political Dissent in Egypt before 1952” in Laleh Khalili and Jillian Sch (...)
  • 48 Selma Botman, The Rise of Egyptian Communism, 1939-1970, Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 1988, (...)
  • 49 Ibid., p. 65.
  • 50 Aflatun, Min al-Tufula, p. 54.

22When the Wafd government fell in 1937, the new Muhammad Mahmūd government amnestied all those imprisoned during the Wafd term and proceeded to arrest hundreds of Wafdists in their stead.46 This pattern of defining political dissidents in relation to the ruling party continued through WWII until the student demonstrations and workers’ strikes of 1945-46. These marked the beginning of a vast wave of political repression against communists, Muslim Brothers (MB) and labour activists with the use of a new law which prescribed prison terms for ‘promoters of revolutionary societies whose aim is the subordination of one social class to another, the overthrow of a social class or the destruction of the fundamental social or economic principles of the state.’47 Although the new law targeted communists specifically, it clearly aspired to define political dissidence in relation to the Egyptian state and the (gendered) social order it claimed to embody.48 Following the national strike and protests of 21 February 1946, PM Ismā‘īl Sidqī, once more in power, proceeded to ban all political organizations, associations and publications that could be connected to the student and workers’ movement.49 The celebrated surrealist painter, communist and feminist activist Inji Efflātūn recounts the banning of the recently formed Union for University and College Women Students of which she was a founding member, and which now convened its meetings in her home.50 Her comrade Geneviève Sedārus was arrested at one such meeting. Of her release three days later she recounts:

  • 51 Geneviève Sedārus, interview by Hanān Ramadān reproduced in Shahādāt wa Ru’ā: Min Tarīkh al-Haraka (...)

“I was surprised to find the newspapers reporting that three women had been arrested at 3am from a party at a Cairo home. When I went to university the next day, my girlfriends were very angry and wouldn’t speak to me. I told them we were arrested at 4 in the afternoon not three in the evening and we had a meeting. When that didn’t work, I went to Al-Ahram and demanded they retract their piece telling them they had published information which hurts our reputation ... I was arrested for being a communist.”51

  • 52 See Relli Shechter, “Reading Advertisements in a Colonial/Development Context: Cigarette Advertisin (...)
  • 53 R. al-Sa‘i, interview by Hanān Ramadān reproduced in Shahādāt wa Ru’ā: Min Tarīkh al-Haraka al-Shuy (...)

23Unsurprisingly then, women political prisoners fell back on existing spatio-temporal repertoires of respectability. They paid careful attention to where they went and when, ensuring that wherever they found themselves facing arrest they were properly ensconced in the space of the university or the home and within the established timeframe of respectable women’s mobility in urban public space. Similarly when Rūḥiyya al-Sa’i, a communist and founding member of the Association of the Families of Political Prisoners who was married to a prominent labour activist, was offered a cigarette by her interrogating officer, and against the background of a smoking-is-sexy advertising campaign by Coutarelli Frères,52 Rūḥiyya immediately riposted: ‘you can give that cigarette to your criminal deviant women, as for us [communist women], we don’t smoke cigarettes.’53 The officer proceeded to beat her up.

  • 54 Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman, Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam and the Egyptia (...)
  • 55 Ibid., p. 356-361.
  • 56 Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, London, Oxford University Press, 1969, p.  (...)

24Despite the clampdown against the political opposition of 1946–47, the failure of the Sidqī-Bevin negotiations over the Anglo-Egyptian condominium in Sudan by the summer of 1947 exhausted any political credit the regime might have had, and prompted a resurgent nationalist movement with a wider base of women, peasants and workers.54 On 15 May 1948, and against the background of mass protest and war in Palestine, martial law was declared.55 The Nuqrashi government proceeded to instigate a mass arrest campaign of Zionists, anti-Zionists and Muslim Brotherhood (MB) members who had signed up to fight in Palestine.56 Su‘ād Zuhayr was a peculiar anti-Zionist, arguing against any Egyptian military intervention in Palestine. She was arrested at her home on 25 May 1948 for publishing an article to this effect and sent to the Foreigners Prison:

  • 57 Su‘ād Zuhayr, interview by Hanān Ramadān reproduced in Shahādāt wa Ru’ā: Min Tarīkh al-Haraka al-Sh (...)

“The foreigner’s prison was on the top floor of the prison on Ramses Street, they had emptied the administrator’s home and put beds to house foreign prisoners. I couldn’t find a single Egyptian comrade; everyone there had been arrested for being Jewish. The women received me and the kids with songs and chants, and helped me take care of them … at first, I rejected this help… I told them that I am not like them.”57

  • 58 See Lopez, Media Sensations, op. cit.; Hanan Kholoussy, “Stolen Husbands, Foreign Wives: Mixed Marr (...)

25Zuhayr faced a difficult predicament, in her testimony she went to great lengths to differentiate herself as a true and patriotic Egyptian, foreign women having been coded as spies, prostitutes and cinema stars especially during WWII.58 But even if mutaqalāt primarily had to assert themselves negatively against the base assumption of sexually dishonorable prisoners, they still had to positively maintain a claim to be the respectable woman they were before their imprisonment. Thus, Zuhayr had to reconcile her imprisonment with her duties as a good mother. Her husband was sent to Tura prison at the same time leaving her with their two young children. When one of them fell ill, she recalls the following exchange with the prison doctor:

  • 59 Su‘ad Zuhayr, interview.

Doctor: My daughter isn’t it unfair to bring two young children into prison like this.
Su‘ād: I didn’t incarcerate them, the government did! Do I have to choose between being a mother and a patriot? Can I not be a patriotic mother!? Now tend to my son.”59

  • 60 For example, Thurayyā abashī left a new-born with comrades in 1959, I have reviewed a box of lette (...)

26Indeed, Su‘ād was not the only one to enter the prison with her children in tow, and certainly a majority of the women left children at home, often to be cared for by comrades and family members as their husbands tended to be in hiding or imprisoned themselves.60

  • 61 Inji Aflatun writes fondly of the jailors who smuggled this painting and others out of the prison f (...)

Figure 1. Dormitory of Prisoners, Inji Aflatun, (1961)61

Figure 1. Dormitory of Prisoners, Inji Aflatun, (1961)61

Ahramonline, 2011

  • 62 On its part, the post-colonial government did for a time backtrack on earlier liberal discourses wh (...)
  • 63 Interview with Thurayyā Adham, conducted by Hanān Ramadān, Shahādāt wa Ru’ā: Min Tarīkh al-Haraka a (...)

27Su‘ād Zuhayr was imprisoned just at the moment where state-gender regimes that advocated women’s education solely in terms of the benefits to her (male) children had begun to give way to new civic forms of nationalism, which heralded women as modern actors in the general scheme of political enfranchisement. The dilemma facing this doctor, and the Egyptian state, was severe: how were they to imprison political women without fundamentally debasing their social role as domesticated mothers or mothers-to-be?62 For the mu‘taqalāt, the predicament was two-fold: how were they to continue to perform motherhood while physically incarcerated and against a hegemonic maternalism which could not reconcile their political identity with their gender identity? Women balanced their imprisonment with motherhood in several ways: firstly, as conflicting with political involvement. For example, Asma’ al-Baqli who gave birth to her son Yāser in Sign Masr (Cairo Prison) in 1949, lamented how she could not be a proper mother to him while [they were] in prison. She was also pregnant when she entered al-Qanātir again in 1959.63 Others saw conflict between imprisonment and motherhood but chose not to prioritise the latter. Intisar Khattāb’s 17-year old son writes to her in al-Qanātir prison in 1962:

  • 64 Intiṣār ḫattāb interview by Fakhrī Labīb (1990), Tape. All taped interviews conducted by Labīb are (...)

“you and your husband (his imprisoned father) leave your kids when all it would take is signing a piece of paper to get released. This letter is a warning that I am very distressed, my grandmother curses your existence all the time, if you maintain your position, this is the last letter I am sending, as I will commit suicide, burn myself.’”64

  • 65 Su‘ād al-Tawīl, interview by Ismā’īl Abd el-Hakam, transcript in Saba‘ Shahadāt Ta’akharat: Sanawāt (...)
  • 66 Gayatri Spivak has termed this practice “strategic essentialism” in “In a Word” in Naomi Schor and (...)
  • 67 hurayyā Shāker, interview by Fakhrī Labīb reproduced in Shahādāt wa Ru’ā: Min Tarīkh al-Haraka al- (...)
  • 68 Zeinab al-Askari, interview by Ramsis Labīb reproduced in Masriyyāt fil Sujūn w al-Mu‘taqalāt, Cair (...)

28Another inmate, Su‘ād al-Tawīl describes how Intisār became ill and depressed, unwilling to recant but unable to stomach the thought of what her teenage son might do.65 From this impossible position, women often harnessed the power of gender to get things done. By highlighting the plight of their children and families, women consciously and selectively mobilised normative conceptions of motherhood when making claims to the state for release or greater visitation rights.66 Secondly, women conceived motherhood as a rationalisation for political involvement and incarceration. When hurayyā Shāker refused to break her hunger strike in 1962, even as her children pleaded with her and asked whether ‘she hated them so much she would die and leave them alone’, her response was: ‘I am doing this because I love you and don’t want you to ever give up on your beliefs, one day you will grow to do the same.’67 Or as in Zeinab’s case where ‘a good mother is one who teaches her children to be involved in the struggle.’68 Thirdly, a smaller minority simply refused to concede any conflict between motherhood and their political identity, as in Su‘ād Zuhayr’s rejoinder to the doctor. The mu’taqala then, significantly disrupted the existing landscape for a good mother.

Conclusion

  • 69 MB inmates alone numbered over 4000, Mitchell, The Society, op. cit., p. 72.
  • 70 See Ryzova, The Age, op. cit.
  • 71 Su‘ād al-Tawīl, interview, p. 14.
  • 72 Ibid.

29Egyptian women would eventually come to define themselves as mu‘taqalāt siyasiyyāt, or often just al-siyāsiyyāt (the politicals) in order to properly and fully differentiate themselves from al-‘adiyyāt (literally the normals or common criminals). At the beginning of 1949, after the defeat in Palestine and the assassination of PM Al-Nuqrāshi, the government launched its largest arrest campaign yet; thousands of journalists, communists, labour activists and MB members were sent to prison.69 Women, many of whom hailed from middle-class or effendiyya backgrounds, were among those tried in military courts and detained for ten months to four years.70 Su‘ād al-Tawīl recounts their struggle in 1949 to attain recognition as political prisoners. If passed into law, Category-A status would grant political prisoners coveted privileges like mattresses, the right to cook their own food, wear their own clothing and access to the state’s national newspaper. The women went on hunger strike for four months, although many of them fell ill and were transferred to Qasr al-Aini hospital after just a few weeks.71 But the prison hospital at al-Qanātir was not equipped to deal with dozens of hunger strikers, neither the doctors nor the feeding tubes were available.72 The Prison Authority was faced with a new infrastructural problem: with over a hundred such women imprisoned in 1949 and many more to follow after independence, existing prison capacity could not be stretched to cope. Indeed, much elaborate shuffling and partitioning was required to keep the siyasiyāt separate from the ‘adiyyāt. Even in 1959, the prostitution ward at al-Qanātir was quickly evacuated to receive over sixty communist women on one January night, while the original inhabitants were crowded into cells across the rest of the prison. This, in direct violation of the prisons charter which followed strict protocols of segregation according to the crime committed.

30Pending access to the Ministry of Interior’s archives, one can only speculate as to whether this was driven more by an urge to keep the politicals from inciting the normals to revolutionary politics or by the need to keep the fallen women from debasing the middle-class women’s sexual honor. One thing is for sure, the state was well aware of the reputational hazard of letting the two groups mingle, and deployed mutaqalāt’s anxieties about their reputation against them. In one account, Thurayya Shaker describes how a liminal boundary had been established even within the walls of the prison. Not only did the politicals go out to recess at a different time to the rest of the inmates, but when they undertook yet another hunger strike to demand a more sanitized and hygienic environment and nutritional regime, the prison warden reacted swiftly:

  • 73 Thurayyā Shāker, interview by Fakhrī Labīb reproduced in Shahādāt wa Ru’ā: Min Tarīkh al-Haraka al- (...)

“They got about two-hundred soldiers who marched around and bandied their rifles around, this of course for intimidation. They left us for an hour, and then called the emergency code sending all inmates to their cells except for about 40 or more prostitutes who were known for being big-bodied and getting in fights. Then they let them in the room, each one of us was taken on by two of them and the kicking and hair pulling, and such began … we were chanting during all of this and on our way back to the ward: ‘Down with Prison!’”73

  • 74 Inji Aflatun, interview by Fakhrī Labīb (1991) Tape, Wādi Hitān Archive, Fayyūm.
  • 75 Yunan Rizq, “Stop Press”, Al-Ahrām, 13-19 Nov. 2003, accessed 25 June 2014 at http://weekly.ahram.o (...)
  • 76 Gorman, “Confining Political Dissent”, art. cit., p. 167.

31Clearly the prison authorities and at least sections of the state’s political apparatus were concerned about the effect the incarceration of these women could have on their respectability, and by extension that of their male ‘guardians’ and the national body politic. An inmate like Inji Efflātūn, hailing from the old aristocracy and with several uncles serving as ministers, must have posed a particularly awkward dilemma.74 Indeed, from the moment when political imprisonment gained force as a tool for repressing middle-class journalists and nationalists, the press and members of parliament had been demanding preferential treatment for political prisoners, but to no avail.75 From 1930 onwards, successive Wafdist governments had insisted that there was no legal basis for such privileges.76 It was only when middle-class women threatened to unravel an already fragile national class-gender regime that the state finally acquiesced. Recalling the strain of a months-long hunger strike, for many of those who were pregnant or elderly, Su‘ād al-Tawīl—herself not yet eighteen—triumphantly recounts:

  • 77 Su‘ad al-Tawil, interview, p. 14.

“The rest of us stayed on hunger strike for four months until they finally granted us our demands in March [1950].”77

32This law would remain in effect until 1952, when Su‘ād was re-arrested along with ten other women as part of a second arrest campaign. However, by the time Su‘ād was released in 1953, one year after the Free Officers came to power, this law had been abandoned. Responding to a letter from Roger Baldwin of the International League for the Rights of Man in 1959, the Director of the Prison Authority rejoined with a numbered list of ‘facts’ pertaining to the state of visitation rights, parcels, letters, penal labour and medical care in political prisons. The letter was prefaced with the adamant assertion that:

  • 78 ‘Letter to Roger Baldwin from Director of Prison Authority’, IISH, Rome Group Collection, fo. 165.

“The Egyptian laws do not contain special laws which permit special treatments to prisoners. There are no laws allowing them privileges or depriving them of rights. They are sentenced to prison and penal servitude in the same degree which is issued against other suspects within the limits of penal law.”78

  • 79 See Judith Butler, “Foucault and the Paradox of Bodily Inscriptions”, The Journal of Philosophy, n° (...)

33To add insult to injury, he also claimed that there were ‘no political prisoners’ serving sentences in Egypt. The post-colonial regime, it seems, did not deal in facts. The prison hierarchy which saw politicals as essentially ‘sacred bodies’, aesthetically different to the ‘bare’ working-class bodies of the women which inhabited the prostitution and narcotics wards, was turned on its head after the revolution.79 The prison system was reformed, or rather relaxed, to give more rights to inmates, while political prisoners were reconfigured as entirely outside the bounds of the law: detained administratively or tried in military courts. Nevertheless, the material privileges of identifying as a political prisoner were evidently not the only reason women insisted on this distinction. From written memoirs and interviews with later generations of women activists, it appears that even as normals came to enjoy more rights over time, identifying as siyasiyyāt remained an important part of their identity, precisely because the space of the prison remained indelibly connected to a national discourse and imaginary of fallen, sexually deviant women.

34Although the 2011 revolution produced cracks in the efficacy of this disciplinary regime, with mu‘taqalāt increasingly identifying as simply prisoners (‘prisoners period.’) and refusing to uphold its premise, following Elsisi’s rise to power in 2013 disillusionment and defeat saw the cleavage between normals and politicals return once more. As Yara Sallām wrote on her release from al-Qanātir in March 2019:

  • 80 Yara Sallām, “I lost track of time in every sense of the word”, Madā Masr, 9 March 2019. Accessed 1 (...)

“Since we were not there for crimes connected to the sex trade, in practice, it meant that we had never been married. As a result, we were saved from the more humiliating searches: the vaginal search, carried out every time one re-enters the prison gate after any legal proceeding, and the extensive pat-down, which is not so different from sexual harassment. I did not comment on fellow [political] prisoners’ attempt to spare us these violations, for I had decided at the outset that I would not be exhausted by details.”80

  • 81 Ibid.

35Yet the devil is in those very details, which forced Sallām, an ardent feminist, to identify as ‘an unmarried “girl” for the duration of [her] imprisonment.’81 Sallām’s predicament must have presented as an ultimatum, much in the vein of the choice offered to Nadā by her aunt in the introduction. Thus, just as repertoires of erasure had worked to exhaust the first cohorts of women political prisoners, the more recent shift to ‘recognition’—based almost exclusively on social class—produced its own devastating disciplinary effects. This article has presented the prison as a pivotal site for the production of national gender regimes, arguing that the interwar codification of sexual deviance into the women’s prison was an effective, productive and exceptionally durable disciplinary mechanism. While mu‘taqalāt steadily deployed counter-scripts to assert their own narrative and identity, it is ironic that their agency in these gender struggles was precisely what ensured their intergenerational perdurance. This, then, is the mu‘taqala’s dilemma: for every time she counters the state’s repertoires of erasure by highlighting her classed/gendered difference from the criminal prisoners, she at once subverts the prison’s attempt to control her and entrenches the very precepts by which she was disciplined and punished in the first place.

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Notes

1 I am indebted to Lucie Ryzova and Robert Gildea for their generous comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

2 Radical domesticity is a term I use to define the particular gendered divisions of labour which arise for women with relatives and loved ones in prison. Briefly, some aspects of normative gender relations are further entrenched, such as child-care responsibilities, at the same time as many others quickly unravel as women take up the mantle of heads and providers of households, political advocates and organisational leaders. I don’t discuss this here but point to it elsewhere as a non-divisible aspect of any gendered history of political resistance and repression, and as such of any social reproduction account of gender relations, see chapter 7 in Hannah Elsisi, Mu’taqal Machine: Power, Gender and Identity in Egypt’s Political Prisons, 1948-1997, Unpublished PhD Dissertation, 2019. For a recent contribution centring social reproduction in its analysis of Egyptian gender relations see Mai Taha and Sara Salem, “Social Reproduction and Empire in an Egyptian Century”, Radical Philosophy, 2.04, Spring, 2019, p. 47-54.

3 Nadā, a fictional character roughly representing Radwā ‘Ashour, shared a cell at al-Qanātir with Arwā Sāleh and Sihām Sabrī, both real characters and leading members of the Egyptian students’ movement who committed suicide upon their release from Sadat’s mutaqal in the late 70s.

4 Radwa ‘Ashour, Blue Lorries, Doha, Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation, 2014, kl. 1773-1774. I take up the queer forms of kinship and community amongst the families of political prisoners in Elsisi, Mu‘taqal Machine, op. cit.

5 Indeed, recent scholarship has begun to undermine earlier scholars’ tendency to locate sea-change shifts in gender relations at such watershed moments. See for example Lucia Sorbera’s argument that ‘one of the important and largely overlooked continuities in Egyptian political history is the permanence of a patriarchal approach to politics by the ruling elites’ in Lucia Sorbera, “Challenges of thinking feminism and revolution in Egypt between 2011 and 2014”, Postcolonial Studies, 17, 1, 2014, p. 63.

6 Marilyn Booth, “Women’s Prison Memoirs in Egypt and Elsewhere”, MERIP, 17, Nov-Dec, 1987, p. 35-41. This rings true of female criminality elsewhere, see for example Frances Heidensohn’s assertion that the criminal woman in Britain was often pathologized and represented as more deviant, indeed more dangerous than her male counterpart in Frances Heidensohn, Women and Crime, Basingstoke, MacMillan, 1985, p. 39.

7 And indeed, of good from bad citizens. See Souad Joseph (ed.), Gender and Citizenship in the Middle East, Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 2000. There has been virtually no scholarship on female criminality in Egypt and the Middle East with the exception of Anthony Gorman’s two-page think-piece: Anthony Gorman, “In her Aunt’s house: Women in prison in the Middle East”, IIAS Newsletter, 39, December 2005. On women’s imprisonment, the extant scholarship consists of short literary studies of a select few prison memoirs written by Egyptian women. I am indebted to this scholarship for originally turning my attention to the heavy weight of gender in women’s experience of incarceration, and particularly to divergences in Islamist and leftist women’s negotiation of their gender identity in prison. While these differences are important, and form part of the subject of my enquiry in Hannah Elsisi, chapter 3 in Mu’taqal Machine, op. cit., this paper is less concerned to trace those cleavages than to elucidate the standards of gender intelligibility within and against which all women prisoners struggled struggle? in common. See especially “Sectarian versus Secular: The Case of Egypt” in Barbara Harlow, Barred: Women, Writing and Political Detention, Middletown, Wesleyan University Press, 1992; Miriam Cooke, “Saint or Subversive?”, Die Welt Des Islams, 34, n°1, 1994, p. 1-20; Miriam Cooke, “‘Ayyām Min Ḥayātī’: The Prison Memoirs of a Muslim Sister”, Journal of Arabic Literature, 26, n°1/2, 1995, p. 147-64; and Booth, “Women’s prison Memoirs”, art. cit.

8 I borrow this phrase from Carolyn Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman, London, Virago, 1986.

9 See Lila Abu Lughod’s argument on hybridised modernity in Lila Abu-Lughod (ed.), “Introduction” in Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1998, p. 3-32.

10 See especially Marilyn Booth, May Her Likes Be Multiplied: Biography and Gender Politics in Egypt, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2001 and Beth Baron, The Woman’s Awakening in Egypt, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1994.

11 Scholars have differed in their interpretation of Amin, with Margot Badran arguing that men’s preoccupation with the woman question in this period was less a feminist impulse than a strategy to prove to the British that Egyptians could tick the self-government boxes. Lisa Pollard and Lucie Ryzova put this down to a problem of efendiyya (not) finding suitable wives. See Margot Badran, Feminism, Islam, and Nation, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1995 and chapter 5 in Lucie Ryzova, The Age of the Efendiyya, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014.

12 See especially, Omnia El-Shakry, “Schooled Mothers and Structured Play: Child Rearing in Turn of the Century Egypt” in Abu-Lughod (ed.) Remaking Women, op. cit., p. 126-170; Lisa Pollard, Nurturing the Nation: the Family Politics of Modernizing, Colonizing and Liberating Egypt, 1805-1923, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2005; Hanan Kholoussy, For Better, For Worse: the Marriage Crisis that Made Modern Egypt, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2010 and Mona L. Russell, Creating the New Egyptian Woman: Consumerism, Education and National Identity, 1863-1922, New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 2004.

13 The scholarship abounds, see especially Beth Baron, Egypt as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender and Politics, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2014, Beth Baron, “Mothers, Morality and Nationalism in Pre-1919 Egypt”, in Rashid Khalidi, Lisa Anderson, Muhammad Muslih, Reeva S. Simon (eds.) The Origins of Arab Nationalism, New York, Columbia University Press, 1991, p. 271-288 and Badran, Feminism, op. cit.

14 Nira Yuval Davis, Gender and Nation, London, Sage Publications, 1997, p. 67.

15 Baron, Egypt as Woman, op. cit., p. 2.

16 Badran, Feminism, op. cit., p. 82-88.

17 See especially Omnia el-Shakry, The Great Social Laboratory, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2007; Omnia el-Shakry, The Arabic Freud, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2017 – see especially chapter 4 on criminality, although there is not a single mention of women; on prostitution see Badran, Feminism, op. cit., p. 192-206 and Francesca Biancani, Sex Work in Colonial Egypt, London, I.B. Tauris, 2018.

18 See for example, Soha Abdel Kader, Egyptian Women in a Changing Society, 1899-1987, Boulder, Lynne Reinner Publishers 1987 and Badran, Feminism, op. cit., p. 111-123.

19 Lucie Ryzova, “I am a Whore but I Will be a Good Mother”, The Arab Studies Journal, n°2/1, Spring 2005, p. 80-122. I relate the latter to multi-layered conceptualisations of space such as a spatial triad in Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1991 and a multidimensional spatial grid in David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, Cambridge MA, Cambridge University Press, 1989.

20 Baron, Egypt as Woman, op. cit., p. 80.

21 Ibid., p. 82-105; Ryzova, “I am a Whore”, art. cit. and Lucie Ryzova, “Boys, Girls and Kodaks: Peer Albums and Middle-Class Personhood in Mid-Twentieth Century Egypt”, Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, vol. 8, Jan 2015, p. 215-255.

22 This is widely recorded in fiction and film, see especially Latifa al-Zayyat, The Open Door, Cairo, 1960.

23 Shaun Timothy Lopez, Media Sensations, Contested Sensibilities: Gender and Moral Order in the Egyptian Mass Media, 1920-1955, Unpublished PhD dissertation. In her study of fait divers pages of al-Mu’ayyid, Marylin Booth shows this has a longer history extending back to the 19th century, see Marilyn Booth, “Disruptions of the Local, Eruptions of the Feminine: Local Reportage and National Anxieties in Egypt’s 1890s” in Anthony Gorman and Didier Monciaud (ed.), The Press in the Middle East and North Africa, 1850-1950, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2018, p.  58-98.

24 Ryzova, “I am a Whore”, art. cit., p. 83.

25 Hanan Hammad, “Disreputable by Definition Respectability and Theft by Poor Women in Urban Interwar Egypt”, Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, vol. 13, 2017, p. 376-394. Hammad rightly points out the huge gap in this scholarship. Satr is a multifaceted concept that literally means ‘to cover’ and idiomatically refers to sexual, moral and socio-economic honour and respectability.

26 Ibid., p. 383.

27 Ibid., p. 394.

28 Ashwini Tambe, Codes of Misconduct: Regulating Prostitution in Late Colonial Bombay, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2009. Indeed, this recalls Foucault’s description in Discipline and Punish (London, Pantheon Books, 1977) of penalty as an end in and of itself, as a “way of handling illegalities, of laying down the limits of tolerance, of giving free rein to some, of putting pressure on others, of excluding a particular section, of making another useful, of neutralising certain individuals and of profiting from others. In short, penalty does not simply ‘check’ illegalities; it differentiates them, it provides them with a general economy”, p. 277.

29 See also Biancani, Sex Work in Colonial Egypt, op. cit., p. 89 and ch. 6-7 on the prostitution abolition campaigns.

30 Until their revocation at Montreux in 1937, the capitulations provided for an extraterritorial legal system that granted separate and preferential fiscal and legal treatment to foreign communities living in Egypt. In the context of sexuality and criminality, Biancani argued that they effectively rendered any sex-work regulation obsolete, since it applied to local women and foreign nationals very differently, ibid., p. 65.

31 Baron, Egypt as a Woman, op. cit., p. 52.

32 Ibid., p. 108-134.

33 Badran, Feminism, op. cit., p. 210.

34 Ibid., p. 210-211.

35 Ibid.

36 In broad terms, efendiyya refers to a new class of school and university educated men characterised by their involvement in the nationalist movement and espousal of new ideas and standards delineating the modern man from an older ‘traditional’ ideal.

37 See Nancy Y Reynolds, A City Consumed: Urban Commerce, the Cairo Fire, and the Politics of Decolonization in Egypt, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2012.

38 See Baron, Egypt as Woman, op. cit. and Khaled Fahmy, “Prostitution in Egypt in the Nineteenth-Century”, in Eugene L. Rogan (ed.), Outside in: On the Margins of the Modem Middle East, London, I.B. Tauris, 2002, p. 77-103.

39 ‘Letters from WIDF to Nasser and UN General Assembly 1959’ International Institute for Social History, Rome Group Collection, fo. 182. Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 2000.

40 To compare across five cohorts from the 1940s to 1980s see for example, Inji Afatun, Min al-Tufūla ila al-Sijn, Cairo, Dar al-Thaqāfa al-Jadida, 2014; Jean Buktur, Fi Sijn al-Nisā’, Cairo, Bayt al-Yasmin, 2015; Zaynab al-Ghazzali, Ayyām min Hayati, Cairo, Dar al-tawzi’ wa-l-nashr al-Islamiyya; Nawal el-Saadāwi, Imra’a ‘ind Nuqtat al-Sifr, Beirut, Dar al-Adab, 1977; Salwa Bakr, al-‘Araba al-Thahabiyya La Tas‘ud ila al-Sama’, Cairo, Madbouli, 2004.

41 Ṣafināz Qāzīm, “al-Rā’ida Nabawiyya Mūsā wa In‘āsh ḏākirat al-Umma”, al-Hilāl, January 1984, p. 119.

42 Nabawiyya Mūsā, Tārikhī bi-Qalamī, Cairo, Makatabat al-‘Usra, 2003.

43 See also Ṣafināz Qāzīm, “Fa Kharaj ‘ala Qawmihi” in ‘An al-Sijn wa-l-Hurriyya, Cairo, al-Zahra’ li-l-I‘lam al-‘Arabi, 1986. The decision to emphasize Nabawiya’s age as 57 also relates to the ways in which the age of women prisoners was crucial to how, and indeed whether, imprisonment detracted from women’s respectability.

44 Indeed, the overwhelming evidence, of which some is discussed in the following pages, does not sit well with Barbara Harlow’s assessment that politicals found ‘common lot with fellow prisoners and in [their] diary rewrite the social order to include a vision of new relational possibilities which transgress ethnic, class, and racial divisions as well as family ties’ in Barbara Harlow, Resistance Literature, New York, Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1987, p. 142. Harlow’s view is shared by scholars who have taken on prison literature, see Booth, “Women’s prison Memoirs”, art. cit., Radwa Ashour and Ferial J. Ghazoul (eds), Arab Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide, Cairo, American University in Cairo Press, 2008 and Nadine Sinno, “From Confinement to Creativity: Women’s Reconfiguration of the Prison and Mental Asylum in Salwa Bakr’s The Golden Chariot and Fadia Faqir’s Pillars of Salt”, Journal of Arabic Literature, vol. 42, n°1, 2011, p.  67-94; Cooke, “Saint or Subversive?”, art. cit., p. 17.

45 In testimonies see for example Bakr, al-‘Araba; Aflatun, Min al-Tufūla; Farida al-Naqqāsh, al-Sijn Dim‘atān wa Warda, Cairo, Dar al-Mustaqbal al-‘Arabi, 1985; al-Saadāwi, Imra’a; al-Ghazali, Ayyām.

46 Yunan. Rizq, “When Papers Shift”, Al Ahram, 17– 23 nov. 2005, accessed 14 June 2014 at http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2005/769/chrncls.htm

47 Anthony Gorman, “Confining Political Dissent in Egypt before 1952” in Laleh Khalili and Jillian Schwedler (eds.), Policing and Prisons in the Middle East and North Africa, New York, Columbia University Press, 2010, p. 165.

48 Selma Botman, The Rise of Egyptian Communism, 1939-1970, Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 1988, p. 64-66.

49 Ibid., p. 65.

50 Aflatun, Min al-Tufula, p. 54.

51 Geneviève Sedārus, interview by Hanān Ramadān reproduced in Shahādāt wa Ru’ā: Min Tarīkh al-Haraka al-Shuyū‘iyya fī Misr, Vol. 3, Cairo, Markaz al-Buhuth al-‘Arabiyya wa-l-Ifriqiyya, 2000, p. 9-27. Shahādāt wa Ru’ā was an 8-volume series of interviews with tens of communists self-published by Egyptian communists via the Centre for Arab and African Studies, and copies of which were retrieved from the private homes of communists such as Salāh ʿAdly, Fakhrī Labīb and Albert Arie. If the exact date or location of interview is not provided here, this is because the information was not indicated in publication and could not be ascertained.

52 See Relli Shechter, “Reading Advertisements in a Colonial/Development Context: Cigarette Advertising and Identity Politics in Egypt, 1919-1939”, Journal of Social History, vol. 39, 2005, p. 483-503 and Ryzova, “I am a Whore”, art. cit., p. 94-97.

53 R. al-Sa‘i, interview by Hanān Ramadān reproduced in Shahādāt wa Ru’ā: Min Tarīkh al-Haraka al-Shuyū‘iyya fī Misr, vol. 6, Cairo, 2002, p. 87-109. In fact, most of Rūḥiyya’s comrades did smoke cigarettes.

54 Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman, Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam and the Egyptian Working Class, London, I.N. Tauris, 1988, p. 350-352.

55 Ibid., p. 356-361.

56 Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, London, Oxford University Press, 1969, p. 66.

57 Su‘ād Zuhayr, interview by Hanān Ramadān reproduced in Shahādāt wa Ru’ā: Min Tarīkh al-Haraka al-Shuyū‘iyya fī Misr, vol. 3, Cairo, Markaz al-Buhuth al-‘Arabiyya wa-l-Ifriqiyya, 2000, p. 121-156.

58 See Lopez, Media Sensations, op. cit.; Hanan Kholoussy, “Stolen Husbands, Foreign Wives: Mixed Marriage, Identity Formation, and Gender in Colonial Egypt, 1909-1923”, ḥawwā, Vol. 1, 2003, p. 206-240; and Ifdal Elsaket, “Sound and Desire: Race, Gender, and Insult in Egypt’s First Talkie”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 51, 2019, p. 203-232. This also in the context of growing anti-semitism and the state’s frequent recourse to painting all communist activity as either Jewish or Zionist conspiracy, for background see Rami Ginat, “Remembering History: The Egyptian Discourse on the Role of Jews in the Communist Movements”, Middle Eastern Studies, 49, 6, 2013, p. 919-940.

59 Su‘ad Zuhayr, interview.

60 For example, Thurayyā abashī left a new-born with comrades in 1959, I have reviewed a box of letters she and her husband, Fawzi abashī wrote on cigarette paper from their respective cells to ask after the children. ‘Box of Prison Letters’, DAAL Private Archive, Garden City, Cairo.

61 Inji Aflatun writes fondly of the jailors who smuggled this painting and others out of the prison for her. Another communist, Zeinat al-Sabbāgh was arrested with her newborn Tārek who stayed in with her for a year. Tārek would later become the subject of the famous novel by Fathy Ghanem, Hikāyet Tu (1987) and later film by same name (1989). He is also the child pictured hanging off the bunker bed in this painting, recently exhibited in ‘Art et Liberté: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938-1948)’ at Centre Pompidou and permanently displayed at the Inji Aflatun Museum at the Prince Taz Palace in Cairo.

62 On its part, the post-colonial government did for a time backtrack on earlier liberal discourses which encouraged women’s involvement in public life, and began re-constructing women as apolitical, domestic mother-subjects, see Laura Bier, Revolutionary Womanhood, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2011. Psychological studies of women activists find similar, see for example Rose Capdevila, “Lysistratus, Lysistrata, Lysistratum”, Psychology of Women Quarterly, n°34, Dec. 2010, p. 530-537.

63 Interview with Thurayyā Adham, conducted by Hanān Ramadān, Shahādāt wa Ru’ā: Min Tarīkh al-Haraka al-Shuyū‘iyya fī Misr, vol. 7, Cairo, 2006, p. 43-69. Yaser remained with her until her release and suffered medical complications for which she seems to blame the government and herself. Her pregnancy in 1959 is mentioned in one of the WIDF letters, IISH, Rome Group Collection, fo. 180.

64 Intiṣār ḫattāb interview by Fakhrī Labīb (1990), Tape. All taped interviews conducted by Labīb are part of Fakhrī Labīb’s private archive, held at Wadī Hītān, Fayyūm, acquired by the author and converted to .WAV files in 2015-16. She was arrested along with her husband and left three children at home. In her autobiography, Farīda al-Naqqāsh similarly writes to her daughter Rashā: ‘Do you, too, believe that I betrayed my motherhood when I left you, against my will, to go to prison? ... I have read an article by the Moroccan writer Hadiya Sa’id... she expressed a point of view maintained by some of our friends who love me and are concerned about you. She says that I must cease my political work and leave it to Husayn, for the sake of you children,’ op. cit., p. 253.

65 Su‘ād al-Tawīl, interview by Ismā’īl Abd el-Hakam, transcript in Saba‘ Shahadāt Ta’akharat: Sanawāt fi Sufuf al-Yasār, Cairo, al-‘Arabi li-l-Nashr wa-l-Tawzī‘, 2003, p. 5-28.

66 Gayatri Spivak has termed this practice “strategic essentialism” in “In a Word” in Naomi Schor and Elizabeth Weed (eds.), The Essential Difference, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1994. This is reminiscent of Palestinian and Latin American women’s narratives of resistance and motherhood. See for example Julie Peteet, “Male Gender and Rituals of Resistance in the Palestinian Intifada: A Cultural Politics of Violence”, American Ethnologist, 21, 1994, p. 31-49 and Lynn Stephen’s study of El Salvador’s CO-MADRES movement, Lynn Stephen, “Gender, Citizenship and the Politics of Identity”, Latin American Perspectives, n°6, Nov. 2001, p. 54-69.

67 hurayyā Shāker, interview by Fakhrī Labīb reproduced in Shahādāt wa Ru’ā: Min Tarīkh al-Haraka al-Shuy ū‘iyya fī Misr, vol. 1, Cairo, Markaz al-Buhuth al-‘Arabiyya wa-l-Ifriqiyya, 1998, p. 117-126.

68 Zeinab al-Askari, interview by Ramsis Labīb reproduced in Masriyyāt fil Sujūn w al-Mu‘taqalāt, Cairo, Markaz al-Buhuth al-‘Arabiyya wa-l-Ifriqiyya, 2003, p. 102.

69 MB inmates alone numbered over 4000, Mitchell, The Society, op. cit., p. 72.

70 See Ryzova, The Age, op. cit.

71 Su‘ād al-Tawīl, interview, p. 14.

72 Ibid.

73 Thurayyā Shāker, interview by Fakhrī Labīb reproduced in Shahādāt wa Ru’ā: Min Tarīkh al-Haraka al-Shuyū‘iyya fī Misr, vol. 1, Cairo, Markaz al-Buhuth al-‘Arabiyya wa-l-Ifriqiyya, 1998, p. 117-126.

74 Inji Aflatun, interview by Fakhrī Labīb (1991) Tape, Wādi Hitān Archive, Fayyūm.

75 Yunan Rizq, “Stop Press”, Al-Ahrām, 13-19 Nov. 2003, accessed 25 June 2014 at http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2003/664/chrncls.htm

76 Gorman, “Confining Political Dissent”, art. cit., p. 167.

77 Su‘ad al-Tawil, interview, p. 14.

78 ‘Letter to Roger Baldwin from Director of Prison Authority’, IISH, Rome Group Collection, fo. 165.

79 See Judith Butler, “Foucault and the Paradox of Bodily Inscriptions”, The Journal of Philosophy, n°86, nov. 1989, p. 601-7. See also Jacques Rancière’s assertion that sovereign state-regimes become dependent on an aesthetic regime where torture or detention is concerned because of the latter’s function in what Butler calls ‘a differential distribution of grieveability,’ Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, London, Mansell Publishing - Pbk. Ed edition, 2004, p. 13.

80 Yara Sallām, “I lost track of time in every sense of the word”, Madā Masr, 9 March 2019. Accessed 1 October 2019 at https://madamasr.com/en/2019/10/13/opinion/society/i-lost-track-of-time-in-every-sense-of-the-word/

81 Ibid.

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Titre Figure 1. Dormitory of Prisoners, Inji Aflatun, (1961)61
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Hannah Elsisi, « “They Threw Her in with the Prostitutes!”: Negotiating Respectability between the Space of Prison and the Place of Woman in Egypt (1943–1959) », Genre & Histoire [En ligne], 25 | Printemps 2020, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2020, consulté le 26 janvier 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/genrehistoire/5213

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Hannah Elsisi

Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. Mail: he289(at)cam.ac.uk

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