Advocates of even mild feminism were thin on the ground in 19th-century Egypt. But in 1899, the Cairo newspapers announced the appearance of at least one citizen who held outlandishly modern opinions on the subject. His much-reviled book, The Liberation of Women, created a controversy that remains alive today in certain corners of Islam.
The heretic in question, Qasim Amin (1863-1908), a young judge from a prominent family, was hard to ignore. He was well connected among Egyptian intellectuals and a founder of Cairo University. He based his argument on patriotism. As a nationalist, he insisted that the independent Egypt of his generation's dreams would need a new kind of woman, educated and (relatively) free.
Today, no one would call him a feminist. He emphasized that improving women's position would make them better mothers and wives. Boys were growing up in an atmosphere of ignorance because their mothers were ignorant, he argued. Amin believed that Egypt's future would depend on mothers giving their sons the beginning of an education.
The author also claimed that freedom for adult women would make them hap-pier spouses. He wanted fair divorce laws; he felt women should be less burdened by the demand to veil themselves; and he even suggested they should be able to go out of their houses unescorted.
Having created this scandal in 1899, Amin returned to the subject in a second book a year later, this time going farther. He suggested that women could become teachers and doctors, and he seemed on the brink of advocating something like full citizenship.
One gets a sense of his increased boldness from reading The Liberation of Women and The New Woman: Two Documents in the History of Egyptian Feminism, published in 2000 as a single book by the American University in Cairo Press. It seems that after his gently diffident proposals were criticized in 1899, he decided he might as well set forth even more radical views.
Since Amin's death at age 45, Arab scholars, many of them marginal within their own societies, have continued to make him the focus of women's-rights discussions. He's never become a national hero in Egypt, but his ideas have continued to reappear through more than a century of changing intellectual fashions and regimes.
Too often, unfortunately, Amin's ideas get revived only so that another defender of orthodoxy can try to bury them. In 1999, when the government of Egypt recognized the author's place in history by organizing a six-day international conference about him in Cairo, one of the 150 scholars taking part reflected on how little had changed since Amin's time: It was as if "time has not passed in the Arab world" for a full century.
There are those who like it that way. Consider Azzam Tamimi, a prominent London-based Palestinian activist who supports Hamas and expresses admiration for jihadist suicide bombers. Tamimi believes that Amin, a Muslim who made all the required references to Allah and the Prophet in his writing, was eager to abandon Islam. Tamimi claims he was influenced by Christian Arab scholars who advocated secular principles. Their goal, as Tamimi sees it, was to weaken local religious institutions, make secularism "a tool of domination" and render Muslims "colonizable and controllable."
Secularists were wrong, Tamimi says, to think that Arabs needed freedom from spiritual authority, the way people in the West did. Actually, he points out, Islam has always been free. Its aims are "establishing justice and equality, encouraging research and innovation, and guaranteeing freedom of thought, expression, and worship." Can't argue with that.
Meanwhile, back in Cairo last month, after five weeks of debate, parliament finally passed a law making female circumcision punishable by two years in jail. The Muslim Brotherhood, a group of Islamists that essentially constitutes the country's political opposition, bitterly fought that measure, and so did at least one non-Brotherhood opposition member, said to be secular. He brought his three young daughters to parliament, all of them holding banners that denounced the law. Two of the three, he said, were already circumcised.
But Cairo's mild commitment to equality doesn't get reflected in foreign policy. In June, Egypt voted at the United Nations Human Rights Council against allowing discussion of the warped effects of shariah law (stoning of women, for instance, and "honour killing"). Egypt's delegate stressed that "Islam will not be crucified in this Council." A century after his death, Amin remains a man ahead of his time.