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Women and Men in Late Eighteenth-Century Egypt

Women and Men in Late Eighteenth-Century Egypt

The first comprehensive picture of women's status and opportunities in late eighteenth-century Egypt.

Series: No. 18

January 1995
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199 pages | 6 x 9 | 3 tables, 2 figures |

In the late eighteenth century, decentralized and chaotic government in Egypt allowed women a freedom of action that has not been equaled until recent times. Delving extensively into archival sources, Afaf Marsot presents the first comprehensive picture of women's status and opportunities in this period.

Marsot makes important connections between forms of government, economic possibilities, and gender relations, showing how political instability allowed women to acquire property, independent of males, as a hedge against political uncertainty. She traces the linkages that women formed among themselves and with the ulama (non-Ottoman native elites) who aided and supported them. The book concludes with a comparison of women's status in the nineteenth century, when the introduction of European institutions that did not recognize their legal existence marginalized women, causing them to have to rely on men as major breadwinners. These important findings about the relationship between forms of government and the status of women will be of interest to a wide audience.

  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • 1. Women in the Eyes of Men: Myth and Reality
  • 2. Political Struggles: The Search for Leadership
  • 3. Society in Mamluk Egypt: The Elites
  • 4. Indigenous Elites in the Eighteenth Century: Ulama and Tujjar
  • 5. Artisans and Ayan: Urban and Rural Middle and Lower Classes in the Eighteenth Century
  • 6. The Nineteenth Century: The Advent of Centralization
  • Appendix A. Mamluk Elites
  • Appendix B. Native Elites
  • Appendix C. Women of Artisanal Classes
  • Notes
  • Select Bibliography
  • Index

Afaf Marsot was the first Egyptian woman to receive a D.Phil. from Oxford University. Currently, she is Professor of History at UCLA.


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During the reign of Muhammad Ali legal documents were collected from the various courts and deposited in one area. Since then the documents have been moved to various places, finally ending up at the Registry Office, the Shahr al-Aqari, in 1970.

Another set of deeds pertaining to the Ottoman period, dealing with financial and commercial transactions and with litigation, was preserved in the National Archives (Dar al-Wathaiq) in the citadel in 1971 (they have now been moved to a new repository on the Nile at Imbaba). These are of two kinds. Deeds pertaining to sultans and amirs are placed in cartons (mahfadha) and numbered from 1 to 364. Deeds pertaining to ordinary people are preserved in folders numbered 1 to 4,978.

The folders I used began with no. 7, dated 1184/1770 to 1190/1776, which held 80 deeds, of which 33 pertained to women. The contents of this carton were numbered 301-380. Chronological order is not always followed: some deeds in no. 7 are dated 1190/1776, while other deeds in no. 8 are dated 1186/1772. The numbers of the cartons have been changed since André Raymond, author of the two-volume work entitled Artisans et commerçants au Caire au XVIIIème siècle, the first to use these archives, consulted them over two decades ago, so that his carton no. 5 is our carton no. 10.

Carton no. 8, dated 1186/1772–1194/1780, was numbered 380-420; it contained 41 deeds, 15 pertaining to women. No. 9, dated 1174/1760–1196/1781, was numbered 421-472; this had 51 deeds, of which 12 pertained to women. No. 10 had 85 deeds, dated 1172/1758–1199/1784 and numbered 453-537, including 21 for women. No. 15, dated 1210/1795–1227/1812 and numbered 686-733, had 48 deeds, 16 for women. No. 16, dated 1212/1797 and numbered 734-779, had 46 deeds, out of which 22 belonged to women. Of the 351 deeds I consulted, 119 or 34 percent of the total belonged to women.

All of these deeds pertain to the exchange of property: to loans, buying and selling, mortmain endowments, or trust funds known as awqaf (sing. waqf, also waqfiyya and pl. waqfiyyat or awqaf). In brief they reveal the personal and financial relations of individuals, for any transaction must be registered in the court to render it valid and binding.

Other than the deeds in the citadel we have a second lot of deeds from two courts entitled "military division" (Qisma Askariyya) and "Arab division" (Qisma Arabiyya). These are court registers which list estates of deceased individuals in order to levy an inheritance tax collected by the regiments. Individuals who were related in some fashion to the Ottoman regiments (relatives, retainers, supporters, etc.) were listed under the Qisma Askariyya, while the rest went under the Qisma Arabiyya. In the early part of the eighteenth century most of the estates pertained to the Qisma Askariyya, since artisans and ocaqs (Ottoman regiments) had a symbiotic relationship, with the ocaqs protecting the artisans in return for a fee. After the middle of the century the relationship diminished as the ocaqs lost their influence. Those who were registered in the Qisma Askariyya then came to have little or no connection with the ocaqs. Raymond believes that the Qisma Askariyya concerned the estates of Muslims, while the Qisma Arabiyya showed a preponderance of nonMuslim or dhimmi estates. I have found an occasional dhimmi in the Qisma Askariyya, although most were registered in the Qisma Arabiyya; I also found that in the period from 1166/1752 to 1201/1786 there were a majority of Muslims in the Qisma Arabiyya.

Thus while the deeds in the citadel indicate transactions involving various kinds of properties which have been bought or sold (without necessarily telling us when the owner died and how many of these properties remained in the owner's possession), the deeds of the Qisma give details of items in an estate on which an inheritance tax would be levied. The third lot of deeds we possess, which may or may not duplicate the deeds in either the citadel or the Qisma, are straightforward trust deeds (awqaf) or endowed properties in mortmain. These are of two kinds. The waqf khairi deed property in perpetuity for a charitable cause, such as prayers to be recited at certain times, the upkeep and maintenance of a school, or the support of the blind and the widowed. The manager of any trust (the nazir) was a male or female family member, a respectable individual, or often an alim (pl. ulama). Prominent ulama were managers of many awqaf, which supplied them with wealth and hence power. Shaikh al-Sadat, the head of a mystical order and one of the most powerful religious figures of his day, supervised some fifty-two awqaf.

The second kind of waqf was the waqf ahli, set up in favor of the donor then after the donor's death in favor of family members and their descendants. There was always a clause which included some charity in the waqf; the law would not recognize a waqf without some endowment for charitable purposes stipulated in the contents. These charities might be immediate, such as prayers recited at specific times of the year or food distributed to the poor, or ultimate, such as after the deaths of all descendants of the donor. When the donors had no descendants the waqf was frequently in favor of manumitted mamluks (maatiq) and their descendants. When all persons related to the donor had died then the waqf would sustain a chosen charity. Only the revenues from the waqf were disbursed; the capital remained untouched.

These deeds give us some details about women's commercial and financial transactions and the kinds of property in which they invested. They also supply certain details about gender relations: for example, a husband borrowing money from his wife and registering it in a legal deed or remitting such funds a few years later in the form of a piece of property or the widow of a mamluk who remarried and fictitiously or actually sold her husband some property.

The above material (nearly eight hundred documents) forms the crux of this book, supplemented by anecdotes from Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti, our leading historical source for the period, and others that reveal much about the mamluk and indigenous society of the country.

Some terms need explanations:

barrani: a tax added to the land tax (mire) levied by the Ottoman government.

faiz: the amount left over after the legal taxes were remitted to the administration by the tax-farmer (multazim), which constituted his or her profit.

hanut: a shop.

hasil: a depot or storage room.

hikr: ground rent on waqf property.

hiyaza: land tenure.

hush (the dialect pronunciation) or hawsh: a large area in which small huts were built for urban slum dwellings; also a courtyard within a house.

isqat haqq: renunciation of rights to a portion or the entirety of a waqf.

istibdal: a form of exchange whereby a waqf property is sold and replaced by another equivalent property that becomes a waqf, in its place.

makan: a place of habitation or building, which may house workshops (qaas) with weaving looms and shops, some with stories above (tabaqas) for rental or storage (see Appendices A to C).

maqaad: part of a house.

muakhar sadaqa: the back dowry, that is, the balance of the dowry due registered in a marriage contract and paid on divorce or death.

mudaf a tax added to the mini tax.

qaa: workshop, usually containing weaving looms; also a hallway in a house.

rab: tenement.

riwaq: area in a wikala, somewhat akin to a shopping center today; also the term used for student dormitories in al-Azhar, much like a college in an English university.

tasarruf: use.

wikala: a khan or area with shops, storehouses, and dwellings where merchants could store their wares, buy and sell their goods, and find rooms for lodging.

coinage: the common coin was the para, also known as nisffidda and medin. This was the smallest denomination. The para was worth 90 riyals (the riyal was a fictional coin not actually minted). The larger coins in circulation were the Spanish piastre, the Austrian Thaler, and the Ottoman kis (purse), equal to 500 paras.



“Like all of Marsot's writings, this book is engaging and highly readable. Undergraduates, graduate students, and scholars in other fields will find it an accessible overview of later Ottoman Egyptian society, the role of gender therein, and key issues in the historiography of this important topic.”
American Historical Review