Anwar Sadat was president of Egypt from 1970 until his assassination in 1981. The legacy of his regime is bitterly divided; Sadat’s open-door policy and westernisation of Egypt saw him beloved by the West – the United States in particular. In contrast, within Egypt, Sadat was something of a villain. Indeed, a BBC Documentary titled Why Was Cairo Calm? highlights the complex perception of Sadat – why did the highest-ranking US officials attend Sadat’s funeral while Cairo’s streets remained ambivalent? This division of perception extends also towards Sadat’s gender policies, the focus of this article. The bulk of criticism of Sadat’s state gender policies emerged as a result the deterioration of women’s economic conditions established under his predecessor, Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser. Inversely, Sadat reformed perhaps the most significant roadblock for women’s rights in Egypt: personal status laws. Here, Sadat ventured where Nasser never dared, and granted women increased rights within the family and the home. This political nuance encourages us to pose the questions: where actually did Sadat stand regarding women’s rights? Was he a feminist?
Sadat’s capitalist economic policies demonstrated a dramatic shift from Nasser’s left-wing regime; a shift that was deeply felt throughout Egypt as unemployment rates soared, inequalities widened, and poverty prevailed. This shift was particularly impactful for Egypt’s working women. Feminist Nawal Sadawi highlights that Sadat’s policies diminished the public sector – the sector which had seen a huge increase in working women under Nasser. Further, noted historian Mervat Hatem argues that working women in Egypt faced ‘conservative social perspectives’ as a result of Sadat’s economic liberalisation. Indeed, women were pressured to leave their jobs, as it was believed that a woman’s place was primarily in the home. Selma Botman emphasises the role of the alliance between Muslim fundamentalists and the government in this increase in conservative values. This can be seen in the 1971 Constitution, in which article 11 ensures gender equality, ‘without violation of the rules of Islamic jurisprudence’. This wording of the constitution allowed for varied interpretations of what was deemed violation of Sharia, and served as a setback for women’s work and education, as one could now deny them this if they saw fit. However, despite this increase in opposition to women in the workforce, more and more women were forced into the workforce as a result of increasing inflation. Sadat’s economic mistakes necessitated women in the workplace, as they now required a dual income to sustain their families. These contrasting effects of Sadat’s economic policies constrained women and shoved them into uncomfortable situations in which their agency was reduced. Therefore, it is clear that Sadat’s economic policies did not take into account their impacts on women, and did not promote gender equality in any way.
Somewhat in contrast, Sadat’s position on women’s political rights had more positive impacts. Sadat, particularly towards the end of his life, promoted women’s rights. Indeed, in 1971, there were nine women in parliament – this was triple the number of the 1969 assembly. Further, Sadat issued a presidential decree in 1979 which added 30 seats for women in parliament, and it also specified that 10-20% of the seats in government councils in Egypt be assigned to women. In addition, established the Egyptian Women’s Organisation. Most significantly, Sadat reformed the personal status laws which governed marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. According to Laura Bier, these laws were the ’last remaining province of religious law’. Sadat’s reforms focused on divorce and child custody. For example, under Sadat’s presidential decree, a husband must register his divorce before witnesses at a Registrar’s Office and his wife must be officially and immediately informed, and a wife had the right to sue for divorce if she disapproved of the marriage. While certainly limited – and reduced under Sadat’s successor, Mubarak – these laws improved women’s rights in the family. Sadat, in reforming personal status laws, ventured where no president had dared go before; despite its limitations, this act deserves recognition of its significance. In this way, Sadat does seem to have promoted gender equality. Can we, then, call him a feminist? In order to answer this, we need to have a closer look into Sadat’s aims in promoting gender equality, and at the timing of his reforms.
Hatem has argued that ‘gender issues were used by the state (…) to score ideological and political victories’. Sadat is no exception to this; his involvement in gender equality suited his political needs. For example, the personal status reforms were significant, however Sadat did this just when confrontation broke out between the state and Muslim fundamentalists, who Sadat had been allied with previously, as outlined earlier in this article. Hatem suggests that, as a result of this timing, Sadat decided to reform the personal status laws in order to undermine Islamist groups. Also, to gain the support of women, which he now needed as a result of the alienation of Muslim fundamentalists. Furthermore, reforming these laws would present Sadat as a progressive figure, which would aid international support for his regime. In this way, Sadat’s promotion of gender equality was not sincere, but a political manoeuvre. Sadat’s lack of genuine commitment to women’s rights is evident in his authoritarian tendencies; during his regime, women were jailed for speaking out against him. Clearly, this was not a man devoted to women’s political freedoms. This is not to undermine the significance of personal status reforms, but to emphasise the nuanced nature of gender equality in Egypt. Sadat, while enacting some positive policies, does not seem to have been devoted to a feminist cause.
This article has aimed to sketch a nuanced image of Anwar Sadat’s presidency and his state gender policies. Sadat’s open-door policy was an upheaval for many working women, as they were working out of economic desperation in environments increasingly hostile to their presence. Certainly, Sadat did change the lives of many women for the better, especially within the family through the reform of Egypt’s personal status laws. However, Sadat’s priorities were concentrated on the maintenance of his regime, on his carefully crafted – and constantly changing – image. We cannot call him a feminist, but we should draw attention to the positive effects of his policies while acknowledging his true aims.
Written by Amy Hendrie
Bier, Laura Revolutionary Womanhood: Feminisms, modernity and the state in Nasser’s Egypt (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011)
Botman, Selma Engendering Citizenship in Egypt (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999)
Graham Brown, Sarah ‘Feminism in Egypt: A Conversation with Nawal Sadawi’ MERIP Reports vol 95(95) 1981
Hatem, Mervat F ‘Economic and Political Liberation in Egypt and the Demise of State Feminism’ International Journal of Middle East Studies Vol 24(2) 1992