By: Sabrina Ahmed
Muhammed Ali is known to be the founder of modern Egypt. He was an Ottoman Albanian commander in the Ottoman army and a popular leader in Egypt. To save his power and accomplish his plan – mainly establishing an independent Egypt and leave the Ottoman Empire – Muhammed Ali formed a wide program of reforms. These reforms included a transition of the economy and bureaucracy, building a modern army and restructuring the Egyptian society.
Of course, within this plan also Egyptian women played a role. At first glance Muhammed Ali’s reign seems to have been a bright time for women with a lot of new opportunities and developments in giving women equality. Schools were established, women were educated and they were given jobs. They were not longer damned to stay in the private sphere. Nevertheless, if you take a deeper look in that time’s policy you can see that not everything was as shiny as it seems for women. I will explain this with the example of the School of Midwives.
Mohammed Ali started a medical reform in the 1820s because he was concerned with the health of his army which had been weakened due to diseases and epidemies. Therefore, he hired the French doctor Clot Bey who trained medical personnel to tread the Egyptian soldiers and created a medical school which was later located in Qasr al-‘Aini. He was also the one who founded the midwifery school which provided medical training for women. The reasons for the school’s creation were less feministic than one may thinks. The two main reasons were the high rate of child mortality and the spread of venereal diseases among soldiers. By the way, the latter was also the reason why Mohammed Ali started to ban prostitutes as he made them responsible for his sick soldiers.
Clot Bey believed to stop the spread of such diseases it was urgent to tread not only men but women as well. The Egyptian gender segregation norms of that time made him realize that he could only achieve this goal by teaching women medical practices because back in those days many men did not allow male doctors to examine their wives or daughters.
But after its establishment the school faced many problems which also reveal the inequality between men and women in the 19th century. Parents refused to have their daughters be trained at the school. So, Bey recruited street girls and slaves as those girls would not hurt the family’s honour by working with men. Therefore, under the first students were mainly orphans, slaves and homeless girls. The lack of new students was a constant problem for the school which did not disappear over the years.
To gain respect for the school and its students the administrative demanded that the girls who wanted to study at the school needed to be virgins and should marry medical doctors or sanitary inspectors after their graduation to ensure they would stay in service. As soon as the girls were married they got some rewards like the title of second lieutenant, increased salaries and housing sponsored by the government.
The graduates of the school – also called hakimas – could never gain their full potential or step in the role Bey had hoped for them due to their small number. They never replaced the traditional midwives and were often just conducted for difficult cases. The hakimas had to struggle to gain their privileged status as medical experts.
You can see the establishment of the midwifery school had nothing to do with the empowerment of women. Practical reasons were the driving power behind the idea. Mohammed Ali’s worries about his army made him hire Clot Bey. He in turn decided to educate women in order to reduce the spread of venereal diseases among the soldiers. And even after its establishment the school had to struggle with the norms and values of that time which did not place men and women on an equal level. The students pride was bound to their virginity and only after they married they were given rewards which obviously had nothing to do with their quality of work.
But besides all this criticism we should not forget the fact that it was unique in that era that women were educated and got jobs in the medical section. This time can be seen as the forerunner of the women’s awakening in Egypt which took place nearly a hundred years later. It may be a small step for the women’s empowerment if we look at it from today’s perspective but it was the important initial step to start a whole women’s movement in Egypt.