Mayy Ziyadah on Women’s Rights

5 Aug

This is an excerpt from a speech that Mayy Ziyadah gave in April 1914 to the Oriental Club in Cairo. Since it was given almost 100 years ago some of it is obviously a little old fashioned but, especially at the end, it is still rather good.

Mayy Ziyadah is a one of the most famous ‘feminst’ voices of early 20th century Egypt, though she was herself Lebanese. Ziyadah held probably the most famous literary salon in Cairo, every Tuesday. A recently study of her intellectual circle by Boutheina Khaldi has just been published (or is soon to be published) by Palgrave Macmillan.

I am translating this in part inspired by the #inspiringwomen on twitter. But it didn’t manage to do it yesterday so I post it late.

Here it is:

Gentlemen, let’s forget ancient sayings and move on our current situation. For, truly, the women’s renaissance is spreading every day all across the world. This incredible renaissance has a wonderful future and it heralds an end to yesterday’s deficient form of citizenship that was limited to just one sex. This is not the glorious model citzenship of tomorrow, which will realise our aspirations.

The citizenship of tomorrow is not the citizenship of man alone, but of humans where women will take their rightful place alongside men. This wave of enlightenment, this light of female progress, is growing and spreading as every day goes by. In France, in England, in America, in Germany, and in Italy women are fighting a hero’s fight to advance their sex and, with it, the human race. They have won their rights in Sweden, Norway, Finland, New Zealand, and some states in America. There they have equality with men as writers, citizens and even politicians. In all these countries she has had a very beneficial effect. When they took ordinary jobs crimes decreased, as did the level of drunkenness, and there was a noticeable, almost tangible, effect on the behaviour of society as well as even their health.

This is modern woman who is safeguarding the wealth of the future.

They used to say that women were good for nothing but house-work and sex and now she is good for all sorts of things and intellectually very productive. They used to say that she was a beautiful animal or a charming devil now she is a generous angel who is trying to make men understand that, in life, the most exalted part is the whole. They used to say that she was a malicious liar and truth and sincerity were as far away from her as North is from South, now she started to refine herself and destroy those afflictions that plagued her in her time of slavery. They used to say that she was hesitant, unsure of herself, and submissive and that she was not strong enough to come up with her own ideas or take responsibility for anything. Now she is strong willed, eager for independence, and endowed with a burning desire to know the deeper meanings of life. Voltaire used to say that her mind was easily damaged and that it would be completely destroyed if it tried to understand the laws of science. It’s strange that Voltaire said this since he himself turned to a woman for help understanding the writings of Newton. She was one of his friends, Madame du Chatelet, who had translated Newton’s book on the law of gravity. Think of Mademoiselle Laplace (?), Mary Kowalski (?), Madame Curie and the tens of women who work in natural sciences and pure sciences. Think of the hundreds who work in different trades and industries. In France 5 million women go to work bearing their worries and family responsibilities in their hearts. They walk the road of life that is lined with pain and disaster; hot blooded but with honourable souls and honourable intentions. It’s like that in England and in the USA where the number of women working in an intellectual job has almost exceeded 400,000. The statisticians say that, in Egypt, 1 and a half million women are working ordinary jobs.

They used to say too that culture wasn’t for women and that knowledge destroyed their beauty, modest and elegance. It made them arrogant, rude, negligent of the family, and it made them scoff at men. Now we can see that education increases their beauty, and definitely their charm, as well as their care for the family and respect for men. Now woman understands the meaning of life and wants, with all her power, to advance herself, increase her knowledge, improve her character, and her abilities to spread goodness and happiness around her and around all those near her. It is only this advanced woman who knows that her greatest glory is to be a mother, but a mother in all senses of the word and all meanings that the word carries. She alone knows that before this day she had been a mother only in her body. She is trying to become a mother of the spirit, a mother of emotions, a mother of thoughts, and a mother of ideas; as well as a great educator and noble friend.

They used to say that she had no mind and that her life was a chain of desires, one after the other, subject to infantile and naïve fluctuations. Now we can see that she is far sighted, of fixed resolution, and that she sacrifices her personal benefits for the benefit of society as a whole. Just look at Russia, where the women suffer what men suffer and more. Russia, where the ideological revolution is ready for a political revolution. How many fine young girls have sacrificed their engagements, their futures, their happiness for the good of the nation and have joined groups which they think they should support for the good of the country.

Many in this chaotic time scoff at women but their supporters number more and they are the people with strong souls, the pioneers of thought: they are the most eminent and most honourable men of our age. They respect the struggle of women and recognise their rights. They understand what great benefit will come to them. They wonder at their courage and steadfastness. They see in their renaissance new hands working towards the good of everyone and an ease of their troubles. Was it not Victor Hugo who said that liberating women would solve most of the world’s societal problems and some of its political ones, not least an end to wars in the world.

He also said that the 20th century was the era of the woman. And he really believed this prediction. Everywhere woman is opening her eyes to the light of life, even in the far east, in China and Japan, and in Turkey. And now in Egypt too I see the spark of life being lit. Men are helping us with their pens, their tongues, and their examples. What these men most desire is that women show they merit this attention and concern with their deeds. Now in Egypt these ancient chains are being broken which for so long have constrained women’s thought and today we stand on the threshold of a dazzling future. The spark of life has been lit and if not what does it mean that I am standing in front of you? And what does it mean that you are sat in beautiful silence filled with complete attention, powerful support, and deep contemplation? I am speaking now with passion because I speak as the voice of women who have been silent for generations. You are listening to me sympathy as if you were the spirit of man dispersed since the beginning of time. This great dispersed spirit has gathered its force back together to listen, and this soft voice is not used to anything but obedient whispering, or the mumbling of unintelligible rebellion. But now this voice raises itself up, coming from the depths of the dark ages, and from the furthest regions of this wondrous creation. It comes from tombs, from the seas, from all aspects of life screaming:

“Listen men! You enslaved me so I was servile. Now liberate me so you yourselves may be free, liberate me so you can liberate the human race.”


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