Kenneth M. Cuno, Modernizing Marriage: Family, Ideology, and Law in Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Egypt. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2015.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Kenneth M. Cuno (KC): Actually, I was planning to write a different book. But while researching it in Cairo I had a bit of free time and began exploring materials that had been collected and cataloged in the National Archives since my previous work there. I was curious about the registers of the census of 1848, and when I saw the detail they contained I thought they had the potential to complement qualitative sources like Sharia Court records and fatwas, which often dealt with family matters. Research in late nineteenth-century Sharia Court records convinced me of the important effects of changes in legal procedure prior to the codification of Muslim family law beginning in the 1920s, something that is overlooked in extant legal histories. And the legal sources led me to the writings of nineteenth-century modernist intellectuals, two of whom, Muhammad Abduh and Qasim Amin, were judges.
The writings of Egyptian modernist intellectuals, women as well as men, have been examined for evidence of the influence of Enlightenment ideas, the development of national identity, and nascent feminism, but not for their ideas about the family and marriage. I have presented parts of my work over the years and it never fails to produce a strong reaction from Egyptians and others, because the family as a modern social construction has been closely connected with notions of progress and civilization, national authenticity, and religion, as well as gender norms. The fate of the family is taken seriously as affecting the fate of the nation.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
KC: Writing family history requires engagement with the history of women and gender, though the two fields have had an uneasy relationship. Family history emerged out of social and demographic history in the 1960s, and has been concerned mainly with aggregate populations and long-term trends. The roots of women’s and gender history are in second wave feminism, which identified the family as a site of women’s oppression. Middle Eastern women’s and gender history has focused mainly elsewhere, on women’s expression and activism, on legal and policy reforms in modern times, and on women as agents in pre-modern times. I see my work as bridging women’s history and family history. For example, I show that nineteenth-century male modernist intellectuals who are often identified as proto-feminists were really advocating family reform. They favored women’s education to make them better mothers and household managers, and they discouraged polygyny and divorce in order to promote family stability. But instead of trying to hold women back in domestic roles, they were constructing a domestic ideology where none had previously existed. By according women a domestic vocation, they made them participants in the modernizing project, and thereby laid a foundation for subsequent feminist activism.
My book also examines the marriage system and how it changed from a socio-demographic perspective. Here, a global comparative context makes explanation easier. For example, harems were integral to the political systems, not only of the pre-modern Middle East, but of China, India, and Siam. Subordinate households were attached to the ruling house through the gifting of daughters into the royal harem, or, as in the Ottoman system, the marrying out of harem women. Bankruptcy and occupation destroyed khedival autocracy and made ruling-class harems obsolete. Coincidentally, Egypt’s last ruler with a harem, Khedive Ismail, abandoned polygyny and slave concubinage for royal endogamy when marrying off his sons, and marriage to a princess entailed monogamy. The change was made for political reasons, but the public monogamy of the khedival family set an example for the rest of society. Thus, contingent political, demographic, and social factors influenced the family system, perhaps more than religion or Western influence.
Third, my book addresses legal history, specifically the invention of personal status law as a religiously derived law separate from other laws that are applied universally. I look at how Ottoman legal reform, as well as colonial knowledge of Islamic law, influenced the codification of Muslim family law in Egypt. An example of colonial influence is the notorious regime of bayt al-ta‘a, or “house of obedience,” in which a man could call on the police to restrain his wife at home. This practice originated in France, and I show how it migrated to Egypt.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
KC: The focus of my first book, The Pasha`s Peasants, was agrarian history. Both it and Modernizing Marriage take a moment identified as pivotal in the standard historiography—the rise of a new economic and social order in the early nineteenth century, or the advent of a discourse on women, family, and nation in the early twentieth century—and examine what preceded those moments, adding nuance and complication to the existing narrative. In both books, also, I write against modernization theory, which still grips the popular imagination despite being discredited in scholarship. Modernizing Marriage shows that industrializing and urbanizing societies do not experience identical changes in the family system nor in family ideology. Both books combine social-historical and Islamic legal studies. It is a myth that Islamic law was but an ideal system. Islamic juridical literature embodies a rich diversity of opinions, and one can follow their historical development. Jurisprudence, and especially fatwas from nineteenth-century Egypt, show which opinions were the preferred ones in that time and place. The court cases show how those opinions were applied, and they also reveal the strategies litigants employed to take maximum advantage of the law.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
KC: I hope that scholars interested in comparative gender, legal, and family studies will read it, in addition to colleagues and students in Middle Eastern studies. I am hopeful that it will stir up debate and provoke discussion and further research in this area, which bears on the efforts of Muslim feminists to reform contemporary personal status laws.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
KC: I have a number of things on my desk. I teach a course on Egypt since World War I that requires me to update my knowledge of recent events every two years or so. So to make a virtue out of necessity, my next project (albeit a small one) is to update a text on Egyptian history. Beyond that, I want to study the shaping of Egyptian family ideology and law after 1920. I also enjoy the challenge of reading the juridical discussions of the last millennium, so I won’t be able to stay away from fiqh.
J: What connections, if any, does your book make between Egyptian family life in the past and contemporary times?
KC: Modernizing Marriage narrates the production of the modern marriage system, family ideology, and family law, which is directly relevant to present-day discussions of the family and women’s roles and rights. After the initial codification of the law governing marriage and divorce in the 1920s, a new phase of revision of the family (personal status) law began about thirty-five years ago. Women had limited input in the earlier phase, but in the latter phase women activists promoted such reforms as a woman’s right to divorce a polygynous husband, her ability to obtain a unilateral khul‘ divorce, and the revised marriage contract form. They did so in part by citing juridical sources to show that their proposals were consistent with Sharia. While people today may think that this is natural and proper, Modernizing Marriage shows that the association of religion and the domestic realm was a consequence of the reorganization of the Egyptian judicial system a little over a century ago. Readers should take away the point that modern personal status law was contingently produced and can be revised.
Excerpt from Modernizing Marriage: Family, Ideology, and Law in Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Egypt
From Chapter One
On Thursday, January 16, 1873, a contract of marriage was agreed to between Tawfiq, the crown prince of Egypt, and Amina Ilhami, granddaughter of the late viceroy Abbas Hilmi I (r. 1849–54). In celebration of the event the reigning khedive, Ismail (r. 1863–79), held a reception at al-Hilmiyya Palace attended by Tawfiq, several ministers of state, and the leading religious dignitaries. Cannon were fired, sweet drinks were had, and the khedive received the congratulations of his guests in order of their rank. Poetry was composed and recited for the occasion by al-Sayyid Ali Abu al-Nasr and Muhammad Qadri Bey. These events initiated a week of receptions, banquets and entertainment, illuminations, and a public procession in which the bride was delivered to the palace of her husband. The next three weeks witnessed similar scenes as the weddings of Tawfiq’s younger siblings Fatima, Husayn, and Hasan were celebrated. Like their Ottoman suzerains, the Egyptian khedival (viceregal) family staged public celebrations of births, circumcisions, weddings, funerals, religious holidays, and dynastic anniversaries as a way of cultivating popular legitimacy. The month of celebrations accompanying the four princely weddings was one such calculated display.
In retrospect, these weddings were also significant as the moment when the khedival family abandoned slave concubinage and polygyny in favor of monogamous marriage. Monogamy was subsequently the norm within the khedival family. Tawfiq, as khedive (r. 1879–92), was Egypt’s first monogamous ruler. Amina took on a more prominent public role than women in the khedival family had done previously, partly as a consequence of being his sole consort. She was respectfully referred to in the Arabic press as “the wife of the khedive” (haram al-khidiwi), and in French and English as the vice-reine, khédiveh, or “khediva.” After Tawfiq’s death she retained a prominent role as the walida pasha, or mother of the khedive, though English writers often used the French term khédiveh mère. Monogamy within the khedival family thus had implications for the role of women at a time in which “the woman question,” already much discussed in contemporary Europe, was beginning to be raised in Egypt.
The adoption of monogamy by the khedival family offers a useful vantage point from which we can survey the relationship between family and politics in nineteenth-century Egypt. As Lisa Pollard has noted, Euro-American observers criticized family practices in the Muslim East—or at least, what they understood of those family practices—while upholding an idealized conjugal family as the standard of modern civilization. Westerners understood polygyny, slavery, and the concealment of women to constitute a “harem system” that was incompatible with a healthy family life. The ease and frequency with which Muslim men divorced their wives, disrupting the conjugal family, was an additional target of criticism. This criticism arose in the middle decades of the century, reflecting relatively recent developments in European culture, from idealization of the conjugal family and companionate marriage to the strengthening of antislavery sentiment, and it intensified along with the advance of colonialism toward the end of the century.
Beginning in the 1870s some Westerners noticed that polygyny was on the decline in the Ottoman and Egyptian upper classes. Lord Cromer, the British consul-general in Cairo and de facto ruler of Egypt during his tenure (1883–1907), believed that monogamy was gaining “amongst the more enlightened Egyptians.” As examples he mentioned Khedive Tawfiq, his son Khedive Abbas II (r. 1892–1914), and the prime ministers Riyad Pasha and Sharif Pasha. Cromer and others attributed this to the progress of enlightenment under European influence, but cautioned that thorough change would take a long time. The backwardness of the Egyptian family system, which degraded women and deformed men’s character, was one of several objections raised by British officials and journalists to the suggestion that Egyptians might reform themselves without foreign tutelage, or that they were ready for self-government. Pollard has described well how Egyptian domestic habits—specifically, those of Khedive Ismail—were invoked to explain the financial and political turmoil that led to the British invasion and occupation of 1882. Similar discourses buttressed other imperial ventures in Asia and Africa as civilizing missions.
Well before the British occupation Egypt’s rulers had cultivated European opinion by presenting themselves as enlightened and modern in various ways, including in their family practices. At the time of the four princely weddings, the Palace let Europeans understand that the adoption of monogamous marriage by the khedival family resulted from a desire to emulate European civilization. In reality, however, the shift to monogamy was not an end in itself but a consequence of contingent developments, the most important of which had to do with dynastic politics. Seven years before the four princely weddings, Khedive Ismail had secured an imperial edict changing the system of succession within the khedivate from priority of the eldest male to primogeniture. This meant that the future khedives would all be descendants of Ismail. His son Tawfiq became the crown prince, excluding the princes who had been next in line under the old system. To compensate for the estrangement of the latter, Ismail shored up support among the other lines within the extended khedival family by marrying his children to their cousins.
Family endogamy was common in Egyptian culture but it was alien to the Ottoman sultans, who practiced slave concubinage and polygyny until their deposition in 1924. The ruling class, including Ismail and his predecessors, emulated the imperial style of conjugality. But Ismail’s strategy of marrying his sons to their cousins imposed monogamy upon them. Marriage to an Ottoman princess ruled out additional wives or concubines due to her standing, and the same rule applied when the bride was a princess from the khedival family. Subsequently endogamy and monogamy became embedded in the culture of the khedival house and, equally importantly, it became part of the public style of the khedival family.
Some contingent factors abetted this process. It owed something to the weakening of the position of the khedives, with Egypt’s bankruptcy and the imposition of European financial control in 1876–78, which precipitated a constitutional revolution known as the Urabi Revolution during 1881–82; this, in turn, was thwarted by British intervention and an open-ended occupation. Thus as time went on the khedives had even more incentive to use marriage to shore up support and ward off rivalry within their extended family. The cultivation of European opinion was no less important, and in this effort the khedives sought to present their monogamy as a sign of enlightenment. It also became more difficult and expensive to acquire concubines after the slave trade was outlawed in 1877, and the fiscal discipline imposed on the Palace after the bankruptcy made it impossible to maintain the large harems of earlier times.
In any event, large harems, which for centuries were integral to the Ottoman political system, became obsolete in Egypt during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Previously, in addition to maintaining substantial harems, elite Ottoman households trained male kul/mamluk slaves who served in the military-administrative apparatus of the state. Upon “graduation” from a household these men typically were married by their masters/guardians to a woman from the harem of another household, thereby forging or maintaining a political alliance and/or tie of dependency with a subordinate house. Succinctly put, the Ottoman household-and-harem system did “political work” comparable to the systems of kinship politics in early modern South and Southeast Asia. But the reorganization of the military and civil service in the Ottoman Empire and Egypt along European lines, known as the tanzimat, was well underway by the reign of Khedive Ismail, whose officers and civil servants were now recruited from the free population and trained in government schools. Male slaves were no longer a feature of ruling-class households after mid-century, except for eunuchs, who assisted ruling- and upper-class women in performing their public duties. Ismail maintained the practice of marrying women from his harem to rising state servants in order to attach them to his household, but after the bankruptcy he lost personal control of state finances, and the khedival autocracy collapsed. Although the British rescued the khedivate, they deprived the khedives of power. Closeness to the khedival palace was no longer the sole measure of a man’s political standing. A marriage tie to the Palace was still desirable, but it was no longer the only useful alliance that a politically ambitious man might seek.
During the last quarter of the century, also, Egyptian public opinion was moving in favor of monogamy. Modernist intellectuals promoted a new family ideology that posited the conjugal family as the elemental unit of society, and the new family ideology was also promoted in the burgeoning periodical press of the era. Monogamy and companionate marriage were key features of the new family ideology, and the example set by the khedival family undoubtedly promoted it among the ruling and upper classes. The extent and rate of change in public opinion at the turn of the century cannot be measured with any exactness, but it is telling that when Tawfiq’s son, Khedive Abbas II, contracted a polygynous marriage in 1910, the Palace was careful not to publicize it, even though polygyny was still legal. The Palace was sensitive to the image of the khedive among an Egyptian public that increasingly associated monogamy with enlightenment and civilization.
[Excerpted from Modernizing Marriage: Family, Ideology, and Law in Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Egypt, by Kenneth M. Cuno, by permission of the author. Copyright 2015 Syracuse University Press. For more information, or to purchase a copy of this book, click here.]