Feminist Rebels in the Global South


Kumari Jayawardena's Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World is a comprehensive introduction to waves of feminist protest and revolt, and how they fell in line with the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth and through into the twentieth century, across the Middle East and Asia.

Below we have selected some of the significant women Jayawardena tells us about; women who carved out their own place during tumultuous times of change and reaction, fighting for the opportunity to express themselves through action and writing.

The world's first female leader of a country, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, appointed in 1960

TURKEY: The Young Turks and Women’s Emancipation

During the early twentieth century, under the period of Young Turk dominance, more high schools and teachers’ colleges for women were established, and the first university for women set up in 1915. But with a greater concern for the democratic reorganisation of the state, the issue of women’s emancipation extended beyond the question of education – their status in both domestic and political spheres was discussed in journals and literature.  Leading intellectuals participated in this debate – in 1910 Halil Hamit published Feminism in Islam which supported women’s suffrage, and in 1915 Celal Nuri wrote Our Women in which he urged polygamy be banned.

Ahmet Agaoglu, another leading political and intellectual who had studied in Paris, argued in favour of women’s rights and encouraged his daughter, Sureyya, to become Turkey’s first woman lawyer. He had associated the denial of rights for women with backwardness, and claimed that women’s rights were in accordance with tenets of Islam.

Ziya Gokalp, Turkey’s best known writer and sociologist, the ‘theoretician of Turkish nationalism’ also advocated marriage equality, divorce, and succession rights for women – further argued that women’s emancipation was part of early Turkish tradition of free nomads of Central Asia.

As well as the male intellectual voice, there was a flourishing feminist press in this period. Between 1908 and 1919 nine women’s papers were published, some in both French and Turkish. Highlighting the freedom that women were said to have had in the days of the Prophet, these nonetheless catered to the educated elite of women. The emerging voice in advocacy of women’s emancipation was also motivated by the Western bias, and a knowledge in Turkey of European feminist movements.

At the turn of the century, Turkish women began to be active in the social, political and economic life of the country, as well as in education and journalism.

Deposition of the Sultan in 1908 gave impetus to rebellious women’s activities. That same year the first women’s club was formed in Salonika, and given the name Red and White (the colours of Young Turks). Other women’s organisations of the period included The Association for the Betterment of Women, led by Kadriye Ihsan and the more radical Ottoman Association for the Defence of Women’s Rights, led by Nuriye Ulviye Mevlan, who in 1913 began a journal Women’s World.

Despite this undoubted breakthrough, the reforms remained class-bound, barely affecting the masses of Turkish women. But nevertheless, they created an international sensation, with repercussions throughout the Middle East. The progressive example set by Turkey to, especially in respect of women’s rights, became greatly discussed in the Muslim world, with efforts made to emulate it in Iran and Afghanistan.


Egypt was the forerunner of ‘Eastern’ countries in spheres of modernisation, reform and education, as well as developing movements of nationalism, of resistance to imperialism and of feminism.

It took the lead in the reform of Islam, being situated strategically between Europe and Asia, exposed to radical movements of change including the French Revolution. Cairo became the cosmopolitan centre of new ideas and movements, and stirrings of reformism and feminism linked to attempts by successive rulers to modernise the country’s educational, cultural and administrative structures and growth of nationalism and anti-imperialism under British occupation in the late nineteenth century.

Protests by Women

The turn of century saw growing national consciousness and emergence of politicians who demanded self-determination for Egypt. Demands intensified after the First World War. The Wafd Party emerged, to present Egypt’s case to British – British non-cooperation led to demonstrations, strikes and assassinations, but in 1922 Britain eventually recognised Egypt as independent state (though it retained absolute control of Sudan and of Egyptian defence, imperial communications and foreign interests). In 1924 the Wafd gained 90% of seats in Egyptian parliament with Saad Zaghlul forming government and Fuad I as king.

Saad Zaghlul, and his group, were secularists, and earlier identified with promotion of women’s education. In this period, many influential women writers used their talents to write on feminist issues. Malak Hifni Nassif (1886-1918), was the most forceful woman writer of her time – writing under the pen-name Bahissat El Badia (Searcher in the Desert), wrote in press on marriage, divorce, veiled seclusion and women’s education, and was one of the first women in Egypt to qualify as a teacher in 1900. After her marriage she moved away from Cairo and lived near the desert where she began to criticize the seclusion and patriarchal subjection under which women lived.

Open political agitation and action on part of women began with their participation in the nationalist movement against the British after WW1.

During this nationalist upsurge, in which all classes participated, that women demonstrated in 1919 – organised by many of the wives of the Wafd founders, and middle-class women seen protesting for the first time in public. Huda Sharawi (1882-1947) from wealthy family, educated at home in French, Turkish and Arabic, and was widely read. In 1910 she had opened school to provide a general education for girls. Her husband was member of Wafd and she moved in nationalist circles; she organised women to demonstrate during 1919 and collected women’s signatures to a petition to the British High Commissioner in which they condemned the shooting of demonstrators and exiling of Egyptian leaders:

‘We the women of Egypt, mothers, sisters and wives of those who have been the victims of British greed and exploitation … deplore the brutal, barbarous actions that have fallen upon … the Egyptian nation. Egypt has committed no crime except to express her desire for freedom and independence’ (Fernea and Bezirgan 1977).

In 1923 Sharawi and other middle-class women formed the Egyptian Feminist Union, which became the main women’s association concerned with education, social welfare and changes in law to provide for equality between the sexes. She is best remembered for the gesture against tradition – throwing her veil into the sea on return from Rome, where she had attended the International Conference for Women in 1924.

In 1925 she started a journal in French, L’Égyptienne, although it did only cater to the French-speaking women of the Egyptian bourgeoisie – but it did discuss Turkish reforms regarding women, which had influenced Egyptian women, as well as the question of Islam. Activism petered out, but the earlier democratic and nationalist struggles in Egypt did give rise to an intellectual debate on the status of women, to moves to give education, and the rise in a feminist consciousness expressed through a feminist press. Expectations of early years were not fulfilled and the momentum of the feminist movement did not survive into the 1930s. Despite exposure to European currents of thought, the internal structures of tradition in African and Asian societies – of monarchy and religion – dominated during this period, and attempts to achieve radical changes were for the most part unsuccessful.

IRAN: ‘Emancipation from Above’

Though not colonised during imperialist expansion in C19, it came under their ‘sphere of influence’, notable foreign influence from Britain and Tsarist Russia.

There was an emergence of women activists during a period of increased national awareness that culminated in the constitutional agitation of 1905-11. Even earlier there had been queens, women religious leaders, women warriors and militants. In the Sassanian period of Iranian history (AD 224-651) there had been two famous queens, and the country’s national epic deals with the bravery of Gordafarid, a women warrior who led the Iranians against a Turkish invasion.

The Babi movement, founded in Iran by Muza Ali Mohammed of Shiraz (1820-50), proclaimed himself the ‘Bab’ (gate) to the truth; this reformist movement was seen as a threat by orthodox Muslims and by the government and the Bab and about 28 followers executed in the early 1850s. His authority passed to another disciple and Babism, though persecuted, continued to attract support among dissident Iranian minorities, intellectuals and women. The best-known woman of the movement was Qurrat ul Ayn (1815-51); a poet who took part in intellectual debates with religious leaders. She joined the Babi movement, leaving her husband and relatives, and became active in the cause, preaching in public, fighting on the battlefield, and ultimately dying a martyr. She attracted much attention at the time – being spoken of by the French diplomat Comte de Gobineau, in 1866, about her Babist crusade ‘ ‘she turned not only aginst polygamy but also the veil … her public preaching, however, was applauded by an already great numberof persons who shared her enthusiasm and helped widen the circle of followers.’ (Bayat-Philipp, 1978)

In the 1930s, the Shah Reza Khan made efforts to compel women to give up the chador (veil) – in 1934 women teachers and students were ordered to appear unveiled (efforts to modernise/to appear a modern country). Although the legal abolition of the veil was a superstructural change that did not reflect any basic change in society (gestural), it did represent a welcome reform for most women, Parvin-I I’tisami, the country’s leading woman poet, wrote a poem on the occasion, ‘Woman in Iran’ (Zan dar Iran):

It is as if the woman in Iran was not an Iranian before.
She had no pursuit other than misfortune and distraction.
She lived and died in a solitary corner.
What else was a woman in those days if not a prisoner?
No on like a woman dwelt in darkness for centuries.
No one like a woman was sacrificed in the temple of hypocrisy.

Under the Pahlavi dynasty, women’s emancipation had remained a purely bourgeois urban phenomenon. But some gestures were made: in 1963, the Shah gave franchise rights to Iranian women, and the Family protection Law of 1967 made polygamy a possible reason for divorce and more opportunity for women to initiate divorce.

Feminist activity in the years before 1920 were short lived, the reforms of the subsequent period class-biased, and the association of ‘women’s emancipation’ with the Shah’s repressive regime led to further weakening of the position of women under the new rulers following the Shah’s deposition in 1979.


Amanullah Khan seized throne in 1919, having united Afghan tribes against British and Russian interests, and set out to modernise the country himself… an initial act was the declaration of complete independence in internal and external affairs. Khan proposed internal reforms including voting rights for women; introduced a Family Code in 1921 forbidding child marriage, encouraged girls’ schools, and ordered women to wear Western dress; his wife Queen Surayya, in 1928, appeared unveiled in public and it was decreed that women should discard the veil. But Afghan society remained conservative in its attitudes, and still organised on tribal lines, the leaders of which opposed this process of modernisation and reform because it threatened their powers.

Amanullah was dethroned and exiled – the swift pace of his reform proved to an extent counterproductive – reactionaries used aspects such as dress as weapons. The succeeding kings, Nader Shah and Zaher Shah annulled the measures that benefited women in order to please orthodox religious opinion – schools for girls closed, women refused the vote, the veil was made compulsory. Islamic law was stressed and the power of the mullahs over the legal system was re-established.

The failure of the Afghan experiment resulted in some Islamic countries exercising caution on reforms affecting the status of women.

INDIA (and Pakistan and Bangladesh)

Several women activist and pioneers in c19 and c20, majority of which were linked by birth or marriage to families in which the men had participated in religious or political reform movements. Many examples of protests by women have been lost to history, but some persist:

Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922), a reputable Sanskrit scholar, whose independent activities on behalf of women’s causes made her the foremost female agitator of her time – she had an unusual life for a women of the period, with a father who believed that women had as much right to knowledge as men, and being a Sanskrit scholar himself was apparently cast out by society for teaching it to his wife, against social convention. Orthodox on other issues, he did take an uncompromising attitude towards the education and age of marriage of girls – this lead to the family being hounded out of place after place, and they lived the life of nomadic scholars all over India. Ramabai acquired mobility and experience, but also learnt Sanskrit and theology from her parents. Well-versed in theology, in a society where religion is all-pervasive, was an advantage when challenging social evils disguised as religious orthodoxy – Ramabai used her knowledge in the cause of women. Her unique advantages – an understanding of social reality gained through nomadic travels, and command of Hindu ideology through knowledge of scriptures – used in her agitation. She began a life of travel and agitation, starting a series of Mahila Samaj (women’s organisations) in Bombay state, and campaigning for women’s education and medical training.

In 1883 she travelled to Britain, and met Dorothea Beale – a pioneer woman educationalist and principal of Cheltenham Ladies College, where Rambai spent time studying and teaching, before going on to the USA ad Canada where she studied and lectured, before returning to India in 1889 via Japan. Her book on the status of women, The High Caste Hindu Woman, led to the formation of the Ramabai Association, which collected funds for women’s activities in India. She herself converted to Christianity, and began projects involving girls’ schools, oprhanagaes and widows’ homes. She was politically active, a delegate to the Indian National Cngress sessions in 1889. She was a strong influence to other women, as well as male reformers.

The agitation of early social reformers about social evils that affected women were supplanted by nationalist issues, resulting in the neglect of women’s unequal social and economic position. The few women’s issues that were taken up were those in the interest of middle-class women’s organisations, such as the suffrage questions – in 1917, women agitators met the Viceroy and put forward demands for a female franchise, and in 1919 a deputation of the Home Rule League went to Britain to lobby for reforms and franchise rights.

 While highlighting and legally abolishing restrictions on women, and emphasising female education and mobilising women, the movement largely gave an illusion of change while in fact keeping women within the structural confines of family and society. Revolutionary alternatives were not essential to the demands of the nationalist movement in the struggle for independence, and a revolutionary feminist consciousness did not arise within the movement for national liberation. Rather than liberating themselves from traditional constraints and bondage, the woman’s role within the family was extended to be in tune with the family-as-unit in a changing society (Mazumdar, 1976). Indian women’s participation in political struggles, strikes and protests, all show how they played a significant role in anti-imperialist and democratic movements of protest over a long period.


In 1960, Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the world’s first woman prime minister. This was widely interpreted, both internally and outside Sri Lanka, as indicator of the role and position of women in Sri Lankan society – that of equality and independence. Numbers suggest that Sri Lankan women enjoyed a better quality of life than in other countries of Asia, however, looking more closely, in spite of conditions that appear favourable, Sri Lankan women have existed, and continue to exist, in a situation of subordination.

The education for women contributed to the socialising of women in to roles only superficially different from traditional society. This makes Sri Lanka an interesting example of a society in which women were not subjected to harsh and overt forms of oppression, and therefore did not develop a movement for women’s emancipation beyond existing social parameters.

The first image is of Nuriye Ulviye Mevlan and the Ottoman Association for the Defence of Women’s Rights she founded

The second image is of Huda Sharawi, perhaps writing for her journal L'Egyptienne

Kumari Jayawardena's Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, out this week in a new edition in Verso's Feminist Classics series, is a landmark survey of nineteenth and twentieth century anti-colonial women's movements in Asia and the Middle East. 

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