The Tunisian Bchira Ben M’rad (1913–1993), a feminist for some, a reformist for others, was a significant figure in Tunisia in the first half of the 20th century in the struggles for women’s education, for a more balanced relationship within the married couple, and against colonialism. Her participation in these struggles was shaped both by her own personal experience as well as by the then social, cultural and political context of Tunisia and its region.
Bchira Ben M’rad was the first Tunisian woman to request official recognition for a women’s organization, the Union of Muslim Women of Tunisia (l’Union des femmes musulmanes de Tunisie, or UFMT), which she founded in 1936 and headed until 1956, during the period when Tunisia was a French colony. The refusal by the authorities to award official recognition and the excuses they offered in defense of their refusal provide an insight into the complex relations between the French colonial power and the Tunisian authorities, headed by the Bey, as the debate over women’s rights, including the right to form women’s organizations, became an increasingly profound societal issue. It was only in the early 1950s, in the years just before Tunisian independence was achieved in 1956, that the UFMT obtained official recognition.
Throughout history, North Africa’s native Berber-speaking populations have been central to the mix of political, social, cultural, and linguistic attributes that rendered the region distinct. At the dawn of the 20th century, Berbers still constituted a substantial majority of sharifian Morocco’s population, and a significant minority of French Algeria’s Muslim populace; their numbers were smaller in Ottoman Libya and smaller still in France’s Tunisian protectorate.
Nationalism began to spread in North Africa during the first decades of the 20th century. Each nationalist movement was shaped by a particular combination of factors; all of them, however, foregrounded the Arab and Islamic components of their collective identities, downplaying or ignoring the Berber ones.
Berbers actively participated in the struggles for independence in both Algeria and Morocco, often in leadership roles. This pattern would continue during the decades after independence, even as both the Algerian and Moroccan states placed supreme value on the Arabization of the educational system, and of public life in general. The state’s overall view of Berber identity was that it should be consigned to the realm of folklore.
However, even as the number of Berber speakers continued to decline, there arose a modern Berber (Amazigh) identity movement that demanded a reexamination of the underlying premises of their countries’ collective identities, one that would bring the Berber language and culture to center stage. It also demanded genuine amelioration of the dire conditions of poverty that characterized much of the rural Berber world. As ruling regimes struggled to maintain their legitimacy after a half century of independence, the Berber “question” now took on a new salience in North Africa’s increasingly contested political space.
Free French Africa was the part of the French empire that came under the control of General Charles de Gaulle’s movement. From 1940 to 1943, it encompassed French Equatorial Africa and Cameroon; Brazzaville served as its capital. These African lands provided Free France with legitimacy, manpower, revenue, natural resources, and a starting point for military operations in the Desert War. These territories fell into Free French hands for a number of reasons, including the actions of African noncommissioned officers who spearheaded the arrest of Vichy’s governor in late August 1940. Thereafter, they were thrown headlong into the war effort. Some 17,000 soldiers were recruited in these regions and a run on natural resources ensued. It was at considerable cost to local populations that de Gaulle built a military machine in Central Africa, one capable of bringing France back into the global fray. For Africans, the advent of Free France signaled economic hardship, multiple imperatives including military enlistment and rubber collection, and a hardening of colonial practices.
The Maghrebi tradition of historical literary production extends back to the early centuries of Islamic expansion and conquest in North Africa and comprises a rich corpus including dynastic chronicles (tarikh), biographies (tarajim), and hagiographies (manaqib/rijjal), and, since the 20th century, positivist national histories as well. While this tradition had evolved since its inception, 19th- and 20th-century Maghrebi historical production both influenced and was influenced by the extension of European military, economic, and political power into the Maghreb. Grappling with the legacies of colonialism, nationalism, and pan-Arabism, among others, Maghrebi historians continue to sow the rich terrain of historical literary production in the postcolonial period by absorbing, reacting to, and building upon new trends in the historical profession.
Arabic-speaking Muslim polities existed in medieval Spain and Portugal where they were superseded by Christian empires that gradually disavowed cultural connections to this past. Hebrew and Arabic were largely expurgated from homes and libraries. Jews and Muslims who refused to convert were expelled. And while an incipient study of that past existed, echoed even in popular literary forms, the need to disavow kinship prevailed, at least publicly and officially. The Maghrib, for its part, separated by a mere fourteen kilometers of sea from the southern tip of Spain, experienced Portuguese and Spanish imperial expansion firsthand, receiving the bulk of the displaced and interacting with fortified settlements and encroachments along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Later European colonization of North Africa completed the galvanization of a Maghribi culture of resistance to and disavowal of European, Latin, and Christian cultural forms and connections. Spain and North Africa came to be conceived as separate worlds; domains of inimical faiths; divided by culture, language, religion, and a history of mutual hostility. This sense of separateness is deceptive, however, as the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa are bound by deep and extensive commercial, material, and cultural contacts. They share inextricable histories in which alternating movements of commerce, conflict, and migration have played fundamental roles in shaping recognizably Western Mediterranean societies. They should be thought of as areas of a unified region with a common culture, or at the very least, as areas sharing a common region, in which they interact regularly, creating extensive ties and parallel forms of cultural and social organization.
Christine D. Baker
The Fatimid dynasty ruled North Africa from 909 to 1171 CE. The Fatimids identified as Isma’ili Shi’is and they declared a Shi’i countercaliphate in Qayrawan to rival the Sunni ‘Abbasids in Baghdad. Their dynasty rose to power from an underground missionary movement, but eventually conquered most of North Africa, the Levant, the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and Yemen. Their first capital was in Qayrawan, but they are best known for founding the city of Cairo as their imperial capital in 969. The Fatimids linked North African and Mediterranean trade with the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea, creating an era of unprecedented economic growth. Further, Fatimid sponsorship of Isma’ili Shi’i ritual and scholarship allowed for the development of several Isma’ili movements that have persisted into the modern era. The Fatimid era ended in the 12th century during the rise of Turkic dynasties and the influx of Crusader forces into the eastern Mediterranean region.
The history of North Africa from the coming of Islam to the rise of the Almoravid Empire in the 11th century is a crucial period in the making of the Islamic Maghrib. From 600
Between 1510–1822, Morocco went through significant changes that laid the foundation for its modern nation state. Most noteworthy among these changes was a shift from the Berber dynasties that had dominated the country for almost five hundred years to governments headed by shurafā’, Arab leaders who claimed lineal descent from the Prophet Muhammad. A combination of external threats (e.g., colonization from Portugal and Spain, and the threat of Ottoman expansion) and internal developments (e.g., the rising influence of murābitūn and shurafā’ within the country), along with the perceived inability of the Berber Wattasids to meet the Portuguese challenge, contributed to this dynastic change.
In the five hundred years leading up to the early 21st century, two separate sharifian dynasties have governed Morocco, and the country has vacillated between periods of strong central rule and times of unrest (fitna) and weak central government. However, since the rise of the ʿAlawi dynasty in the late 17th century, ʿAlawi supremacy has not been seriously challenged, even during extensive periods of fitna or foreign colonization. Although Morocco developed a flexible system of government that helped unify the country during this period, it still fell behind European states in terms of technology, science, economy, and military strength. A degree of intellectual and social stagnation set in, such that European visitors in the 19th century perceived Morocco to be a country stuck in its medieval past. This weakness vis-à-vis its near neighbors to the north (particularly England and France) eventually set the stage for the direct colonization of Morocco by Europeans in the early 20th century.
The emergence, spread, and transformation of media technologies in North Africa has attracted much attention over the past decade. Yet the disruptive effects of technological mass media have been a defining feature of North African modernity from the mid-19th century to the present. Classically distinguished from pre-modern oral and scribal transmissions by “technological reproducibility,” mass media offer capacities both for simultaneous collective address (i.e., broadcast), and for nearly limitless copying (i.e., reproduction) and re-transmission (i.e., sharing). As such, dramatic expansions in mass media, from print journals, or “the press,” to electronic broadcast media of radio and television, small media of audio and video cassettes, and Internet-based and mobile digital media, have sustained modern North African political movements and mass publics, from anticolonial nationalism to postcolonial nation-state building and the 21st-century Arab Spring. Any understanding of contemporary mass media, including digital media, in North Africa must consider how these current media movements reprise and transform earlier forms of political consciousness, community, and protest grounded in a century of new media.
The workings of modern empire can better be viewed through the lens of gender because gendered hierarchies illuminate broad, intersecting aspects of the colonial project.
Community, kinship, household economies, religion, education, sexuality, social engineering, nationalism, and transnational reform movements were all inflected by imperial patriarchy in various guises. This perspective is especially rich for “French” North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco) from 1830 until 1962 since the region and its peoples were subjected to intense forms of “European” settler colonialism. From the start, the “woman question” assumed particularly fraught and contentious dimensions whose repercussions can be detected even today. Nevertheless, colonial North Africa did not represent a self-enclosed container. Transimperial and global processes shaped the sociopolitical terrain, and in turn. Policies, practices, and resistance in the Maghrib exerted a powerful torque far beyond its limits. Key to understanding women, gender, and settler colonialism is the state of the “archive,” the sprawling corpus of records, writings, words, things, and images left in an empire’s wake. The voices of women, children, and “ordinary” people, those labeled “the colonized,” have until recently been missing in conventional narratives. As Antoinette Burton observed, the archives themselves structure “the conceptual frameworks of women’s and gender history.” In the imperial historical context, the task of recuperating and restoring lost voices is all the more problematic, yet urgent. One might also add that the fundamental question is “whether ‘women’ is a category at all.”
The topic of prisoners, ransoms, and slavery in the Maghrib (that is, the lands of the Islamic west—the area that today encompasses North Africa, and historically, also the regions of Iberia and Sicily that came under Muslim rule) is of considerable chronological and geographical scope extending from the earliest establishment of Islamic rule in the region during the second half of the 7th century, persisting to the final decades of the 20th century, and enslaving or otherwise taking prisoner peoples from areas as geographically diverse as West Africa, the southern coastal regions of Europe, and as far north as Ireland and Iceland. The practice of slavery and the taking of prisoners in the Maghrib are thus of substantial historical significance. Yet, it is only in comparatively recent times that this complex topic has drawn the attention of scholars. Therefore, our understanding of slavery and the taking of prisoners in the Maghrib, especially during the medieval period, remains in its incipience.
The Tangier American Legation Museum reflects the evolution of Moroccan–American relations over two centuries. Morocco, the first country to recognize the independence of the United States (1777), became the site of the first overseas American diplomatic mission in 1821 when the sultan gave the US government title to the museum’s current home—8 rue d’Amérique (zankat America)—in the old city of Tangier. The building went on to house the US consulate (1821–1905), legation (1905–1956), a State Department Foreign Service language school (1961–1970), and a Peace Corps training center (1970–1973), before becoming a museum dedicated to displaying art and artifacts about Morocco and Moroccan–American relations (1976). Despite the official story of the origin of the forty-one-room museum, its holdings and activities since the late 20th century derive more from unofficial American relationships with Morocco than from US government policy. The private actions of individual Americans and Moroccans, with some State Department support, led the museum to become in the late 20th century a research and cultural center serving academics and the broad public, including the people in its neighborhood (Beni Ider). In 1981 the US Department of the Interior put the Legation on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1982 it became the only site outside the United States designated as a National Historic Landmark due to its past diplomatic and military significance, as well as to the building’s blend of Moroccan and Spanish architectural styles.
Women in Egypt have always played key roles in society in different historical eras. In the modern period, women were at the forefront of the modernization project that gained momentum at the end of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century. “The woman question” occupied center stage in debates about the new modern nation in the making and against the background of colonial domination as Egypt became a British protectorate in 1882.
The period from the 1920s to the early 1950s is noted as a period that was particularly vibrant in the history of the women’s movement and witnessed rapid developments in women’s participation in the public sphere. Women founded magazines, established civil society organizations in all fields, joined the national movement for independence, and contributed to key ongoing debates on the modernization project.
In 1952, the Free Officers Revolution resulted in a radical shift in the political sphere: the end of British colonialism, the transformation of Egypt from a monarchy to a socialist republic, and the start of a new era. The new order promoted women’s education and access to the labor market but restricted political rights and freedoms in general, a new reality that inevitably impacted the development of an independent women’s movement.
In the 1970s, women’s rights assumed center stage in international politics, a development that had an impact on women in general and Egyptian women in particular. Egyptian women entered the diplomatic corps and participated in drafting international conventions, in representing their country in international forums, and in joining international civil society campaigns for women’s rights. They also established a new generation of civil society organizations that advocated for women’s rights both locally and on the international stage.
The year 2011 marks an important moment in the history of Egypt. The wave of revolutions that swept the Arab world resulted in the opening of the political sphere in an unprecedented manner. Women’s rights activists rose to the challenge, and more and more women were active participants in the movement for change. Women joined new political parties that were established in the aftermath of revolutions; they were active participants in numerous political and social initiatives and movements; and they played a prominent role in marches for political and social freedoms.
In sum, women in modern Egypt have played key roles in the making of modern Egypt. The story of their contributions and achievements is the story of a movement for change toward a better future.