Women are the Backbone of late 18th-Century Cairo, Egypt in Samia Serageldin’s The Naqib’s Daughter

Posted By: Mansi Trivedi

In The Naqib’s Daughter Samia Serageldin describes the stories of several Egyptians during the late 18th-century French colonization of Egypt conducted by General Bonaparte. Serageldin’s vivid imagery, character development, and overall historical accuracy and research give the reader a startling image of Egyptian society under French rule. Though most Western societies generally associate conservative views, when it comes to women and women’s voices in society, to Middle Eastern culture The Naqib’s Daughter seems to break these notions by subtlety outlining the roles both men and women played in society, and reveals the momentous role women played in supporting the community through the French’s colonization of Cairo. Serageldin’s writing gives the women in her novel a strong voice, and its effect is to enlighten the reader of the central a role women played in 18th century Cairo.

With all the Mameluke leaders and men fighting the French along the Nile, the people of Cairo turn to Sitt Nafisa to protect them within the community. Even before the French invasion Sitt Nafisa is a prominent figure within the community, and has dreams to build a school for orphans and to complete the building of her sabil. Her influence is cemented within the community when her presence is able to calm down the riots that occur after the French defeat the Mamelukes along the Nile. The community storms Zeinab’s house and begins to harass her family until “…a voice [rings] out like a bell. Zeinab could not make out the words, only the calm authority behind them…the furious shouts died down to angry lowing, then to shamefaced muttering. Zeinab’s mother and father are released” (83). While men are the protectors within the community Sitt Nafisa takes on the part in their absence and shows the pivotal role women played in society’s function and protection, especially in the midst of an invasion that pulls the men to war. Initially it may be hard for the reader to accept that within a culture that calls for conservative women behaviors women can actually hold much influence in society. Serageldin effectively relays the essential function of women by giving Sitt Nafisa’s voice so much authority that one word from her can cause an entire mob to quiet down.

Sitt Nafisa’s influence does not only stretch across her own community but also across the French. She understands that she must be diplomatic, and in doing so she is able to keep her status not only among her own people, but among the French as well. She supports the foreigners in her community by providing them refuge in her home during the French Invasion. The French immediately realize the influence she has within the community and Bonaparte sends his son to her house to extend his greetings to Sitt Nafisa as soon as he arrives in Cairo. Furthermore the French continue to send diplomats to her in order to discuss matters of urgency such as the plague. For example, Magallon and the doctor come to Sitt Nafisa in order to ask for her aid in spreading proper hygiene and quarantine methods through the Egyptian community. Magallon claims that “[this] is where your help will be invaluable, madame. There is no one in this city with your influence, not even the ulema” (98). This quote only further validates the role Sitt Nafisa plays within the Egyptian community, but in the French community as well.

While it is easy to become lost in the description of the Mameluke men and the role they played in society it is much harder to notice the integral role women played in Egyptian society during the French invasion and colonization. While the Mameluke men are fighting the French to regain control of Cairo women such as Sitt Nafisa seem to take charge of the community, and act as diplomats between Cairo’s people and the French. Serageldin does a wonderful job in displaying all different types of women from strong, and influential (Sitt Nafisa), to young and naïve (Zeinab). Yet through her story the women’s strength stands out amongst the prideful strength shown by the Mameluke men in the novel such as Elfi Bey and Murad. Considering the rather conservative view Islam has regarding women in terms of gender relations, societal roles, and general behavior it was startling to read a novel based in Cairo where the strongest characters are women despite the hoards of men that play vital roles in society, yet it is the women’ s strength and stories that really seem to drive the plot of the story and effect the community despite the victimization characters such as Zeinab suffer due to the patriarchal culture. While the men fight to save their country from invasion the women protect the city’s people from injustice and harm making them the true heroes in Serageldin’s novel.