The Gender and Sexual Politics of Class Formation in Interwar Alexandria, Egypt

Friday, January 4, 2019: 9:10 AM
Grant Park Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Nefertiti Takla, Manhattan College
In November 1920, newspapers in Egypt began reporting the discovery of several corpses buried underneath the homes of two sisters named Raya and Sakina. Within days of the initial reports, middle-class Egyptian nationalists argued that Raya and Sakina were responsible for the murders because they had been operating clandestine brothels in Alexandria and corrupting ‘respectable’ Egyptian women. When it came time for trial, Egyptian newspapers published articles arguing that even though no woman had ever received the death penalty in Egypt, Raya and Sakina should be executed for the crime. On May 16, 1921, the judges gave the sisters the death penalty, even though they had decided that the sisters had only been accomplices to the murders.

This paper argues that the demonization of Raya and Sakina in the Egyptian press represented a new preoccupation with subaltern threats to the middle-class family. The interaction between workers and the lower middle class in the fluid spaces of Alexandria's bars, brothels and sūqs became a growing concern for both the colonial state and Egyptian nationalists after World War I, and the denunciation of these spaces in media discussions about the Alexandria serial murder case reflected a new panic about the corruption of middle-class women. Reports about the case in the media were accompanied by regular editorials arguing for the need to limit women's presence in public space and to socialize women to avoid activities that might lead them to enter illicit spaces. The desire was not to reform the working poor but rather to reform the domestic habits of middle-class women by keeping them away from the working poor. The gendered and sexual morality of women thus became the new dividing line between subalterns and the middle class, and the basis upon which women were included into the emerging Egyptian nation state.