Malak Hifni Nasif

Malak Hifni Nasif
Malak Hifni Nasif
Born (1886-12-25)25 December 1886
Died 17 October 1918(1918-10-17) (aged 31)
Academic background
Alma mater Saniyyah Teacher Training College
Academic work
Institutions Union for the Education of Women
Main interests Feminism

Malak Hifni Nasif (25 December 1886 – 17 October 1918) was an Egyptian feminist who contributed greatly to the intellectual and political discourse on the advancement of Egyptian women in the early 20th century.

Personal life

Malak was born in Cairo in 1886 to a middle-class family. Her mother was Saniyyah Abd al-Karim Jalal, Her father was Hifni Bey Nasif, a lawyer who was a member of Muhammad Abduh's party. One time student of Al-Afghani, he was author of several textbooks used in Egyptian schools and was one of the five signatories to the 1342 Cairo text.[1] Malak's father encouraged her to learn and be educated. Growing up, she often read Arabic poetry and began writing in her free time.[2]:65 While her father encouraged her to be formally educated, he also raised her with a strong connection to native Egyptian culture, teaching her the Arabic language and Arabic culture from an early age.[3]:184

Malak was among the first graduating class from the Girls’ Section of the ‘Abbas Primary School in 1901, and she continued her education at the Saniyyah Teacher Training College, where she graduated at the top of her class in 1903.[4]:73 Malak returned to the ‘Abbas School to teach for two years. She was forced to quit when she married Abd al-Satar al-Basil Pasha in 1907. At the time, Egyptian law forbid women from teaching while married.[5] At this point, Malak moved with al-Basil to al-Fayyum in the desert, and she began writing under the pseudonym Bahithat al-Badiya.[2]:65 It was there that she found out her husband already had a wife and a child. The treatment she received from al-Basil, as well as the observations she made of other women, led her to write thoughtfully and directly about the status of women in Egypt.[2]:65 She corresponded significantly with other writers and friends like May Ziadah, and she responded critically to major male writers of the time, like Qasim Amin.[2]:66 Malak stayed with al-Basil for 11 years until she died of influenza in 1918.[2]:67

Feminist writings

Malak lived in Egypt during a period of growing intellectual and political discourse on the status of women in society. This time period included influential players like Huda Sha'arawi, Qasim Amin, Nabawiyya Musa, and many more. During the same period, nationalist and traditionalist thinkers went back and forth with different ideas about the future of the Middle East. These two conversations were intrinsically linked and had a large overlap. Malak entered this dialogue and presented her "attempt at reform" for an Egyptian future.[6]

Malak first began publishing works Al-jarida, the major newspaper of the Umma party. Malak also spoke often at universities and the Umma party headquarters.[4]:73 In 1909, she published Al-Nisa’iyyat, a collection of many of her talks and essays.[5] Through these methods, she raised her own voice for the advancement of women.

The dominant feminist ideas at the time associated the advancement of women with westernization and movement towards a more European society.[3]:784 Women like Huda Sha’rawi supported actions like unveiling as progress towards a more European, more liberated world for women.[3]:174 Malak agreed on some level with her contemporaries, but, for the most part, she brought her own ideas. She had an alternative feminist voice; she combined westernization with Islam and traditionalism, claiming that only a combination of the two would move women in the right direction.[3]:174 She presented these views by writing on a number of different issues, including unveiling, marriage, and education.


During the early 1900s, many elite women began using unveiling, or the public removal of their face veils, as a symbol of feminism. Writers like Qasim Amin advocated unveiling as a strategy for women to show their power and liberation.[3]:184 Malak, on the other hand, was opposed to unveiling and did not believe that it should be used in this way. She believed that many of the wealthier women who unveiled were doing so because of an obsession with European fashion, not because of a desire for freedom or because they felt repressed by the veil.[3]:180 She also argued that the veil had been a part of the culture for a long time and that banning it would be too abrupt a change for many women.[3]:180 Malak called for women to be wary of men who, at first, ordered women to wear a veil and then suddenly ordered them not to for the purpose of their ‘liberation.’[4]:73 Her views on the veil represented a significant difference between her and other feminists.[citation needed]


Malak wrote extensively about the marital rights of women in Egypt. This issue was one of the feminist issues with which she had significant personal experience. The fact that her husband had two wives caused her to intensely oppose polygamy. In an article entitled “Or Co-Wives”, she deemed polygamy “women’s mortal enemy.”[3]:182 She felt that significant changes must be made with regards to marriage; polygamy must end, men and women must both be able to divorce, and the age at which women marry must increase to at least sixteen. She argued that all of these reforms stem from one central idea: love must be the basis for all marriage.[7]:278 Malak despised the idea of a marriage rooted in economic reasons, of a man marrying a woman simply for her money. She also supported her arguments against early marriage by commenting that women who married early often developed hysteria.[7]:281 Overall, marriage in Egypt was one of the biggest problems for Malak, and she sought drastic reform on this issue.[citation needed]


Malak viewed education reform as one of the most promising solutions to many of the problems that women faced. In her writings, she expressed that any girl that did not have an opportunity to attend and finish school had been treated unjustly.[8]:145 She shared this sentiment with the other feminists of the time. She did not believe, though, that just any education would suffice. She opposed the implementation of missionary schools in Egypt, arguing that “the most ignorant of girls are the graduates of the missionary schools.”[4]:84 Malak called for more Egyptian control over the public education system to create schools that taught girls a more comprehensive curriculum, including history of Egyptian culture.[4]:84

Malak diverged from others further when she extended her argument and claimed that formal education alone could not solve women's problems. She believed that much of the women's injustice resided in the home, that tarbiya, or the process of raising a child, was responsible for a woman's future.[8]:145 She emphasized the difference between European mothers and Egyptian mothers in caring for their children; Egyptian mothers did not take care of their daughters’ physical health and mental development nearly as well as European mothers did.[8]:146 She argued that mothers must teach their girls to feel empathy for others, to take care of themselves, and to take care of their own children. Malak proposed reforms to better teach religion to girls, to expand schools for female nurses, to increase access to healthcare for women, and to teach hygienic practices.[8]:146 The practice of child rearing was one of the areas in which Malak thought that some Westernization would benefit Egyptian society, but she also believed strongly in the importance of teaching Islam to children. Overall, she believed that most aspects of women's education needed significant reform.[citation needed]


Malak took action on her views by starting organizations and seeking political action. One aspect of her political activity was connection with women from other countries. She founded the Union for the Education of Women, which brought Egyptian women together with other Arab and European women.[2]:67 Malak later founded an emergency health service based on the Red Cross and a nursing school for women in her own home.[3]:184 She made sure to physically represent the ideals that she supported in her writing.[citation needed]

One of Malak's most significant political actions was her presentation of a ten-point program for the improvement of women to the Egyptian Legislative Assembly in 1911.[2]:67 She laid out five points as to how education should be improved: it should have religious orientation; it should be required up to primary school; it should include hygiene, childrearing, first aid, and economics; it should include training for women in nursing and teaching professions; and it should be open to all women for higher studies.[2]:67 She asked for legislation on all of these points. The other five points focused on other women's rights like marriage age and unveiling.[2]:67 Though this program was ignored by the assembly, it was a major example of a woman taking charge of feminism in a political forum.[citation needed]

Death and legacy

Malak died of influenza at the age of 31 on 17 October 1918. Her funeral was attended by an array of feminists and government leaders.[3]:183 On the seventh anniversary of her death, Sha’rawi held another commemoration that included the predominant feminist thinkers Nabawiyya Musa and May Ziadah.[3]:184 While she left a powerful legacy and was remembered by all of her contemporaries, her unique feminist perspective died with her, and Sha’rawi became the foremost feminist thinker of the time.[citation needed]