|The Self and the Other: Sustainability and Self-Empowerment (WB, 1996, 76 p.)|
|Culture and development|
Hoda El-Sadda, Cairo University
Especially in developing countries women have compelling problems, including economic difficulties. We have always been told that our problems are not very important compared to the crucial issue of liberation from colonialism and economic dependency. I would like to follow my professional bias and tell you about two Egyptian women. One story is about me, and the other is about one of the precursors of the women's movement in Egypt named Malak Hifni Nassef, whom very few people remember.
I would also like to comment on the word modernity, which is the subject of an ongoing debate, and I would like to link it to what has been said about development. The videos we saw attempt to analyze what went wrong in the South. In "Culture and Development" Ismail Serageldin was correct when he suggested that the situation in the South is the result of the implementation of an inappropriate development paradigm. I will tell you about an inappropriate modernity paradigm.
I belong to the liberation generation. I did not live through colonialism, and I went to an Egyptian language school. In school we were told that we had to practice speaking English at all times, and we paid a plaster if we spoke Arabic during our breaks.
I later majored in English literature at Cairo University, where I now teach. The English department was modeled after the departments of English language and literature at Oxford and Cambridge. The department's use of their syllabus, which was written in the 1930s for native speakers of English, was guided by the strange assumption that Egyptian students had already mastered the English language before attending the university. The problem was that most of the students in the English department at Cairo University did not speak English well, and they had a problem with the syllabus. They had to adapt to a system that assumed they could read Shakespeare in the first year.
In my current teaching position I have two problems with my students. First, I have students who prefer to write poems in English, although they cannot spell most of the words correctly. Second, I have students who do not want to learn anything about English culture while they are learning the English language. They only want to learn the language, the practical part, and they refuse to comprehend the meaning and cultural context of the works of Shakespeare or other English writers.
The effect of the colonial experience on the people in the South was accurately shown in the videos we saw. This experience resulted in a terrible phenomenon: Even after liberation we saw ourselves in the mirror of the West. In fact when we talk about the self, we are actually talking about otherness. We are the other, and we continue to define ourselves as the other. We in the South have accepted all the false assumptions that Mr. Serageldin talked about in "Culture and Development" concerning the dichotomy between the West and the East, between modernity and tradition, and between progress and the status quo. The people who adhered to tradition did so on the assumption that it was the cultural status quo and had to be preserved. The modern state adopted a Western paradigm of modernity, assuming that this was the only paradigm that would enable it to accomplish any kind of progress.
A third paradigm could have been formulated if there had been an attempt to assimilate, digest, and rethink the essence of progress rather than opting for reproducing the superficial structures of a ready-made Western model. This paradigm could have been deeply rooted in tradition. It would have focused on cultural strengths and would have revitalized cultural weaknesses.
Some of Malak Hifni Nassef's ideas fall into this third paradigm, which is a challenge to my generation and to what we are trying to do at this seminar. Nassef lived during the early years of the twentieth century. A student of Mohammed Abdou, one of the greatest religious reformers in Egypt, she was disturbed by the abrupt changes that were occurring in the lives of Egyptian women. All of a sudden women were asked to take off their veils and adopt modern dress because this was the only way they could enter the modern world. Nassef was opposed to this. She said, "Don't talk about the veil. Let's talk about education and then leave it to women to decide what they want to do and what they want to wear." In her writings she said that Western dress did not signify progress or modernity and that tight clothes were not good for women's health. She wrote about the distinction between different types of dress because at that time it was very topical to talk about what women wore.
We have never developed this third paradigm and therefore we are back where we started. We must find a different kind of modernity paradigm.