[This is a guest post by researcher and translator Katharine Halls. This is the second of two posts about Esther al-Tanani. The first post is Too Poor to Marry: Karaite Women’s Activist Passes Away.]
I first came across Esther al-Tanani when I was conducting research into discourses about marriage in Cairo’s Karaite Jewish community in the 1940s. As Hanan Kholoussy demonstrates in her book For Better, For Worse: The Marriage Crisis That Made Modern Egypt, marriage was a topic of immense concern to Egyptians in the early decades of the twentieth century. Egyptian commentators agonised over who, when and why young Egyptian men were marrying, and as Kholoussy shows, this functioned as a vehicle for anxieties about the wellbeing of the nation during a time of political upheaval.
My impression, based on preliminary research, is that it took these ideas some time to filter into the Karaite community. But I’d hate to suggest the Karaites were behind the times in any way, and the matter definitely needs further research. What is certain is that during the 1940s, Karaites in Egypt were concerned about marriage, and specifically the practice of dowry payments—dota in Arabic—which was specific to their community. Many felt that the sums involved had become overly inflated and were skewing young men’s choices, making marriage a sort of commerce which was demeaning and dehumanising to women, and damaging to the integrity of the community. Most obviously it meant that poor women struggled to marry, but it also meant, in the eyes of some, that matches were not being made on the basis of, say, good character, compatibility, love or sound reputation, but on the basis of wealth and greed.
I was looking at articles on these themes in the Karaite magazine al-Kalim, and while I found plenty of interest, there was very little written by women themselves. So I was very excited to come across two forceful articles by one Esther Yusif Farag al-Tanani. A student at King Fouad I University’s Faculty of Sciences, she was opinionated and unafraid to take on what she saw as male injustice in a very public forum. I was curious about who this young firebrand was, so I contacted the author of this blog, who seemed to be an authority on all things Karaite, to ask if he knew of any surviving members of the Tanani family. He wasn’t aware of any at the time, and sooner or later I moved on with my research.
So it was a bittersweet surprise when last week I opened an email from him, five years later, to read that Esther Rasson, née al-Tanani, had died aged 88 on the 15th January this year. I was glad to hear that the woman who I had admired when she was an audacious young student had gone on to live a long and full life, but sad I’d never got the chance to talk to her in person and hear more about her youth in Egypt. Esther was clearly a remarkable woman who was dedicated to making the Karaite community fairer and more respectful towards women. As a tribute to Esther al-Tanani, then, and as a humble offering to her family, I’m happy to share here my translation of an article she wrote which appeared in October 1949 in al-Kalim. It was only when I read Esther’s obituary that I realised this article had appeared on her twentieth birthday, so it seems a fitting way to commemorate her life.
[Translation of al-Tanani’s 1949 Article]
Give Us Back Our Dignity
Weeks have passed, and month has followed month, and again and again I hear of, and even witness for myself, a peculiar scene repeating itself. A tragedy which concludes by trampling a woman’s dignity and demeaning her, leaving a stain of shame on the brow of the sect [tāʾifa]. Sir, has our young men’s virtue been totally obliterated? Do our young men not have a heart which beats for anything other than money? Or eyes which behold but the beauty of tinkling gold? Have they cast aside all morals, wisdom and maturity and prostrated themselves before the king of money? If that is so then you must admit, Sir, that the sect is done for.
The reason for this disgraceful backwardness which has dogged the sect throughout the stages of its life is the dim mentality which characterises some of our young men, which leads to the spread of ignorance and illiteracy amongst the sons of the sect in a most lamentable manner.
Any mature person who is educated, refined and possessed of good morals must be able to recognise the extent to which a woman is demeaned if he leaves her for the sake of a few pounds. Our young men today, as I see and perceive them, do not care who will be their life partner or their soul’s companion; all they care about is that she be the partner of their pocket-book. How many young women have felt that stab in the heart, had their hopes crushed, because of their inability to satisfy their ‘respectable suitor’ with a dowry to his liking?
A father is obliged to prepare, from the moment of his daughter’s birth, for the battle he will have to wage when she reaches marriageable age. Denying his own needs, living frugally, and exhausting himself with all manner of work, he saves whatever money he can as if arming himself in readiness for that battle.
And when the young woman grows up and is ready for marriage, the suitor arrives with that charming question on his tongue: how much have you got? He is told the sum, and replies that it is paltry and insufficient; turning his back on her, he goes off in search of another young woman who will give him what he covets.
I consider our young men too good to stoop to this pitiful level, and it saddens me to recognise that we young women of the sect are no more than commodities to be bought and sold. We command no respect or esteem in the eyes of young men. Young men, give us back our dignity and protect us from this malady which has struck you in the heart and blinded your vision, and made us your victims. Educated young men, in one hand you hold our happiness and delight, and in the other our wretchedness and misery, so listen to the inspiration of your conscience, if indeed you have a living conscience. Know that if we have tolerated this ignominy today, tomorrow we shall not.
This does not mean I am inciting the girls of my sex to revolution against you; rather, I am calling upon them to demand the rights which have been denied them, and the status of which they have been robbed, so that we may keep pace with this age of equality, progress and advancement.
Esther Yusif Farag al-Tanani
Al-Kalim 106, 1st October 1949, p18