Single Motherhood, Celebrities, and Popular Culture in Egypt

Biography: “I am a social and cultural historian of the modern Middle East. My work focuses on gender, sexuality, working classes, and popular culture. I have authored many academic publications, most notably Industrial Sexuality: Gender, Urbanization, and Social Transformation in Egypt from the UT Press 2016 and Unknown Past: Layla Murad, the Jewish-Muslim Star of Egypt from Stanford University Press. My research has won prizes from the National Women’s Studies Association, the Association for Middle East Women’s Studies, MESA, the Arab American Book Awards, and the Journal of Social History.”


This presentation discusses the taboo around single motherhood in Egypt through the cases of celebrity mothers whose children were born out of a formal marriage and how the different paths each woman chose to challenge fathers’ denial and win the legal and social recognition of the children. Among several cases the presentation examines are the case of the granddaughter of the feminist leader Hoda Sha’rawi in the 1920s and the son of the superstar Layla Murad in the 1950s. Tracing the legal outcome and the popular attitude in those cases provides a glimpse into profound but often overlooked changes in Egyptian society toward achieving “democracy from below.” I conclude that Recognizing women’s rights for single motherhood and the rights of children born outside formal marriage shakes Egyptian patriarchy built on Islamic orthodoxy and its social ideal of morality that has privileged men over women.