Negotiating Respectability between the Space of the Prison and the Place of Woman, Egypt 1946-1965.


Dr Hannah Elsisi is a Junior Research Fellow at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. Before joining Pembroke, Hannah was lecturer in Middle East, Gender and Global History at King’s College London (2018-20). She took her PhD in 2020 from the History Faculty at the University of Oxford with a thesis that won the Malcolm H. Kerr Award. Hannah’s research brings the postcolonial condition and transnational gender perspectives to bear on the global study of power, (re)production, agency and coercion. Her forthcoming book, Lovers in the Citadel: Architectures of Subjection in Egypt’s Political Prisons, advances the role of ritualised forms of coercion and violence in stabilising political contestation, and that of carceral institutions in shaping and sedimenting wider taxonomies of gender and sexuality. While her first book points to longer and more plural genealogies to contemporary global carceral regimes, Hannah’s current project, Carceral International, foregrounds this critique in a transnational history of the prison’s emergence as a central node, and mode, of modern governance.


The narratives of women political prisoners, or mu‘taqalāt, in post-colonial Egypt are shot through with struggle. These generally articulate a set of widely recognized and universally salient goals: freedom of movement, expression and affiliation, economic security, social justice, and the right to have a say in the management of state and society. But they also underscore a second, possibly more pressing, set of anxieties: how they sought to reconcile their experience of imprisonment with personal and public constructions of their selves as hardworking students, doting mothers, dutiful wives, obedient daughters and respectable middle-class women are all underlying themes running throughout their testimonies. I provisionally define mu‘taqalāt here as self-identifying women incarcerated for what they or the state branded as crimes of political identity and/or activity. However, the first part of the paper takes up the question of whether any definition, and therefore any history, of the political prisoner qua stable subject can be derived. I argue that political prisoner was never a stable category or identity. Rather it was a historically contingent label whose proliferation at mid-century had distilled a whole coterie of specific emergent normalising discourses of class, gender, criminality and of citizenship in general. Staking a claim to that label, then, was always a process of becoming and depended crucially on iterative performance of its constituent elements. My work is therefore concerned with historicising the normalising discourses and differentiating practices that first motivated, then enabled a dissident to claim: “I am a political prisoner”. In this paper, I focus on the student demonstrations of 1945-46. These presented the semi-colonial Egyptian state with a new and unique problem: up until that point women prisoners were thought of only as common criminals – drug-dealers, prostitutes (sic) and murderers. There was no cultural, or indeed logistical and infrastructural possibility for incarcerating a middle-class female revolutionary. Middle-class women, entering the space of the prison for the first time, risked their reputation and honour if they could not assert the decidedly different nature of their kind of imprisonment. It follows, then, that the struggle for respectability mounted by these pioneer mu‘taqalāt and the moral panics ensuant on their imprisonment would be foundational to the post-colonial landscape of national gender and citizenship regimes. This paper asks two interrelated questions: how was the prison implicated in the production of national gender regimes and how did mu‘taqalāt in turn challenge these national gender regimes in prison?