On May 16, 1921, Raya and Sakina were the first women in Egyptian history to receive the death penalty, complicit in the serial murder of seventeen women robbed of life for jewelry. The story of Raya and Sakina continues to resonate in Egypt’s popular culture of today. See the number of Egyptian movies, theatre and television productions they have inspired. The role of Raya and Sakina in the murders has been literally dramatized.
“Middle-class girls are still taught that if they misbehave or go shopping in poor neighborhoods, Raya and Sakina will get them”, mentions Nefertiti Takla, a historical researcher on the case. “The same concerns about gender, sexuality, and class that is raised nearly a century ago are still alive, and the story continues to function as a disciplinary mechanism.”
A world of sin
“The victims of the serial murders were seventeen women who had engaged in clandestine sex work in Alexandria during the war” as the historical reports recount, overviewed by Takla. According to the editorials accompanying the media reports about the case, the spread of immorality, wrongdoing, wickedness, and badness as a consequence of the political and social conditions had brought respectable women into Alexandria’s souqs, bars, and brothels interfering with the other social classes.
“Reports that the sisters preyed mostly on women they met in the public market, coffeehouses, and streets of al-Liban – one of Alexandria’s poorest neighbourhoods – became emblematic of the dangers allowing any women into these spaces”, writes Shaun T. Lopez in his chapter ‘Madams, Murders, and the Media’ published in Re-Envisioning Egypt, 1919-1952.
“The editorials revealed a consensus among Egyptian middle-class nationalists that the cause of the murders was the spread of vice, particularly among women.” Takla concludes that “the Alexandria serial murder case reflected a new panic about the corruption of middle-class women.”
The sisters, poor migrants from southern Egypt trading on sex for profit, “their success at navigating the fluid boundary between workers and the petite bourgeoisie is precisely why Egyptian nationalists found them so threatening”, Takla argues in her research.
Commenting on the shocking brutality of the two sisters, an editorial of 26 December 1920 in al-Haqa’iq reads: “Egypt has never heard the like over the course of its history, and never before had this level of infamy been achieved by two women, with the amount of sin that they have committed.”
Independence and caring for the soul/ riyadat al-nafs
The 1919 revolutionary spirit of independence quickly gave way to old problems. “Egypt was still compelled to prove itself worthy of total self-determination”, writes Wilson Chacko Jakob in Working Out Egypt. Effendi Masculinity and Subject Formation in Colonial Modernity, 1870-1940.
Central to the modern fantasy of a self-governing body was the care for the self. The ancient formula of salvation by tending to the soul in the classical Islamic tradition took according to him interesting turns in constructing a new national subject. “It would also constitute new, universal knowledge about the body, gender, and sex.”
He states that “the effendiyya challenged the elite’s claim of being the right representatives of the nation”. The term, he explains, “designates groups of men who approximated a cultural bourgeoisie”. He perceives it as a performance. The effendi is the one who appropriates the proper look.
“In educating the public about sex, love, and physical beauty, the emergent effendiyya class”, analyses Jakob, “of professionals, government civil service employees, men occupied in the new business trades and their spouses and daughters were the intended audience.”
“The primary entry point for the techniques of salvation was the family. Good mothers and wives stood for national advancement since they had the responsibility of raising healthy sons and bring up happy and productive men.”
The Masculinization of Women and the Feminization of Men
Raya and Sakina and many of their victims’ role as prostitutes plays out the dangers of unleashed feminine sexuality in popular cultural stories, states Lopez. “They became symbols for many opposed to calls for the integration of women into more public walks of Egyptian life, on the grounds that women were powerless to control their own sexual natures.”
“Raya and Sakina’s greed and pursuit of pleasure were uniquely female traits that had grown out of control in the absence of male supervision so the press believed.” As for the seventeen women, the press described them “not so much as victims rather as violators of Egypt’s moral order.”
Jacob states that “around the revolutionary years following 1919, Egyptian masculinity faced a new, endangered future, sapped by excessive masturbation and sex, transmitting venereal diseases.” A man diverging from the accepted standards in sexual behavior was seen as lacking in masculine self-control or willpower. Satirical images of emasculated Egyptian men brought to light the living anxieties about their ability to lead the new nation and the new middle-class households to happiness.
“Heterosexuality became key to Egyptian modernity resulting from the idea that the society could be acted upon by its localization in the individual human body, namely, in the male sex.” The sexual desire and impulse had to be translated into a respectable heterosexual marriage. Jacob explains that it is within this discourse on marriage and sexuality that the problematization of prostitution was often routed.
To all the unreformables and the ones crossing boundaries
“The Egyptian media had denounced Raya and Sakina as barbaric gender and sexual deviants. Deceitfully they lured middle-class women into their homes to murder them and steal their gold. They presented the antithesis of the modern, civilized Egyptian women who adhered to the middle-class gender and sexual norms”, writes Takla.
She argues that “the desire was not to reform the domestic habits of the working poor but rather to reform the domestic habits of middle-class women by keeping them away from them. It was decided on who was capable of being reformed and governed and who was not.”
“The job of the state was to keep the unreformable, ungovernable class away from the respectable society. Raya and Sakina were not the women that Egyptian nationalists were interested in reforming; they were the women that Egyptian nationalists wanted to keep away from the middle class.”
Although a marriage based on love between husband and wife is only one representation of sexual desire, one possible wording of love, it did became the constructed sexual boundary of the effendi sexuality, writes Jacob. By fashioning proper gender relations and healthy sexuality the horizon of possible sexual identities narrowed rather than broadened. Gradually Egyptians who did not fit the image became silenced and marginalized.
Takla concludes that “the gendered and sexual morality of women became the dividing line between the poor and the middle class. The question was never how to change society to stop the spread of murder, but rather how to change society to stop the spread of vice.”
Reminded of the story, young Egyptian middle-class girls learn that by violating gender, sexual, and class boundaries they could end up with Raya and Sakina.
This article was written by Marlies Van Coillie, originally for femm.blog