Tuesday 13 February 2018

École française d’Athènes

Speaker: Elena Chiti
Discussant: Efi Avdela

No home, many houses: women, mobility and crime in 1920 Alexandria

In the immediate aftermath of the Great War, Egypt was shaken by massive anti-colonial protests following the arrest of Saad Zaghloul and other members of Wafd, who asked for Egyptian independence from British occupation. Within the large popular participation, women took also the streets to join the protests. Their visibility in the public space, in a time of political turmoil, was accompanied by reflections on their role at home and in the society. Explicitly discussed by the intellectual elite, from feminists to nationalists, this debate was implicitly present in the ordinary press and its analysis can be enriched by studying crime accounts.

One of those, from Alexandria, attracted broad national attention. It involved a gang composed of men and women, arrested in November 1920 and charged with 17 murders. Yet, the women of the gang were depicted as its actual chiefs and unceremoniously called by their first names: Raya and Sakina. They soon became, as Shaun Lopez observed, “the anti-icons” of the new Egypt. Immigrants from Upper Egypt, former prostitutes and ultimately madams, Raya and Sakina were condemned in the press for their lack of stability, their suspicious mobility within the city and the uninhabitable conditions of their houses. This paper aims at reconstructing and discussing the very process which led to the creation of this negative feminine myth, in which mobility, and its stigmatisation, played a significant role.


Elena Chiti is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Oslo. A cultural historian of modern Egypt, she holds a PhD from IREMAM/Aix-Marseille University, with a thesis on Alexandrian literary milieus in an epoch of transition (1879-1940), marked by the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the British colonial rule and the rise of Egyptian nationalism. She is now engaged in the project “In 2016. How it felt to live in the Arab World Five Years after the Arab Spring”. In this framework, she focuses on Egyptian fictional and non-fictional crime stories, to analyse the construction of public morality through popular culture. She studies, in parallel, Raya and Sakina’s case, from its emergence in 1920 Alexandria to its avatars in the Egyptian culture until today.

Efi Avdela is Professor of Contemporary History at the Department of History & Archaeology of the University of Crete. Her work focuses on twentieth century Greece in a European context. Her research interests include gender history, the history of feminism, the history of crime and delinquency, the history of youth as well as the history of voluntary associations and collective action.

© 2018 / Mobilities in/of Crises / Athens, Greece