The women of modern Egypt are far from being on so respectable a footing as they were in ancient times, or as the European women are at present.
In Europe, women act parts of great consequence, and often reign sovereigns on the world’s vast theatre. They influence manners and morals, and decide on the most important events. The fate of nations is frequently in their hands.
How different is their situation in Egypt! There they are bound down by the fetters of slavery, condemned to servitude, and have no influence in public affairs. Their empire is confined within the walls of the Harem. There are their graces and charms entombed. The circle of their life extends not beyond their own family and domestic duties.
Their first care is to educate their children; and a numerous posterity is their most fervent wish. Mothers always suckle their children. This is expressly commanded by Mahomet:—“Let the mother suckle her child full two years, if the child does not quit the breast; but she shall be permitted to wean it, with the consent of her husband.”
The harem is the cradle and school of infancy. The new born feeble being is not there swaddled and filletted up in a swathe, the source of a thousand diseases. Laid naked on a mat, exposed in a vast chamber to the pure air, he breathes freely, and with his delicate limbs sprawls at pleasure.
The daughter’s education is the same. Whalebone and husks, which martyr European girls, they know not. They are only covered with a shift until six years old: and the dress they afterwards wear confines none of their limbs, but suffers the body to take its true form; and nothing is more uncommon than ricketty children, and crooked people. In Egypt, man rises in all his majesty, and woman displays every charm of person.
The Egyptian women, once or twice a week, are permitted to go to the bath, and visit female relations and friends. They receive each other’s visits very affectionately. When a lady enters the harem, the mistress rises, takes her hand, presses it to her bosom, kisses, and makes her sit down by her side; a slave hastens to take her black mantle; she is entreated to be at ease, quits her veil, and discovers a floating robe tied round her waist with a sash, which perfectly displays her shape. She then receives compliments according to their manner: “Why, my mother, or my sister, have you been so long absent? We sighed to see you! Your presence is an honor to our house! It is the happiness of our lives!”
Slaves present coffee, sherbet, and confectionary. They laugh, talk and play. A large dish is placed on the sofa, on which are oranges, pomegranates, bananas, and excellent melons. Water, and rose-water mixed, are brought in an ewer, and with them a silver bason to wash the hands; and loud glee and merry conversation season the meal. The chamber is perfumed by wood of aloes, in a brazier; and, the repast ended, the slaves dance to the sound of cymbals, with whom the mistresses often mingle. At parting they several times repeat, “God keep you in health! Heaven grant you a numerous offspring! Heaven preserve your children; the delight and glory of your family!”
When a visitor is in the harem, the husband must not enter. It is the asylum of hospitality, and cannot be violated without fatal consequences; a cherished right, which the Egyptian women carefully maintain, being interested in its preservation. A lover, disguised like a woman, may be introduced into the harem, and it is necessary he should remain undiscovered; death would otherwise be his reward. In that country, where the passions are excited by the climate, and the difficulty of gratifying them is great, love often produces tragical events.