Islamic Studies Inji Efflatoun
Patrick Kane, Salwa Mikdadi
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0290


Inji Efflatoun was born on 16 April 1924 to a wealthy family descended from the Turkish-Ottoman administrative elite, who in the 20th century became a part of Cairo’s French-speaking aristocracy. Her parents, both cousins, had an arranged marriage. Her father was a renowned entomologist and professor of science, who had been educated in the United Kingdom. Her mother, Salḥa, was only fourteen years of age when she married, around 1922, and gave birth to two daughters, Gulpéri in 1923 and Inji in 1924. The couple divorced only months after Inji’s birth. In her memoirs, Inji details the many challenges confronting her mother as a divorcee at such a young age. The couple’s large age difference may have contributed to their marital breakup, and it was Salḥa who pressed for divorce against the objections of her husband, Hassan. Salḥa faced multiple challenges. The alimony payment she received was not nearly enough given Hassan’s status and professional standing. She also faced societal pressures and the stigma of divorce in a traditional society. These circumstances profoundly influenced Inji, who later wrote in her memoirs that, although young and attractive, her mother steadfastly refused to remarry, for, among other reasons, it would make it easier for Hassan to win custody of her two daughters. Faced with a need for income, she opened the first tailoring and fashion design shop run by a woman. Some details of how her mother raised her two daughters are found in both Inji’s and her sister’s memoirs. Inji Efflatoun received a strict Catholic education before studying at the French Lycée in Cairo. She started painting very early on and, from the age of fifteen, took classes with Kamel Telmisany, one of the representatives of Egyptian Surrealism in the Art et Liberté Group. Telmisany introduced her to Marxism and social criticism, and gave her a copy of Gorky’s Mother. Thus, she became critically aware at a young age of the inequities that women faced in society and the general conditions of labor, as well as the British occupation and the war in Palestine. This milieu of artists and intellectuals of anarchist, communist, and anti-imperialist orientation resonate as an influence perceptible in the artist’s earlier output. She was an active leader in Egyptian feminism and leftist politics as a member of the Egyptian Communist Party. Accordingly, this bibliography incorporates references to both her art career and her feminist political writings, which have received less attention. Her interest in Marxism led to her commitment to socialism and several Egyptian communist groups. She also dedicated herself to improving her Arabic, so that by 1948–1950 she had authored three separate booklets on women’s issues and anticolonialism. By the end of the 1940s, her development as an intellectual was formed through her active participation in international women’s conferences, giving speeches, and writing several books, political pamphlets, and editorials to newspapers on behalf of feminist and socialist causes. Her status as a feminist polemicist and writer drew the attention and support of Taha Hussein and the historian `Abd al-Raḥman al-Rā`fī who wrote introductions to her first two books. After the Second World War, she was one of three Egyptian women delegates to attend the 1945 World Women Conference in Paris, a conference of the Fédération Démocratique Internationale des Femmes. Fluent in French, she wrote and delivered her own speech to the assembly. In her memoirs, Efflatoun recalled early attempts by 1945 to organize students at the universities and to hold elections. Although students were divided among communists and Muslim Brotherhood membership, a number of women won election to these committees. Her marriage to “Hamdi” (Muḥammad Abū al-’Alā) a lawyer and prosecutor, was short-lived. Communist political activities led to a series of imprisonments and he died soon after his release from prison in 1957. He died quite suddenly from a brain hemorrhage, likely caused by beatings in jail. After mourning her husband’s death, by late 1957 she helped mobilize women’s electoral campaigns, a cause that created divisions within the Egyptian male-dominated communist groups at a time when the Egyptian Communist Party was seeking greater unification. The refusal of the Egyptian Communist Party to broker a deal for cooperation or reorganization within the single-party apparatus decreed by Nasser and reinforced following the creation of the United Arab Republic in 1958 led to the mass arrest of communists in January 1959. After the arrest of her brother-in-law Ismail Sabri Abdullah, an economist and Egyptian Communist Party organizer, she went into hiding for three months, from March to June of 1959, when she was finally arrested and imprisoned for four years as part of the Nasser government’s mass arrest of Communist Party members and other leftists. As the state was wary of the party’s rising political success, hundreds of communists and intellectuals were arrested, including Louis Awad, a mainstream liberal writer on culture and the arts. Efflatoun was one of about twenty women rounded up in these mass arrests. While her political activity was curtailed by the disbanding of the Communist Party, she wrote opinion columns for Egyptian newspapers on access to education and equal pay for women, poverty, and in opposition to censorship and laws that required permission to participate in international conferences, among other articles on current issues. Efflatoun’s art career, while tangential to her political activism, runs concurrently with its own trajectory. She exhibited her first painting, “Girl with the Monster,” in 1942 at an exhibition of the Surrealists. Although women were excluded from enrollment at the College of Fine Arts in Cairo until 1950, Efflatoun had the opportunity to live and study in Paris, where her sister was residing in the late 1940s. However, the revolutionary currents in Egypt held greater appeal and she rejected academic training and opted for independent study with artists such as the Swiss-Egyptian artist Margo Veillon, and with Egyptian artists teaching at Cairo University and the studios of Ragheb Ayad and Hamed Abdullah. It was also around the end of the war that she consciously moved beyond what she perceived as the theoretical and artistic limitations of Surrealism to focus on the psychology and expression of women’s lives. In the early 1950s, she was among a group of Egyptian artists to exhibit at the Venice and São Paulo Biennal exhibitions, and became known to an international art world that included the Mexican muralist David Siqueiros. Of particular interest to art historians is the series of paintings produced in prison by Efflatoun during this four-year period from 1959 to 1963. Between her release from prison in 1963 and her death, she held twenty-six solo exhibitions and was given government support from the mid-1960s to late 1970s to exhibit in various European capital cities as a visiting artist and informal cultural emissary. The decision of the Egyptian government to rehabilitate her status reflects a certain embarrassment and paradoxical stance by the bureaucracy, who perceived a need for improved international relations during a time of active Soviet participation on the Aswan Dam project. This rehabilitation included an exhibition of her works at a gallery in Egypt in 1964, followed by a series of international exhibitions as a visiting artist at various European capital cities, including those of the Eastern bloc from 1967 to 1971. From the mid-1970s to mid-1980s her artistic output was prodigious and she exhibited at Egyptian galleries and in India and Kuwait. Her art shows an expressionist flair for depicting the rural environment and conditions of women in Egypt. Her unique style developed over time, moving from the brief early Surrealist phase to social realism into studies of both men and women peasants and nature, leading to her White Light paintings in the mid-1970s. She passed away from cancer on 17 April 1989, one day after her sixty-fifth birthday.

Biography of the Artist

The following sections contain primary and secondary sources related to the artist’s career as well as the author’s own letters, speeches, newspaper columns, and pamphlets. The sections Memoirs and Interviews with the Artist list the memoirs of the artist and of her sister Gulpéri Abdullah. Gulpéri’s first volume gives descriptions of the family background and early life of the artist as they grew up together attending Catholic and French schools in Cairo. These offer further details into Efflatoun’s early life only briefly discussed in her memoirs. In the Archives section are references to the major archive of the author’s documents at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. These were compiled from donations by the artist’s family and are the source for many original documents, manuscripts, and news articles gathered by or written by Inji Efflatoun during her lifetime. Together they allow the researcher to survey the wide scope of intellectual, social, and feminist activities of the artist, who remained dedicated to the improvement in material, social, and political status of women from her teenage years until her death from cancer in 1989. The phases of this commitment are manifest in her emergence as a young leader of Egyptian feminism from the end of the Second World War and her attendance at a series of international conferences on women. By 1944, at twenty years of age, she had joined the communist organization Iskra (Spark), an anticolonial movement that appealed to Egyptian Francophone leftists (Monciaud 2015, cited under Women and Islam). In 1944–1945, she helped establish the Rābitat Fataya al-Jami`a wa l-Ma’āhid (Young Women’s League of Universities and Institutes). Among the various international women’s congresses that she participated in was the Fédération Démocratique Internationale des Femmes (FDIF) that convened in Paris on 26 November 1945 (Monciaud 2015, cited under Women and Islam). Her difficulty in obtaining permits to travel to the conference is discussed in her memoirs and by other Egyptian feminists who attended. Her membership in Egyptian communist parties and organizations included her joining al-Raya (The Flag) in 1950. In 1957 she participated in movements for mobilizing women’s electoral campaigns, a cause supported by various Egyptian communist parties until their breakup into splinter groups in 1958, prior to the mass arrest of communists in 1959, when she was arrested and imprisoned for the next four years. After the Egyptian Communist Party was abolished and she was released from prison, she later joined in the leftist al-Tagammu’ Party, formed in 1970.

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