Sex Work Regulation and the Colonial Order in Late Nineteenth-Century Cairo

By Francesca Biancani, University of Bologna

In modern cities, flows of people, capital, and desires intermingled and structured a new spatial order. Straight streets, airy boulevards, agreeable parks, coffee houses, and taverns constituted the backdrop of a new type of sociability linked to the emergence of a middle class endowed with purchasing power and increased mobility through technological advancements (macadamization, street lighting, public transportation, etc.).

A panoptic regime, organized along axes of class and gender informed the urban landscape. The city was now conceived as a space built to be seen and scrutinized by the gaze of the flâneur, the male bourgeois prototype strolling around a clean, orderly, and mappable city. A constant tension between such a disciplinarian urge and the multiplication of occasions for human contacts and interactions between sexes and social classes defined the order of the modern city. Together with the demarcation of spaces to which potentially non-conformist and subversive subjectivities and practices were relegated- the poor in the slums-, the new urban order was evident in new performative acts of social life- the choreographies and display of public life in the streets, promenades, parks, and theaters of the metropolis, in its department stores, and hotels. Here, social interactions between the sexes were carefully coded and “domesticated,” and transgression, to a certain extent, condoned and therefore normalized.

Document from the Powerhouse Museum Collection

Post Card showing Clot Bey Street in Cairo, 1915. Photography by Au Carto-Sport, Max H. Rudmann.

Within the new spatial economy of the city, prostitutes became a dense metaphor of civil disorder, at the same time reinforcing and destabilizing social hierarchies and conventions. With their openly displayed commercial sexuality and capacity for “infiltrating” the space of “respectable people,” sex workers defied gendered norms and men’s authority over public space.

Due to its liminal and ambiguous position in the cityscape, urban authorities supervised sex work by containing it spatially and subjecting it to an articulated system of surveillance. The segregation of sex workers in red-light districts was a measure taken by a number of local administrations in the nineteenth century, both in the metropolis and the colonies. In some cases, prostitutes were displaced from their segregated, although central, location within the urban fabric to peripheral areas outside the city walls, a move reflecting what the human geographer Stephen Legg termed as “civic abandonment.” This never happened in Cairo, where since its inception in 1882, regulated prostitution was placed at the centre of the production of the colonial city order, both figuratively and literally. Right after Egypt’s occupation and the establishment of a protectorate over the country, the British introduced a system of state-regulated prostitution. Egyptian regulationism, as in other parts of the British Empire, was not only clearly at odds with the colonizers’ domestic abolitionist tradition. It was also constitutive of the alleged difference between the metropolis and the colony. The regulation of sex work in the Empire was in fact based on the belief in the “natural” propensity of the colonized toward sensuality and immorality and racial difference. Colonial ordinances on licensed prostitution were passed as part of the imperial “civilizing mission” and were motivated by very pragmatic bio-political reasons, mainly concerns for public order and the health of soldiers, in other words key issues of imperial governance.

The manshur ‘amm (general decree) promulgated in 1882 followed a typically regulationist model. [1] It stipulated the licensing of registered brothels in designated areas of the city, where sexual services could be performed under medical supervision and without disturbing the public order. The main red- light district of Cairo was located in the city center, in the Azbakiyya, the area concentrating the trappings of fin-de- siècle cosmopolitan life: The hotels frequented during the winter months by hordes of international tourists – including the famous Shepheard’s, the New Bristol, and the Intercontinental, the foreign-owned large department stores like Cicurel, Chemla, Rivoli, and Tiring, the Opera, the Azbakiyya Gardens, opened in 1872 and designed after Paris’s Bois de Boulogne, the local branches of the main European companies and societies, and the stock exchange. Descriptions of Azbakiyya and its ‘red-blind’ district are easy to locate in old travelogues as the area was considered a ‘spectacle’ of the city, one of the spots tourist had to visit during their tours of Cairo. The brothel area was divided in two zones, the Wish-el-Birka and the Wass‘a. The Wish el-Birka concentrated most of the foreign prostitutes – among them Greek, Italian, and French subjects – with a licence. The street, with an appendix in Shari‘ al-Genina and Shari‘ Clot-Bey, was flanked by three-story buildings in a Mediterranean style with wrought iron balconies stretching out onto the street: “Every floor has its balcony and every balcony has its fantastically robed Juliet leaning over. As the street, despite of its glare, is not well lighted, you cannot see how displeasing they are: you get a mere impression of light draperies trailing from lofty balconies under lustrous night blue of Egypt, while from the rooms behind, lamps with rose-coloured shades diffuse invitations.”[2] The Wass‘a, instead, had a concentration of brothels with local women. In his memoirs, Russel Pasha, the former head of Cairo’s city police, recalled that a stroll through the area “reminded one of a zoo, with its painted harlots sitting like beast of pray behind the iron grilles of their ground floor brothels, while a noisy crowd of low class natives, interspersed with soldiers in uniform and sight-seeing tourists made their way along the narrow lanes.”[3]

In these areas, brothels were endowed with a state licence, women were registered and had to undergo weekly medical examinations in order to contain the spread of venereal diseases. Both foreign and native licensed women were subjected to medical check-ups, but with a remarkable difference: While local prostitutes were strictly policed, as they had to report to the infirmary attached to the local police station, foreign sex workers could recur to private practitioners. If found diseased, Egyptian subjects were confined to the Hud al-Marsud Lock hospital, while foreign women were expected to notify their Consular authorities and undergo medical treatment on their own. Of course this rarely happened. Foreign sex workers normally went underground or obtained false health certificates from complacent doctors.


Postcard showing dancers, singers, and musicians on the stage of Eldorado nightclub in Cairo, 1908.

Regulationist policies have been long demonstrated to be largely ineffective both in terms of public order and health in general and Cairo was no exception. In theory, the regulation of sex work was informed by three basic principles: enclosure, constant supervision, and medicalization. In fact, none of these requirements was respected in Cairo. The geography of sex work in colonial Cairo was and remained for the whole duration of the regulationist period, that is until 1949, highly hybrid: circumscribed and visible on one side, predominantly decentred, multiple, and fuzzy on the other. The quartier réservé, where brothels had to be concentrated, with its notorious pimps, who spent their days strolling through the area with their fighting dogs while keeping an eye on their women working the pensions nearby, only hosted a limited number of establishments compared to the availability of transactional sex, disguised or clandestine, in the city. Prostitution in Cairo was scattered throughout the urban fabric and took place also in dancehalls and cabarets, where local and foreign “artists” would top up their wages by providing sexual services, or in private houses, under a cover of anonymity and respectability. On December 13, 1923 Mahmud Abu-l-ʿUyyun, a shaykh and prominent abolitionist campaigner, wrote in the Egyptian daily al-Ahram about a letter that he had received from an anonymous reader who drew a map showing the locations of 159 clandestine brothels: “Places for the resident and the traveller,” he wrote, “where sinners, men and women, lie together illicitly.”[4] According to the author of the letter, however, most of these houses, although clandestine, were in fact known to the residents of the neighbourhood and to the police itself. As long as there was no complaint from the people living nearby, police officials turned a blind eye on these places in exchange for a bribe.


Women in a show at the Badi’a al-Masabni theater in Cairo, 1938.


Yet, the efficiency of the regulation system in Egypt was jeopardized above all by the colonial underpinnings of the legislation, its inherently racist logic. On the one hand, the existence of a dual legal system, with separate courts for local subjects and foreigners, the legal privileges enjoyed by non-Egyptians and the notorious “leniency” justice that was administered within consular courts, hindered the capacity of both local and colonial police to combat illicit sex work effectively. Colonial power relations allowed capitulary subjects in Egypt to profit from any sort of illicit activity in the country, boosting the consolidation of transnational networks of traffickers in whatever merchandise, women included. On the other hand, the differences in treatment between local and foreign sex workers in relation to health checks made medicalization untenable. This bespeaks the racial hierarchy constitutive of the imperial enterprise. The closest to a medicalization of European prostitutes ever reached in Cairo was the opening of a “European Bureau de Moeurs” and a dedicated lock hospital in the predominantly Coptic area of Shubra as part of a major ‘purification campaign’ under Martial Law in 1915, when a “pragmatic approach” to regulation was advocated by military authorities to curb the diffusion of venereal diseases among the troops. Consuls grudgingly agreed to these measures, provided that they were temporary, as they feared sex work regulations could call into question the whole system of privileges that capitulary subjects enjoyed in Egypt. While the British introduced sex work regulation out of concerns for colonial governmentality, the same racial hierarchy at the core of the colonial order made sex work regulation absolutely inefficient.

The study of the regime of state-licensed prostitution in colonial Cairo, I believe, provides a lens for studying the complex ways in which difference and hybridity were constitutive of the colonial order by legitimizing the deployment of disciplinary mechanisms devised to consolidate, thus normalize, such an order based on difference. Regulated prostitution, in the imperial mind, buttressed the colonial order as one of the main tools for normalizing racial hierarchies through the management of gendered marginality.

Francesca Biancani holds a PhD in Government from the London School of Economics and is currently Adjunct Professor of History and Institutions of the Modern Middle East at Bologna University.  She has published several articles on the history of  migration and sex work in Egypt, including “Globalization, Gender, and Labour in Cosmopolitan Egypt, 1860-1937,” in From Slovenia to Egypt: Aleksandrinke’s Trans-Mediterranean Domestic Workers’ Migration and National Imaginaton, ed. M. Hladnik (2015) and “International Migration and Sex Work in Early Twentieth Century Cairo,” in Globalization and the Making of the Modern Middle East, ed. Liat Kozma et al. (2015). She is currently working on the manuscript of a book on foreign sex work in colonial Cairo, gender, race, and Empire. 

[1] Nizara al-Dakhiliyya, Idara ‘Umum al-Sahha, Dikritat wa Lawa’ih Sahhiyya, (Cairo: al-Matbaa al-Amiriyya bi-Bulaq, 1895), 54-56.

[2] Douglas Sladen, Oriental Cairo, the City of the Arabian Nights (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1911), 6.

[3] Thomas Russell Pasha, Egyptian Service: 1920-1946 (London: J. Murray, 1949), 178.

[4] Mahmud Abu-l-ʿUyyun, “Baʿd Sittʿashar Saʿa,” al-Ahram, December 17, 1926.


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