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Sex, Medicine, and Weapons: Insights into the History of Sex Work in Modern Egypt

Once I began delivering sermons, women came out of their homes and expressed their displeasure by cursing loudly in various languages, including Levantine dialect, French, Arabic, Italian, Greek, and broken English. Their anger was mainly directed at me because I firmly refused to enter their homes. It is worth noting that one woman (probably the head of the household) even tried to drag me inside, which is a common way for them to provoke public unrest

-Guy Thornton, Chaplain of the Australian and New Zealanders Army 1916

The French Shock and Muhammad Ali:

The relationship between the modern Egyptian state (from the French occupation to the present) and sex work is a complex one. Before the French occupation, the Ottoman and Mamluk rulers legalized sex work for taxation. Female workers and pimps were registered, and taxes were imposed. The taxes collected from sex work, specifically in Hadayek al-Qubba, generated significant income, particularly for male managers and police officials. According to Al-Jabarti, the governor and his men earned over 50,000 half-silver per month from sex work. Consequently, sex work was primarily seen as a financial and interest-related matter for the state rather than a health concern.

It is worth noting that the Franks established brothels in the Nubian Ghat in Cairo, where sex work was legalized and taxed. However, in 1799, the French banned brothels for 30 days due to the belief that they were contributing to the spread of the plague. The establishment of the modern state and organized armies brought about a shift in attitude towards sex work, emphasizing both health and military concerns. This shift can be observed during the era of Muhammad Ali and his campaigns in Syria.

During the winter of 1831, when Muhammad Ali was in power, field hospitals in Syria faced challenges due to the high number of soldiers infected with syphilis. In response, Antoine Clot, the chief physician of the Egyptian army, sent letters to army doctors instructing them to periodically examine soldiers and provide care for those who tested positive for syphilis. Concerns similar to Clot’s were later raised regarding the health effects of sex work on societies. In 1832 and 1833, taverns and bars were banned in Syria during the Egyptian campaign for several reasons. One of the main reasons was the discipline problems caused by drunken soldiers and female workers in the camps. Another reason was the spread of sexual diseases among soldiers, who faced the pressure of leaving their wives behind while going to war. Responding to the soldiers’ requests, Muhammad Ali allowed their wives to accompany them, which alleviated the soldiers’ complaints about the prohibition on seeking sex work.

In 1834, influenced by the experiences in Syria, similar issues with discipline and the spread of sexual diseases arose in Cairo. In an attempt to address these problems and appease public opinion, Muhammad Ali banned public dancing and sex work. The penalty for engaging in sex work in Cairo was 50 lashes for the first offence and imprisonment with punitive labour for a year or more for repeat offenders. Although these measures were seen as a solution to the military and health problems associated with sex work, they contributed to the rise of informal sex work.

Perhaps Antoine Clot can be credited with the medical renaissance of the Egyptian healthcare system, surpassing the modern Western healthcare system. Clot advised Muhammad Ali to establish the School of Medicine, now known as Al Qasr Al-Aini, the oldest medical school in Egypt. Clot also introduced smallpox vaccination in Egypt. Additionally, he made other contributions regarding sex work in Egypt. In 1847, Clot received reports of a syphilis outbreak among military school students, which he linked to unregulated sex work. He wrote a letter to the Khedive urging periodic medical examination and treatment for female sex workers, similar to practices in Europe. However, Clot’s letter contained racist language, accusing Egyptian sex workers of lacking shame in engaging in prostitution. He emphasized the danger of syphilis and argued that banning sex work would lead to more immoral behaviour, such as homosexuality and adultery.

British Occupation and what came after it:

The implementation of a regulated system for sex work did not begin until the British occupation of Egypt in 1882, despite earlier recommendations from Clot. The British approached the issue of sex work differently than the Egyptians. While the Egyptians viewed female sex workers as sinners, the British saw them as victims of social and economic inequality, as well as contributors to public health concerns. Shortly after their arrival, a circular was issued calling for medical examinations of female sex workers to prevent the spread of STDs. In 1885, the first regulation was issued, requiring medical tests for female sex workers and leading to the establishment of dedicated offices in Cairo and Alexandria. This regulation was subsequently amended in 1896 and 1905, with the 1905 version becoming the final regulation governing sex work. It consisted of 28 articles and remained in effect until 1951 when sex work was banned entirely in Egypt. The 1905 regulation outlined brothel rules, including descriptions of their characteristics, age requirements for workers, annual licensing requirements, and instructions for weekly medical examinations and treatment. Violation of the regulation’s provisions carried penalties.

Before World War I, occupation soldiers were only allowed to engage in sexual relations with foreign workers who were not covered by official regulations until 1914. The Europeans believed that Egyptians and non-Anglo-Saxon individuals were of lower rank and, therefore, immoral. This belief can be observed in their writings, where they also propagated the idea that non-European female workers were more likely to spread dangerous and fast-spreading types of syphilis compared to European sex workers. However, despite this differentiation between Europeans and non-Europeans, the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases among occupation soldiers in Egypt in 1912 was 11% higher than in India and Britain, where rates stood at 5.5%.

During World War I (1914-1918), concerns about sexually transmitted diseases resurfaced. In April 1915, the Battle of Haret Al-Wazir, also known as the “Battle of Wisdom,” took place between Australian soldiers and sex workers amidst rumours that soldiers were contracting STDs from these workers. Subsequent battles and uprisings among the workers further strained the relationship between the British occupation and sex workers, prompting a movement within military leadership seeking to eliminate sex work as one of the sources of “evil.”According to Australian reports, around 6,000 Australian soldiers (13%) received treatment for STDs in Cairo in 1916, while the percentage of English soldiers treated for STDs reached 12% in the same year. This period saw controversy surrounding the dangers of sex work within military and health elite circles and how to respond to it. This division led to differing opinions within the occupation authorities, with a liberal camp advocating for the regulation of sex work and a conservative camp advocating for its eradication to eliminate STDs.

The Moral Cleansing Committee and World War I:

The “Cairo Moral Cleansing Committee” was established in 1916. It consisted of military leaders, public figures, and doctors who collectively discussed the health risks associated with sex work, as well as the validity and implementation of the 1905 regulation. They concluded that the proper detection methods specified in the law and regulations were not being applied, resulting in 2-4% of formally registered female sex workers testing positive for STDs, while 6-30% of unregistered female sex workers who were apprehended had various STDs. The committee called on the government to take radical measures to “purify” Cairo, which included stringent moral education for soldiers and officers, as well as the suspension, based on customary law, of the following:

  1. Male and female dancers
  2. Homosexuals
  3. Pimps and brothels
  4. Individuals proven to transmit STDs
  5. Liquor, hashish, and cocaine

One proponent of the moral purification of sex work was Jay Thornton, the chaplain and captain overseeing the New Zealand Infantry Division in Cairo. Through his sermons targeting sex workers, Thornton sought to “rescue” New Zealand soldiers from their influence, often engaging in conflicts with them.

The efforts of the Moral Cleansing Committee persisted until the conclusion of World War I, although with limited success. In response to the crackdown on formal sex work, workers relocated to areas that faced less government scrutiny. Some moved to more popular locations where law enforcement presence was scarce, while others disguised themselves as “artists.” This subterfuge inadvertently led to attacks on female artists due to the perceived immorality associated with their work. Within the Moral Committee, advocates proposed chemical prophylaxis as a means to achieve “moral purity.” This measure had support from representatives of both liberal and conservative viewpoints. The chemoprophylaxis packages available to soldiers included calomel ointment for syphilis and potassium permanganate tablets for gonorrhoea. Post-sex clinics were established in Egypt in 1916 to serve soldiers before they returned to their camps. These clinics focused on cleansing the penis with various liquids but did not gain significant popularity, although they did have an impact on Egyptian culture. It is worth noting that conservatives opposed such methods as they appeared to normalize sex work and provide soldiers with a false sense of security instead of inducing shame.

Following World War I, the conservative principles upheld by the British Army aimed to eradicate soldiers’ visits to brothels, but these principles were impractical to enforce. British authorities subjected certain brothels to scrutiny, permitting soldiers to visit them. However, in 1921, all British occupation forces were prohibited from engaging in brothels, and this prohibition was reaffirmed in subsequent regulations published in 1925. Nonetheless, these official rules were often disregarded, leaving the British occupation forces in Egypt torn between the ideals of idealistic, modernized conservatives and the unfeasibility of realizing these ideals. Women’s rights activist Florence Wakefield recounts this predicament while interviewing a former officer:

The military authorities in Egypt recognize that soldiers cannot be expected to exercise self-discipline, as they believe that men should be permitted to release their stress and tension.

Consequently, they employ forms of verbal manipulation to permit soldiers to visit brothels. Curious about how soldiers determine which brothels to patronize, I inquired with a Colonel who could not answer at the time. However, later on, I received information from a young British police officer who had served in the Egyptian army until 1929 and was occasionally assigned to the barracks. The concept advocated by the Moral Cleansing Committee to address sex work through moral education had a lasting impact on Egyptian intellectual discourse in the following years. Moreover, the Egyptian population faced medical and societal dilemmas, which led to a division between proponents of organizing sex work and those advocating for its eradication. Ultimately, the latter viewpoint prevailed, resulting in a complete ban on sex work in Egypt under Military Order No. 76 of 1949, which called for the demolition of all brothels. However, this event is just one aspect of the intricate relationship between sex work, sexual health, and the military in the Egyptian context. In the upcoming article, we will explore another perspective, examining in detail the health conditions experienced by sex workers during this period and featuring the testimony of a venereologist who lived in the 1920s and was privy to its hidden truths.


(1) البغاء في القاهرة خلال العصر العثماني (١٥١٧-١٧٩٨م) د. حامد عبد الحميد مشهور

(2) Khaled Fahmy, “Prostitution in Egypt in the Nineteenth-Century,” in Outside in: On the Margins of the Modern Middle East, ed.

(3) مجتمع القاهرة السري (١٩٠٠-١٩٥١م). د. عبد الوهاب بكر

(4) Let down the curtains around us” : sex work in colonial Cairo 1882-1952


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