#TBT Dynamic Africa History Post: Who Was Huda Sha’arawi?
Considered to be one of the central figures in early 20th century feminism in Egypt, Huda Sha’arawi (pictured: center) was born into a wealthy family in Minya, Egypt, in 1879. She was the daughter of Muhammad Sultan, the first president of the Egyptian Representative Council.
Throughout her childhood and early adulthood, Sha’awari was raised in a harem, largely secluded from the outside world. At the thirteen, she was married to her cousin Ali Pasha Sha`arawi who she eventually separated from for seven years after he refused to leave his concubine, as per their marriage arrangement. During her separation from him, Sha’awari extended her formal education. From a young age, she was tutored in a variety of subjects and spoke French, Turkish, and Arabic.
A pioneer and activist, Sha’awari was involved in many philanthropic projects throughout her life beginning with the establishing of the first philanthropic society run by Egyptian women, in 1908, that offered services for poor women and children. She argued that women-run social service projects were important for two reasons. First, by engaging in such projects, women would widen their horizons, acquire practical knowledge and direct their focus outward. Second, informed largely by her harem upbringing, such projects would challenge the view that women existed solely for men’s pleasure and were constantly in need of protection and guardianship by men. However, despite holding this progressive view of women’s rights at the time, Shaarawi saw the problems of the poor as issues to be resolved through charitable activities of the rich, particularly through donations to education programs. Holding a somewhat romanticized view of poor women’s lives, she viewed them as passive recipients of social services, not to be consulted about priorities or goals. The rich, in turn, were the “guardians and protectors of the nation.”
As a young woman, Sha’awari displayed defiant acts of independence. Once such incident involved her entering a department store in Alexandria to buy her own clothes instead of having them brought to her abode in her harem. In 1909, she also helped to organize Mubarrat Muhammad Ali, a women’s social service organization and the Union of Educated Egyptian Women in 1914, the year in which she traveled to Europe for the first time. Sha’awari helped lead the first women’s street demonstration during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, and was elected president of the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee.
In 1910, she opened a school for girls focused on academics, rather than teaching practical skills like midwifery which was common at the time. Four years later, she founded the Intellectual Association of Egyptian Women. But it was her founding of the Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU) in 1923 that Sha’awari is often most remembered for. The EFU consisted of upper and middle class Egyptian women, and at its height had about 250 members. The EFU focused on various issues, particularly women’s suffrage, increased education for women, and changes in the Personal Status laws. While the EFU accomplished few of its goals, it is widely credited with setting the stage for later feminist victories. She remained an active member of the EFU throughout her life and the organization remains active to this day.
Part of Shaarawi’s motivation for founding the EFU was her desire to send a delegation of Egyptian women to the 9th Congress of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance in Rome, in May 1923. In a speech at this conference, Shaarawi advanced her conception of Egyptian feminism. She argued, first, that women in ancient Egypt had equal status to men, and only under foreign domination had women lost those rights. Second, she argued that Islam also granted women equal rights to men, but that the Koran had been misinterpreted by those in power. Shaarawi and the EFU maintained their ties with the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance for several years. However, in the 1930s, increasingly influenced by the nationalist movement in Palestine, Shaarawi and her colleagues began to define nationalism in pan-Arab, rather than Egyptian, terms. In addition, they became increasingly suspicious of Western feminists, and began to cast their feminist struggle in pan-Arab terms as well. Eventually, they broke their ties to the Suffrage Alliance. In 1945, Shaarawi and the EFU played a major role in founding the All Arab Feminist Union.
Upon her return from the Rome conference in 1923, and following the death of her husband that same year, Sha’arawi performed an act that will forever be remembered as a major moment in her life: she removed her veil in public at a Cairo train station. Her decision to unveil was part of a greater movement of women and was influenced by French born Egyptian feminist, Eugénie Le Brun,
but it contrasted with some feminist thinkers like Malak Hifni Nasif. In fact, some say that Sha’arawi’s removal her veil, although bold at the time, has become an exaggerated part of her life as removal of the veil was never on the EFU’s list of priorities.
Sha’arawi passed away in 1947. Much of her life was penned in her memoir The Harem Years.