In the Middle East, Egyptian activist Huda Shaarawi (1879–1947) has become a legendary figure. In the early 1920s she was a leader in Egypt's fight for political independence. Turning her attention toward feminism, Shaarawi led the struggle for women's rights in the Middle East, focusing on education, voting rights, and marriage laws. Her act of defiance in removing her veil at the Cairo train station in 1923 marked the first time an Egyptian woman shunned tradition so visibly. From this moment on, increasing numbers of Egyptian women refused the role of silent wife behind the seclusion of the veil.
Shaarawi was born Nur al-Huda Sultan in 1879 on her wealthy family's expansive estate in Minya, Egypt. Her father, Sultan Pasha, was a prosperous landowner and government official who served as inspector-general of Upper Egypt. During this period in history, it was common for upper-class Egyptian men to have both a wife and concubines, or "second" wives, and Shaarawi was born into such an arrangement. She was raised in Cairo in a household that included her unmarried mother, Iqbal Hanim, her father's wife, Hasiba, and her father's other children. Shaarawi lived in an elegant, three-story house, with high ceilings and a sizeable garden filled with fruits and flowering trees. When she was five years old, her father died of kidney disease. Her mother, not yet 25, fell into a state of despair, as did her father's widow, Hasiba.
Educated in Traditional Gender Roles
Shaarawi had a younger brother, Umar Sultan, who was born in 1881, shortly before their father's death. Early on, Shaarawi realized that her status of being the elder child meant nothing in the face of her younger brother's gender. Umar received more attention than she did, and when she asked for a pony like his, she was told that riding was not suitable for girls. Shaarawi often felt jealous, being female in a male-oriented world. However, she was able to voice these frustrations to Hasiba, her father's widow, whom Shaarawi called "Umm Kabira," meaning "Big Mother." Hasiba seems to have understood Shaarawi's discontent.
Writing in her memoirs, published in translation as Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist (1879–1924) in 1987, Shaarawi described the relationship this way: "I loved Umm Kabira immensely, and she returned that love and showed compassion toward me. She, alone, talked frankly with me on a number of matters.… She knew how I felt when people favoured my brother over me because he was a boy. She, too, occasionally fanned the flames of jealousy in me, but without diminishing my love for my brother."
Coming from a wealthy family, Shaarawi received a private education from tutors and took daily lessons with her brother. She studied Turkish poetry, calligraphy, French, and piano. Before she was ten years old Shaarawi had memorized parts of the Koran, the sacred book of Islam. She was frustrated, however, because she could not understand what she had memorized; no one had taught her Arabic. When Shaarawi requested Arabic grammar lessons, she was refused because girls did not need to know such things. In her memoirs, Shaarawi expressed her aggravation: "I became depressed and began to neglect my studies, hating being a girl because it kept me from the education I sought. Later, being a female became a barrier between me and the freedom for which I yearned."
Shaarawi did not neglect her studies for long, however. Soon, she found inspiration in the form of an female itinerant poet named Sayyida Khadija al-Maghribiyya, who often visited her family's house. Sayyida Khadija impressed Shaarawi because the poetess could confidently discuss literary and cultural matters with the men of the household and seemed comfortable in their company, almost like a peer. This surprised Shaarawi because most women she knew were uneducated and were intimidated from speaking directly to men. "Observing Sayyida Khadija convinced me that, with learning, women could be the equals of men if not surpass them," Shaarawi wrote in her memoirs. Inspired by the poetess, Shaarawi bought books from peddlers who came to the door and snuck into her late father's study to gather even more books. She also pilfered her brother's texts.
Betrothed to Older Cousin
As she entered adolescence Shaarawi became increasingly aware of her culture's gender inequalities. She had spent her early years in the close company of boys: her brother, the neighbors, and the sons of family friends. However, when she reached puberty, around age 11, she was forced into the secluded harem life and restricted to the company of girls and women, a common practice in Egypt among the upper and middle classes. Women and men stayed apart, with the females confined to a separate portion of the household called the harem. Even inside the house, if Shaarawi wanted to talk to a man, she was required by tradition to do so from behind a screen. This seclusion followed Shaarawi everywhere; when she went outside, she had to wear a veil that covered her hair and most of her face.
At the time, veiling and seclusion were status symbols. Women in seclusion were guarded by eunuchs, castrated men who were usually slaves from Sudan and who served as intermediaries between the women and the outside world. The transition to harem life was hard for Shaarawi. Separated from the male companions she had known all her life, she was once again frustrated by gender.
Shaarawi's biggest letdown came in 1891 when, at age 13, she was betrothed to an older cousin, Ali Shaarawi, already in his late forties. Shaarawi had always thought of Ali as a father or older brother and did not want to marry him. He already had a wife and three daughters, all of whom were older than Shaarawi. To make things easier for her daughter, in the marriage contract Shaarawi's mother stipulated that Ali Shaarawi had to release his slave-concubine wife and live in monogamy with her daughter. About 15 months into their marriage, Ali Shaarawi's first wife became pregnant with his child. Shaarawi rejoiced that he had broken the marriage contract, and she returned home.
Influenced by Foreign Women
Shaarawi spent seven years separated from her husband, enjoying a life filled with tutors and concerts in a private box at the Khedival Opera House. She also took vacations to the Mediterranean seaport of Alexandria. During these outings Shaarawi came into contact with a number of well-educated foreign women who inspired her to seek change, but whose presence and obvious freedoms also amplified her discontent.
One of the biggest influences in Shaarawi's life was Eugénie le Brun, a Frenchwoman who had married an Egyptian man. Le Brun wrote several books on Egyptian social customs, and in the 1890s she hosted a weekly salon for women at her home. Shaarawi attended, and often the discussions turned to social practices, including veiling. It was Le Brun who suggested to Shaarawi that the veil stood in the way of Egyptian women's advancement. This revelation would later play a role in her public unveiling.
In 1900, facing increasing family pressure, Shaarawi reconciled with her husband. Two children followed, a daughter, Bathna, born in 1903, and a son, Muhammad, born in 1905. Bathna was a sickly child during her first several years of life, often hanging on the cusp of death. Shaarawi lost touch with her female friends while she devoted herself to the care of her children.
Finally, when Bathna had strengthened to the point where she no longer needed her mother's care, Shaarawi began socializing again. She met another Frenchwoman, Marguerite Clement, who was touring the Middle East on a Carnegie endowment. A lecturer, Clement described her travels and public-speaking engagements to Shaarawi, and the two decided Clement should offer a lecture to Egyptian women. With the help of her husband, Shaarawi reserved a university lecture hall for the occasion. The lecture drew a fair crowd and soon became a regular Friday-evening event. The lectures marked a significant turning point in social norms, for it was uncommon for women to leave the seclusion of their homes to gather in a public place. Inspired by this success, Shaarawi formed the Intellectual Association of Egyptian Women in 1914, which worked to improve women's intellectual and social lives.
Involved in Nationalist Movement
At the end of World War I, Shaarawi turned her attention toward nationalism as the Egyptian people demanded independence from Great Britain. In 1919 the Egyptians formed the Wafd party, a political organization aimed at gaining independence. Shaarawi's husband became a leader of the movement and she followed suit. On March 16, 1919, she organized one of the largest protests of the revolution. Calling on the women of Cairo to break social norms, she urged them to leave behind the seclusion of their harems and take to the streets. The crowd faced an army of armed British soldiers, who blocked the path of the march. Shaarawi was ready to step through and defy them, even if it meant giving her life; however, she realized others would probably die, too, and she did not want that. At this point Shaarawi stopped the marchers and instructed them to stand in silent protest for several hours. Over the next several months, such confrontations turned ugly; demonstrations continued, although Eyptians—including women—were sometimes shot or deported.
The nationalist movement forced Egyptian men and women to work together for the first time. In her memoirs, Shaarawi called this period the greatest time of collaboration between herself and her husband. By 1920 the women had formed their own political body, called the Wafdist Women's Central Committee, of which Shaarawi was made president. It was the first political organization for Egyptian women.
In January 1922, Shaarawi held a mass meeting of women at her house. They decided to launch an economic boycott against the British, whereby they would refuse to buy British goods and withdraw their money from British banks. Despite their lack of many rights, women held considerable economic clout because they disposed of the household monies through daily shopping. Also, women inherited money and property in their own name, in accordance with Islamic law. Using their vast network of friends and acquaintances, the women spread the word. The Wafd later credited the women's boycott as one of "the most powerful weapons" in the fight for their nation's independence.
Formed Egyptian Feminist Union
In 1923 Egypt won its independence, although Great Britain retained some rights. Under the new constitution, women found they were not granted suffrage and felt betrayed by the Wafd, which had agreed to grant women the vote. In response, Shaarawi formed the Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU) in early 1923. The main purpose of the group was to attain political, social, and legal equality for women.
In May of 1923 Shaarawi traveled to Rome to attend a conference of the International Alliance of Women. Upon her arrival home, she was greeted at the train station by a group of supporters. Shaarawi now did the unthinkable: she removed her veil in a symbolic act of liberation. For the rest of her life, through this act alone, she became the figurehead of the Egyptian feminist movement.
Shaarawi campaigned to get the minimum marriage age raised so girls were no longer married off at age thirteen. The EFU also worked for other changes, including women's suffrage, the restriction of polygamy, and stricter divorce laws for men. Because she realized that knowledge meant power, Shaarawi also worked to expand the access of girls and women to education. By 1930 Egyptian universities had admitted their first female student. The EFU also ran a dispensary for women and children.
Shaarawi's work brought her international fame, particularly among the world's suffragists and early feminists. In the late 1930s, when Palestinian women faced a political crisis, they contacted Shaarawi for help. She offered advice on political action, raised funds for them, and helped in the formation of the Arab Feminist Union in 1944. For her service to her own country in its quest for independence, Shaarawi was awarded the Nishan al-Karmal award in 1945. Ironically, even after receiving the highest decoration awarded for service to her country, Shaarawi remained unable to vote in an Egyptian election.
After Shaarawi's death on August 12, 1947, in Cairo, Egypt, the EFU's name was changed to the Shaarawi Society for the Feminist Renaissance, in tribute to the woman who did so much for so many.
Ahmed, Leila, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, Yale University Press, 1992.
Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing, edited by Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke, Indiana University Press, 1990.
Rappaport, Helen, Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers, American Bibliographic Center-Clio, 2001.
Shaarawi, Huda, Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist (1879–1924), translated by Margot Badran, The Feminist Press, 1987.
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2001.