Huda Sha'rawi, an Egyptian nationalist, leading women's rights activist, philanthropist, and founder of the first Egyptian feminist organization, was also an inspiration to women throughout the Middle East and the colonized world.
Sha'rawi was born in Minya, Egypt, in 1879 to an elite Muslim family, and she was raised in Cairo. Her mother was a Turko-Circassian emigrant, and her father, who died when Sha'rawi was five years old, was a high-ranking government official. As was common for affluent Egyptian girls in the late nineteenth century, Sha'rawi studied French, her first language and the lingua franca of the elite, and music. Margot Badran, the translator of Sha'rawi's memoirs, notes that Sha'rawi was also allowed to participate in her younger brother's lessons on the Qur'an, Arabic, Turkish, and calligraphy.
Although many middle-class Egyptian girls attended primary schools by the turn of the century, most elite girls were still educated in their homes. Sha'rawi was an excellent student and memorized the Qur'an when she was nine years old, which was a remarkable achievement for a girl during this period. Sha'rawi was very close to her brother, and she was able to undertake more rigorous studies because of him, yet her memoirs indicate that her family's preferential treatment of her brother afflicted Sha'rawi throughout her childhood. Moreover, she was traumatized at the age of thirteen when her mother arranged Sha'rawi's marriage to an older man without her knowledge.
However, circumstances permitted Sha'rawi to suspend her marriage until she was twenty-one. During the interim, Sha'rawi became friends with Eugénie Le Brun, a Frenchwoman who had married an Egyptian. Along with the Egyptian elite's partiality for all things Western (save colonialism), Le Brun extended Sha'rawi's exposure to Western-oriented feminism. Badran suggests that Le Brun's influence contributed to Sha'rawi's unveiling in 1923 after returning from an international feminist conference. The removing of her face-veil symbolized Sha'srawi's unapologetic entry into the male-dominated public sphere and her determination to break traditional gender roles and restrictions.
Le Brun opened the first women's salon in Cairo in the 1890s, a public space in which women could meet to discuss current events and debate diverse issues from education to women's rights in Islam. After returning to her marriage in 1900, Sha'rawi had two children, founded a medical clinic for women and children, and arranged the first women's public lectures in Cairo. This period was one of significant changes for Egyptian women: middle and upper-class women were increasingly abandoning seclusion practices as they became more involved in charities and literary societies, women were entering the teaching profession, and a women's press was flourishing. However, gender separation was customary for the middle-upper classes until the events of 1919.
Sha'rawi played a leading role in the nationalist movement from 1919 until 1922, when Egyptians struggled to gain independence from Britain. After World War I (1914–1918), a delegation (wafd) appealed to the high commissioner, seeking to present their case for independence in London and at the Paris peace talks, but they were denied these opportunities. After publicizing their demands to the Egyptian people, the members of the wafd were arrested and spontaneous protests and strikes ensued. The wafd quickly morphed into a nationalist organization and would later become a political party; the Wafdist Women's Central Committee (WWCC) soon emerged to support it. Sha'rawi, the president-elect, led the WWCC in mobilizing women's demonstrations, sending petitions and protests to the colonial authority and Western governments, raising funds, and maintaining communications for their male counterparts. The WWCC was particularly critical to the male nationalists when wafd members were imprisoned or exiled. Sha'rawi also visited girls' schools and encouraged them to participate in the nationalist effort, and the WWCC helped mobilize women's groups nationwide to join the movement.
In 1922 Egypt won nominal independence from Britain, but the WWCC was frustrated because Britain retained a military presence and ultimate power over Egypt's foreign affairs. Egypt had gained control over internal matters, however; soon Egyptians promulgated a constitution and convened a representative parliament.
Sha'rawi continued to propagate her nationalist views, but she also promoted women's issues, often framing her arguments in nationalist or religious terms. In 1923 she founded the Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU) in order to advance a feminist agenda that addressed social and economic concerns, and to continue fighting for full independence. Only a month later, an electoral law that denied women suffrage rights was passed. Despite the tremendous support that Egyptian women had given male nationalists, women were now expected to withdraw to their homes as second-class citizens. The EFU was outraged by the affront and added equal political rights to their long agenda, which included socialist reforms, family law reforms, an end to legalized prostitution, more employment options for women, and equal educational opportunities for women. Along with other women's groups, the EFU also strove to increase social services, and established its own clinics, schools, scholarships, and literacy programs.
While Sha'rawi's feminism was rooted in her childhood, personality, and philanthropy, it certainly evolved in the nationalist context of the 1919 to 1923 resistance. This period was extremely valuable for Egyptian women because their contributions to the nationalist movement were indispensable; therefore, they were able to carve new public roles for themselves. Additionally, Sha'rawi's feminism was linked closely with her nationalism. Badran demonstrates that Sha'rawi and other feminists considered their struggle against patriarchy to be similar to that against colonialism.
When Sha'rawi died in 1947, Egyptian women had made progress in employment and education, but the only family law reform enacted was the raising of minimum marriage ages; women did not achieve political rights until the 1950s. Sha'rawi's legacy for the modern period is complicated by the "Islamic trend" since the 1970s; some Islamist women may remember Sha'rawi more for her comparatively secular, Western perspectives than for her feminist goals. However, many Egyptians continue to uphold Sha'rawi for her efforts to improve women's status, because she laid the groundwork for women's political activism and fought for many similar objectives, such as family law reform and greater employment opportunities. Furthermore, Sha'rawi's legacy extends beyond Egypt because of her support for women and movements in other colonized countries, her advocacy of the Palestinian cause, and her presidency of the Arab Feminist Union (1944–1947), which she founded a year before the formation in 1945 of the Arab League, an organization of Middle Eastern and African nations.
see also Egypt.
Badran, Margot. "Independent Women." In Arab Women: Old Boundaries, New Frontiers, edited by Judith Tucker, 129-148. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
Badran, Margot. Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Sha'rawi, Huda. Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist. Translated by Margot Badran. London: Virago, 1986.