Sha'rawi, Huda 1879–1947
Huda Sha'rawi is regarded as one of Egypt's foremothers of feminism. At its inception Egyptian feminism was inextricably linked with nationalism, and this synthesis was especially clear in the case of Huda's life and contributions. She was born Nur al-Huda Sultan, her father a wealthy provincial administrator. Growing up in the harem system on a lavish estate near Cairo, she was given in marriage to her cousin at the age of thirteen. Angry at discovering that he did not renounce his slave concubine with their marriage, she left him for seven years; later she reconciled with him and had two children.
Within a few years and at the initial behest of Princess Ain al-Hayat, she became actively engaged in social reform, establishing a clinic for the poor. The center offered classes in infant care, family hygiene, and household management. Throughout her life Huda argued that upper-class women had an obligation to contribute to the betterment of society through charitable activities. In light of contemporary feminist thought, Huda's activism could be characterized as elitist in nature; however, it also reflects an early twentieth-century romantic view of the poor as passive recipients of philanthropic efforts of the rich.
Following World War I, the Wafd political party emerged in Egypt. Demanding independence from English occupation, the supporters of Wafd initiated the nationalist Revolution of 1919. In the same year Huda led the first demonstration of women against British occupation and formed the Wafdist Women's Central Committee.
Widowed at the age of forty-five, and with all the men in her life gone, Huda committed her organizational skills and immense wealth to support the equality of women in Egypt. She became an activist in the struggle for women's full political rights, educational and employment opportunities, reform of the Muslim personal-status law, and campaigned for women's rights in the areas of divorce and polygamy. Her rise as a central figure is best represented by the story of her return from the International Women's Conference in Rome in 1923. A crowd had gathered at the station to welcome her home, and as she stepped from the train, she removed her veil. The action had profound impact, and within a decade, few women in Egypt remained fully veiled. It should be noted that while Huda's autobiography and every narration of the episode refers to her taking off the veil, what she removed was only the face cover (niqab) and not the hijab, or head covering.
After founding Al-Ittihad al Nisa'I Misri, the Egyptian Feminist Union, she served as its president from 1923 until her death in 1947 and was invested with Egypt's highest honor, Nishan al-Kamal (Order of the Virtues). Fluent in French, Turkish, and Arabic, Huda was a popular speaker for women's rights throughout the Arab world and Europe. Huda recorded her memoirs in Arabic with the publication of Mudhakkirati, referred to as the Memoirs of the First Lady of Arab Modernity. The Memoirs narrate her transition from childhood in the harem to her militant feminist activities. She was the first Egyptian woman to cowrite an autobiography, which has become part of the history of Arabic literature.
Ashby, Ruth, and Deborah Gore Ohrn. 1995. Herstory: Women Who Changed the World. New York: Viking Press.
Badran, Margot. 1995. Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Kader, Soha Abdel. 1987. Egyptian Women in a Changing Society, 1899–1987. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
Sha'rawi, Huda. 1986. Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist (1879–1924), trans. and ed. Margot Badran. London: Virago.
Rosemary Drage Hale