Shaarawi, Huda (1879–1947)

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Shaarawi, Huda (1879–1947)

Egyptian political activist who led demonstrations against British colonial rule; worked to end marriage for underage girls, the institution of the harem, and the wearing of the veil; became prominent in the Wafd political party; and founded the Egyptian Feminist Union, the country's preeminent voice for women for many decades. Name variations: Sh'arawi; Hoda Charaoui. Born Nur al-Huda Sultan on her father's estate near the town of Minya (Minia), Egypt, in 1879; died in Cairo in 1947; daughter of Sultan Pasha (a wealthy landowner who eventually became president of Egypt's Chamber of Deputies) and Iqbal Hanim (a Turco-Circassian); tutored at home, becoming fluent in several languages; married Ali Shaarawi (a cousin many years her senior), in 1892; children: daughter Bathna (b. 1903); son Muhammad (b. 1905).

Married at age 13 (1892); after 15 months of marriage, returned to live with her mother for the next seven years (c. 1894); traveled with husband to Paris, and witnessed the freedom of European women (c. 1901); founded the Intellectual Association of Egyptian Women (1914); demonstrated with other women against British rule (1919); elected president of the Wafdist Women's Central Committee (1920); as founder and president of the Egyptian Feminist Union, led a delegation to the International Alliance of Women in Rome and stopped wearing her veil (1923); founded Club of the Women's Union (1925); awarded the Nishan al-Kamal, Egypt's highest state decoration (1945).

Selected publications:

Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist, 1879–1924 (The Feminist Press, 1987).

Following World War I, women around the globe sought greater political and economic freedom. As they organized to alter the status quo, certain common issues emerged, including the right to vote, the necessity for guarantees of equal treatment under their country's laws, and their need to be socially and politically informed. In Egypt, the struggle for these rights was launched by the most sophisticated, privileged women in the nation, and led by Huda Shaarawi. But the women of Egypt had other obstacles to surmount: polygamy, the rigid seclusion of harem life, and exclusion from public involvement.

Huda Shaarawi was born Nur al-Huda Sultan on her parents' estate near the Egyptian town of Minya in 1879. Her father was Sultan Pasha, an immensely wealthy landowner. A provincial administrator who owned a substantial library, he had a deep love for Arabic poetry and later became president of Egypt's Chamber of Deputies. Huda was the first child of her father's second wife Iqbal Hanim , a Circassian who came from a mountainous area of Turkey. Turco-Circassians formed a large part of Egypt's ruling class and men like Huda's father favored Circassian women, who were often slaves, as wives and concubines. Iqbal Hanim was never a slave, but had come to Egypt as a child, and maintained close relationships with her Turco-Circassian relatives. Huda and her brother, Umar Sultan, lived with their mother in the same harem as did their father's first wife and children. Relationships in this extended family were peaceful, and Huda had a great love for Umm Kabira , or "Big Mother."

Early in the 19th century, from 1805 to 1849, Egypt had been ruled by Muhammed Ali, who changed his country from a province of the Ottoman Empire to a semi-autonomous state, modernizing the army, expanding the country's health services, and beginning a secular education system for males which would be extended to females in the 1870s. Muhammed Ali also began the cultivation of cotton, which supplied the textile mills of England, and instituted an extensive railway and carriage system. In 1869, two decades after the end of his rule, the opening of Egypt's Suez Canal linked Great Britain to its Indian Empire, and Cairo became a world city with an opera, fabulous mansions, and a rich cultural life.

In moments of danger, when women emerge by their side, men utter no protest. Yet … men refuse to see the capabilities of women.

—Huda Shaarawi

While the Egypt in which Huda grew up looked to the future, it also clung to the past. For one thing, polygamy was still a widespread practice. The seclusion of women was not a tenet of Islam, but it was a social convention that had become connected with economic standing—only the wealthy could afford to set aside a portion of the house solely for women and children—and the harem where Huda passed her childhood was a sign of her family's status. Since the honor of the family rested on the sexual purity of its women, that purity must be guarded by eunuchs, or castrated males, and the support of the harem's many inhabitants could thus be a considerable drain on a man's wealth.

Veiling was common in and out of the harems, and the practice was followed by all women, whether Muslim, Jewish, or Christian. While poor women frequently worked outside the home, either with or without their husbands, wealthy women rarely stirred from within the harem's walls. On the rare occasion when one did, accompanied either by eunuchs or a male family member, she took the harem's seclusion with her by covering herself with the veil. Fully practicable only by the elite, the harem and the veil, and their attendant isolation, thus became status symbols in themselves.

Huda spent her early childhood in happy prosperity, playing with her brother, Umar Sultan, and the siblings of her father's first wife. Although her father was frequently away due to his political duties, he made time for his children and indulged them with chocolates, and her maternal grandmother and uncles often came from Turkey to spend the warm Egyptian winters with the family. Sometimes Huda went with her mother to visit Amina Hanim Afrandi , wife of khedive (viceroy of the sultan) Muhammad Taufiq, at the palace, and sometimes there were friends of the family who came to call.

When Huda was five, her father died, and he was greatly mourned by his two wives and children. Life continued in the harem, where Huda learned to play the piano well and became fluent in Arabic, Turkish, and French; she also read the books in her father's library, and memorized parts of the Koran, which was considered a rare feat for a girl. From Anbar, an Abyssinian slave, and Matta, the gardener, she learned a great deal about horticulture. In the late afternoons, a servant, Said Agha, took the children on outings, to take part in feasts and street celebrations where they enjoyed buying sweetmeats from vendors' carts.

After the age of nine, the life of Muslim girls in the harem grew more confined. Gradually, Huda was allowed to leave the seclusion of the harem less often, and her contact with members of the opposite sex was restricted to male relatives. When she was 13, she learned that she was to be married to her cousin Ali Shaarawi, a much older man with a concubine and children twice her age, whom she thought of as a father or older brother. Upon learning the news, she cried for three hours.

By 1892, recognition in Egypt of the difficulties polygamy presented for families, and especially for women, was fairly widespread. In an attempt to protect her daughter, Iqbal Hanim asked Ali Shaarawi to sign a document promising to have no further relations with the mother of his children and never to take another wife. Though he refused, even the document's existence showed that changes in the country were already under way. Iqbal told Huda, "Accept things as they are for the moment, my daughter, and, God willing, in the future he will agree to these conditions."

The wedding celebration lasted three days, with much music and gaiety, and Huda reveled in the festivities. Soon afterward, however, she was forbidden by her husband to play the piano or visit relatives, and became depressed; then a loud argument occurred between Ali and her mother about his slave concubine. After 15 months of marriage, Ali returned to live with the mother of his children, and the young bride returned to her mother.

Although the refusal of Huda Shaarawi to live with her husband was unusual, her life was happy for the next seven years. She studied Arabic literature, piano, and poetry, and attended concerts at the Khedival Opera House. Spending summers by the seaside in Alexandria, she enjoyed the experience of shopping for herself, rare for a woman of the harem, and even convinced her mother to join her. She also began to attend the salon of Eugénie Le Brun (Rushdi), a French-woman who had married Husain Rushdi Pasha. With Mme Rushdi, Shaarawi perfected her French, and she explored such topics as the wearing of the veil, which many viewed as an impediment to their advancement, with women who attended the salon.

After seven years, Shaarawi went back to her husband. He took her to Paris, where she discovered a new world in which women moved about freely in the streets. Upon her return to Egypt, she gave birth to a daughter Bathna (1903) and a son Muhammad (1905). Bathna was a sickly child, and Shaarawi and her mother took the children to Turkey for three months, unescorted by her husband. Back in Egypt, she made another dear friend, Marguerite Clement , from France, who suggested giving lectures to Egyptian women. It was a radical proposal because public gatherings of women were unheard of, but Shaarawi convinced Princess Ain al-Hayat to sponsor the event, which was held at Cairo's new university and was a great success.

Among these wealthy Egyptian women, discussion increased about ways to improve the lot of their countrywomen. When Shaarawi proposed a school for women and a dispensary, Princess Ain al-Hayat was especially enthusiastic about the dispensary, and the women set about raising money in a variety of ways. Through private donations, lavish fundraising, and a scheme for collecting stamp revenues, enough money was found to rent a modest building on Shariah Baramuni, in the impoverished Muhammad Ali neighborhood of Cairo, where several Egyptian and European doctors volunteered their medical services. Shaarawi also felt the need to encourage women in intellectual pursuits, and in April 1914 the Intellectual Association of Egyptian Women was established, a precursor of the powerful women's organization that was to play an important role in the country's struggle for independence.

At the end of World War I, Egypt was still under British colonial rule. As resistance to the

British increased, Egypt's upper-class women, who had slowly overcome many restrictions of the harem, used the impetus of the national struggle to bring the harem system to an end. When the first appeals for independence were denied, the Egyptians formed the Wafd Party in protest against foreign domination, with Huda Shaarawi's husband as party treasurer. In their common struggle against colonialism, the couple now grew closer, as Ali kept his wife informed of all his decisions in the event that he might be killed. On March 16, 1919, she was part of a group of women who assembled in protest, carrying placards which read "Down with Oppressors and Tyrants" and "Down with Occupation." The procession was soon surrounded by British troops, and when a soldier pointed a gun at Shaarawi, she defiantly taunted, "Let me die so Egypt shall have an Edith Cavell ," referring to the English nurse executed as a spy by the Germans during the recent war. The troops hesitated to fire on the women, and Shaarawi and the others stood their ground for three hours. When they made their way back to their carriages, they left the colonial British badly shaken.

By April, when many Egyptians had been killed or imprisoned for defying colonial rule, a more violent demonstration of women occurred. This time the troops struck out with bayonets and fired on houses, and Shafiaq bint Muhammad became the first woman killed by a British bullet. As women of all classes joined in the political fray, some took part in the strikes that were organized to paralyze the country, stationing themselves in government doorways to urge workers to stay away. In this atmosphere of growing protest, Huda Shaarawi and other women demanded the resignation of the government. Egypt's prime minister Husain Rushdi, husband of Shaarawi's late friend Eugénie Le Brun, responded to the demand by announcing, "The women want my resignation," and he quit his office that day.

By 1920, Egyptian women decided to form their own political body, the Wafdist Women's Central Committee, and Huda Shaarawi was elected its president. A rift developed between the men and women of the Wafd movement after male leaders, returning from a meeting in London with the British government about an independence proposal, made the terms known to a number of male organizations but ignored the women's committee. In a letter written December 12, 1920, Shaarawi summed up the women's outrage: "We criticized the delegates from the Wafd for disregarding our rights and our very existence by neglecting to solicit our views," then demanded an apology, which the women received.

When Saad Zaghlul, the leader of the independence movement, returned to Egypt, Shaarawi was caught between the position of her husband, who opposed Zaghlul, and her own position as president of the women's party, although she managed to negotiate between the two. In January 1922, after Zaghlul had been deported by the British, the women resorted to more militant tactics, passing resolutions that demanded the end of martial law and voting for an economic boycott against the British. Since women inherit money and property under Islamic law, these moves had considerable force, and the boycott proved to be effective. By 1922, with many leading Egyptians imprisoned or deported, women had become the glue holding the Wafd movement together.

In February 1922, Ali Shaarawi died, but Huda continued her role in the independence struggle. Egypt became a constitutional monarchy the following year, although it would remain under some British control until the last British troops were finally withdrawn in 1957. According to the first Egyptian constitution, "All Egyptians are equal before the law. They enjoy equally civil and political rights and are equally charged with public duties and responsibilities without distinction of race, language, or religion." Unfortunately, the wording in 1923 made no provision for women's right to vote. That year, Huda Shaarawi founded the Egyptian Feminist Union and was elected its first president, then led a delegation to the International Alliance of Women, held in Rome. On her return home, she arrived in Cairo unveiled, and never donned the veil again. Disappointed that women's rights were treated as secondary to independence, she eventually broke with the Wafd Party and resigned. The issue by then, however, was not feminism, but nationalism, because she believed that the Wafd movement was continuously compromising the rights of all Egyptians.

In 1925, Shaarawi helped start the Club of the Women's Union. A cultural center with imposing headquarters in the heart of Cairo, the organization raised funds for the support of a clinic and dispensary, craft workshops, and child-care facilities, as well as the publication of two journals dedicated to women's issues. By this time, it was Shaarawi's view that women must enter the workplace in order to gain the financial independence essential for equality. Believing also that there should be no more 13-year-old brides, she worked to establish a minimum age for marriage, limit the easy access that men had to divorce, and restrict the practice of polygamy, as well as to increase women's access to education. In the 1930s, with many more women by then in the Egyptian work force, Shaarawi pressured the labor office to hire a woman inspector to investigate women's working conditions, and encouraged a step-up in the campaign for women's suffrage. She also worked on behalf of Palestinian women who lost their homes during the establishment of Israel, and in 1944 she became the first president of the newly founded Arab Feminist Union. In 1945, two years before her death, her lifelong activism for the rights and independence of all Egyptians, but especially women, was acknowledged when she was awarded the Nishan al-Kamal, Egypt's highest state decoration, for services to her country.

Today, as is the case in every nation, all contradictions in Egyptian society concerning the status of women have still not been erased, but the work of Huda Shaarawi is widely recognized for bringing permanent changes in the status of women in Egypt and to the entire Muslim world. (See also Egyptian Feminism.)


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Croutier, Alev Lytel. Harem: The World Behind the Veil. NY: Abbeville Press, 1989.

Eliraz, Giora. "Egyptian Intellectuals and Women's Emancipation, 1919–1939," in Asian and African Studies. Vol. 16, no. 1. March 1982, pp. 95–120.

Hatem, Mervat. "Through Each Other's Eyes: Egyptian, Levantine-Egyptian, and European Women's Images of Themselves and of Each Other (1862–1920)," in Women's Studies International Forum. Vol. 12, no. 2, 1989, pp. 183–198.

Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

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Peirce, Leslie P. The Imperial Harem. Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Schölch, Alexander. Egypt for the Egyptians! The Socio-Political Crisis in Egypt, 1878–1882. London, 1981.

Shaarawi, Huda. Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist, 1879–1924. Trans. and edited by Margot Badran. NY: The Feminist Press, 1987.

Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia