Shafik, Doria (1908–1975)

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Shafik, Doria (1908–1975)

Leading Egyptian feminist and founder of the Bint al-Nil Union, which fought for women's right to vote (granted in 1956 largely as a result of her hunger strike), who was condemned for protesting Nasser's dictatorial powers and isolated politically for almost 20 years. Name variations: Durriyah or Dori'a Shafiq; Doria Chafik. Born Doria Chafik in Tanta, Gabiyya, on December 14, 1908; committed suicide in Cairo, Egypt, on September 20, 1975; daughter of Ahmad Chafik Sulaiman Effendi (a civil engineer) and Ratiba Nasif Qassabi Bey (a member of a prominent family); attended Notre Dame des Apôtres; privately tutored for the French baccalauréat, passed in 1929; attended the Sorbonne in Paris, 1930–32, returned to obtain a doctorate, 1936–39; married Nour Ragai (an Egyptian lawyer), in 1937; children: daughters Aziza (b. 1942) and Jihan (b. 1944).

Was second in her country in baccalauréat examinations (1929); began work as the inspector for French languages in secondary schools throughout Egypt (1942); founded Bint al-Nil Union, first as a magazine, then as political organization (1948); organized the closing of the Egyptian Parliament by women (1951); organized the storming of Barclay's Bank that led to the final downfall of British colonial rule (1952); went on first hunger strike for women's right to vote (1954); women's suffrage granted in the new constitution (1956); placed under house arrest for protesting dictatorial powers of Nasser government (1957); lived final years in seclusion until committing suicide (1975).

The title of bey at the end of the name of Ratiba Nasif Qassabi Bey indicates the prominence of her family. According to Islamic custom, however, because Ratiba's mother produced no male heirs, she lost control over her share of her family's inheritance at the time she was widowed, and the daughter was left with no wealth of her own. Except for this circumstance, the marriage of Ratiba to Ahmad Chafik would probably never have taken place. He was a civil engineer for the government, and of middle-class background, lower in social standing than his wife. But their union proved a happy one, producing six children. The third of these, and second daughter, was Doria Shafik, born on December 14, 1908, in Tanta, Gabiyya, Egypt.

Doria's earliest years were spent in Mansura, where her father worked as an engineer. She then went to live in Tanta with her maternal grandmother, so that she could attend Notre Dame des Apôtres, a prominent French mission school. When Doria was 13, her mother died in childbirth, a searing experience which she recounted in her memoirs:

The loss of my mother left a wound so large that it marked the whole of my life. As an outlet for my despair and desolation I concentrated all my energy into reading and studying. The result was that I progressed so rapidly that I found myself in the same class as my sister.

Following her mother's death, Doria left Notre Dame des Apôtres to live in Alexandria with her father and siblings. The city had no girls' secondary school and Ahmad Chafik could not afford to send his daughter to boarding school, but because he recognized her exceptional academic talents he hired private tutors to prepare her for the examination for the highly respected French baccalauréat high-school degree.

The examination was set for June 1929. Looking for moral support during the grueling test period, Doria wanted to sit near a friend whose last name was "Soriatis," and since the seating was alphabetical, she altered the spelling of her last name from "Chafik" to "Shafik," which she kept the rest of her life. She need not have worried about her test performance, however; her score was the second-highest in the nation.

The true meaning of the women's movement is the complete cooperation between men and women, not the continuous struggle between the two.

—Doria Shafik

The dream of the promising young student was to study philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. When her father could not afford such a great expense, Doria wrote to one of Egypt's best-known feminist leaders, Huda Shaarawi , for help. Shaarawi invited the young girl to Cairo to discuss her future, and Shafik later wrote about this meeting (emphasis Shafik):

She spoke to me about the causes which led her towards the path of "Feminism." She related the unhappiness she had experienced within the harem—when, newly married, she was almost a prisoner in her own home. For the first time I realized that this lady—rich, beautiful, having everything—had suffered; that there must be some "values" beyond the material ones…. I left the palace with a great quietness of the Soul…. con vinced that nothing really worthwhile can be accomplished without suffering.

The encounter was to influence the course of Shafik's life. By the 1920s, Egypt's internal struggle for the emancipation of women was a well-established movement. European colonialization of Egypt in the 19th century, first by the French and then the English, caused many Egyptians to question the tenets of their traditional culture, and many believed that their backwardness in social outlook had cost them their independence. Leaders among both men and women advocated legal reforms to improve the status of women, arguing for the abolition of such practices as female seclusion in the harem, arranged marriages, and the wearing of the veil. Many intellectuals believed that a radical social transformation would be required to save the nation. Doria Shafik was 11 years old at the time of the Revolution of 1919, when Egyptians rose up against British colonial rule, and many of its women were brought into the mainstream of political life. They had cut telephone lines, disrupted rail service, stormed jails, and held large demonstrations; hundreds died in the struggle. In 1922, the British had granted Egypt limited sovereignty, although the country remained under strong British influence. A few years later, when a new constitution was drafted, women were not given the right to vote, despite their heroic contributions. But a shift toward an expanded political role for women was under way, and feminists like Huda Shaarawi were eager for bright young women like Doria Shafik to join their ranks.

Shaarawi arranged for the financial assistance that allowed Shafik to begin her studies at the Sorbonne in 1930, at age 16. Her European experience differed from that of the previous generation of Egyptian feminists who came largely from the ranks of the rich and enjoyed unprecedented access to hotels, restaurants, shops, and theaters during their brief stays. The women of Shafik's generation discovered European life as students, in a world made up of crowded classrooms and cafés. But the contrast between the freedom of Paris and the restrictions on their return to Egypt could be equally profound. In the summer of 1932, Doria Shafik returned to a culture from which she now felt estranged. Two years as a teacher at a girls' lyceé in Alexandria did not alleviate her alienation, partly because of the social pressures put on her to marry.

In 1936, Shafik returned to Paris to obtain her doctorate and met Nour al-Din Ragai, a cousin and friend in her childhood who was also studying on scholarship. The two reestablished their relationship and were married in 1937. After completing their doctorates, they returned to Cairo in 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II.

Shafik applied to teach at the University of Cairo, but her application was refused by the dean of the faculty of arts on the grounds that "her beauty and modern style" were not suited for the instruction of young men. She then took a job with the Ministry of Education, as the inspector for French languages in secondary schools throughout Egypt. In 1942, she gave birth to a daughter, Aziza , and in 1944 her second daughter, Jihan , was born.

Still feeling thwarted professionally, Shafik decided to pursue another career. Initially, she was offered the position of editor-in-chief of a new magazine founded by Princess Chewikar , the ex-wife of King Fuad I. Shafik ultimately rejected the job because the journal was published in French, the language of Egypt's elite, rather than in Arabic, the language of the masses. In 1948, Shafik launched her own journal, Bint al-Nil (Daughter of the Nile), to champion women's rights. The magazine carried a column entitled "Let Bint al-Nil Solve Your Problems," which soon drove Shafik to realize that such a case-by-case approach to women's issues was woefully inadequate: "Women should have an equal say in the laws that ultimately affect them and their children. The only solution … [is] to build up a Feminist Union to demand political rights for women."

Several events helped shape Shafik's new direction. One was the death of Huda Shaarawi in 1947, which signaled a generational change in the Egyptian feminist movement. Another was her firsthand view of the struggle of Palestinian women fighting Israel to keep their homeland. Wrote Shafik:

In Palestine I was fascinated by the role women play, not only in social life but also in political life as well. You find each woman beside the man struggling for the nation. And when circumstances required or conditions became difficult, she would stick to him like the Arab villages stick to the mountains of the nation. The Palestinian woman gives every visitor the idea that there is a real feminist movement in Palestine and this movement has its weight and value in the life of the country.

Eager to implement Palestinian women's level of involvement in Egypt's political life, Shafik moved to expand Bint al-Nil into a political movement as well as a magazine. Past organizations like the Egyptian Feminist Union and Mabarra had concentrated on social welfare issues like education and improved health care, functioning as charities rather than as political entities, and in Shafik's eyes, they had outlived their purpose. She wanted to shape the appeal of Bint al-Nil to middle-class professional women who found their careers hindered by law and social custom. This emerging class in a more urban Egypt required a new political direction. The nascent Bint al-Nil Union thus declared three objectives: 1) to establish constitutional and parliamentary rights for all women; 2) to promote literacy programs, health and social services, and small industries to aid women; and 3) to arouse public awareness of the conditions of women and children.

The Bint al-Nil Union was essentially declaring war on the status quo. Organized locally at first, it was soon making its voice heard at the national level. On February 19, 1951, a thousand women made an assault on the Egyptian Parliament, forcing the gates, overpowering the guards, and entering the chambers with cries of

"Down with Parliament without women" and "Women's place is next to yours." They occupied the chambers for three hours. As an instigator of this demonstration, Doria Shafik was ordered to appear in court. When the case came to trial, hundreds of Bint al-Nil supporters converged on the courtroom, the judge adjourned the hearing indefinitely, and the Bint al-Nil union was spurred to new growth.

Coinciding with the birth of Bint al-Nil was a resurgence of Egyptian nationalism. Resentment of British colonialism had been growing since the end of World War II. Egypt's Suez Canal was the most prominent geographical link to India, the crown jewel of the British Empire. But India had achieved independence from the British in 1947 and many felt that Egypt should do the same, especially as it was becoming obvious that the British Empire was rapidly disintegrating.

Like the feminists in the Revolution of 1919, Shafik grasped the link between Egyptian nationalism and the liberation of women within the country. As Bint al-Nil grew, she decided that the Union should be used to form its own all-woman military unit. Some 200 young women had received training when it was decided that the unit should be used to close down Barclay's Bank, a symbol of British colonialism. On January 26, 1952, a group of Bint al-Nil's paramilitary forces surrounded the entrances of Barclay's and prevented employees from entering. The event sparked a mob action, the bank was attacked and burned and soon other parts of Cairo were in flames.

The attack proved a foretaste of events to come. After months of demonstrations, Gamal Abdel Nasser seized control of Egypt on July 23, 1952. Briefly, the new government seemed to offer the opportunity Doria Shafik and the Bint al-Nil Union had been waiting for. That year, she put up her name as a candidate for the general elections, effectively challenging the law denying women the right to vote. When she was hospitalized for an appendectomy, hundreds of women came to the clinic where she received surgery, bringing long lists of names petitioning the government to allow Shafik to run for public office. After the Minister of the Interior returned Shafik's letter of candidacy, more demonstrations erupted, but they had no impact on the new government.

Feminist issues, in fact, were not on Nasser's agenda. When the Constitutional Assembly was formed in March 1954, there was no mention of any role for women. Wrote Shafik (emphasis Shafik):

I felt women's rights were in danger. Lacking women, the Assembly might adopt a constitution in which women's rights were not guaranteed…. I decided to play the last card. I decided to go on a hunger strike to death for "women's full political rights."

She prepared a statement in French, English, and Arabic that was sent to eminent personalities, members of the government, and the national and international press. Joined by 14 other women, Shafik went on a hunger strike that drew national and international attention, and the government gave the appearance of acceding to her demands. But it was not until the adoption of the Egyptian Constitution in 1956 that women were actually allowed to vote, and then only after they obtained individual government permission, a burden not placed on male voters.

Although Shafik won the battle, she did not win the war. President Nasser, who was far more interested in establishing Egypt's preeminence in the Middle East than in women's issues, was also intolerant of dissent, no matter how moderate. A leader like Doria Shafik, who could inspire women to invade Parliament, occupy banks, and engage in hunger strikes, was a serious potential threat. As his government slowly began to quash dissent from every quarter, larger state-controlled systems were put in charge of political parties and feminist unions. Many who disagreed with the new government had already been arrested and imprisoned when Doria Shafik made her final public appearance.

On February 6, 1957, Shafik entered the Indian Embassy in Cairo after announcing to the government and the media that she was undertaking a second hunger strike to protest "the onset of dictatorship that is leading Egypt into bankruptcy and chaos." Nasser struck swiftly, placing her under house arrest (later lifted). Her name was banned forever in the media, and the Bint al-Nil Union was closed. Soon, all surviving women's associations were denouncing Doria Shafik as a traitor.

For the next 18 years, Shafik lived in self-imposed seclusion. During this time, she wrote three manuscripts about her life. Shunned for an ideology deemed too "Western," she was confined to political isolation and paralysis until September 20, 1975, when her name resurfaced with the announcement of her death. She had leapt from the sixth floor of her apartment building.

Doria Shafik's vision of equality for women went unshared by many Egyptians who viewed feminism as a Western ideology espoused by traitors to the Nasser regime. Removed from the rhetoric of her time, however, it is clear that Shafik was a nationalist who loved her country, and a moderate who advocated a balance between Islamic teaching and feminist reform. Her fault, if it can be labeled as such, was a burning determination that women should be treated equally. (See also Egyptian Feminism.)


Badran, Margot. "Independent Women: More Than a Century of Feminism in Egypt," in Arab Women: Old Boundaries, New Frontiers. Edited by Judith E. Tucker. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993, pp. 129–148.

"Doria Shafik," in The Times [London]. September 23, 1975, p. 17.

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.

Khater, Akran, and Cynthia Nelson. "Al-Harakah al-Nissaiyah: The Women's Movement and Political Participation in Modern Egypt," in Women's Studies International Forum. Vol. 11, no. 5, 1988, pp. 465–483.

Masuad, Samar F. "The Development of Women's Movements in the Muslim World," in Hamdard Islamicus. Vol. VIII, no. 1, 1986, pp. 81–86.

Nelson, Cynthia. "Biography and Women's History, On Interpreting Doria Shafik," in Women in MiddleEastern History. Edited by Nikki R. Keddie and Beth Baron. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991, pp. 310–334.

——. "The Voices of Doria Shafik: Feminist Consciousness in Egypt, 1940–1960," in Expanding the Boundaries of Women's History. Edited by Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Margaret Strobel. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992, pp. 158–172.

Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia