Huda Shaarawi (1879-1947) was a teacher born in Cairo and incidentally also Egypt's first women's rights activist.

Her father was a wealthy upper-class bureaucrat, and she was brought up in the traditional harem system, where segregation of the sexes was a norm and education for girls was not deemed necessary. According to Huda Shaarawi herself, even as a child she envied her brother all the advantages he had because he was a male.

At age thirteen, Huda was betrothed to her much older cousin as a second wife. She didn't like her future husband and at first refused to marry him, but after being pressured by her family (who insisted that refusal would bring disgrace on her father's name and the shock might kill her mother) she reluctantly accepted the proposal, provided that the husband left his former concubine. However, the marriage was not a happy one, and after the concubine bore a son to Huda's husband 15 months after their marriage was conducted, Huda left the marital home and lived apart from her husband for several years before being reconciled with him at the age of 21.

The Egypt of Huda's youth was undergoing rapid changes: the country was modernized by expanding educational opportunities for men, and eventually, for women, by creating a health care system, and by forming a strong military. The government strived to elevate Egypt into the status of a modern nation, and this required substantial reforms to the laws and customs concerning women. However, at the time Huda Shaarawi was born, the progress was still slow and new legislation yet to be written.

At that time, upper-class women in Egypt were mostly confined to the house. When in public, women were supposed to show modesty by covering their hair and faces with a veil known as the hejab. Shaarawi resented such restriction on women's dress and movements. She started organizing lectures for women on topics of interest to them. This brought many women out of their homes and into public places for the first time. Shaarawi even convinced the royal princesses to help her establish a women's welfare society to raise money for poor women of their country. In 1910 Huda Shaarawi opened a school for girls where she focused on teaching academic subjects rather than practical skills such as midwifery.

After World War I, things started moving more rapidly when many women left the harem to take part in political actions against the British rule. In 1919, Shaarawi helped organize the largest women's anti-British demonstration.

After her husband's death in 1922 Shaarawi made a decision to stop wearing her veil in public. Returning from a trip to a women's conference in Europe in 1923, she stepped off the train and removed her veil in plain view of the stunned crowd. Women who came to greet her were shocked at first, but then started to applause, and a few took off their veils, too. This was the first public defiance of the restrictive tradition, although its importance has been slightly enlargened in the press - after all, Huda Shaarawi was actually in favour of the gradual abolition of the veiling custom, being by nature suspicious of radicals of any kind.

During the same year, Huda founded Egyptian Feminist Union, serving as President from 1923 until 1947; was a member of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship, serving as vice-president in 1935; was founding President of the Arab Feminist Union (1945-1947) and supported the founding of al-Mara al-Arabiyya, the newsletter of the Arab Feminist Union (1946); founded the magazines l'Egyptienne (1925) and al-Misriyya (1937). Huda was also a speaker throughout the Arab world and throughout Europe.

Huda Shaarawi's greatest achievement was the synthesis of western-style feminism, Egyptian nationalism and its age-old cultural traditions to create a unique blend of Egyptian feminism which was later adapted by other Arabic women to fit their own cultures.

Shaarawi's autobiographical book, Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist has been translated into most major Indo-European languages.


More information: Herstory. Women Who Changed the World edited by Ruth Ashby and Deborah Gore Ohrn, Viking, 1995.

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