January 1, 2023
Women empowerment is not a favorable subject of discussion in Middle Eastern countries, and women born and raised in these misogynist societies live in perpetual struggle to achieve tangible results.
Recently, I was asked by a young woman about Huda Shaarawi’s (1887 – 1947) accomplishments. What I first thought was a cynical question, turned out to be a real serious one. It was shocking to learn that the young woman knew of Sharaawi’s name, but was ignorant of her contributions to the feminist movements in Egypt and the Arab world. It’s preposterous how seventy years after her death, the leader of the Egyptian suffragette movement and the founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union and Arab Feminist Union became an unknown figure to the younger generation. That’s not just a shame, but a stab in the heart of every feminist and women rights advocate. The efforts to silence women are pervasive, and by marginalizing the roles played by the pioneers who fought for women rights and equality, young women are deprived from role models to inspire and influence them to follow in their path.
Born Nur El Hoda Sultan on June 23, 1879, Shaarawi was raised and educated within the walls of her father’s harem, an affluent landowner and politician. She spent her early adult life in this seclusion until she was forced into marriage at the age of thirteen to her cousin Mohamed Shaarawi, who was in his forties. She separated from her husband fifteen months into the marriage after his concubine gave birth to his child, breaking a condition in the marriage contract to release the concubine and live in monogamy with Huda. The young bride happily returned back to live with her mother.
Her seven years’ separation from her husband gave her the opportunity to proceed with her education, enjoy more freedoms to go to concerts, meet and socialize with other women. She attended women meetings organized by Eugine Le Burn, a French national married to an Egyptian politician. They became close friends and Eugene mentored, influenced and inspired her to bring change to women. Due to family pressure, she returned back to her husband and together they had two children, a boy and a girl.
In her memoire, The Harem Years, published in 1987, forty years after her death, Shaarawi recounted her early years and how her brother was more favored and was granted freedoms she was deprived from because of her gender. He was permitted certain activities, went to school and learned subjects that were viewed unnecessary for girls. Sharaawi wrote, “I became depressed and began to neglect my studies, hating being a girl because it kept me from the education I sought. Later, being a female became a barrier between me and the freedom for which I yearned.
Her firsthand experience with seclusion, segregation, confinement, gender inequality, suppression, limited mobility, and marriage at a young age, propelled her to fight to break the shackles that kept women imprisoned in their homes. She was not the first to demand women rights, but was the first to put these demands in action. And thanks to her efforts, her generation of women was the last to live in confinement and segregation.
Today, due to negative publicity, many condensed her life achievements in her removal of the veil in public in 1923, upon her return from The Women’s International Conference in Rome. An act of defiance to the cultural and social norms, she still considered it of trivial importance to her. Veil then was more of a social tradition than a religious obligation.
A pioneer nationalist, women activist and philanthropist, her achievements reached far beyond the removal of the veil. Nothing came easy, though. She fought every step of the way, not just the culture and traditions of the patriarchal society, but also the religious scholars. The tides were high against her, but with her tenacity and leadership, she challenged the social status quo and broke many taboos. Many of her demands were met during her lifetime, some after her death, and several others, women are still fighting for to this day.
Among her achievements, Shaarawi founded Mabarret Mohamed Ali, the first philanthropic society run by Egyptian women to offer services for poor women and children. She opened a school for girls. She formed the Intellectual Association of Egyptian Women, to improve women’s intellectual and social lives. In 1919, organized and led the first women demonstration against the British occupation and a year later became the president of the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee, the first political organization for Egyptian women.
In 1923, Sharaawi founded the Egyptian Feminist Union and became its president until her death in 1947. The EFU objective was to fight for women’s political, social and legal rights. Shaarawi advocated to raise the minimum age for marriage, to put restrictions on polygamy, issue stricter divorce laws for men. She also campaigned for girl’s higher education. By 1930, female students were admitted to universities.
Shaarawi was not just an Egyptian icon, but one who lit the torch for women across the region. In 1944 she formed the Arab Feminist Union and became its president. But despite of her efforts and life dedication to women empowerment, Shaarawi was never able to vote, a political right she campaigned strongly for. But with the continuous and relentless efforts of other women who followed in her path, Egyptian women were granted the right to vote in 1954.
Egyptian woman in the last few decades have and continue to encounter many forces that curtailed their progress. On the centennial of the Egyptian Feminist Union, let’s remember, honor, salute her achievements by rising up and continue the fight. We still have a long way to go.
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