Huda Sha’arawi 1879-1947
I have always believed in the possibility of a fertile cooperation between the women of all the continents – since we share the same ideals: to build a better world, based on justice, equality and brotherly understanding between all peoples. – Huda Shaarawi
Huda Shaarawi was one of the leading figures in early 20th century feminism in Egypt and internationally. She established the Feminist Union, the first organisation of its type in the Arab world, and fought for reforms of Muslim family law, a minimum age of marriage, education for girls and Egyptian independence.
Her father was Muhammad Sultan Pasha, the first president of the Egyptian Representative Council. Her mother Iqbal was a Circassian refugee, who had been brought to Egypt as a child. Like Taj al-Saltana, Huda Shaarawi was shaped by her experiences of growing up in a harem, which forms the title and focus of her autobiography Harem Years.
In this environment, she benefitted from sharing in the education which was provided to her brother Umar, who was taught Arabic, French, Turkish and Farsi. She also learned poetry, calligraphy, painting and music. She defied the restrictions placed upon girls in the harem, including playing in the open air. Under family pressure, Huda was married to her cousin Ali Shaarawi at the age of 13. He was 26 years older than her, and had been appointed her guardian upon her father’s death. The age gap was a significant barrier, and Ali returned to his first wife for seven years.
Over this period, Huda held salons attended by female friends, widening her circle of influence. In 1901, Ali Shaarawi sought to restart the marriage: again, family pressure was applied and Huda accepted him, on the proviso that he abandoned his first wife. She bore a son and a daughter within the next three years.
Huda, along with her husband, became engaged in the anti-colonialist movement. For women, the most readily available route for activism was through establishing charitable foundations. Huda established a clinic for Egyptian women with the support of Princess Ain al-Hayat Ahmed, and was involved in the foundation of al-Ittihad al-Nisa’i al-Tahdhibi (the Intellectual Association of Egyptian Women). After this, she was devastated by the deaths of her mother, and a few years later, her brother Umar, to whom she was very close. Huda sunk into a depression, abandoning Cairo for her second home in Minya, built for her by her husband.
As the First World War ended, the Egyptian Nationalist movement flourished. Ali Sharaawi becoming increasingly influential within it, whilst Huda continued to organise women, holding a women’s march in support of Egyptian nationalism in 1919 which was violently suppressed by police. In this year, she was also elected leader of the New Woman Association. By 1922, the British protectorate was abolished, although Ali Sharaawi did not survive to see it.
Huda continued her tradition of holding salons, entertaining writers, artists, thinkers, politicians and elites from East and West. As the most prominent feminist in Egypt, Huda was asked to participate in international conferences as part of the growing movement for women’s rights and suffrage. In 1923, she attended an international conference in Rome. The most dramatic moment in her career occurred in March, 1923, upon her return from the conference. In front of a crowd of women who had gathered at a railway station in Cairo, Shaarawi tore off her face-veil and cast it away – a powerful gesture, communicating frustration with the political and sexual repression of women.
In 1923, Huda founded the Egyptian Feminist Union with the nine main principles, including achieving equality with men, the right to education for girls, and reforms in family law, including a ban on polygamy. In the same year, she began publishing a French-language magazine, L’Egyptienne and establishing small crafts workshops to stimulate Egyptian industry. Later, perceiving the lack of knowledge about Egypt, she decided to raise the country’s profile on the world stage. Domestically, she chafed at the restrictions placed upon Egyptian wives, particularly a husband’s right to imprison his wife within the house indefinitely – a right frequently used by King Fuad against his wife. Despite this Fuad expressed an interest in improving girls’ education in Egypt: a proposal which was eagerly received by Huda and her colleagues at L’Egyptienne.
From the end of the 1920s, Huda became invested in the situation in Palestine and dedicated an increasing amount of her attention to this problem. Women’s organisations were becoming advocates for peace in the chaotic interwar period, organising on an international scale. She also recommitted to the International Women Suffrage Alliance, delegating many of her responsibilities in order to commit to international activism. This did not prevent her from directing a play based on the accomplishments of the first Middle Eastern woman to become a pilot, Lutfia al-Nadi.
Her later years were marred by failing health and heart problems, but she did not let this affect her activism. L’Egyptienne reached its 12th anniversary in 1937, and developed an even more aggressive tone in challenging injustices in Egypt and calling for Arab unity in supporting Palestine. With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, British pressure upon Egypt became stronger; and all the more deeply resented. Despite colonial opposition, King Farouk presented Huda with the highest honour for her work in 1942. With this new status, Huda began organising a pan-Arab conference concentrating on the issues of women and Palestine, which led to the founding of the Arab Feminist Union in January 1945, a month before Egypt joined in World War II.
Due to a shortage of paper, Huda’s publications had ceased over the wartime period. In 1947 she launched their successor Al-Mar’a al-Arabia which focussed upon the problem of peace in the Middle East, and attended a feminist conference in Hyderabad, India. A life which had been filled with activism to the very last moment ended as she died of a fatal heart attack in the December of that year, bringing to an end one of the most significant and impactful careers in feminist activism and organisation-building in the Middle East.
- Harem Years: The memoirs of an Egyptian feminist by Huda Shaarawi, with an introduction by Margot Badran
- Casting off the Veil: The life of Huda Shaarawi, Egypt’s first feminist, Sania Sharawi Lanfranchi