Huda Shaarawi: The Early 20th Century Egyptian Female Activist
By: Noureldin Mohamed/Arab America Contributing Writer
Born Nour Al-Huda Mohamed Sultan Shaarawi on June 23, 1879, in the Egyptian city of Minya, she was a member of the famous El-Shaarawi family. Her father, Muhamed Sultan Pasha El-Shaarawi, later became the president of Egypt’s Chamber of Deputies.
Shaarawi grew up studying extensively, learning several languages as well as receiving tutoring in Quranic Arabic and Islamic subjects by female teachers in Cairo. She was also a keen poet, writing in both Arabic and French.
From Young Feminist to Activist
From a young age, Shaarawi resented restrictions on women’s movements in Egypt and spent time organizing lectures for women on various topics she thought would be of interest to them. These lectures brought many women together outside of the home for the first time. Shaarawi used the opportunity to establish a women’s welfare society to raise money for poor women in the country. In 1910, Shaarawi opened a school for girls, where she focused on teaching academic subjects rather than practical skills.
By the age of 9, Shaarawi had memorized the Quran, although she had been condescendingly told by one tutor that it wouldn’t be necessary for her to learn Arabic, given the limitations of her gender.
Shaarawi’s intellectual development is a critical aspect of her formative years, when she spent time learning music, languages, fine art, and Arabic grammar as a child and teenager. She played the piano long into the night as a catharsis for emotional pain and attended concerts at the Khedival Opera House. She developed an interest in French literature, invested in deep friendships with peers she discussed cultural matters with, and eventually played a role in organizing the first public lectures for women.
Founding of the EFU and Emancipation of Women
The founding of the Egyptian Feminist Union represented just one aspect of a remarkable and multifaceted life. She was also an activist, feminist, nationalist, author, and inspirational advocate who helped pave the way for Egypt’s first secondary school for women. In 1933, the country honored its first female university graduates. In 1956, another one of her biggest goals was finally achieved when Egypt granted women the right to vote and run for office.
More than seven decades after her death, Shaarawi is remembered in her homeland, Egypt, by more than just a street that carries her name in central Cairo. Egyptian Minister of Planning Hala Al Saeed, one of four women ministers in Egypt’s incumbent government, recently paid homage to Huda on her 141st birthday.
“Huda Shaarawi is a pioneer of women’s liberation,” the minister wrote on her Instagram. “She stands out among those who struggled for better conditions for women. Today, the Egyptian state is proud of the woman that has reached senior political posts. The woman has become a government minister, a governor a member of parliament,” Hala added.
An early 20th-century advocate of women’s rights, Huda is credited with her relentless struggle against restrictions on women of the time, dubbed “culture of harem”. Her fight has eventually borne fruit. She pushed for raising the girl’s marriage age to 16 and giving women the right to education and engagement in public life — now established rights in Egypt. Her struggle was the result of a miserable personal life.
Since the early 20th-century, calls for promoting women’s rights had gained ground in Egypt. Huda and other defenders of female rights set up charities and healthcare services to help poor women and children.
On March 16, 1919, Huda took to the streets along with about 300 other women in the first street protest by Egyptian women denouncing Britain’s banishment of Egyptian pro-independence leader Saad Zaghlul. The first female Egyptian protester was shot dead by a British soldier that day and the date has become an annual day for officially honoring women in Egypt.
Life and Her Impact Today
Shaarawi remained president of the Egyptian Feminist Union for the rest of her life and became the founding president of the Arab Feminist Union in 1945. Under her leadership, the Egyptian Feminist Union launched the magazine L’Égyptienne (later Al-Misriyyah) in 1925, and the Arab Feminist Union launched Al-Marʾah al-Arabiyyah (“The Arab Woman”) in 1946. Mudhakkirātī (1986; Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist) is her memoir of growing up in a Cairo harem.
Although not many can agree with her way of protesting and defying the norms, she has paved the way for women’s rights in Egypt. Today, it seems that women’s rights in Egypt are not at its highest point yet. Changes need to be done, not just in Egypt, but in the Arab world.
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