Huda Sha’arawi was an Egyptian feminist and activist who founded the Egyptian Feminist Union.
Huda was born in Cairo in 1879 and came from a very wealthy Egyptian family. Life for boys and girls in Egypt at that time was quite different. As Huda grew she came to notice there were many things permitted for her brother which were forbidden to her. For example, when she saw her brother riding a horse she wanted one too, however she was told that riding wasn’t for girls. Huda was educated, but again, there were differences in the subjects she was allowed to study and those which her male relatives were. She said;
“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.”
When Huda turned 11 she joined the other women of the household in the harem. The harem system in Egypt at the time was a social convention which kept women and girls totally secluded from the men and boys, and was mostly strictly implemented by upper-class families like Huda’s. The women lived in a separate part of the house and if they were to speak with men, they had to do it from behind a screen. When out of the house they were expected to have their faces veiled.
At just 13 years old Huda was married to her much older cousin (he was 40.) She didn’t want to marry him, but had very little say in the matter. However, he soon broke the marriage contract by continuing to be with his concubine – which allowed Huda to legitimately ask for separation from him. Although she remained married to him, and would later reunite with him, they remained separated for 7 years. This allowed Huda the freedom to resume her education and develop her own ideas.
During this time she came into contact with several women in who really inspired her and made her think that perhaps she could challenge the social norms which were imposed on her and other women. One was a poet called Sayyida Khadija al-Maghribiyya who visited her family house. Huda said that “observing Sayyida Khadija convinced me that, with learning, women could be the equals of men if not surpass them,”
Another woman who she met was the French, Eugénie Le Brun, whom she became close friends with. Eugenie was married to an Egyptian and hosted meetings where groups of women gathered and shared ideas. She became something of a mentor to the developing Huda and helped form her feminist ideas.
Her own ideas about the place of women in society and before long she became increasingly active in public, and political life. She met another influential woman, Marguerite Clement, at the opera. Huda arranged for Marguerite to deliver a lecture for women, which gained the support of a local princess. This one lecture quickly turned into a popular and regular lecture series for women held at the university.
In 1908 following the success of the lecture series Huda founded a society to help poor women and children. Called Mabarrat Muhammad ‘Ali, the society was the first of it’s kind and helped challenge the idea that women were just there for marrying, lusting after and baby-making. Two years later she opened a different kind of school for girls – one which didn’t teach them the usual domestic skills, but instead educated them in academic subjects usually reserved for boys.
In 1914 Huda founded the Intellectual Associatoiin of Egyptian Women, it’s very existence confronting the idea that women weren’t meant to have or use intellect!
After the First World War there was a huge movement for Egyptian independence. Huda threw herself into the struggle, organising a huge demonstration for women against British-rule. Many women left their harems to march alongside Huda, and stood for hours in the hot sun in defiance of the British soldiers.
By now she was reunited with her husband who was a key player in the independence politics of the time. Huda joined the Wafd Party, which was leading the way in the struggle for freedom and eventually became the new Egyptian government. She was elected head of the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee. However, when independence finally came in 1922 Huda grew increasingly disillusioned with the party, who failed to give women the rights they had promised (including the right to vote) and instead supposed that now the fight was won women should return to their seclusion.
She left the party and in 1923 founded the Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU). The EFU campaigned on many fronts, including for the right of women to vote, the right to freedom of movement and for the minimum marrying age to be raised.
Huda travelled around the world, representing Egyptian women and arguing for equal rights and suffrage. In 1923 she attended the 9th Congress of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance in Rome. When she returned she addressed a crowd of Egyptians as she stepped off the train, and dramatically, she publically removed the veil from her face for the first time. At first she was met with shocked silence, before applause broke out and several other women in the crowd joined her in removing their veils. This is an act for which she has become very well known, and was seen to many as being powerfully symbolic.
It’s important to mention that throughout her political life Huda closely linked her feminist and nationalist beliefs. She refuted the idea that it was Islam which oppressed women, arguing that in fact her religion espoused equality. Instead she said it was social custom, colonialism and patriarchy which had held women back for so long – and it was these which she sought to challenge. In her memoirs The Harem Years she said:
“I decided to attack the problem of the backwardness of Egyptian women, demonstrating it arose from the persistence of certain social customs, but not from Islam, as many Europeans believe”
She remained active in political activism for the rest of her life, becoming the founding president of the Arab Feminist Union in 1944. She died just a few short years later in 1947 having spent her life challenging assumptions and defying social expectations placed upon women. Her work inspired generations of Egyptian women to come continues to do so today.
Find out more…
Read about what it was like growing up in the harem system in Huda Sha’arawi’s own words in her memoir The Harem Years. You could also read Casting off the Veil: The Life of Huda Shaarawi, Egypt’s First Feminist by Sania Sharawi Lanfranchi.
This essay explores The Harem Years and gives more useful context about life at that time and Huda’s activism.