In May 1923 at Cairo’s Misr train station (now called Ramses Station), on her return from the 9th Congress of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance in Rome, feminist nationalist activist Huda Shaarawi performed her most famous act: she publicly removed her veil.
Shaarawi was born in Minya in 1879, the daughter of Muhammad Sultan, first president of the Egyptian Representative Council. She was part of the last generation of women to grow up in the segregated world of the harem. She recounts her story of this time in her published memoirs, The Harem Years. At the age of 13 she was married to her cousin, the political activist Ali Shaarawi.
The story of her youth is interesting to me in that through the screen of oppression — the harem; the arranged marriage — come signals of inspiration, which give me cause to reconsider assumptions of Middle Eastern women. She was well educated in the harem by Muslim women teachers who taught her Arabic, Persian and Turkish, and to read the Qur’an. Moreover, her marriage was one of respect. Her husband supported her feminist activism; often sought her advice, and would even have her sit in his place at important political meetings. After his death, she wrote in the Harem Years, she experience terrible sadness, yet also a feeling of freedom — a feeling she attributed to her dedication to the feminist movement, which had changed her life — as well as the lives of many other women.
Shaarawi’s early work was done at a time when Egyptian women were expected to stay out of the public gaze. She rejected this completely,beginning with doing her own shopping and organizing lectures for women, which brought many women out of their homes and into public places for the first time. Her early philanthropic projects included establishing a women’s welfare society, Mubarrat Muhammad Ali, and opening a school for girls to be taught academic rather than practical, traditionally female, subjects.
In 1914, she founded the Intellectual Association of Egyptian Women, and in 1923, the Egyptian Feminist Union, which focused on gaining women’s suffrage, increasing education for women, changing the Personal Status Laws and raising the minimum age for marriage to 16. Egypt’s first secondary school for girls opened in 1927 largely thanks to the work of the EFU.
Sharaawi was also involved in the Egyptian nationalist struggle, and helped organize a women’s march against the British in 1919. Although she maintained ties with the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance for years, it is said that she later became suspicious of western feminists. She argued for women’s equality by pointing out that women and men were equal in ancient Egypt and that it was under foreign rule that women had lost rights.
In 1920, she became the president of the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee. Following Egyptian independence, when women were still denied suffrage and banned from attending the opening of Egyptian Parliament, Sharaawi led a delegation of women to picket the opening and submitted a list of nationalist and feminist demands, which were ignored by the Wafdist government, causing her to resign from the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee.
Sharaawi continued to lead the Egyptian Feminist Union, and did so until her death in 1947.