The volume of information available about Doria Shafik, activist, feminist and author, is disproportionate to the level of her contribution to the Egyptian women’s movement. In fact, much of her life’s work was confiscated and banned, and her name prohibited in the media following her February 1957 house arrest at the hands of the Nasser regime. Police stormed the offices of her magazine Daughters of the Nile, seized every issue and destroyed her own private papers. She remained under house arrest, in total seclusion, until 1975 when she committed suicide by throwing herself off a balcony.
Shafik was born in Tanta and raised in a traditional, middle-class family. Her childhood was comfortable but peppered with experiences that planted seeds of what her biographer, Cynthia Nelson calls “deep, personal feelings of outrage and indignation”.
“Doria grew up in a atmosphere where women, rich or poor, suffered in marriages and lived at the mercy of men and the “whims of his tyranny; a tyranny that had become second nature.”
Nevertheless, Shafik was able to take advantage of the expanded educational opportunities available to Egyptian women in the 1920s. She received a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne, where she gained a doctoral degree at the young age of 29.
On her return home, she applied for a teaching position at Cairo University but was rejected for being female. Instead, at the request of Princess Shuvekar, first wife of King Fuad I, she became the editor of the new magazine by the Daughters of the Nile Union, a women’s liberation movement.
While editing and writing for the magazine, Shafik intensified her activist work. She staged sit-ins to protest the British occupation; attempted to run for elections illegally (as a woman), and, most famously, in February 1951 led a crowd of 1,500 women to storm a session of Parliament and demand that the council take action on women’s issues. the following week Egyptian women were granted the right to vote and to run for political office.
“Our meeting today is not a congress, but a parliament. A true one! That of women! We are half the nation! We represent here the hope and despair of this most important half of the nation. Luckily we are meeting at the same hour and in the same part of town as the parliament of the other half of the nation. They are assembled a few steps away from us. I propose we go there, strong in the knowledge of our rights and tell the deputies and senators that their assemblies are illegal so long as our representatives are excluded, that the Egyptian parliament cannot be a true reflection of the entire nation until women are admitted. Let’s go and give it to them straight. Let’s go and demand our rights. Forward to the parliament!”
— Source: Ms Magazine
Following the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, Shafik successfully campaigned to have the Daughters of the Nile Union recognized as an official political party – Egypt’s first women’s party. However, the changing political situation following the revolution did not favour her: in 1957, she organized an eight-day hunger strike to protest the Nasser regime. His response was her arrest, seclusion, erasure and, ultimately, her death.
Speaking for the Other Half – Al Ahram Weekly