A Woman Visitor


Luxor Souk. Photo by author.

“We have a saying here in Egypt. There is a man behind every woman. Don’t worry.”

Ahmed’s words did not reassure me. He had been trying to bolster me after I had made a hesitant complaint – egged on by the other two women in the truck – about the police escort who had spend the previous night in the desert with us and our Bedouin guides. He had tried to take my hand and lead me down into a valley, further out of sight from the rest of the group. It wasn’t much but, coupled with knowledge of the well-documented rate of sexual harassment in Egypt, it made me something a little more than uncomfortable.

I have otherwise found myself almost relaxed among crowds and as the object of the stares, yells and catcalls of the men. I have shifted the hard-faced stare-straight-ahead stance of my first day or two to include an occasional smile at the occasional call that is just too ridiculous to be offensive: Hello, spicy girl! Egyptian husband for free! And in the market: Buy one get me free!


But I am shielded. I stick to the sides of the other two women, using them as a buffer. It is disturbing me and undermining my confidence in myself as an unshakeable independent woman. The few times I venture out alone I feel uncomfortable and forge straight ahead, (the same way I cross Egyptian roads) hurrying to get to where I am going, or back home, not pausing for two seconds even to catch my surroundings or let myself relax.


Badass Egyptian Women: Doria Shafik


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