Badass Ladies of History: Huda Shaarawi

Huda Shaarawi was a revolutionary Egyptian feminist, as well as a pioneer in progressive thinking. She was born in in 1879 in Minya, to a well-to-do family. The family was headed by her father, Muhammad Sultan, the first president of the Egyptian Representative Council. Because of her family privilege, her education was considered a high priority and she was tutored in more than five languages, as well as poetry and history. At the age of thirteen, she married her older cousin, Ali Shaarawi, a leading political activist, who would play an integral role of support in Huda’s activism. Many would define the marriage as “true equality,” and it was well known that the more experienced Ali would often seek Hoda’s council, as well as including her in high-level political meetings.

One of the first causes Shaarawi ever addressed was the social norm of a “woman’s role” in Egyptian society. At the time, women were expected to confine themselves to the home and wear the hijab as a sign of modesty and respect. Shaarawi resented these social norms and felt they were no more than restrictions to keep women from being involved in public life. She began organizing lectures and meetings for women as an effort to bring them into public space. Shaarawi even persuaded the royal Egyptian family to help her establish a women’s organization as a way to raise money for the women of their country who did not have access to money or means of travel.

Carrie Chapman Catt collection, Swarthmore College Egyptian delegates to 1923 Rome Congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, Huda Shaarawi in center. Image courtesy of the International Museum of Women


In 1919, at the peak of British colonialism, Shaarawi organized an anti-colonialist demonstration against Britain, one of the largest recorded women’s protest in the history of Egypt. The demonstration brought out women who did not necessarily identify with most of her feminist-oriented politics, yet found a commonality in the solidarity of protest against the British. It was a moment of  great pride in Egyptian nationalism and a cause that she would consistently revisit in her work.  She would later lead the first women’s street demonstration during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, an organizational effort that would not go unrecognized. Her ability to bring together the public landed her a position in the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee, as she became the first elected head in 1879.

In 1922, her husband Ali died suddenly, leaving Shaarawi in state of shock. Shortly after his death, she set off to a women’s conference in Europe, only to return months later. When she stepped off the train in Cairo, she publicly removed her veil, much to the shock of passersby. At first, she was met with absolute silence, but the women around her began to break into applause, some even tossing off their own veils. It became one of the first public acts of defiance by a large group of women, challenging the mandate that hijabs were legally necessary.

Shaarawi would go on to found the Egyptian Feminist Union, where she became the organization’s president. The organization was concentrated on developing women’s rights in Egypt, as well as advocating for peace and disarmament. Under Shaarawi’s guidance, the organization would publish Egypt’s first feminist magazine,  l’Egyptienne (later known as el-Masreyya), as well as representing Egypt in the one of the first European and International women’s congresses. While her presence began to grow abroad, she still faced oppressive tactics back home, mainly from the Wafdist government. As an elected head of the Wafdist party, Shaarawi had submitted a list of nationalist and feminist demands which the party blatantly ignored, eventually excluding her and other women completely. In turn, she gave up her position to work full time at the EFU, where she organized a protest against the Wafdist party at the opening of Parliament in January 1924.

Huda Shaarawi (left) & Safia Zaghloul (right) . Image courtesy of Wiki

Towards the end of her life, Shaarawi published The Harem Years, a firsthand account of her early life and marriage, as well as the private world of “harems” during the British colonial rule of Egypt. The book describes the sadness she experienced after her husband’s death, yet also noting that she highly enjoyed her strange new freedom. She attributed this feeling to her dedicated involvement in the Egyptian feminist movement and how it had transformed her life, as well as the lives of other women she knew. She also spoke of her women-run social services for women and children, something she simply described, as “all women are creatures of pleasure and beings in need of protection.” While her views of women who received social care were coming from a place of privilege, perhaps even dimness, she would spend much of the rest of her life working on behalf of creating resources for these women to have access too.

Shaarawi worked tirelessly in her lifetime to ensure that Egyptian women would have a presence and a voice in the country. Though only a few of her demands were met during her lifetime, she laid the groundwork for future Egyptian women fighting for the same equality Shaarawi was so intent to see in her own lifetime.  She remains a valuable symbol for the Egyptian women’s liberation movement, making her a badass lady of history.

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