Every country in the world has iconic women leaders and in 20th century Egypt, that woman was Huda Sharawi, a celebrated feminist and anti-colonial activist. Throughout her life, Huda’s activism evolved to meet the ever-changing social and political landscape of her country and the wider region. At a time when her opinion was neither welcomed nor valued, Huda chose to fight because she believed that Egypt could do better, a sentiment that continues to resonate with the Egyptian people.
Breaking the Mold
As an upper-class woman, she was required to live in secluded apartments and veil her face in public.
Huda was born into a prosperous family 140 years ago, on June 23, 1879, in al-Minya under the British protectorate, before the official British occupation of Egypt in 1882. The daughter of a Circassian slave and Muhammad Sultan Pasha, a landowner who was also active in Egyptian national politics, Huda was raised in Cairo and grew up in an Egyptian harem. As an upper-class woman, she was required to live in secluded apartments and veil her face in public.
Although she received an education in the harem, which was uncommon, she became frustrated and dejected when she realized she was being denied the same education as her brother. In her autobiography, “Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist,” Huda wrote that she hated being a girl because it kept her from the education that she desired, and later, the freedom that she deeply yearned for.
At 13, Huda was wed against her will to her cousin, Ali Sharawi, who was 40 years her senior and already married. She claimed that she felt compelled to agree or risk dishonoring her family. Despite her young age, Huda was very astute. In her marriage contract with Ali, she stipulated monogamy as a condition for marriage. However, her husband continued to see his first wife, which caused them to be estranged for seven years.
During that time, she advanced in her studies and became more active in her community. She finally reconciled with her husband in 1900, after being pressured by her family. The couple had a daughter, Buthaina in 1903, and a son, Mohammed in 1905. In subsequent years, Ali, a founding member of the Wafd party, Egypt’s nationalist party, and Huda, a budding activist in her own right, became important social and political figures in Egypt in the early 20th century.
From Nationalism to Feminism
Huda began her journey into activism in 1908, when she helped create the first secular philanthropic organization operated by Egyptian women and a medical dispensary for underprivileged women and children. Several years later, in 1914, she founded the Union of Educated Egyptian Women. In the same year, she traveled to Europe for the first time.
Huda’s encounters with various prominent women thinkers shaped her feminist outlook. These activists included Eugénie Le Brun, wife of Egyptian prime minister Husayn Rushdi Pasha, and Marguerite Thomas-Clement, a women’s rights activist and politician from Luxembourg, who claimed that the concept of women’s rights could be found in the tenets of Islam.
“Early on, [Huda] saw that she could look to Islam to demand more rights for women. So, in this sense, she preceded what we now call the Muslim feminist movement,” Sonia Dayan Herzbrun, an emeritus professor at the Université Paris-Diderot told Le Monde Afrique.
In 1919, she helped organize the first and largest anti-colonial women’s demonstration, the “March of Veiled Women,” in the streets of Cairo.
Over the years, Huda became increasingly bolder. In 1919, she helped organize the first and largest anti-colonial women’s demonstration, the “March of Veiled Women,” in the streets of Cairo. One year later, in 1920, she founded the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee and went on to serve as its president.
After years of protests, in 1922, Britain finally granted Egypt’s independence, though it retained significant control over it after that. Despite their participation in the struggle for independence, Egyptian women were not invited to the table with their male counterparts when the time came to negotiate with the British.
“It is completely unjust that the Egyptian Wafd, which fights for the rights of Egypt and its liberation, denied half of the population the gains made from this liberation,” Sharawi wrote in a letter to Saad Zaghloul, the leader of the Wafd party and prime minister of Egypt in 1924.
While Huda and her contemporaries were not given a seat at the negotiating table, their open engagement in Egypt’s nationalist movement marked a turning point in the country’s history.
While Huda and her contemporaries were not given a seat at the negotiating table, their open engagement in Egypt’s nationalist movement marked a turning point in the country’s history. After her husband’s death in 1923, she shifted her focus from anti-colonialism to women’s equality.
“Unveiling” Social Biases
Huda created and served as the first president of the Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU) in 1923. The organization sought to achieve women’s suffrage, reform Egypt’s personal status laws, and expand educational opportunities for girls and women. In March of the same year, she carried out one of her most memorable acts of protest. After returning from a conference of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in Rome, she defiantly stood outside of the Cairo train station, removed her face and head covering, and encouraged other women to do the same.
“We can’t say that we are free in Rome and then wear the veil again upon our return [to Egypt],” Cesa Nabaraoui, Sharawi’s friend and colleague said, recalling the experience in 1976. Nabaraoui claimed that the death of her father and Huda’s husband emboldened both women to make the unprecedented move.
At the time, Egyptian women in rural and poor urban areas did not cover their faces, only their heads.
At the time, Egyptian women in rural and poor urban areas did not cover their faces, only their heads. “[The face veil] was a symbol of privilege, it was not a religious one,” claimed Professor Herzbrun. Although some might have viewed Huda’s public act as “radical” or even “un-Islamic,” it was necessary because it stripped the head and face cover of the divisive notion of social stratification that they represented in Egyptian society and restored these practices to being a personal religious choice.
In subsequent years, Huda and her followers made many more important strides for women. “In December 1923, we established 16 as the minimum age for marriage for women. In 1924, we founded the first secondary school for young women. In 1933, we celebrated the first women university graduates,” said Nabaraoui. The EFU also launched one of Egypt’s first feminist journals in the French language, L’Egyptienne, in 1925 and al-Misriyya, its Arabic edition, in 1927. Huda died of cholera in 1947 at the age of 68. After her death, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser banned the women’s movement that Huda founded. However, he continued to use her image to represent a diluted, state-approved form of feminism which afforded Egyptian women few rights. Unfortunately, the gains that Huda made for gender equality and national liberation in the 1920s and the 1930s have slowly been reversed by decades of autocratic rule in Egypt, and more recently, the rise of political Islam. Now, more than ever, the Egyptian people need to recall Huda Sharawi’s legacy to remember that, while change is not easy, it is possible.