She threw off her veil and changed the world. Huda Shaarawi (pronunciation) grew up in a harem and became Egypt’s leading women’s rights activist. Also, a philanthropist and founder of the first Egyptian feminist organization, Huda’s defiance still influences the world today.
Huda Shaarawi (Also Huda Sharawi, Hudā Shaʿrāwī, Hoda Charaaoui) was born June 23, 1879 to a wealthy, landed family about 150 miles south of Cairo. Her birth name was Nour Al-Huda Mohamed Sultan Shaarawi. Her father, Muhammad Sultan Pasha, the first Egyptian to rise through all the ranks of government, died when she was four or five. After his death, her eldest cousin, Ali Shaarawi, became the trustee of his estate and her legal guardian.
Huda grew up in the harem system. A system that existed in Muslim countries from the 17th century to the early 20th century. Harems were a secure, private part of the house. The harem secluded women and prepubescent children in this portion of their home. Women wore veils when they left their rooms.
Royalty and wealthy families often had large harems that included wives, concubines, and female attendants or maids. But even the poor had harems, though their quarters were smaller and less private.
The only education women in harems usually received were “womanly skills.” Wealthy families like Huda’s sometimes indulged their daughters. Huda’s family allowed her to study French (their social language) and to take part in her younger brother’s lessons on the Qur’an, Arabic, Turkish, and calligraphy. But they refused to give her the depth of education her brothers received. This frustrated her to the point she hated being female.
Huda was thirteen when, without Huda’s knowledge, her mother arranged her marriage to an older man. Huda married her cousin, Ali Shaarawi, a tutor and a widower who was in his late forties. He had four children.
She said she couldn’t refuse because it would bring shame to her family.
Shortly after their marriage, Huda “suspended” her marriage and went home.
For the next seven years, Huda continued her education. She also became friends with Eugénie Le Brun, a Frenchwoman who had married an Egyptian. Le Brun’s expanded Huda’s exposure to Western-oriented feminism.
Marriage and Nationalism
Under pressure from her family, Huda reconciled with her husband in 1900. She gave birth to her daughter, Bathna, in 1903. In 1905, her son, Muhammad, was born.
Huda helped create the first secular philanthropic organization operated by Egyptian women in 1908. It was a medical dispensary for underprivileged women and children.
She opened a school for girls in 1910. Her school focused on teaching academics rather than skills like midwifery.
She and her husband strongly supported Egyptian independence from Great Britain. Her husband was a founding member of the nationalist Wafd party (1918). Huda helped organize and head the Wafd Women’s Committee.
In 1919, she helped organize the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, the largest women’s anti-British demonstration in Egypt’s history. The women stood for three hours in the scorching sun, defying British orders to disperse.
Egypt gained independence in 1922. The success of the Wafd party ultimately disappointed Huda. She and many of the women of the Committee believed Egypt’s new constitution would give them full political emancipation. It didn’t.
Men have singled out women of outstanding merit and put them on a pedestal to avoid recognizing the capabilities of all women.Huda Shaarawi
After her husband’s death in 1922, Huda became more of an activist. On March 6, 1923, at a meeting in her home, she founded the Egyptian Feminists Union and became its first president. She remained its president for the rest of her life. Beginning in 1925, the Egyptian Feminists Union published the magazine L’Égyptienne (later Al-Misriyyah).
Huda and Saiza Nabarawi attended the International Woman Suffrage Alliance Congress in Rome. Returning home, she removed her veil and headscarf on the Cairo Railway Station platform and trampled them in public. Saiza did the same. At first, their actions stunned the women who came to greet them. Then the women erupted in applause.
At the opening of Parliament in 1924, she led Egyptian women pickets and submitted a list of nationalist and feminist demands. The Wafdist government ignored them.
She founded the Arab Feminist Union and launched the magazine Al-Marʾah al-Arabiyyah (“The Arab Woman”) in 1946.
Death and Legacy
King Farouk awarded the Order of Kamal to Huda in 1943.
In her later years, Huda wrote her memoirs, Harem Years, in Arabic. Margot Badran read Huda’s memoirs. In her Preface to the translation, Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist, Badran said the memoirs, “can be seen as Huda Shaarawi’s final feminists act.”
Within a decade of Huda’s dramatic removal of her veil, women stopped wearing veil and headscarf for many decades until a retrograde movement occurred.
Huda died of cholera on August 12, 1947 in Cairo at the age of 68. After her death, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser banned the women’s movement that Huda founded.
Defiance of tradition is something many of us have experience. What’s inspiring and reaffirming, is that strong women have resisted oppression since the beginning.
She threw off her veil and changed the world. Huda’s defiance of her family and society, were the first steps. And while the changes she brought didn’t have permanence, she changed the world for a time. A strong woman, she continues to inspire women across the world.