Huda Sha’arawi: Figurehead of the Egyptian Women’s Movement

And we start this week with another informative article for you. This one is about an essential figure in the first wave feminism in Egypt. We are talking about Huda Sha’arawi here. 📝

Sha’arawi was committed to fight against multiple social injustices at the same time. She played an essential role in the creation of the first women’s movement organisations, planned demonstrations and also was part of the nationalist movement fighting for independence of Egypt from England. 🇪🇬💪

Learn more about this young woman who was at the front of several important movements by reading the article below!

Huda Sha’arawi | *23-06-1879 | † 12-12-1947 | Egypt | Leader of Feminist Movement

Huda Sha’arawi is seen as the figurehead of the Egyptian women’s movement and the only Muslim woman in the transnational women’s network during the first feminist wave. Huda Sha’arawi has dedicated her life to both women’s independence, and her homeland’s independence from English colonization. Huda Sha’arawi was born in 1879, in Minya, Egypt. She came from a wealthy aristocratic family. Until the age of thirteen, Sha’arawi led a closed harem life with her mother and her father’s first wife. This ended when she agreed to marry her cousin, afraid of risking dishonouring her family. After 15 months of marriage, Sha’arawi decided to return to her parental home. There she was trained bilingual under the care of her mother and she developed into a critical independent woman. Over the years, her awareness of the restrictions imposed on Egyptian women grew. According to Sha’arawi, Egyptian women faced limitations in their essential and intellectual freedom. 

When Sha’arawi was twenty-one years old, she decided to go back to her husband. 

However, she did not want to start living a family life, instead she had aspirations to get involved in politics. She was one of the first to organize lectures on topics of great value to women. In this way Sha’arawi tried to get more women into public life. In 1908 Sha’arawi contributed to the creation of the first secular philanthropic organization run by women with the help of the royal family. Sha’arawi believed that the work done by women in the medical pharmacy was important not only to help others, but also to broaden women’s horizons in general. In 1914 Sha’arawi founded the Union of Educated Egyptian women. These developments marked an important turning point for Egyptian aristocratic women; by caring for poorer women, their position within the political order is legitimized and they reject the compulsion to live in isolation. 

In 1919, Sha’arawi contributed greatly to the organization of the first and largest anti-colonial women’s demonstration, called the “March of the Veiled Women”. Since Sha’arawi and her husband were both deeply involved in the nationalist movement, they were committed to Egypt’s independence of England. In 1920, Sha’arawi became chair of the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee. At that time, the international women’s movement became widely known. Sha’arawi had an important role within the International Alliance of Women in promoting the interests of women in the Middle East. However, her contribution was not always valued because she was seen as someone with nationalistic views. Sha’arawi’s husband died in 1922. This liberated her from patriarchal control and gave her the opportunity to strengthen her organizational skills and ideological insight.

In 1923 Sha’arawi founded the Egyptian feminist union (EFU) with ten other women. They worked together for women’s suffrage, a better status for women and better education for women and children. Among all major acts in the fight for women’s rights, one of Sha’arawi’s most extraordinary actions is the removal of her head and face covering at a busy train station in Caïro. In doing so, she encouraged other women to do the same, showing that wearing the covering should only be a personal religious choice and not a choice for social reasons or to separate women. This act alone made her the figurehead of the Egyptian feminist movement for the rest of her life. Furthermore, in 1923 Sha’arawi succeeded in raising the minimum age for women to marry to 16 years. The first high school for women was established by the EFU in 1924. The EFU mainly advocated for women’s suffrage, the restriction of polygamy and stricter divorce laws for men. Sha’arawi gained much international fame through her efforts, especially among suffragists and early feminists. In 1945 Sha’arawi was awarded the ‘Nishan al-Karmal Award’ for the services she rendered to her homeland’s independence. However, even after receiving this high honour for her merits, Sha’arawi was not allowed to vote in an Egyptian election. After Huda Sha’arawi’s death in 1947, the EFU changed its name to the Sha’arawi Society for the Feminist Renaissance, in tribute to the woman who devoted her whole life to so many people.


Author: Daphne Janssen
Image: Marlijn Metzlar

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