Huda Sha’arawi was a pioneering Egyptian feminist leader, nationalist, suffragette and founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union. Born on June 23, 1879 in Minya, Egypt, she was educated at an early age along with her brothers studying various subjects such as calligraphy and grammer in French, Turkish and Arabic. Her childhood was spent secluded in her upper-class Egyptian community. After her father’s death, she was under guardianship of her eldest cousin, Ali Sha’awari. At thirteen she was married and according to Margaret Badran, a “subsequent separation from her husband gave her time for an extended formal education, as well as an unexpected taste of independence.” She was then taught to read the Quran and had received tutoring in Quranic Arabic and Islamic subjects by female teachers in Cairo. Sha’awari later recounted her early life in her memoir, Mudhakkirati (My Memoir) which was translated and abridged into the English version Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist, 1879-1924.
Huda Sha’awari brought light to the restrictive world of upper class women in her book The Harem Years, published in 1987 and also influenced not only women in Egypt but throughout the Arab world. Huda was raised in the Harem system, which kept women secluded and veiled. Very wealthy families would have separate eunuchs and buildings to guard the women and act as their messengers to the outer world. The word “harem” actually refers to the rooms in which the women stayed, separate from the men. With the exception of peasant women in the countryside, all women, rich or poor went outside veiled. Veiling and the harem system were cultural traditions, and were followed by Christian and Jewish women as well as Muslim.
Huda was able to be independent after separating from her husband. She became involved in activism and extended her education. Huda had a hand in many “firsts” for women in Egyptian society. In 1908, she founded the first philanthropic society run by Egyptian women, where they offered services for poor women and their children. She believed that having women run such projects would challenge the view that women are in need of protection and created for men’s pleasure. In 1910, she opened a school for girl’s focused on academics, rather that teaching the practical skills of the day like midwifery. She brought women out of their homes and into public places by organizing lectures for women on various topics. In 1919, she helped to organize the largest women’s anti- British demonstration and in 1923 she founded the Egyptian Feminist Union which is still active today. They focused on various issues including women’s education and suffrage.
In 1923, she made a decision she is now famous for which was after her husband died she returned to Egypt after attending a woman’s conference in Europe, stepping off the train back in Cairo, she removed her veil in front of the crowd in public. Everyone was shocked at first but after a few moments, the crowd broke into cheers and applause. Some women joined her in removing their own veils and within a decade of Huda’s act of defiance, few women still chose to wear the veil. Huda Sha’awari continued to lead the Egyptian Feminist Union until her death, organizing and demonstrating the fight for women’s rights in the new Egypt. She represented Egypt at women’s conferences around the world, advocating for disarmament and peace. With her unique blend of western-style feminism with her own country’s customs, culture and Egyptian Nationalism, Huda Sha’awari influenced millions of Arab women and people all around the world.
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