In the late 19th and early 20th century, parallel with and as a part of the independence movement, the early Egyptian feminist movement started demanding freedom for Egypt and the rights of Egyptian women. One of the most influential women in both movements was Huda Sha’rawi.
Born as Noor Alhuda Mohamed Sultan in 1879, Sha’rawi, like most girls of the aristocratic class, was educated at home while watching her younger brother go to school and learn horseback riding. At the early age of fifteen, and without her knowledge or consent, young Noor Alhuda found herself married to the much older Ali Sha’rawi, allegedly to keep a much more powerful and connected family from pressuring her and her family into marrying their son.
Sha’rawi’s liberal husband allowed her to read the works of early feminist writers like Malak Hifni Nasif and Qasim Amin. He supported her efforts to break the monopoly the religious official organizations had over charity, and open many charities and free clinics herself around the country. She did this mainly to decrease the horrifying rates of infant mortality in Egypt at the time.
But Huda Sha’rawi and her husband’s works of activism really intertwined when he and three other members of the parliament walked into the office of the British High Commissioner in 1919 and demanded that the British government keeps its promise to grant Egypt independence. This meeting ended as expected and led to the exile of Saad Zaghloul, the leader of the group, and an uprising.
The role of the women’s movement
Sha’rawi and other noticeable women of the era, like Safiya Zaghloul, Saiza Nabrawi and educational icon Nabawiyya Musa, started boycotts and arranged, for the first time in the history of Egypt, all-female protests. During these protests, they demanded the return of Zaghloul and the beginning of negotiations for independence. Sha’rawi screamed with the rest of Egypt for freedom and the world took notice.
Locally, the reaction to women’s more active role in the independence movement was mixed, some people considered (and still consider it) a British conspiracy against societal values and other considered it a step toward a better and freer society. One of the latter category was Egyptian sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar who’s most famous work Egypt’s Renaissance was a tribute to the women who participated in the 1919 revolt.
The first women’s central committee
A year after the revolt, the wives of Saad Zhagloul’s comrades and the women who were in the protests, founded the first women’s central committee to the Wafd party and she was elected president of the committee. In 1923 she founded the Egyptian feminist union and was invited to represent Egyptian women in an international women’s conference in Rome and in 1925 she founded l’Egyptienne magazine.
Sha’rawi’s fight for freedom and women’s rights continued throughout her life and extended beyond the borders of Egypt to include the whole Arab world. On her deathbed in 1947 she was writing about the UN’s decision that came only a month prior, to divide Palestine. Sha’rawi asked the governments of the Arab world to set aside their differences and stand together against the partition plan.
Seventy years after her death, Sha’rawi is still one of the most inspiring figures in Egyptian history and in the feminist movement and, while Egypt came a long way from denying women their rights to inherence, education and choosing their spouse, Egypt has a long way to go before becoming what Huda Sha’rawi and her contemporaries have dreamt of.