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Shaʿrāwī, Hudā

Margot Badran
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Shaʿrāwī, Hudā

Hudā Shaʿrāwī (1879–1947), was an Egyptianfeminist leader. Born in Minyā in Upper Egypt to Sulṭān Pāshā, a wealthy landowner and provincial administrator, and Iqbāl Hānim, a young woman of Circassian origin, Nūr al-Hudā Sulṭān (known after her marriage as Hudā Shaʿrāwī) was raised in Cairo. Following her father's death when she was four, Hūdā was raised in a household headed by both her mother and a co-wife. Tutored at home, Hudā became proficient in French (the language of the elite) but, despite efforts to acquire fluency in Arabic, was permitted only enough instruction to memorize the Qurʿān. Through comparisons with her younger brother, Hudā became acutely aware of gender difference, the privileging of males, and the restrictions placed upon females. At thirteen, she reluctantly acquiesced to marriage with her paternal cousin, ʿAlī Shaʿrāwī, her legal guardian and the executor of her father's estate. At fourteen she began a seven-year separation from her husband. During this time (the 1890s), she attended a women's salon, where through discussions with other members, Hudā became aware that veiling the face and female confinement in the home were not Islamic requirements, as women had been led to believe. (Such critical examination of customary practice vis-à-vis religious prescription was part of the Islamic modernist movement initiated by Shaykh Muḥammad ʿAbduh in the nineteenth century.) In 1900 Shaʿrāwī resumed married life. She gave birth to a daughter, Bathna, in 1903 and a son, Muḥammad, in 1905. In 1909 Shaʿrāwī helped found the secular women's philanthropy, the Mabarrat Muḥammad ʿAlī, bringing together Muslim and Christian women to operate a medical dispensary for poor women and children. That same year she helped organize the first “public” lectures for and by women, held at the new Egyptian University and in the offices of the liberal newspaper, Al-jarīdah. In 1914 she participated in forming the Women's Refinement Union (al-Ittiḥād al-Nisāʿī al-Tahdībī) and the Ladies Literary Improvement Society (Jamʿīyat al-Raqy al-Adabīyah li-al-Sayyidāt al-Misrīyāt). Shaʿrāwī was active in the movement for national independence from 1919 to 1922. An organizer of the first women's demonstration in 1919, she became the president of the Women's Central Committee (Lajnat al-Wafd al-Markazīyah li-al-Sayyidāt) of the (male) nationalist Wafd party. Shaʿrāwī led militant nationalist women in broadening the popular base of the party, organizing boycotts of British goods and services, and assuming central leadership roles when nationalist men were exiled.

In 1923, the year after independence, Shaʿarāwī spearheaded the creation of the Egyptian Feminist Union (al-Ittiḥād al-Nisāʿī al-Miṣrī; EFU) and, as president, led the first organized feminist movement in Egypt (and in the Arab world). That same year, while returning from the Rome Conference of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (which she attended as an EFU delegate), she removed her face veil in public in an act of political protest. Shaʿrāwī generously donated her personal wealth to the work of the Egyptian Feminist Union, while also supporting other organizations and individuals. She opened the House of Cooperative Reform (Dār al-Taʿāwun al-Iṣlāḥī), a medical dispensary for poor women and children and a center for crafts training for girls, in 1924 under the aegis of the EFU, and the following year founded L’Egyptienne, a monthly journal serving the feminist movement. Several years later, in 1937, she established the Arabic bimonthly Al-miṣrīyah (The Egyptian Woman).

The feminist movement of which Shaʿrāwī was a leader brought together Muslim and Christian women of the upper and middle classes who identified themselves as Egyptians. Although a secular movement, its agenda was articulated within the framework of modernist Islam. The feminist movement supported women's right to all levels of education and forms of work, called for full political rights for women, advocated reform of the Personal Status Code, pressured the government to provide basic health and social services to poor women, and demanded an end to state-licensed prostitution. Along with these woman-centered reforms, Shaʿrāwī stressed the nationalist goals of the feminist movement, calling for Egyptian sovereignty, including an end to British military occupation and the termination of the capitulations, which extended privileges and immunities to foreigners. In 1937 she created three dispensaries, a girls’ school, and a boys’ school in villages in the province of Minyā, and later a short-lived branch of the Egyptian Feminist Union in the city of Minyā. As a nationalist feminist, Shaʿrāwī was active in the international women's movement, serving on the executive board of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (later called the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship) from 1926 until her death. In 1938 she hosted the Women's Conference for the Defense of Palestine. Shaʿrāwī played a key role in consolidating Pan-Arab feminism, which grew out of Arab women's collective national activism on behalf of Palestine, organizing the Arab Feminist Conference in Cairo in 1944. She was elected president of the Arab Feminist Union (al-Ittiḥād al-Nisāʿī al-ʿArabī), created in 1945. Shortly before her death in 1947, the Egyptian state awarded Shaʿrāwī its highest decoration.

See also FEMINISM.


Primary Sources

  • “Discours de Mme. Charaoui Pacha, Presidente de l’Union Feministe Egyptienne.”L’Egyptienne (December 1933): 10–14. Speech given at a ceremony honoring the first women to graduate from university in Egypt, dealing with the evolution of Egyptian women with a focus on education.
  • “Asas al-Nahḍah al-Nisāʿīyah wa-Taṭawwuratihā fī Miṣr” (The Foundation of the Feminist Renaissance and Its Evolution in Egypt). Majallat al-Shuʿūn al-Ijtimāʿīyah (Cairo) (August 1941): 16–24. Broad overview.
  • Mudhakkirāt Hudā Shaʿrāwī, rāʿidat al-marʿah al-ʿarabīyah al-ḥadīthah (The Memoirs of Hudā Shaʿrāwī, Pioneer of the Modern Arab Woman). Introduction by Amīnah al-Saʿīd. Cairo, 1981.
  • Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist. Translated, edited, and introduced by Margot Badran. London, 1986. English translation of the Mudhakkirāt.

Secondary Sources

  • Badran, Margot. “Dual Liberation: Feminism and Nationalism in Egypt from the 1870s–1925.”Feminist Issues8, no. 1 (Spring 1988): 15–34.
  • Badran, Margot. “From Consciousness to Activism: Feminist Politics in Early Twentieth-Century Egypt.” In Problems of the Middle East in Historical Perspective, edited by John P. Spagnolo, pp. 27–48. London, 1992.
  • Badran, Margot. Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt. Princeton, 1995.
  • Golley, Nawar al-Hassan. Reading Arab Women's Autobiographies: Shahrazad Tells Her Story. Austin, Texas, 2003.
  • Kahf, Mohja. “Packaging ‘Huda’: Shaʿrawi's Memoirs in the United States Reception Environment.” In Going Global: The Transnational Reception of Third World Women Writers, edited by Amal Amireh and Lisa Suhair Majaj, pp. 148–172. New York, 2000.
  • Subkī, Āmāl al-. Al-ḥarakāh al-nisāʿīyah fī Miṣr mā bayna althawratayn 1919 wa 1952. Cairo, 1986.
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