Distinguished Women of Past and Present


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Huda Shaarawi

From: Egypt
Fields: Activism and Social Service, Education, Human Rights
Huda Shaarawi was an Egyptian educator and women's rights activist. Born in Cairo in 1879, she was the daughter of a wealthy administrator. She envied her brother all the advantages he had because he was a male. Somehow, it didn't seem fair that they should be treated so differently.

At age thirteen, Huda was betrothed to her much older cousin as a second wife. At first she refused to go along with the arranged marriage. Her family pressured her by insisting that refusal would bring disgrace on her father's name and the shock might kill her mother. Huda relented reluctantly. The marriage was not a happy one and Huda lived apart from her husband for several years. She reconciled with her husband when she was twenty-one. She then had two children with him.

At the time, women in Egypt were confined to the house or harem. When in public, women were expected to show modesty by covering their hair and faces with a veil known as the hegab. Shaarawi resented such restriction on women's dress and movements. She started organizing lectures for women on topics of interest to them. This brought many women out of their homes and into public places for the first time. Shaarawi convinced the royal princesses to help her establish a women's welfare society to raise money for poor women of their country. In 1910 Huda Shaarawi opened a school for girls where she focused on teaching academic subjects rather than practical skills such as midwifery.

After World War I, many women left the harem to take part in political actions against the British rule. In 1919, Shaarawi helped organize the largest women's anti-British demonstration. In defiance of British orders to disperse, the women remained still for three hours in the hot sun.

Shaarawi made a decision to stop wearing her veil in public after her husband's death in 1922. Returning from a trip to a women's conference in Europe in 1923, she stepped off the train and removed her veil. Women who came to greet her were shocked at first then broke into applause. Some took off their veils, too. This was the first public defiance of the restrictive tradition.

That same year, Shaarawi helped found the Egyptian Feminist Union. She was elected its president and held the position for twenty-four years. The Union campaigned for various reforms to improve women's lives. Among them were raising the minimum age of marriage for girls to sixteen, increasing women's educational opportunities and improving health care. Egypt's first secondary school for girls was founded in 1927 as a result of this pressure.

Shaarawi also led Egyptian women's delegations to international conferences and organized meetings with other Arab feminists. In 1944 she founded the All-Arab Federation of Women. Huda Shaarawi died in 1947.

Contributed by Danuta Bois, 1997.

1. Herstory. Women Who Changed the World, edited by Ruth Ashby and Deborah Gore Ohrn, Viking, 1995. Huda Shaarawi profile by Lyn Reese
2. Women's World: A Timeline of Women in History by Irene M. Franck and David M. Brownstone, HarperCollins Publishers, 1995


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