Huda Shaarawi (1879–1947) was an Egyptian feminist who influenced not only women in Egypt but throughout the Arab world. She was a pioneer in feminism, and brought to light the restrictive world of upper-class women in her book The Harem Years, published in 1987.
Huda Shaarawi (also spelled Hoda Shaarawi or Sha’arawi) was raised in the harem system, which kept women secluded and veiled. Very wealthy families would have separate buildings and eunuchs 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. All women, rich or poor, went outside veiled, except peasant women in the countryside. Veiling and the harem system were cultural traditions, and were followed by Jewish and Christian women as well as Muslim.
Huda was very well educated from a young age. She was tutored in a variety of subjects and spoke French, Turkish, and Arabic.
At the age of 13, Huda was married to her cousin Ali Pasha Shaarawi. In their marriage contract, he had promised to leave his slave-concubine, but she bore him a child a year after their marriage. Huda separated from him and they remained so for the next 7 years. During this time she was able to be independent, since her father had died when she was young. She extended her education and became involved in activism. As she grew older, her husband, a political activist himself, included her in his political meetings, and often sought her counsel.
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 children. She believed that having women run such projects would challenge the view that women are created for men’s pleasure and in need of protection. In 1910, she opened a school for girls focused on academics, rather than teaching practical skills like midwifery which was common at the time.
Around the world, social reform movements, including women’s suffrage, were gaining ground, and the women of Egypt were not immune. The country was modernizing, expanding educational opportunities for women. She organized lectures for women on various topics, bringing them out of their homes and into public places. After the World War I, many women left the harem to take action against British rule in Egypt, and Huda Shaarawi stood up to organize them. In 1919, she helped to organize the largest women’s anti-British demonstration.
In 1923, Huda Shaarawi founded the Egyptian Feminist Union, which is still active as a non-profit today. They focused on various issues, including women’s suffrage and education. Huda was also passionately against restrictions on women’s dress and freedom of movement, which was a central part of harem life.
Huda had evolved as a feminist throughout her life, influenced by the inequalities she had endured growing up, as well as her education, her period of freedom after her marriage, and the ongoing changes in the world. When Egyptian independence was announced in 1922, women were expected to return to their old way of life in the harem after helping fight for freedom. Huda was not prepared to do that.
After Huda’s husband died in 1923, she made a decision for which she is now famous. She returned to Egypt after attending a women’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. After a few moments, the crowd broke into cheers and applause. Some women joined her in removing their own veils. Within a decade of Huda’s act of defiance, few women still chose to wear the veil.
Hoda Shaarawi continued to lead the Egyptian Feminist Union until her death, demonstrating and organizing the fight for women’s rights in the new Egypt. She represented Egypt at women’s conferences around the world, advocating for peace and disarmament. She was also a member (and in 1935, vice-president) of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship, and founding president of the Arab Feminist Union in 1945.
With her unique blend of western-style feminism with her own country’s customs, culture, and Egyptian nationalism, Huda Shaarawi influenced millions of Arab women and people all around the world.
- Huda Sha`arawi. Sunshine for Women. Accessed 11/8/12
- Egyptian women make their mark. Al-Ahram Weekly. Accessed 11/8/12
- “Huda Shaarawi” by Melissa Spatz, Fall 1996. Accessed 11/8/12
Featured image of Huda Shaarawi courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
KeriLynn Engel is an autodidact and women’s history buff who founded Amazing Women in History in 2011.