#HERstory - Huda Shaarwai: A Rebel With Just Cause
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In an era when women were restricted to their homes and harems in the secluded shrouds of patriarchy and claustrophobic traditions, one Egyptian woman, Huda Shaarwai, defied social norms to fight for the cause of women.
Born in a house of privilege in Minya, Egypt, on 23 June 1879, Huda Shaarwai received early training in Arabic, French, Turkish and Islamic teachings. She also wrote poetry in both Arabic and French. Huda was the daughter of the Egyptian Representative Council’s first President, Mohammed Sultan. At the tender age of four, the revolutionary’s father passed away and as was tradition, she was married off to her cousin Ali Pasha Shaarwai at the age of 13. Some suggest that Huda could not stand the austere life led by her husband, previously widowed father of four children. Others claim that she went back to her mother’s house when Ali Pasha’s slave-concubine bore him a child just a year after his marriage to her since he had promised in the marriage contract to leave his concubine.
All theories aside, Ali Pasha – a revolutionary himself – played a pivotal role in bringing Huda to the forefront of activism. It was her time away from her husband that led Huda to actually get a taste of independence. She spent her time expanding her knowledge and learning in addition to getting involved in activism. After seven years, she returned to her husband and bore him two children. As she grew older, her husband started including her in political meetings, especially those against the British rule. On many occasions Ali Pasha sought his wife’s council, and had her participate in high-level political meetings instead of him.
Huda’s most significant contributions to the status of Egyptian women, as well as to women in the Middle East and North African region, was to challenge the restrictions on their movement and autonomy. She began organizing lectures for women on topics of relevance and interest as well as establishing a woman’s welfare society to raise money for poor Egyptian women. She is said to have also opened a school in 1910, where girls benefited from academic studies as opposed to traditionally female skills, such as midwifery.
According to the Egyptian National Council for Women: “She helped organize Mubarrat Muhammad Ali, a women's social service organization in 1909 and the Union of Educated Egyptian Women in 1914. She helped lead the first women's street demonstration during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 and was elected president of the Wafdist Women's Central Committee. In 1923, Sha`arawi founded and became the first President of the Egyptian Feminist Union, after returning from the International Woman Suffrage Alliance Congress in Rome. Upon her return, she removed her face veil in public for the first time, a signal event in the history of Egyptian feminism.” The trailblazing woman also published the feminist magazine l'Egyptienne (and el-Masreyya). Huda continued her philanthropic work for women throughout her life, and remained committed to the Egyptian Feminist Union till her death in 12 December 1947. She was a vociferous voice of peace and disarmament.