It is a widespread practice in the Global North to paint a picture of women in the Arab world as silent, confined in the home, and obedient to patriarchal Muslim authorities. Of course, this is the experience of some women, but the reality is far more complex. We saw this not least during what was termed the Arab Spring in 2011, which should rather be called the North African Spring. Through both the press and social media, we saw that men were far from alone in Tahrir Square during the landmark January days of 2011. They shared the spotlight with tens of thousands of Egyptian women who stood up to Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorial regime. The trade union movement also played an important role through strikes and open opposition, and many of the activists had backgrounds in textile factories and other women-dominated workplaces.
The Egyptian Spring did not provide the thaw that many had hoped for, and it seriously turned into a winter under the harsh rule of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who took power in 2014 and has not yet given it up. But even with so many odds against them, activists fighting for women’s rights have never allowed themselves to be gagged. Their activism sometimes happens spontaneously, through demonstrations and open protests, but there is also a range of long-term and purposeful women’s organizing within a wide range of movements and pressure groups. In addition, there is a network of women who offer legal advice or crisis assistance.
I hear the skeptics saying: but does any of this help? The answer is yes, although there have been no dramatic leaps. During the last year, there has undoubtedly been a breakthrough in two areas that are of great importance, particularly in Egypt. The first concerns the fight against unwanted sexual attention, harassment, and violence. According to international studies, this is something practically all women have been exposed to during their lifetime. From the same sources, we know that almost half of Egyptian men justify harassment with reference to tight clothing worn by women. In the latest UN ranking of countries by gender-based gaps in economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment, Egypt is number 129 out of 156.
In response, the so-called “Egyptian #MeToo movement” took off last summer. An anonymous Instagram account named an Egyptian man, an upper-class student, and accused him of harassment or violence against several women, including girls under the age of 13. To avoid confusion about the man’s identity, the post also came with a portrait of him. The post exploded, and the account was soon filled with similar stories, some about the same man, who was subsequently arrested and recently sentenced to three years in prison. The account itself is run by Nadeen Ashraf, who was only 22 when it started.
Another result of this movement has been changing the law so that women—both as victims of and witnesses to gender-based violence—can report and testify anonymously. This is of great importance, especially in situations where they have reason to fear reprisals. The campaign has also received support from one of Cairo’s most important religious institutions: the Al-Ashraf Mosque.
The second area where prolonged pressure from below has already produced results is female genital mutilation. For decades, this has been one of the most important battles for Nawal El Saadawi, a doctor, feminist, and world-renowned author of books in multiple genres. Her work has documented how women not only have their genitals destroyed, they also struggle with serious injuries for the rest of their lives, some life-threatening. Her sharp voice has long criticized shifting Egyptian regimes while also expressing resistance to all forms of imperialism and militarism.
Nawal El Saadawi died on March 21st, 2021, and was celebrated as a role model for women’s and democracy movements across the world. As a result of her work, there has been a ban on female genital mutilation since 2008, and the proportion of women affected is smaller every year. Nevertheless, in practice, little has been done to punish those who break this law. As of just days before El Saadawi’s death, this will no longer be the case. After changes in the penal code by the Egyptian parliament, those who harm women in this way now face from five to ten years in prison. Moreover, the penalty is much higher for health personnel who perform genital mutilation procedures.
The Egyptian women’s struggle today stands on the shoulders of many historical role models. Most famous is undoubtedly Huda Sharaawi, whose name is most often cited as a source of inspiration and as a pioneer. To understand why, we need to go back to the time of confrontation between imperial powers during the First World War (1914–1918). During the war, Germany, France, and Britain used troops from the colonies on the western front in the Middle East and Asia. They gave many of these soldiers hopes for a reward—not only a monetary reward, but one in the form of reform or self-government after the end of the war.
At the time, large parts of the Arab world were still under the Ottoman Empire, which, by then severely weakened, had joined the German side early in the war. The British promised sheiks and sultans both freedom and Arab unity if they joined the Allies. Instead, after the defeat and dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, Britain and France divided this part of the world among themselves. At the same time, they granted themselves power over the German colonies in Africa and Asia.
Even though Egypt was formally under Ottoman rule, in practice Britain had ruled the country both politically and economically since 1882. Both access to the Suez Canal and control of the Nile were at stake, and to safeguard this, the British had made the country a regular colony midway through the war. Thus, Egypt became an important node in the fight against both Germany and what was left of the Ottoman Empire.
The increasingly strong dominance of the British in Egypt led—unsurprisingly—to the surfacing of both nationalist and anti-colonialist currents toward the end of the war. When the victors called for peace talks in Paris in 1919, Egyptian nationalist leaders wanted to send a separate delegation to demand full independence.
The British brusquely rejected the demand. Both Prime Minister David Lloyd George and the Minister of Munitions, Winston Churchill, believed that the colonies would be more useful after the war than ever before. Following this, the Egyptian nationalist leaders formed a separate party. It was named Wafd, which simply means delegation, with Saad Zaghlul as the party’s undisputed leading figure and Ali Shaarawi as his deputy. Since the latter was Huda’s husband, she was always well-informed and able to advise on current events.
The deep disappointment that resulted from the great powers’ opposition to Egyptian independence gave rise to a wave of unrest and revolt. For the first time, the nationalist cause included all sections of the people, from the educated elite and landowners to workers and peasants. The uprising that followed, consisting of violent clashes in which more than two thousand Egyptians were killed or wounded, was named the “1919 revolution.”
The events of 1919 also have a place in history because so many women took to the streets and entered the public arena, with Huda Shaarawi taking the lead. She initiated a separate, women-specific demonstration, where 300 women carried posters with slogans such as “Down with the occupation” and “Long live Egypt’s freedom.” After crossing Tahrir Square, they stopped at the home of Saad Zaghlul. There, well-armed police made sure they had to withdraw.
The story of Huda Shaarawi did not start in 1919, when she was already 40 years old. She was born in 1879 into a wealthy and influential Egyptian family, and, like most girls in the upper classes, she was kept within the house as a child (this part of the house was known as the harem, hence the title of her memoir). Her father, Muhammed Sultan Pasha, held a high position in government and valued knowledge and education. This mostly benefited his son, but Huda also got to learn much more than most girls. She received early instruction not only in Arabic, French, and Islam but also in poetry, music, calligraphy, and painting.
However, her family was also bound by tradition, and like so many of her fellow sisters, Huda was married to a much older cousin when she was only 13 years old. She resisted for a long time, but there was no way out. This would be the beginning of her lifelong opposition to a society that was both patriarchal and conservative. But Huda’s marriage was rare in that her husband, Ali Shaarawi, lived separately from her for six or seven years after they got married. As a result, Huda was able to develop a significant degree of personal freedom, and she was 20 years old before they moved in together and Ali agreed to remain monogamous. As noted above, their relationship was also marked by the fact that her husband was one of the leading figures in a nationalist movement that grew stronger after the turn of the century.
As befitting better-off women, Huda Shaarawi was early on engaged in philanthropy. This included not only social assistance for vulnerable women and children but also initiatives that provided income opportunities and financial independence. Ever since 1909, she also taught, and her curricula featured more than just the traditional “women’s subjects.” Her salon in a spacious house in one of Cairo’s affluent districts also became a meeting place for women who wanted to converse on literature, Egyptian politics, and world events. As we have seen, Huda Shaarawi was increasingly drawn into anti-colonial activities during World War I. In the wake of the “July Revolution” of 1919, therefore, it was natural to start a women’s association, which she led until she died in 1947.
The Egyptian Feminist League quickly became known far beyond the country’s borders, not least through a French magazine that was later published in Arabic. Since Shaarawi additionally mastered English and Farsi, she quickly became one of the leading figures in an international network. In addition to fighting for the right to vote, education, new family legislation, and a ban on child marriage, she took an active part in international peace activism. After a conference in Rome in 1923, at the train station in Cairo, she greeted those present by casting off both her veil and headwear. It was an iconic moment in the history of Arab feminism, but she writes in her memoirs that it was only a modest element in the painstaking work of both women’s liberation and colonial liberation.
Political activism forced the British to make several concessions toward Egyptian self-government in 1922. But they did not want to give up their military bases, control of the Suez Canal, rule over Sudan, or the right to intervene on behalf of Egypt’s Christian and Jewish minorities. Saad Zaghlul, then a leader in the cause for independence, was brought back from forced exile, and in 1924 he became prime minister on behalf of the party that had led the call for independence. Although the rights of the national assembly over which he presided were severely curtailed, this step still served as an inspiration for further struggles for full independence. Shaarawi was the natural choice as leader of the women’s union of the Wafd Party, but she resigned a few years later as she thought that Zaghlul was too lenient and friendly to the British.
At the same time as Huda Shaarawi put in work in her home country, where she could at least enjoy better opportunities for education for women, her efforts in the international arena took more and more of her time. For one, she wanted to build bridges between Western and Arab feminisms. She saw it as her task to convince European women’s organizations that support for independence in the colonies was an important step towards equality. Without a thought for her ailing health, she was constantly on the move for conferences, interviews, and lectures in numerous countries, including Denmark. She was a sought-after writer and speaker in Arabic, French, and English. During a meeting in Istanbul in 1935, she surprised everyone by giving a spontaneous speech in honor of Kemal Atatürk—in Turkish.
From the end of the 1930s, the struggle for Palestinian rights took an increasing share of Huda Shaarawi’s attention. After the First World War, Palestine became a British “mandate,” which in practice made it a colony. However, Palestine was set apart from other colonies in that the British opened it up for increasing Jewish immigration, and in principle agreed with the Zionist movement’s goal of making the whole area a “Jewish homeland.” After a visit to Palestine, Shaarawi became convinced that other Arab countries had to stand together to support Palestinian uprisings against colonial rule and the right to an independent state. Palestine activism once again made Huda Shaarawi a vocal opponent of British imperialism, and officials from London protested when King Faruk granted her a high Egyptian Order in 1942.
Huda Shaarawi’s heart had long been exposed to an inhuman level of strain, and in 1947, her life ebbed away. She died in the same year that the great powers in the UN established the state of Israel on Palestinian land. In line with historical studies that are no longer only interested in “great men,” there have been several books and dozens of journal articles about her life in recent times. Her memoirs have also been translated and published in English, and a close and informative portrayal of her has been given by one of her grandchildren.