Women’s Rights Activist
The Egyptian feminist Huda Sha’arawi spent her childhood among the women of her father’s harem in Cairo, during the last years of a system steeped in tradition. Born into a wealthy, upper-class family in 1879, she wore a veil in public and entered into an arranged marriage with an older cousin at the age of thirteen. Always intellectually curious, she developed a sense of independence through an education with private tutors and by living away from her husband for seven years – unusual for the time. In 1919, when a nationalist movement broke out in Egypt, she played an active role, organizing anti-British demonstrations and serving as president of a nationalist women’s committee. In 1923, the year after her husband died, Sha’arawi travelled to Rome to attend the International Alliance of Women Conference. On returning to Cairo, she stood at a train station before a group of women who had come to greet her, and slowly removed her veil. It was a radical act, performative and symbolic of a new era for Egypt’s women.
In 1944, after years of activism, including the founding of the Egyptian Feminist Union, Sha’arawi spoke before a mixed audience at the first Arab Feminist Conference, in Cairo, which she had helped to organize. It was shortly before she helped found the Arab Feminist Union. In bold statements, Sha’arawi outlines the demands of Arab feminists and points towards a path forward for the movement. She argues that the Sharia, or Islamic law, grants women equal rights with men. If women are unequal, she suggests, it is only because men have abused their privileges. In clear, forthright language, she demands that society restore to women the rights she feels have been unjustly taken from them.
Speech at the Arab Feminist Conference 1944
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Arab woman who is equal to the man in duties and obligations will not accept, in the twentieth century, the distinctions between the sexes that the advanced countries have done away with. The Arab woman will not agree to be chained in slavery and to pay for the consequences of men’s mistakes with respect to her country’s rights and the future of her children. The woman also demands with her loudest voice to be restored her political rights, rights granted to her by the Sharia and dictated to her by the demands of the present. The advanced nations have recognised that the man and the woman are to each other like the brain and heart are to the body; if the balance between these two organs is upset the system of the whole body will be upset. Likewise, if the balance between the two sexes in the nation is upset it will disintegrate and collapse. The advanced nations … have come to believe in the equality of sexes in all rights even though their religious and secular laws have not reached the level Islam has reached in terms of justice towards the woman…. The woman, given by the Creator the right to vote for the successor of the Prophet, is deprived of the right to vote for a deputy in a circuit or district election by a (male) being created by God. At the same time, this right is enjoyed by a man who might have less education and experience than the woman. And she is the mother who has given birth to the man and has raised him and guided him. The Sharia … has made her equal to the man in all rights and responsibilities, even in the crimes that either sex can commit. However, the man who alone distributes rights, has kept for himself the right to legislate and rule, generously turning over to his partner his own share of responsibilities and sanctions without seeking her opinion about the division. The woman today demands to regain her share of rights that have been taken from her and gives back to the man the responsibilities and sanctions he has given to her. Gentlemen, this is justice, and I do not believe that the Arab man who demands that the others give him back his usurped rights would be avaricious and not give the woman back her own lawful rights, all the more so since he himself has tasted the bitterness of deprivation and usurped rights.
The woman also demands with her loudest voice to be restored her political rights, rights granted to her by the Sharia and dictated to her by the demands of the present.