Who better to kick off the new series than with Huda Sha-arawi, a feminist activist who played key roles in the 1919 Egyptian Revolution as well as more generally in the fight for female emancipation.
Hi everyone, how are we doing? Gosh, this feels weird I’ve got to be honest. I’m a little nervous to get started with this again because I’ve been gone for a while, let’s just acknowledge it. It’s been all go in the Bea Duncan household and every time I sort of geared up to get started again something else would pile on and happen. It’s been quite a lot of ups and downs over the last few months if I’m honest and I’ve barely had time to even catch my breath.
I was really aware that the break was getting longer and longer and longer but I wanted to take my time with this series and really make sure that when I came back I came back with a proper bang. So coming up this series you have 20 new episodes on the way spread across 20 weeks, one every Monday. There will be a week-long hiatus at the halfway point, but other than that you’re going to be having fresh content delivered to your subscription box all the way until the end of November. I have spent hours going through my short list of women picking the most varied, diverse and fascinating subjects that I could. So we have women from all over the world, from so many different fields and with their kind of unique part to play in history so I can’t wait to share their stories with you. So buckle up, open your ears and let’s get started.
There is nobody better to start off the new series of Girls! Girls! Girls! than Huda Sha-arawi. “I believe that history repeats itself” – that’s what Huda once said, and she’s not wrong. She was a pioneering feminist leader, and founded the Egyptian Feminist Union. And many of the things she fought for are things that women around the world are fighting for to this day.
She was born on June 23rd1879 in Minya, in Upper Egypt. Her family was quite wealthy. She was the daughter of Muhammad Sultan Pasha who was the president of Egypt’s chamber of delegates in 1876. Huda grew up in a harem, where women were secluded in a little community away from the men. But because she was in a middle to upper class family, she was given a really good education while at home and she was educated in French mostly.
When she was 13 years old, Huda was married to her cousin Ali Pasha Sha’arawi who at this point was already well into his 40’s. They were then separated for 7 years which turned out to be a really positive thing for Huda. It allowed her time to get some tutoring in a variety of Quranic Arabic and Islamic subjects. She wrote a lot of poetry as well in Arabic and French. She particularly made sure to have tutors, teachers who were women.
A lot of the information about this time of Huda’s life is documented in her book ‘Harem Years: The Memories of an Egyptian Feminist 1879-1924’. This time really allowed her to become independent, to educate herself, and to realise her own opinions.
But after those 7 years, Huda and Ali reconciled in 1900 and this was mainly because of pressure from her family. They would go on to have 2 children together, Bathna who was born in 1903 and Muhammad in 1905.
While Huda did live an incredibly comfortable life, she was in a wealthy middle class family and she had a really great education as well, she did also still grow up with so many restrictions on her movements and even her education, and she really did resent it. She wanted to do something about it. So she became organising lectures specifically aimed for women, and used them as well as an opportunity to get support for establishing a women’s welfare society which was intended to raise money for working class women in Egypt. It was called Mabarrat Muhammad Ali, or the Muhammad Ali Benevolent Society and was funded by princess Ayn-al-Hayat Rifaat. It also happened to be the 1stever philanthropic society run by Egyptian women which is pretty incredible. So the charity was run by women, mostly middle class women. It was supposed to be a way for the rich women to sort of give back to society as well as learning skills and broadening their own horizons. The hospitals were nationalised eventually in 1964, they had treated around 13 million women, which is a really fantastic feat.
Huda also opened a school for girls in 1910, which allowed them to focus on more academic subjects because at the time when they were being educated it was more practical subjects that would be able to give them jobs but they weren’t able to really delve into the more abstract subjects and the more academic subjects.
A few years later, in 1919, there was a rising feeling of unrest about the British occupation in Egypt. Huda’s husband Ali was the founding member of the Wafd party, which was a nationalist liberal political party in Egypt. Around this time he was the acting vice president and they were getting massive amounts of support from the Egyptian people. And Huda and Ali would sort of work together in the sense that he would keep her informed of the things that were happening politically which was really helping her. And actually later on on January 12th1920 the Wafd party formed a Women’s Central Committee. It’s members were mainly contained women from the 1919 revolution, and Huda would be elected as it’s first president.
So in March of 1919, civil unrest was increasing and this eventually became the 1919 Egyptian Revolution. Women from all across Egypt took part in the revolution, it was almost unprecedented the levels of women who were taking part and this included Huda. During the events of the revolution she helped to organise the largest women’s anti-British demonstration. This was pretty much the first time women had taken to the streets to protest so it was a huge deal.
Here’s quote from Huda at the time: “The British claimed our national movement was a revolt of the Muslim majority against religious minorities. This slander aroused the anger of the Copts and other religious groups. Egyptians showed their solidarity by meeting together in mosques, churches, and synagogues.”
So Ali, who was Huda’s husband died in 1922, and this same year on the 22ndof February, Egyptian independence from the British was gained. Women had played such a huge role in the revolution, but when the goal had actually been realised many people expected them to go back to the way things were before the revolution. Because many of her nationalistic goals had been achieved, Huda was able to focus again on women’s equality. So while the Wafd party had indeed created the Women’s Central Committee, it was clear that after the revolution they did not want to give as much credit to the women who were involved and It was also clear that they were not going to do as much for female liberation as once thought, the really did want everything to go back to normal even after the revolution had happened.
And so because of this I think Huda realised she was better just going at it alone, and trying something herself. So a little later in 1923 she founded the Egyptian Feminist Union, known as the EFU. And The EFU is still an active non-profit now. At the time The EFU was very similar to other liberal feminist movements, and focused on reformation of laws surrounding personal freedoms, specifically relating to marriage, child custody and divorce. This year, 1923, the committee and members of the EFU attended the International Woman Suffrage Alliance Congress in Rome. And when Huda returned, she kind of did this really massive act which would be what she would go down in history for mainly. So she got back to the train station and in front of a huge crowd publically she removed her head veil. This was the first time she had done so in public and it was a really massive deal, there was a huge crowd and a lot of other women cheered and supported her and took off their veils as well.
As well as the in person activism, she also launched a fortnightly journal, L’Égyptiennein 1925, to start publicising the cause. That would later become Al-Misriyyah.
Huda led the Egyptian Feminist Union right until her death. She went all around the world representing Egypt at various conferences and events. At this time she was also a member and also eventually the Vice President in 1935 of The International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship.
Huda died December 12th1947 in Cairo and just a few years before she had been the founding president of the Arab Feminist union, showing that even at the end she was massively committed to the feminist cause and doing everything she could to build up more support.
Huda was a massive driving force for women’s equality and feminist activism in Egypt at the time. While she was most known for the explosive moment she removed her head scarf at the train station, her work setting up or running various feminist groups and charities means her legacy is even more long lasting than that.
I’m sure you’ll all be pleased to hear that The cel-her-bration segment has survived the cut for season 2, but I’ve decided to make some changes to it. Rather than celebrating just anyone who is inspiring me at the moment, I’m going to be cel-her-brating modern day equivalents of the women spoken about in each episode. I think sometimes we can spend so long looking back and highlighting amazing women of times gone by, that we can forget to open our eyes and look around at the women trying to do similar things now. And while it’s of course vital to remember and preserve the legacy of women through history, obviously otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this podcast, we have to make sure to do right by the women now and say their names now so that they don’t also have to into history in a few years from now having been overlooked.
So this week we’re cel-her-brating Esraa Abdel Fattah. Esraa is sometimes known as the so-called Facebook girl and that was because of her utilisation of social media. A lot of the information on this episode came from Nabila Ramdani from LSE University, a university in London, who wrote her PhD on women’s involvement in the 1919 Egyptian revolution. She has drawn some really fascinating parallels between the treatment of the women then and the women who led the 18 day uprising in 2011 which ended Mubarak’s 31 year rule. Huda’s legacy as one of the main leaders of the 1919 revolution is not as big as it probably should be and that is definitely still the case with the women from 2011. Esraa was a vital part of the 2011 uprising, so much so that she was even nominated for a nobel peace prize. However, now she is treated horrendously by Egyptians, especially people leading Egypt at the moment. “They say I am a traitor and foreign agent and that we are the people who destroyed the country” – she said in her own words. Esraa co-founded the April 6 Youth Movement, a group made in 2008 that utilised social media to get young people to strike in support of workers in the industrial town of El-Mahalla El Kubra. The state media says the people who led the revolution in 2011 are enemies of Egypt. She even has a travel ban on her, meaning she cannot leave Egypt. She was trying to get on a flight to Germany when she found this out. There are clear parallels between Esraa and Huda, and more generally with the women of both revolutions being nearly forgotten after the fact. Esraa said “The revolution is people demanding freedom, bread, justice and dignity People will keep demanding them”. I think Huda would definitely have agreed with that.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Girls Girls Girls and if you were one of the people who listened before thank you for sticking with me through that rather long hiatus – I promise that won’t happen again. Don’t forget to follow the podcast on twitter @gggpod or @beaduncanLDN, that’s me. And instagram @girlgsgirlsgirlspod or @beaduncan. You can also email firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to contact me to suggest a topic, give some feed back or just to say hi! I really enjoy talking to the listeners of this show. Thank you very much and I will see you next Monday for another episode and another fantastic woman from history.