Hoda Sha’arawi, the first feminist of Egypt

This article is also available in: Italiano

After having told you about Suhayr al Qalamawi, we could not but tell you about one of her greatest teachers. Hoda Sha’arawi was the first feminist to actively fight against injustices in her country, challenging both male and colonial power

The revolution starts from the harem

Hoda Sha’arawi was born on June 23, 1879 in Minya, Upper Egypt to a noble family from the region. The mother was a Circassian slave and this suggests immediately the education that the young woman will receive, locked up in a gilded cage. The future feminist grew up in a real harem, educated by eunuchs to study the Koran, but not to her grammar.

Hoda Sha'arawi
A very young Hoda Sha’arawi

At the time there was in fact the profound condition that women from good families had to spend their life in comfort, but without taking care of anything else. However, she was allowed to study French, a very precious language for her future. In 1908 she will go to Paris, a journey that will change her forever and which will be fundamental to broaden one’s horizons.

Between veil and education

Once back, she will found a dispensary with a school annexed to it, to which an entire hospital will soon be added. The results of the initiative grew more and more for her fame and celebrity, so much so that another initiative was generated from it: “The Society of the new woman”. The latter had the aim of making women of the poorest and most disadvantaged classes literate, also providing them with practical advice in terms of personal hygiene. In 1923 Hoda Sha’arawi will found the Egyptian Feminist Union, the first official association to protect women’s rights in the country, an unparalleled achievement.

Hoda Sha'arawi

In the same year the activist will once again challenge the taboos of the time and, after a trip to Rome for an important feminist meeting, made a gesture considered scandalous: she took off her veil publicly in the Cairo station. The gesture will be fundamental to her campaign and, in one way or another, will mark a point of no return, also starting to divide the other feminists. In the meantime, in fact, two different parties linked to the role of the veil had been created: one led by the Franco-Egyptian Madame Rushdi, who saw in the hijab mainly cultural legacies and one led by Malak Hifni Nasif, an Egyptian feminist who precisely because of these legacies saw it as an anti-British cultural weapon.

Palestine and Pan-Arabism

Over the next few years, Hoda Sha’arawi tied more and more Egyptians to him in his struggle, eventually founding, together with Sa’ad Zaghlul, the Wafd, probably the most progressive party in the entire history of the country. Following the great unrest in the country, he fought on the front line against the English occupiers and against the founding of the state of Israel, making him one of the first anti-Zionists in history. The activist had in fact realized the connection in the destiny of the Arabs and it is precisely in the light of this that her commitment to Palestine should be read.

Hoda Sha'arawi
Hoda Sha’arawi with Safiya Zaghlul, the wife of Sa’ad Zaghlul

It is no coincidence that it was at his exhortation that in 1944 the first Arab feminist congress was created at his exhortation, also able to represent “the other half of the Arab people”. She passed away in 1947 after marking indelible steps in the history of Arab and world feminism.

Tomorrow we continue the week with Asmahan, Farid Al Atrash’s sister and star of Arabic music.

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