I’ve always had a fascination with Egypt. I still remember trying to teach myself hieroglyphics from a book at around the age of 7 or 8, feeling I was set to be an archaeologist for certain. There is a richness of culture, an intelligence of society and a capacity of the citizens through history that is intriguing and holds me captive. As a public servant in Australia it is now clear to me that I was not destined for site digs and the hot sandy winds whipping on my face, a fact that I have come to peace with over the years. Still, the history and the people fascinate me so I thought I would share one amazing human’s influence on her world with you here.
Huda Shaarawi was an Egyptian woman who lived from 1879 to 1947 and played a fundamental role in embedding feminism into Egyptian society and a political critical time.
Ms Shaarawi was 13 years old when she was married to a man in his 40s. He had a child to another woman and Ms Shaarawi lived for 7 years separately to him. She was pressured by family to return to him after time, which she subsequently did. Her husband was a nationalist and supporter of establishing the independence of Egypt from Great Britain.
The Egyptian nationalist movement offered many opportunities for women to become politically engaged and marked a shift in female participation in social movement during this time.
In 1908 Ms Shaarawi established the first philanthropic society, supporting women and children. Her husband’s inclusion of her in political meetings, in conjunction with her education and inherent wealth, allowed Ms Shaarawi to participate in the political climate in a way that allowed her to truly influence her society and community. Ms Shaarawi encouraged women to leave their homes and engage with public spaces.
Following her husband’s death in 1923 Ms Shaarawi continued to be political and socially influential. She famously removed her veil in public to the shock and awe of onlookers. She participated in international forums advocating for Egypt and its political needs. She was actively engaged in social change from a young age through her entire life, relentless and bold, engaged and influential.
Yet it strikes me with Ms Shaarawi that to be separated from your husband, after being married at 13 and following the birth of his child to another woman, would have been heart breaking. When I read summaries of these incredibly brave women acting in ways divergent to the social norms it always strikes me what isn’t said. When all we have are public works or interviews to draw on, we do not get to hear about the hours spent in self-doubt, or the moments of fear over repercussion or backlash. Many of the people who have been featured in this blog have operated in male-dominant workplaces or communities and would undoubtedly have faced considerable hardship in establishing respect and “buy-in”.
The human element of these stories can be missing sometimes, and therefore the replicability can be hindered – it’s easy to sit and think “but she was incredible, I could never be that strong/determined/bold/daring”. But you can be. I’m sure due to the fact that Mr Shaarawi was a human being in this world, that she suffered times of stress, hardship, anguish, fear, turmoil. It was conceivably her ability to push through those times and emotions and experiences to reach her goals regardless that sets her apart and offers us her incredible legacy to learn about. This shouldn’t cause us to draw back from our own ambitions, I argue that it should inject the fire into your belly that you need to get on with the job.
Lastly, a quick note on feminism in non-Western cultures. I won’t get into it too much but I would just leave this here, as I think it sums it all up quite nicely:
“A common misconception about the prevalence of sexual discrimination in the Middle East is the notion of ‘Islamic misogyny’. This is given as the reason for women’s second-class citizenship. However, it undermines the feminist movement in Egypt at large and provides a superficial explanation for women’s fight as human beings for their basic rights.
It situates women in a binary where their freedom can only be attained in non-Islamic nations as they are passive and oppressed victims of their backwards societies, which is an Orientalist stereotype drawing on the colonial view of Arab and Muslim women.”
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