Huda Sha’arawi was born in 1879 to one of the leading families in Egypt. She grew up during the British occupation of Egypt. She received some education, but led a very secluded life, as was typical for Egyptian women at that time. When she was 13, she was married to her cousin. Her husband was frequently gone so she was able to extend her education.
Huda started organizing lectures for women to give them a reason to leave their homes. She was able to convince the women of her stature to raise money for poorer women. She also opened a school with a focus on academic subjects. This was the beginning of her activism for women in Egypt.
When Huda was 40, she and other women of the Egyptian elite led a series of protests against the British occupation. They were aided by women from lower economic classes.
Huda decided to stop wearing her religious veil and headscarf after her husband died. She removed them and stepped on them. This became a symbol of feminism in Egypt. Within a period of 10 years, most Egyptian women had removed their veils and scarves. Women continued this practice for many years, though headscarves and veils have again become more popular.
Huda became president of the Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU). The EFU fought to liberalize laws related to marriage/divorce, child custody, and other freedoms for women. Huda also became involved with other feminists internationally. All of this was taking place at the same time that women in the US were organizing for the right to vote.
Later in her life, Huda began to focus her efforts more on nationalist issues over feminism. In 1945, two years before her death, Huda received the Order of Virtues, an Egyptian order of Knighthood for women. She is the only non-royal to receive this honor.
Huda could have lived a comfortable life among the elite of Egypt, but she chose to become active in support of all women in her country. Although she was not successful in everything she sought, she led the way and gave women a model for what could be.
Just imagine the courage of women from around the world who stood up for their rights, especially where women were expected to remain in seclusion. Just imagine the work that still remains for women to achieve legal equality in our society and across the globe. Just imagine the perspectives that women bring to the leadership of their countries and how such leadership may eventually reverse national conflicts, increase respect for the environment, provide greater protection for children, and encourage progress in many long-standing areas of need.
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“A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men. – Gloria Steinem (journalist and social-political activist)
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.