Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
1 - 7 March 2001
Issue No.523
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Left: women's demonstration against the British; right: Doria Shafik with members of the executive council of Bint Al-Nil Union

Speaking for the other half

By Fayza Hassan

Qasim Amin (1863-1908) is often credited for having been the first, at the dawn of the 20th century, to address the question of women's role in society. His detractors often contend that he was only prompted in this endeavour by the Duc d'Harcourt's criticism regarding the seclusion of women and their resulting ignorance. Piqued, Amin published two volumes on the emancipation of women, which have become classics of feminist literature. They also triggered an impassioned debate between reformists and traditionalists, which has lasted to this day.

While Amin advocated the reform of women's status, two prominent nationalists, Talaat Harb (1867-1941 and Mustafa Kamel (1874-1908), opposed these ideas as alien to Egyptian tradition. Talaat Harb went so far as to claim that "the emancipation of women was just another [colonialist] plot to weaken the Egyptian nation and disseminate immorality and decadence in its society." Women themselves were to be neither seen nor heard, although one should point out the emergence during this period of a timid "feminine press," which broached the subject of women's rights indirectly and infrequently. More importantly, educated women of the upper classes dared to join their voices to those of the reformists. Soon, however, a number of school-educated middle-class women began to write about their personal experiences and demand increased education for females and better conditions for women in the family.

One such woman was Malak Hefni Nassef, who wrote many articles for newspapers and magazines under the pen name of Bahithat Al-Badia. In 1909, she delivered the first lecture in a series by and for women only, at the Umma Party club. It was published the following year as part of a collection of her essays under the title Al-Nisa'iyat. Nassef ended her talk with a set of 10 demands, which she sent two years later to the Egyptian Congress in Heliopolis, an all-male nationalist assembly.

"If I had the right to legislate," wrote Bahithat Al-Badiya, "I would decree":

1. Teaching girls the Qur'an and the correct Sunna [Prophetic practice];

2. Primary and secondary school education for girls, and compulsory preparatory school education for all;

3. Instruction for girls on the theory and practice of home economics, health, first aid and childcare;

4. Setting a quota for females in medicine and education so they can serve the women of Egypt;

5. Allowing women to study any other advanced subjects they wish without restriction;

6. Upbringing for girls from infancy stressing patience, honesty, work and other virtues;

7. Adhering to the Shari'a concerning betrothal and marriage and not permitting any woman and man to marry without first meeting each other in the presence of the father or male relative of the bride;

8. Adopting the veil and outdoor dress of the Turkish women of Istanbul;

9. Maintaining the best interests of the country and dispensing with foreign goods and people as much as possible;

10. Making it incumbent upon our brothers, the men of Egypt, to implement this programme.

Modest as they may appear, the 10 demands were rejected.

The question of laws and customs attached to marriage and divorce was crucial to women's discourse at the turn of the century and little has changed in this respect today. "In general, matters pertaining to marriage and divorce were, and continue to be, governed by custom rather than civil law, and efforts to achieve change have proven to be exceptionally difficult and controversial, even though liberal reformers have argued consistently that the changes called for by feminists are not contrary to Islam," writes Earl Sullivan, professor of political science and now provost of the American University in Cairo.

From Top: Bint Al-Nil magazine; Doria Shafik and Ali Maher; Women gathered at Huda Sha'rawi's house after the death of the Sirdar organising the boycott of British products
Officially, the feminist movement in Egypt was born in 1919, when a number of veiled upper-class women led by Huda Sha'rawi (1879-1947) organised a march in protest of the British decision to prevent the wafd (delegation) headed by Saad Zaghlul from travelling to Britain. Historians have often noted that these women were not demanding any increased rights for themselves but were advocating the same nationalist points as those presented by their male counterparts. The appearance of these women on the street emphasised their concern with the cause of nationalism, laying the ground for a future perception of Egyptian feminism as stemming from a desire to free the country from foreign domination and develop its economic potential to the full.

To achieve these aims, women relied heavily on voluntary associations through which they could assert their public presence while remaining sheltered from the wrath of men who might have suspected them of wanting to compete in the market place.

One should credit Huda Sha'rawi for having launched on 16 March 1923 what was to prove one of the most powerful weapons in the women's arsenal for decades to come: the Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU). The programme of this feminist organisation retained its nationalist link but at the same time began to align itself with the voices demanding social reform. It stated its programme in terms that made clear women's desire for changes in the laws regulating marriage, divorce and the custody of children but also claimed improved education, better public hygiene and sanitation and the encouragement of virtue through the eradication of prostitution as their primary aims. This form of political activity and feminist militancy clad in overtones of voluntary charitable work established a pattern followed by feminists to this day.

Doria Shafik was born in 1908, a year before Malak Hefni Nassef delivered her talk at the Umma Party club. From a middle-class family of Tanta, she was educated at a nuns' school. While still in school, she wrote to Huda Sha'rawi asking to speak at the EFU during their annual commemoration of Qasim Amin. With Sha'rawi's support, Shafik studied at the Sorbonne, where she wrote a doctoral dissertation on "Egyptian Women and Islam." After her return in 1945, she founded the magazine Bint Al-Nil (Daughter of the Nile). Once the magazine was well established, she included a new political section, where the serious issues with which she was really concerned were discussed. In 1948, she founded Ittihad Bint Al-Nil (Daughter of the Nile Union), described by Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke as "a broadly based middle class feminist association with branches in a number of provincial cities [through which] she focused on female literacy and political rights for women." In 1953, Shafik created the Daughter of the Nile political party, which was closed down by the government within a year. In 1954, she went on a hunger strike with several members of the Union to make heard their demands for political rights for women. In the 1960s, she was placed under house arrest following her call for the removal of then President Nasser.

Although Shafik militated all her life for the improvement of women's lot, nothing she did caught the imagination of her contemporaries and the media as much as her storming of the parliament on 19 February 1951. As she was setting the scene for her action, she wrote: "The freedom granted so far remained on the surface of our social structure, leaving intact the manacles which bound the hands of the Egyptian women. No one will deliver freedom to women, except woman herself."

In her book Doria Shafik, Egyptian Feminist, Cynthia Nelson gives a vivid account of the occurrence: "With nearly fifteen hundred women at her side, Doria left Ewart Memorial Hall of the American University in Cairo, marched the few blocks south along the main street of Kasr al-Aini, forced her way through the gates of parliament, and orchestrated four hours of boisterous demonstrations before finally being received in the office of the vice president of the chamber of deputies and extracting from the president of the senate a verbal promise that parliament would immediately take up the women's demands." On that afternoon, before leading the march, Shafik had stood on the podium in Ewart Memorial Hall facing a joint EFU and Bint Al-Nil meeting, and announced: "Our meeting today is not a congress, but a parliament. A true one! That of women! We are half the nation! We represent here the hope and despair of this most important half of the nation. Luckily we are meeting at the same hour and in the same part of town as the parliament of the other half of the nation. They are assembled a few steps away from us. I propose we go there, strong in the knowledge of our rights and tell the deputies and senators that their assemblies are illegal so long as our representatives are excluded, that the Egyptian parliament cannot be a true reflection of the entire nation until women are admitted. Let's go and give it to them straight. Let's go and demand our rights. Forward to the parliament."

The women's specific demands included: permission to participate in the national struggle and in politics; reform of the personal status law by setting limitations on polygamy and divorce; equal pay for equal work.

Their victory was short-lived, however, as members of parliament reneged on their promise to meet with their delegation. Instead, Shafik was summoned to appear in court. Mufida Abdel-Rahman, a successful career woman and mother of nine children, defended her.

The repercussions of Shafik's act were commented upon in the national and international press extensively. She became a celebrity, which earned her much jealousy and enmity from all quarters. As expected, the fuss surrounding her action drew an irate reaction from Islamist quarters. Before the trial, scheduled to take place on 10 April, Mohamed Hamid El-Fiqi, chairman of the administrative council of the Association of Sunnites, submitted a petition to the king titled "Keep the Women Within Bounds" and describing the feminist movement as organised by the enemies of Islam, inspired by Bolsheviks and atheists, and an insult to the country's traditions. The king, who harboured dreams of becoming Caliph, reacted violently; meeting Shafik's husband at the Automobile Club, he told him: "Let your wife know that as long as I am king, women will have no political rights."

The trial opened as scheduled but because of "the justice of the cause and its strong defence" (other lawyers had joined Mufida Abdel-Rahman, including Abdel-Fattah Raga'i, Doria's father-in-law, as well as Maurice Arcache and Lutfi El-Kholi), "the case was postponed sine die," writes Nelson.

Malak Hefni Nassef

Huda Sha'rawi

Doria Shafik

Mufida Abdel-Rahman

As Egypt plunged into chaos in the aftermath of Black Saturday, Shafik kept the pressure up on the new government, which refused to yield to her tactics and remained adamant in denying women the right to vote. The ulama of Damietta, led by Sheikh Kamal El-Hudra, dean of Al-Azhar Institute, joined the opposition, issuing a fatwa (religious opinion) that stated: "Votes are degrading to women and against their nature." Shafik took her case to other religious authorities and ultimately managed to upset the grand mufti, Sheikh Hassanein Mohamed Makhluf, who issued another fatwa condemning feminist agitation and rebuking Shafik personally. She was not willing to let her case rest, however. During the following months, as Egypt lived through the last troubled moments of the monarchy, she began challenging the religious establishment by her own articles and by inviting high religious authorities to refute the mufti's fatwa. Disturbed by the strong religious opposition, Prime Minister Ahmed Naguib El-Hilali took a stand against introducing women's political demands in his project of social reform. He rejected women's suffrage on the ground that the Egyptian constitution made Islam the "religion of the state," and that the government was therefore obliged "to heed the opinion of the highest Muslim authorities in the matter."

Soon after the 1952 Revolution, Shafik resumed the struggle, reorganising and registering Bint Al-Nil Union as a political party of which she was the president. The Ministry of the Interior accepted her request and the party's first meeting was convened on 11 December 1952. The political climate of Egypt was about to change, however, and women's issues remained on the back burner for the next four years despite Shafik's efforts to bring them to the fore. She wrote in 1955: "In place of a renaissance movement leading to women's rights, there was a flagrant transgression of the liberty of other people, heading in the fundamental direction of a progressive negation of human freedom on the individual, national and international levels. Towards what abyss is my country heading?"

Not one to give up for long, on 12 March 1954 she staged a hunger strike in the Press Syndicate. Alone at first, she was joined by Ragia Raghab, her friend and colleague from the Bint Al-Nil Union, journalist Fathia Falaki, Bahiga El-Bakri from the Association for Women's Liberation, Soad Fahmi of the Philanthropic Organisation for Liberation, Munira Hosni of the National Association of Women, poet Amani Farid, artist Hayam Abdel-Aziz and Munira Thabet, the publisher and owner of Al-Amal magazine. Once more Shafik had attracted the attention of the media, which while broadcasting the event widely enough to worry the newly established military junta, goaded her detractors into claiming that her act was just a publicity ploy.

Feminists in Europe and Asia had known of Shafik. After her hunger strike she became an international celebrity and was asked to speak at different venues around the world. Although she had lost her illusions about Nasser's regime, she refused to be drawn into criticising her country's policies. Her silence was interpreted as disapproval, and she was accused of being "in league with the centres of reaction who were against the revolution." Renowned journalist Mustafa Amin commented: "Doria began to journey to all parts of the world, publicizing the case of... Egyptian [women]. She traveled East and West and met with leaders and rulers. Prime Minister Nehru invited her to be his guest during her visit to India. In 1954 news agencies said that Dr Doria Shafik was one of the most important women in the world and the Daily Mirror described her as 'wanting to be a twentieth century Cleopatra'. The authorities in Egypt were not too thrilled by her activities which went beyond certain limits and newspapers and magazines began to attack her, calling her 'the perfumed leader'."

As Nasser began to tighten his grip on individual freedoms, Bint Al-Nil lost many members who "believed the regime was against Doria," Union Vice-President Zeinab Labib recalled. On the other hand, after all publications were placed under state control, the lack of income from advertising brought all the Union projects to the verge of collapse. Shafik fought back and refused to pare down her activities, regardless of the increasing criticism expressed mainly through vicious articles in the national press.

Qasim Amin

Mustafa Kamel

Talaat Harb

Mohamed Abduh
On 16 January 1956, a new constitution was promulgated. Political parties were abolished. The reference to universal suffrage was vague, saying only that "women shall have their rights." Voting was not made obligatory for women as it was for men, however -- a point Shafik considered discriminatory against women. Women would have to apply to vote or run for public office, and in doing so would have to demonstrate their literacy, a condition not demanded of men. When asked about her reaction to the new constitution, her response was unequivocal: "A catastrophe."

On 6 February 1957, she entered the Indian embassy resolved to take action. In a declaration sent to Nasser and to the secretary-general of the United Nations, she wrote: "Given the hard times that Egypt is now enduring I have decided with determination to hunger unto death in order to gain my external and internal freedom. As an Egyptian and as an Arab, I demand that the international authorities compel the Israeli forces to withdraw immediately from Egyptian lands and reach a just and final solution to the problem of the Arab refugees. Second, I demand that the Egyptian authorities give back total freedom to the Egyptians, whether male or female, and put an end to the dictatorial rule that is driving my country towards bankruptcy and chaos. And if I sacrifice my life for the liberation of my country, I alone take responsibility for this action..."

This time Shafik's action embarrassed Nasser internationally. He was also engaged at the time in delicate negotiations with the Indian government. In the end, and with Nehru's personal intervention, Shafik was allowed to leave the embassy without being arrested but, suspected at this point by the regime to be an agitator working for the Americans, she was placed under house arrest on her return home from hospital.

Members of women's organisations led by left-wing activists Inji Aflatoun and Ceza Nabarawi suddenly became worried about their own safety and not only withdrew their support but seemed to be competing for the privilege of vilifying their former champion. Shafik's magazines were subsequently banned after it was leaked that she planned to publish appeals to the world warning that Egypt and the Middle East were under the threat of a communist invasion and imploring people for the sake of religion to prevent this danger. "[I]n July 1957 the police entered Bint al-Nil office, seized all the issues ready for distribution and destroyed her private papers. Her publications confiscated by the state and her name officially banned from the Egyptian press, Doria withdrew in the shadows," concludes Nelson.

Since those days, the fight for women's rights has followed an uneven path, promoted in a more impersonal and professional way by feminist organisations rather than by exotic heroines.

According to Madiha El-Safti, professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, the issue of women's rights witnessed its heyday in the 1950s. Little has been achieved since, she argues, mainly because ordinary women have become alienated from the fight for emancipation and are no longer keen to assert their demands through organisations. El-Safti blames the conformist education system as well as conservative households for failing to raise young women's awareness. Political activist Mona El-Qurashi is quick to point out that, although no one is preventing women from exercising their right to vote nowadays, most abstain, sometimes for the sole reason that they are ignorant of the procedure they have to follow to obtain a registration card. Women's turnout at the polls is very weak and the majority of women in the People's Assembly and Shura Council have been appointed to fill a quota, without having run in the elections.

Both El-Safti and El-Qurashi deplore the climate of political apathy that prevails among women who are putting all their energy into making ends meet. According to Dr Amal Abdel-Hadi, coordinator at the New Woman Research Centre, one should not judge this apparent apathy rashly, however. Although illiteracy is still plaguing almost half Egypt's female population, preventing them from exercising their rights in any conventional way, women are capable of devising survival strategies that are not necessary apparent to the casual observer nor recorded by any statistics.

Sadly, however, while women have, during the past half century, obtained a number of the rights for which Doria Shafik fought so hard, her most important battles -- for the right of women to an education and against female illiteracy -- have yet to make headway.


Cynthia Nelson, Doria Shafik Egyptian Feminist, A Woman Apart, The American University in Cairo Press, 1996

Qasim Amin, The Liberation of Women; the New Woman. Two Documents in the History of Feminism, trans. Samiha Sidhom Peterson, The American University in Cairo Press, 2000

Beth Baron, The Women's Awakening in Egypt, Culture, Society and the Press, Yale University Press, 1994

Opening the Gates, A Century of Arab Feminist Writing, Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke, eds., Indiana University Press, 1990

Earl L Sullivan, Women in Egyptian Public Life, The American University in Cairo Press, 1986

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