Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Disrobing doctrinal deceit

Sania Sharawi Lanfranchi, Casting off the Veil: The life of Hoda Shaarawi, Egypt’s first feminist, London: LB Tauris, 2012. Reviewed by Gamal Nkrumah

Disrobing doctrinal deceit
Disrobing doctrinal deceit
Al-Ahram Weekly

Less than a century by less than a decade on from the blissful dawn of bourgeois-born Egyptian women’s emancipation, the less fortunate Egyptian women of the working and middle classes are grappling with the question of whether or not to don the veil. The simmering controversy of whether or not Egyptian Muslim women are supposed to wear the traditional Islamic headgear now boils down to a question of class.

A rare frission of excitement greeted Hoda Shaarawi’s decision to unveil in public. Fretful publicists had a field day. Hers was a decent if daring one. Nevertheless, it will take a disturbingly long time to bear fruit. In 1923, she ruffled feathers in Cairo’s train station when she cast off the veil, much to the chagrin of her overwhelmingly conservative compatriots.

The challenge Sania Shaarawi Lanfranchi sets herself is that almost a century after her grandmother discarded the veil, Egyptians are still undecided as to whether Shaarawi’s audacious act was a wise one.

Thus the militant Islamist fundamentalists, the Salafists and the Takfiris, have imbued the Egyptian zeitgeist with the age-old pulse of patriarchal male chauvinism.

The beau monde in Egypt were fast adopting Western ways and mannerisms. It was against this intriguing backdrop that Hoda Shaarawi’s life inevitably took the full account of Egypt’s unique experience in the first half of the twentieth century. She unwittingly stumbled into a complex series of events, personal and political. That is not to say that she didn’t herself initiate a personal lifestyle and a political outlook that sidelined women in all spheres of life. Her struggles, personal and political, appeared to deliberately shake off what she had written off a medieval throwback.

Hers was the quest of a lifetime. The general ferment of novel ideas had began to permeate Egyptian society at the time when Hoda Shaarawi was leading the leisurely life of a well-to do Egyptian family. Nevertheless she was discontent with her lot. She resented the restrictions imposed on women in the public sphere. She was also deeply despondent. Her marriage was meaningless. Hers was an arranged marriage to her guardian with the tacit approval of her mother.

Her mother Iqbal was haunted by her horrendous past. A Circassian aristocrat ironically raised as a destitute slave, as her family who fled Daghestan, in the Caucasus, to seek refuge in Istanbul from the marauding Russian Cossacks who ransacked her homeland. The family could not make ends meet in the imperial Ottoman city. In Egypt, Iqbal was betrothed to Mohamed Sultan Pasha, an Egyptian blue blood with extensive estates, “an extremely rich man accustomed to deference” whose nickname, incidentally, was “King of Upper Egypt”.  

Hailing from Egypt’s creme de la creme, Ali Pasha Shaarawi, Hoda’s husband was in charge of the family’s estate and extensive landholdings in Minya Province, Middle Egypt. She dotted down her earliest recollections in her memoir, Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist, 1879-1924. She spearheaded the Egyptian feminist movement fighting against all the odds stacked against her.

FROM HAREM TO FREEDOM: Shaarawi challenged the subjugation of Egyptian women as strongly as she struggled against British colonialism in her country. And, in 1919, Shaarawi helped organize the largest Egyptian women’s anti-British protest march in spite of the intimidation of the British colonial troops who threatened to forcibly disperse the demonstration. Her struggle against gender segregation and anti-women laws was proverbial.

When Shaarawi’s compatriots, women and I dare say men, would slip into a faint, including her own frail brother who passed out when she told him that their father passed away, Shaarawi led Egyptian women pickets at the opening of Parliament in January 1924 and submitted a list of nationalist and feminist demands discounted and scorned by the all-male government of Egypt at the time. Hers was first and foremost a fight against injustice of any kind, a point eloquently elucidated in her granddaughter’s biography.

Shaarawi Lanfranchi, however, does not dwell long on the world of the subalterns. Hers is a world of Egypt’s political and economic elite in the late nineteenth and especially the first half of the twentieth century. The peripheral status of women in public life in Shaarawi’s day, as personified in hers and her mother’s life, bestowed on them a relative degree of liberty at home. First and foremost they were mothering homemakers. However, most Egyptian women dared not challenge social norms.

Shaarawi was exceptional, emboldened by her privileged upbringing, she aggressively solicited knowledge, which as a girl she was denied. “Hoda soon came to prize intellectual achievements and education above everything,” the author, her granddaughter, expounds.

The written classical Arabic of the Quran differs considerably from colloquial Egyptian Arabic. Shaarawi wittily recited the Quran by heart by the age of nine.

Eager to break free from the confines of the harem, the hosuehold’s exclusive domain of women, slaves and eunuchs. Hoda aspired to master the complexities of classical Arabic’s syntax and grammar much to the chagrin of the harem’s chief eunuch Said Agha who derisively dismissed her futile attempts at the time to study classical Arabic. “She will never be a lawyer anyway,” the chief eunuch asserted.

An eye-opener for the reader, Shaarawi’s wedding day was a marvel. The 13 year old adolescent sat childishly tearful on the bombastic bridal throne in 1892 awaiting her nearly 40 year old bridegroom. Formal conjugal procedures were rigidly followed by the aristocratic family and the chief eunuch proudly announced the arrival of the bridegroom with much pomp and ceremony. The French spouse of the Hussain Rushdi Pasha, Eugenie Le Brun, colourfully described Hoda’s wedding  in her classic Harems et Musulmans d’Egypte.

The royal settings of the wedding apart, with diamonds bedecking her neck, like stellar constellations adorning her elaborate hair-do, enclosing her narrow waist, wrists and fingers and ribbons of plaited gold streamed down her temples to the palace floors. Le Brun remarked that the spectacle was reminiscent of a sacrificial lamb led to the altar.
Be that as it may, the child bride romped about the palace grounds in sodden and bespattered gowns much to the consternation of her husband. “A virtually unbridgeable gulf opened between them in spite of the sacred bonds of marriage, or perhaps because of them,” the author extrapolates.

“He made no attempt to exercise his marital rights” and naively assumed that Hoda would grow up into a woman overnight. That was not to be and the morose bridegroom brooded over the playful teenager oblivious of her status as the consort of a prominent personality in a conservative society. “Busy as Hoda was with play, music and study, she had been hardly aware of his growing aloofness”.

POLITICAL BEGINNINGS: For all the allure of a modest Muslim dress code to many contemporary Egyptian women, a century ago, Hoda had alternative notions of propriety. She took up the ways of the Westernized “smart society” as the author refers to it, perhaps derisively, and frequented the theatre with her friends after her separation from her husband. Women played a prominent life in Hoda’s social life at this point and Adila Al-Nabarawi, another Egyptian aristocratic heiress like Hoda, who was married to her cousin, Subhi Al-Nabarawi, “who had profligate habits and gambled rashly” a flaw that ultimately led to his, and Adila’s ruin. No single volume can fill the gap in historical scholarship of women, the aristocrats and their handmaidens, at the turn of the century in Shaarawi’s day, but the author exploiting heretofore untapped familial sources ingeniously shifts the focus of attention from Hoda’s personal life to complexities of women of her grandmother’s generation and social standing in a most intriguing fashion.

Shaarawi Lanfranchi’s reader-friendly work is not merely a lucid biography of her grandmother, but rather a delineated, and cleverly circumscribed historiography of the aristocratic women of Egypt in the first half of the twentieth century who became entangled, or rather immersed in, social and cultural pursuits that dramatically changed the course of Egypt’s and the world’s perception of Egyptian women, a change that has been reversed, or at least whose achievements have dismally diminished in the past three decades.

By the time Shaarawi died in 1947, the Egypt of her sheltered childhood had changed beyond recognition. Her legacy has been hotly contested in Egypt and across the Muslim world, and today more than ever before. Shaarawi Lanfranchi’s seminal work is a groundbreaking study of Egyptian feminism and the political participation of Egyptian women in the decision-making process through the kaleidoscopic horizons of the personal and political struggles of a single woman.

Her iconic stature as an indefatigable feminist often overshadows her endevours as an aspiring politician. Women in Shaarawi’s day, as well as women in Egypt today, face formidable obstacles to participating in politics.

Shaarawi’s genius was to uncover the wash-out vest of tedium beneath the corsetry of bourgeois noredom. She led the Egyptian Feminist Union until her death and published the first feminist magazine in Egypt, L’Egyptienne. However, Egypt’s first feminist is best remembered for her casting off of the traditional veil, Islamic hijab, after the death of her husband in  

Shaarawi Lanfranchi’s timely biography of her grandmother addresses fundamental questions of political philosophy and in particular the nature of national sovereignty.

As an ardent nationalist, British colonialism was the enemy as far as Hoda Shaarawi was concerned. Nevertheless, she was acutely aware that other adversaries existed that were perhaps harder to handle precisely because they revolved around questions of cultural and religious identity.

Did Shaarawi had an inkling that her cultural nationalist adversaries would long outlive her British colonial adversaries? Or, did she in her wildest dreams realise that the British colonialism of her day would metamorphose into an even more treacherous foe, neo-colonialism?

She was outraged and riled when King Farouk was bullied by the British colonial authorities. The British were peeved when in 1942 King Farouk awarded Shaarawi the highest Egyptian decoration, the Medal of the Highest Order of Perfection. She did not give two hoots.

Shaarawi was born in the era of cultural catch-up with the West. Nevertheless, her motive for discarding the veil was not motivated by a desire to mimic Westerners. Her act of defiance left an indelible mark on the feminist aspirations of Middle Eastern and North African women to this day, and particularly so in Egypt.

Yet, later in life, Shaarawi was convinced that there was no semblance of truth in Rudyard Kipling’s dictum that “East and West shall never meet”. Her initial enthusiasm for the Zionist settlers’ energy and dynamism in Palestine soon gave way to profound misgivings.

The author does not try to explain her grandmother’s erstwhile enthusiasm for the early Zionist setters of Palestine through the medium of L’Egyptienne.

Nevertheless, she stresses that her grandmother became an ardent anti-Zionists and a tireless defender of the rights of the indigenous Arab population of Palestine, Muslim and Christian.  “She continued to ask herself how a people who had suffered like the Jews could inflict suffering on others. She would always insist on standing up for the Palestinians, who were unjustly made to pay for the misdeeds of the totalitarian states of the West”.

When the Arab Feminist Union’s constitutional act was signed in January 1945, Shaarawi was elected as President, crowning the culmination of her career. Moreover, she had the honour of representing the Arab Feminist Movement at the inauguration of the Arab League in Cairo in March 1945. She was a pioneering Egyptian feminist and simultaneously a Pan-Arabist and a Pan-Arab feminist.

Gender segregation was high on Hoda Shaarawi’s agenda, however she was ambiguous as far as other aspects of core Islamic Sharia laws were concerned. For instance, her granddaughter concedes that Shaarawi “never challenged the soundness of the Sharia law that granted men double the women’s share of inheritance”.

The author elaborates further. “In addition, she took the view that, while in the case of the veil and of polygamy the relevant verses of the Quran were open to alternative interpretations, such was not the case with inheritance, where the rules were clear”. Shaarawi may have been the first Egyptian feminist, but she was also a devout Muslim.

UNDRESSING THE DRESS CODE: Drawing a line on the dress code of Muslim women emerged as a highly contentious and deeply divisive dispute among contemporary Muslims in the past few decades.

Born on 23 June 1879, Shaarawi spearheaded the feminist movement in Egypt, and the Arab and Muslim worlds. “The decision by Hoda and Ceza [Nabarawi] to remove their veils when they returned to Cairo sprang naturally from their experience in Rome. During the proceedings at the congress, the three women had uncovered their faces, having discovered that a veiled face was an obstacle to communication and therefore diminished the effectiveness of their work,” the author asserts. Yes, Western values influenced Shaarawi, but so did the Quran. None of this should provoke a whitewash of the current reassessment of the legacy of Shaarawi.

“Saving the fabric of Egypt had become another passion for Hoda. The imperative was to preserve Egypt both from the depredations of the British and from itself, by convincing the authorities that civic duty should take precedence over private reward. This was to be her new mission. At issue were the preservation of architectural masterpieces from destruction, the construction of hospitals and schools, where appropriate and in keeping with their surroundings , as well as fostering the self-esteem of the Egyptian people, who needed to be convinced that what was foreign [Western] was not necessarily better,” her granddaughter elucidates.

HOUSE OF SUBMISSION: Contrary to received wisdom, Shaarawi was not infatuated by Western notions of modernity. Nor did she dismiss outright all traditional patterns of life that were considered backward and outdated. Politically, Shaarawi was anti-Western and anti-Imperialist. Shaarawi’s life struggles were a formative part of the future of women in Egypt and the Arab world.

Anomalies abounded throughout her life. But, she was a daughter of her times. She never, for instance, worked for women’s rights on the assumption that the Egyptian monarchy was irrelevant. “Hoda knew Queen Nazli, because the Queen, though kept on a short rein by King Fouad, was sometimes permitted to attend cultural events for women. Hoda, therefore, began deliberately to challenge King Fouad’s behaviour by calling on the Queen whenever she was confined to the house of submission,” the author extrapolates.

“On these occasions, Hoda would, of course, be met by a protocol official to inform her that no visits were permitted. However, the gesture was the important thing, indicating as it did to the King that his actions were not viewed as acceptable by others in society,” Shaarawi’s granddaughter concludes.

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