Durriya Shafiq: Rebellious Daughter of the Nile

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An undated photo of Egyptian feminist Durriya Shafiq. Durriya Shafiq (1908-1975), an Egyptian feminist, poet, publisher, and political activist, participated in one of her country's most explosive periods of social and political transformation. (Photo: AFP - Archive)

By: Mohammed Kheir

Published Thursday, March 8, 2012

Cairo – In March 1954, Egypt was, much like today, drafting a new constitution after the July 1952 revolution, when Durriya Shafiq (1908-1975) discovered that the constitution’s drafting committee did not include a single woman.

So, she led a group of women into protests and went on a hunger strike at the journalists’ syndicate. She did not end her strike until the political rights of Egyptian women were secured, specifically, the right to run for office and vote for the first time.

Shafiq’s strike was not her first challenge. One year before the July 1952 revolution, she and hundreds of other women stormed the parliament building to demand women’s political rights. Months later, she established a women's paramilitary force to join the resistance against the British occupation in the cities around the Suez Canal.

She also set up an adult literacy school in the popular neighborhood of Al-Boulaq in Cairo, launched the Daughters of the Nile Union in 1945, and Bint al-Nil (Daughter of the Nile) journal in 1948, after serving as chief editor of The New Woman magazine.

Shafiq transformed the union into a political organization, calling it the Daughters of the Nile Party, which she headed immediately after the 1952 revolution before all the parties were dissolved in 1955.

Strangely, all these accomplishments were merely a fraction of the dreams, ambitions, and efforts of Shafiq, who refused an academic position at the University of Cairo upon her return with a doctorate degree from France in the mid-1940s.

Only military rule succeeded in breaking her in the end, after she engaged in a series of strikes and protests, demanding that the army return to their barracks. The demise of political activism after the dismantling of political parties and organizations – when the intelligence services reigned – forced Shafiq into her final isolation.

Shafiq jumped to her death from her home’s balcony in the affluent Cairo district of Zamalek in 1975 – which seems to be common form of suicide by illustrious Egyptian women, such as writer Arwa Saleh, who killed herself in 1997, and actress Suad Hosni, who jumped (or was pushed, as some suspect) from her balcony in London in 2001.

Many tend to compare Shafiq to Huda Shaarawi (prominent Egyptian feminist, 1879-1947) and other women activists. One thing they do have in common is the degree to which their lives and actions have been misrepresented.

There are persistent attempts to malign the experiences of women activists, stigmatizing them as “Westernized” or as “subversive women and enemies of identity and religion.”

In fact, a mere look at the life of Shafiq, Shaarawi, and Nawal al-Saadawi – another prominent Egyptian feminist – easily reveals their broad political, scientific, and educational ambitions. In addition to the diversity in their ideas and strength of their personalities, they engaged in constant battles on social issues that range from illiteracy to foreign occupation.

A look at the Islamist writings, especially on “Muslim women” websites, makes one believe that the late feminists still live among us. The reality is that they continue to be among us only in terms of the rights that they obtained for women.

Islamist women have a strong voting presence, and – like other women – benefited from these acquired rights. Yet they seem to support political forces that wish to undermine these rights.

The contradictions here are endless, including the fact that Shafiq’s doctorate thesis in France was about “Women in Islam.” She also used some of her time in isolation translating the Quran into English and French.

The Islamists’ references, of course, fail to mention these facts. Instead they portray Shafiq’s suicide as either “regret over what she committed” or “divine punishment.”

The Daughter of the Nile of the 1950s may not have succeeded in forcing the military rulers to return to their barracks.

Yet Shafiq and many other women of her generation sacrificed a lifetime of struggle to open up a space for women to participate in public life. Today, a new generation of women activists are carrying on the mantle.

The Egyptian woman was, for example, strongly present in last year’s January 25 revolution. Young activists like Samira Ibrahim, Asmaa Mahfouz, Nawwara Najm, Israa Abdul Fattah, and others in the ongoing Egyptian revolution are the inheritors of Shaarawi’s and Shafiq’s legacy. The full impact of their role Egypt’s latest revolution, like that of Shaarawi and Shafiq, is yet to be fully known.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


There is a mistake here in the text. Shafiq did not "refuse" a position at Cairo University upon her return from France; she was refused, i.e. she was not granted a position. Also Egyptian women were granted suffrage in 1956 not 1951 and she wasn't broken by "military rule" per se, but by Nasser orders to keep her under house arrest, destroy all her publications, forbid her from publishing and traveling after she had launched a hunger strike against his regime. So it's not really correct to infer that she chose her isolation - the Egyptian government enforced her isolation.

As her writing and poetry was larglely in French - her activities in French and Arabic and her memoirs exclusively in French and English, I find it difficult to understand the rest of the article about her being Westernized or misinterpreted by Islamists. Even Egyptian Islamists are aware of Egypt's various communities, including Francophones, particularly in Doria Shafiq's era.

The most interesting book about her in English is by the late Cynthia Nelson.

Thanks for the corrections and the name of author to Ms. Shafiq's biography. Found it in my local university library here in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

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