Feminism and the Arab Spring: Reflections on the Anniversary of Hoda Shaarawi’s Passing

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Hoda Shaarawi’s name is associated with her status as the first unveiled woman. She dedicated her life to the Egyptian revolution, demanding independence from British rule. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Rita Faraj

Published Thursday, December 15, 2011

A look back at the life and achievements of Egyptian feminist Hoda Shaarawi raises many questions about the state of the Arab women’s movement today.

What does it mean to celebrate the anniversary of the passing of Hoda Shaarawi (23 June 1879 - 12 December 1947), a pioneering Egyptian feminist, in the midst of the astounding changes taking place in the Arab world?

Looking back to the period in which this pioneering Arab feminist lived, a period that witnessed a burgeoning women’s movement inside and outside Egypt, and comparing it to the status of Arab women in the 21st century, is both painful and disconcerting.

One reason for this concern is that the hijab — a head covering worn by Muslim women — has made a comeback in the Arab world since the 1970s. And the niqab — a veil that covers the face, which Shaarawi removed in 1923 after coming back from Rome, in a highly symbolic and defiant manner — has also resurfaced.

The re-emergence of these phenomena makes one wonder if it is possible for Arab women to leave behind the “harem era” once and for all. Can they overcome what Moroccan Feminist Fatima Mernissi has called the “digital hijab?”

After all, Arab women have entered the public sphere and invaded the workplace, educational institutions, and satellite channels. They have also taken to the streets in the Arab Spring just like Shaarawi and her comrades did in Egypt during the days of the British occupation.

Hoda Shaarawi’s name is associated with her status as the first unveiled woman. She dedicated her life to the Egyptian revolution, demanding independence from British rule. She began her political activism before she took off the veil, taking to the street to protest the detention of Saad Zaghloul — an Egyptian revolutionary and statesman — and his colleagues.

Removing the veil was not new to her. Shaarawi would take it off whenever she traveled to Europe to attend women’s conferences. On one occasion however, she kept it off after returning to Egypt. It was a social and political message announcing the birth of a new era.

The unveiled aristocratic woman saw in the niqab a means to enslave women and limit their social and political role. She saw it as the biggest obstacle to women’s engagement in public life.

She was part of that first generation that founded the Arab feminist movement whose struggle has been carried on by successive generations of feminist pioneers, including Nawal el-Saadawi, Fatima Mernissi, Amina Wadud, Ulfat Yousef, Amal Qarami, Raja Ben Salama, Riffat Hassan, and many others.

Shaarawi rejected the political and social alienation of women, and she was not alone in her struggle. Many feminist writers appeared during that period in the fields of journalism, literature, and history.

Nabawiyya Musa, for example, was the first woman to earn a baccalaureate degree in 1907. She wrote a treatise on girls’ education.

Duriya Shafiq is credited with procuring the right for Egyptian women to vote and run for office in the 1956 constitution.

Nazira Zeineddine is considered one of the first writers to read the Arabic literary tradition from a feminist perspective in her dissertation Unveiling and the Hijab. She was a contemporary of Shaarawi, who thanked Zeineddine for her book, describing it as “an urgent call for women’s liberation.”

In 1923, Shaarawi founded the Egyptian Feminist Union and formulated its basic laws. Between 1924 and 1926, the Union submitted two reports to the prime minister and head of the parliament, demanding an end to polygamy and the injustice that women are subjected to because of the “obedience law,” as well as raising the age of custody in the case of divorce.

Shaarawi attended dozens of Egyptian and international conferences. Her political and feminist struggle led her to establish two women’s magazines, one in Arabic and one in French. She wrote articles in many newspapers and authored a book entitled The Harem Years in which she talked about the status of Egyptian women between 1880 and 1924.

Her husband, Ali Shaarawi Pasha, influenced her political thinking, especially during the 1919 revolution which he helped lead. She took part in organizing women’s demonstrations in 1919 and founded the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee — the Wafd being the most popular political party in Egypt at the time.

The general political and intellectual environment in which she lived helped shape her enlightened thought. Egypt at the time was witnessing vibrant political movements. The issue was not restricted to removing the veil. The emergence of a feminist movement coincided with calls for women’s liberation by other public figures.

Qasim Amin, author of The New Woman and The Liberation of Women, helped chart the Arab feminist movement that predated similar developments in the West. The importance of this era stems from its intersection with the early stages of struggles for independence, liberation, and equality.

After over six decades of Shaarawi’s death, what has changed between the past and the present? Have Arab feminist activists been able to breach the “new patriarchy,” as Palestinian intellectual Hisham Sharabi calls it?

The more pressing question is, if Shaarawi lived during the current Egyptian revolution, how would she have responded to the results of the first round of parliamentary elections in her country that saw the rise of Islamist parties?

The historic changes that were taking place during Shaarawi’s time were perhaps more mature than the “Arab Spring,” as important as current developments are. Might this phenomenon of religious revival be only a transient wave of aftershocks?

The realities of the age we live in demand that Islamist movements, both moderate and Salafists, seriously re-examine their discourse on women...Is it still possible in the political times we live in to theorize about women’s rights using ambiguous male slogans?

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


The term 'Islamist' was contrived by the West and is misleading. There is nothing in Islam that goes against freedom and democracy, and it's unfortunate that a website that claims to correspond from the "Middle East" swallows the stereotypes of devout Muslims as totalitarian.

To say the hijab is oppressive and that a woman can only be free by removing it is the height of ignorance. Instead of setting the standard for hijabi women in positions of power, Shaarwai decided that the only way she could gain independence was to take it off. Nonsense. The hijab is a personal choice made by Muslim women who want to follow their faith, it does not affect their intelligence or liberty in any way.

Relax, Proud Hijabi. 1. This article is not questioning freedom of expression. It is highlighting the relation between individual believes and political commitment. 2. Try to know more about the "Ahkbar" newspaper/website before attacking it.

Okay, maybe I did over-react a bit, it's just that this is a sensitive topic for me. I don't care if a Muslim girl doesn't wear hijab, but it irritates me when it's only them that are perceived to be successful and champions of women's rights. There are so many veiled women who do work for women's empowerment, and I feel like they're largely ignored.
I also feel like this article is casting aspersions on the Islamist movement. I don't think it's fair to automatically assume that if they are Islamists then they want to oppress women.

And so what if you over-reacted against Al-Akhbar. You have the right to be angry sister. You raised very good points. Al-akhbar is not an infallible system of reporting and analysis. It's a paper made up of human reporters, analysts and journalists each with his or her own set of background and experience, and though they try to be just and they do a good job at it, I very much doubt that they convey the message of a conservative muslim woman in a positive light. The emphasis from Al-akhbar is usually on people (men or women) who are anti-religion and anti-imperialism. I know that I made a very general comment that's liable for attack, but I just wanted to say that it's ok if you got angry.

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