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Honoring Huda Sha’rawi

On international women’s day, I scoured Arab media for any mention of Huda Sha’rawi (June 23, 1879 – December 12,1947), but there were none. After all, Huda Sha’rawi is the mother of the feminist movement in the Arab world, yet there was virtually no mention of her contributions for Arab and Egyptian women virtually anywhere. 

Huda Sha'rawi without mantle in her office

(Creative Commons)

In the early 1900s, in the Arab world, women were often confined to their homes, and most had no avenues for primary and secondary education, or for formal employment. There were severe restrictions on women's movements outside the home, and specific attire and headdress, hijabs and veils of different types, were required in public. 

It was Huda Sha’rawi that redefined the role of Arab and Egyptian women and helped give them the freedoms they have today. In 1910, Sha'arawi opened a first of its kind school for girls where learning focused on teaching academic subjects rather than practical skills such as sewing and midwifery. The pathways for women’s education were forever altered by Huda Sha’rawi. 

But, the early transformation that Sha'arawi brought about began when she made the decision to stop wearing her hijab in public as a form of protest. The day Huda Sha’rawi removed her hijab in public was the day the Egyptian feminist movement was born. As Huda Sha’rawi became more brazen about appearing in public without her hijab, Egyptian women who saw this act of defiance broke out into regular applause. Quickly, other women followed her example and began removing their hijab’s as well. Within a decade of Huda Sha’rawi’s act of defiance, the majority of Egyptian women stopped wearing veils.

Huda Sha’rawi not only fought for a woman’s right to be educated, and to join the work force, she was instrumental in reforming laws restricting personal freedoms, such as marriage, divorce, and child custody.

One of Huda Sha’rawi’s most remembered early acts of defiance was when as a young woman, she entered a department store in Alexandria to buy her own clothes instead of having them brought to her home. Even if only some of the freedoms she sought for Arab and Egyptian women were met during her lifetime, she laid the groundwork for later gains that advanced prospects for women and girls everywhere in the Arab world. 

Every Arab and Egyptian woman today is the beneficiary of Huda Sha’rawi’s acts of bravery and defiance and this is something that should never be forgotten. As Egypt was still part of the Ottoman Empire during her lifetime, Huda Sha’rawi managed to convince Kemal Atatürk of the need to bring Arab women out of bondage. The modernity Kemal Atatürk brought to the Ottoman Empire was in part thanks to Huda Sha’rawi’s inspiration. 

On international women’s day, forgetting Huda Sha’rawi’s contributions to Arab women is next to sacrilege. The Arab world owes much to Huda Sha’rawi, and it is on exactly such a day she should always be remembered. 



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