Ms Sharaawi’s education was broad and she became fluent in French, Turkish, Farsi and Arabic as well as a number of other subjects, and also wrote poetry. At age thirteen, Ms Sharaawi was betrothed to her much older cousin Ali Pasha Sharaawi as his concubine. Her initial opposition was overcome by family pressure that to refuse would threaten the family honour and that her mother’s health might be detrimentally affected. The wedding went ahead when she was still 13 years old.
Within the contract of the marriage her husband vowed to give up his concubine, but the concubine bore him a child a year later. Ms Sharaawi refused to move live with him, remaining with her stepmother who was supportive in all Ms Sharaawi’s activities. Ms Sharaawi had spent seven years expanding her education. Due to her father’s death she had more freedom which she used to become more activist in politics. After seven years she and her husband reconciled, and he would play an important role in his wife's emergence as a public figure, actively supporting her feminist movement, seeking and acknowledging publicly her counsel on many issues.
Women in Egypt were then confined to the house or harem and had to cover their hair and faces with a veil known as the hijab. This was to show modesty to the outside world and in the eyes of Allah. Peasant women who were working in the fields and poor women who had to seek employment were excluded from such strictures only due to their need. Ms Sharaawi began to campaign against the restrictions on women in Egyptian society in all areas of life. She began a programme of organized lectures for women on topics of interest to them. This meant that women were entering the realm of the public place, often for the first time, and was something she continued to promote throughout her life.
In 1908 Ms Sharaawi persuaded the Egyptian royal princesses to help establish a women's welfare society to raise money for poor women in Egypt. As a result in 1909 the first women’s social service organisation to be run by women was opened, known as Mubarrat Muhammad Ali. Ms Shaarawi it was vital such social service projects should be led by women in order to empower and expand their outlook and to challenge the traditional strictures in which women were bound under patriarchy. In action her projects could be seen to be disempowering of poorer women as there was no encouragement that they should have an active role in their own emancipation.
In 1910 Ms Shaarawi opened a school for girls where she focused on teaching academic subjects rather than those subjects that had previously been presumed to be the remit of women, such as midwifery, the most common education programme available to women at the time. In 1914 she travelled to Europe for the first time and helped to form the Union of Educated Egyptian Women. This helped expand her political arena to give her a global platform to bring to the women of Egypt.
In 1919, Ms Sharaawi helped organize the largest women's anti-British demonstration during the Egyptian Revolution, and the women defied orders to disperse remaining for three hours in the hot sun. In the same year she was as President of the Wafdist (the Egyptian nationalist Liberal political party) Women's Central Committee.
In 1922 Egypt gained independence from British rule, but the role of the Egyptian woman did not alter. Women were expected to return to the harem lifestyle after having helped in the fight. Ms Sharaawi husband passed away in 1923 and at this point she made the decision to stop wearing her veil as a sign of her refusal to acquiesce to the pressure to return to segregated life. The first act took place as she disembarked from a train at Cairo as she returned from a Women’s Conference she had been attending in Europe. The women who came to greet her were initially shocked but soon some also took off their veils, and many applauded what was the first public defiance of the restrictive tradition.
In 1923 Ms Sharaawi helped to found the Egyptian Feminist Union, and was elected its President, a position she held for twenty-four years until her death. The Union campaigned for various reforms to improve women's lives such as raising the minimum age of marriage for girls to sixteen, increasing women's educational opportunities and improving health care. Egypt's first secondary school for girls was founded in 1927 as a result of this pressure.
In 1924 Ms Sharaawi led a picket of the Wafdist, presenting a list of demands to them which were ignored, and this led her to resign her presidential position on the Committee. Ms Sharaawi he was also a member of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship, in 1935 serving as Vice President. In 1944 she founded the All-Arab Federation of Women.
Ms Sharaawi also published the feminist magazines l'Egyptienne and el-Masreyya. She was a leader of Egyptian women's delegations with other Arab feminists as well as throughout Europe, and a renowned staunch peace activist.
Ms Sharaawi died on 12th December 1947 and remains an inspiration throughout the world.
This is What a Feminist Looks Like FOTW blog post no. 214:
Blog by Tina Price-Johnson