Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist (translated and introduced by Margot Badran) offers a fascinating and inspiring window into Egypt’s revolutionary past. I determined that my first post following the extraordinary events over the past 18-20 days had to be to remember Huda and her feminist compatriots. I fondly hope that on some level they were watching with the rest of us, this so very visceral, painful, experience of revolution..and that they lent their wisdom and power as ancestors to the cause.
Even the BBC’s veteran of many wars and revolutions, the inimitable John Simpson, reminded us that it’s not just 30 years of repression being overthrown, but 8000; I had thought maybe 5000, but his history is perhaps better than mine. This is a revolution long overdue, but not without precedent, for Egyptians have risen before many times–the Egyptian People are not strangers to demonstrations and battles against injustice. The one Huda and her compatriots fought was against the ‘bloody British’. Bloody indeed. Sorry lads and lassies, but wherever one looks ‘our boys’ have been there defending the Empire and/or our ‘interests’, as as we still do. The British Occupation of Egypt occurred in 1882 and the ‘Protectorate’ was imposed in 1914. Will ‘we’ ever learn?
Born in Minya, Upper Egypt, in 1879, growing up in Cairo, “the daughter of a wealthy and respected provincial administrator from Upper Egypt and a Circassian mother,” Huda managed to find a way through crushing obstacles. Married off in 1892 at the age of 13 (unwillingly) to a cousin in his 40’s who should have remained her guardian not her husband–luckily she got the first 7 years free of him as he betrayed the terms of the marriage contract–denied freedoms we would take for granted, this extraordinary spirited woman found a way through the maze of Egyptian mores, the prison-like life of her era, to emerge as Egypt’s foremost feminist, decorated by the state in 1945 near the end of her life (she died in 1947) with the ‘Nishan al-Kamal’ award for services rendered to Egypt. Her husband Ali Shaarawi made up for his imposing marriage upon Huda (and they did have two children) ended up semi-heroic, as he became deeply involved with Huda in the freedom fight, developing the Wafd Party (begun in 1919 as part of the Egyptian Revolution that year), that although severely weakened by despotic repression still has a small voice that might grow larger in today’s New Egypt. Sadly, despite their heroic battles together, the Wafd men let the Wafd women down badly by not supporting the rights of women, so Huda resigned her post (President of the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee) in 1924 but carried on to her death as the head of the Egyptian Feminist Union, leading the feminist movement in Egypt, and supporting women in other Arab countries to get their rights.
One of Huda’s most powerful political acts was to remove her veil in a public demonstration of women’s rights in 1923. In fact, my search for Huda began with a statement by Egyptian-British journalist Adel Darwish, Political Editor of The Middle East, that Tahrir Square had seen earlier revolutions including the political unveiling by Huda. This point was challenged by another commentator, and in fact, it was at Cairo’s railway station that this took place. At a time in Islamic history when women are re-donning the veil, it seems paradoxical perhaps (or more likely, simply confusing) for this act to have such importance, but important it was. According to Badran and other historians, the veil was mainly worn by ‘upper class’ women (but in addition many city women), but not by peasant or country women. Now, to raise the issue of ‘to veil or not’ , to remove the veil or re-don the veil, is one that only women of Egypt and other countries where Islam holds sway on a cultural and religious basis, can decide for themselves. But for Huda and her compatriots unveiling meant freedom from oppression. A crowd of women were welcoming Huda and her friend and colleague Saiza Nabarawi (editor of L’Egyptienne, the feminist literary voice) back from a feminist conference held in Rome. Unveiling in public at that time was absolutely a daring act, and one that signalled (as Badran says) the end of the ‘harem system’ in Egypt.
Sadly, Huda did not get to have her political rights before she died, but perhaps she saw the writing on the wall: Egypt was ‘declared’ a Republic in 1952 but the British did not leave until 1956. However, democracy, the rights of the people, have never been instituted; from Nasser to Sadat to Mubarak, it has been a military dictatorship and a small elite running the show. Huda and her friends, male and female, all Egypt’s compatriot-ancestors, we hope they are celebrating this February 2011 and trusting the military will abide by their promises and help Egypt found a democratic state in the next six months.
Huda is watching. We are all watching. InshAllah, InshIsis.