Encyclopedia Womannica

Feminists: Huda Sha'arawi

Episode Summary

Huda Sha'arawi (1879-1947) was a pioneering leader, who organized one of the great feminist revolutions in Egypt.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Our woman of the day was a pioneering leader, who organized one of the great feminist revolutions in Egypt. Let’s talk about Huda Sha'arawi.

Huda was born in 1879 in Upper Egypt. She came from an affluent family—her father was a wealthy Egyptian noble. Huda spent her childhood in an Egyptian Harem which kept women secluded and veiled. The harem system required women to live in their own private quarters, separate and isolated from men. 

Many women within the Harem system were denied access to education. But Huda was educated early in life alongside her brothers. She learned Turkish, Arabic and literature from private tutors. 

But as Huda grew older, her resentment grew. 

She wrote years later about the bitterness she felt as a young girl: “I became depressed and began to neglect my studies, hating being a girl because it kept me from the education I sought. Later, being a female became a barrier between me and the freedom for which I yearned (Sha’rawi 40).”

At the onset of puberty, Huda was not allowed to be seen by the sons of her family friends, which she described as “a painful experience.” She noticed the great attention that was paid to her brother, which resulted in jealousy. Despite her envy, Huda and her brother had a loving relationship, and he later stood by her side while she fought against gender injustice. 

At the age of 13, Huda married her cousin—a man 40 years her senior. Huda’s father pressured her into the marriage, insisting that her refusal would bring shame to the family. While Huda reluctantly agreed, soon after, she separated from her husband for seven years. (Sharawi 24). During this time, Huda prioritized her independence, diving back into her studies and venturing into activism. 

Huda wrote in her memoir: “I intend to vocalize my pain and start a revolution for the silent women who faced centuries of oppression.”

In her early adulthood, Huda began organizing lectures, bringing many women into public places for the first time. In 1908, Huda founded the first philanthropic society run by Egyptian women, which offered medical services for poor women and children. 

Huda believed women-run service projects challenged the view that women needed protection. And as a wealthy woman, Huda believed that the rich could solve the  problems of the poor through charitable activities. In 1910, Huda opened a school for young women. She focused on academics, rather than the domestic skills that were typically taught to women at the time.

During the early 20th century, the fight for women’s rights gained momentum around the world. In 1919, after World War I, many Egyptian women protested against British rule in Egypt and sought to use the national struggle to end harem practices. Huda led the masses in an effort that ultimately became known as the Egyptian Revolution of 1919.

 In 1920, following the protests, Huda was elected as the first president of the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee, a political body founded by Egytian women. 

In 1923, Huda returned to Egypt after attending a conference in Europe. In a symbolic act, she threw her veil off outside the Cairo train station. She encouraged other women to follow suit. This became one of the first public rejections of the veil in Egypt. 

Soon after, Huda founded the Egyptian Feminist Union, which sought to reform laws that restricted women from personal freedoms. 

Huda remained president of the Egyptian Feminist Union until her death in 1947, organizing and leading the fight for women’s rights in the new Egypt. She died at the age of 68. 

Huda reflected on her life’s mission in her memoir and said: “I believe that history repeats itself, and for that reason I am indebted to my namesake, Huda Al Sharawy, Egyptian feminist, and the first woman in the Middle East who called for female emancipation.”

All month we’re talking about feminists. We’ve covered feminists in every theme so far. What differentiates this month is that we will be looking at women who were particularly important to the women’s rights movement, the suffrage movement, and/or modern feminism and feminist theory. On Saturdays, we’re talking about modern feminists brought to you by this month’s sponsor, Fiverr. On Sundays, we’re highlighting favorite feminists from past months chosen by other podcast hosts we love. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our new Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter. You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

This month of Encyclopedia Womannica is brought to you by Fiverr, an online digital services marketplace connecting businesses with women who are creating, designing, copywriting, programming, editing, and more.

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Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!