Feminist Movement in Egypt 1919 to the Present. (extract from BREAKING THE MIRROR OF HEAVEN)

Hoda Shaarawi, the wife of Ali Shaarawi, who was Zaghloul’s companion in the Wafd, organized lectures for women in order to bring them out of their homes and induce them to actively participate in Egypt’s social and political reform. Shaarawi also opened a school for girls that taught useful academic subjects rather than the hitherto very limited home economics. Legend has it that in 1923 when Shaarawi stepped out of the train in Cairo’s Central Station (upon returning from a women’s conference in Rome), she defiantly pulled off her veil in front of the hundreds of Egyptian veiled women who had gathered to greet her. At first shocked by this bravado, the women then broke into a loud applause! This was the beginning of the end of the veil in Egypt (ironically, only to return with a vengeance today). Shaarawi became the leader of the Women’s Committee in the progressive Wafd Party and created the first Egyptian feminist movement, demanding better education, better social welfare, and full equality for women. Shaarawi went even further by calling for the abolition of polygamy.

Another of Egypt’s most admired women of the period was Safiya Zaghloul (the wife of Saad Zaghloul), who was known to many as mother of the (modern) nation (om el umma). Alexandria’s main downtown avenue, the fashionable Boulevard Safiya Zaghloul (dubbed Egypt’s Champs-Élysées) was named after this great feminist, yet one cannot help wondering if the black-veiled women who stroll up and down this avenue today (which puzzlingly has stores with window displays flaunting outrageously erotic types of women lingerie) are aware of Safiya’s bold efforts to abolish this ancient tradition, which has been revived in Egypt.

Other well-known feminists were Aisha El-Taimuriya, Nabawiya Moussa, Duriya Shafiq, Malak Hifni Nasif, and Aisha Ratib. One of today’s most outspoken feminists in Egypt is Nawal El Saadawi. According to Khalil Al-Anani, an expert on modern Islamism, “The basic difference between the current movement and the one preceding it lies in capabilities and interests. It is the difference between liberal Egypt, which experienced cultural and political emancipation during the first half of the 20th century, and totalitarian Egypt which has been suffering from political repression and cultural dogma since the 1952 Revolution.”

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