Egypt women launch political party
The Arab Women's Association submitted an application on Sunday for the formation of a political party, to be named the Union of Egypt’s Women, and to include 15 NGOs working in the field of women’s rights.
“We are reviving the union that was formed by Hoda Shaarawy in the early 1900s,” said association president Hoda Badran, adding that the party would encourage five million women to participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections and support independent female candidates.
Hoda Badran also said the association would boycott political parties whose platforms ignore women’s causes.
“We will also launch a campaign to eliminate illiteracy among women in two years,” she said.
Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women Michelle Bachelet, for her part, called on people to support the union.
"It is an historical moment for Egyptian women,” she said, adding that the union would encourage the formation of similar unions in neighboring countries.
Born in Minya, Hoda Shaarawy was a daughter of Muhammad Sultan, the first president of the Egyptian Representative Council, and was taught to read the Qur'an and tutored in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Islamic subjects by Muslim women teachers in Cairo. She wrote poetry in both Arabic and French. She was married to her cousin, Ali Shaarawi, a leading political activist. Ali Pasha Shaarawi played an integral role in his wife's emergence as a public figure, actively supporting her feminist movement and often including her in his political conferences and meetings. It was no secret that Ali Pasha often sought his wife's council and, on numerous occasions, had her sit in his stead in high level political meetings.
At the time, women in Egypt were confined to the house or harem. When in public, women were expected to show modesty by covering their hair and faces with a veil known as the hijab. Shaarawi resented such restriction on women's dress and movements. She started organizing lectures for women on topics of interest to them. This brought many women out of their homes and into public places for the first time. Shaarawi convinced the royal princesses to help her establish a women's welfare society to raise money for poor women of their country. In 1910 Huda Shaarawi opened a school for girls where she focused on teaching academic subjects rather than practical skills such as midwifery.
After World War I, many women left the harem to take part in political actions against the British rule. In 1919, Shaarawi helped organize the largest women's anti-British demonstration. In defiance of British orders to disperse, the women remained still for three hours in the hot sun.
Shaarawi made a decision to stop wearing her veil in public after her husband's death in 1922. Returning from a trip to a women's conference in Europe in 1923, she stepped off the train and removed her veil. Women who came to greet her were shocked at first then broke into applause. Some took off their veils, too. This was the first public defiance of the restrictive tradition.
Even as a young woman, she showed her independence by entering a department store in Alexandria to buy her own clothes instead of having them brought to her home. She helped to organize Mubarrat Muhammad Ali, a women's social service organization, in 1909 and the Union of Educated Egyptian Women in 1914, the year in which she traveled to Europe for the first time. She helped lead the first women's street demonstration during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, and was elected president of the Wafdist Women's Central Committee.
In 1923 Shaarawi founded and became the first president of the Egyptian Feminist Union, after returning from the International Woman Suffrage Alliance Congress in Rome. Upon her return, she removed her face veil in public for the first time, a signal event in the history of Egyptian feminism. She led Egyptian women pickets at the opening of Parliament in January 1924 and submitted a list of nationalist and feminist demands, which were ignored by the Wafdist government, whereupon she resigned from the Wafdist Women's Central Committee. She continued to lead the Egyptian Feminist Union until her death, publishing the feminist magazine l'Egyptienne (and el-Masreyya), and representing Egypt at women's congresses in Graz, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Marseilles, Istanbul, Brussels, Budapest, Copenhagen, Interlaken, and Geneva. She advocated peace and disarmament. Even if only some of her demands were met during her lifetime, she laid the groundwork for later gains by Egyptian women and remains the symbolic standard-bearer for their liberation movement.
The Harem Years, a book Shaarawi published in 1987, is a firsthand account of the private world of a harem in colonial Cairo, Shaarawi recalls her childhood and early adult life in the seclusion of an upper-class Egyptian household, including her marriage at age thirteen. Her subsequent separation from her husband gave her time for an extended formal education, as well as an unexpected taste of independence. Shaarawi's feminist activism grew, along with her involvement in Egypt's nationalist struggle, culminating in 1923 when she publicly removed her veil in a Cairo railroad station, a daring act of defiance.
Shaarawi was involved in philanthropic projects throughout her life. In 1908, she created the first philanthropic society run by Egyptian women, offering social services for poor women and children.
She argued that women-run social service projects were important for two reasons.
First, by engaging in such projects, women would widen their horizons, acquire practical knowledge and direct their focus outward.
Second, such projects would challenge the view that all women are creatures of pleasure and beings in need of protection.