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Egyptian delegates to 1923 Rome Congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, Huda Shaarawi in center
Guest Blog: Huda Shaarawi (1879-1947) – Egypt

Born and bred to the harem and married at age 13, Huda Shaarawi became a champion of Egyptian independence as well as of women’s rights and freedom. Although women never obtained the vote under the constitution of an independent Egypt, that did not stop Huda Shaarawi and others from becoming important players in civil society. She led veiled women into the streets to protest British rule in March 1919, founded the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923 , threw off her veil in the Cairo railway station upon returning from a congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in Rome, and integrated embassy parties by appearing there unveiled following the death of her husband, a leader of the Egyptian independence movement. She headed the Wafdist women's organization. By all accounts she was a remarkable woman, forsaking the harem for a courageous, and, of course, controversial role in public life.

Here, in this final passage from her memoirs, she speaks in her own voice about the significance of “exceptional” women and the problems they face:

"Exceptional women appear at certain moments in history and are moved by special forces. Men view these women as supernatural beings and their deeds as miracles. Indeed, women are bright stars whose light penetrates dark clouds. They rise in times of trouble when the wills of men are tried. In moments of danger, when women emerge by their side, men utter no protest. Yet women’s great acts and endless sacrifices do not change men’s views of women. Through their arrogance, men refuse to see the capabilities of women. Faced with contradiction, they prefer to raise women above the ordinary human plane instead of placing them on a level equal to their own. Men have singled out women of outstanding merit and put them on a pedestal to avoid recognizing the capabilities of all women. Women have felt this is their souls. Their dignity and self-esteem have been deeply touched. Women reflected on how they might elevate their status and worth in the eyes of men. They decided that the path lay in participating with men in public affairs. When they saw the way blocked, women rose up to demand their liberation, claiming their social, economic, and political rights. Their leap forward was greeted with ridicule and blame, but that did not weaken their will. Their resolve led to a struggle that would have ended in war, if men had not come to acknowledge the rights of women."

Source: Huda Shaarawi, Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist. Translated and introduced by Margot Badran (New York: The Feminist Press, 1987), p. 131.