The History of Egypt's Feminist Consciousness

The history of Egypt’s feminist consciousness developed in tandem to the social and political climate in the last quarter of the 19th Century. As a result, this consciousness developed alongside its growing national consciousness, particularly in resistance towards imperialism. The nation united in criticising the British occupation, and it is through the unification of classes and sexes that the radical feminist movement began to thrive. In this time, Egypt birthed several social and political groups that focused on gender equality and the emancipation of women. These movements have been recognised as some of the oldest and leading feminist movements in the history of the Arab world. This is all thanks to a few Egyptian feminist revolutionaries that have not been acknowledged enough throughout feminist history.

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Hoda Shaarawi was a pioneering Egyptian feminist leader, nationalist, and co-founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union 1923 (EFU) alongside writer and academic Nabawiyya Musa. Shaarawi and Musa have been labelled the mothers of Egyptian feminism as a result of their years of activism against the colonial British powers and advocacy for women’s rights. The EFU focused on education, social welfare and changing private law to include equality between Egyptian men and women.

[The EFU] viewed the social problems of Egypt, such as poverty, prostitution, illiteracy, and poor health conditions, not as a result of a specific socioeconomic structure, but rather due to the neglect of the state in its responsibilities towards its people. The movement believed that the state had a responsibility to maintain the morality of the nation, as well as its welfare.”

Shaarawi was active in the 1919 Ladies Protest against the British occupation where she helped organise the largest anti-British demonstration entirely made up of women. “In defiance of British authority orders to disperse, the women remained still for three hours in the hot sun”. Shaarawi famously represented Egypt alongside her partners at an international Feminist Conference in Rome in 1923 along with multiple other women’s congresses in Graz, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Marseilles, Istanbul, Brussels, Budapest, Copenhagen, Interlaken, and Geneva. She continued to lead the Union until her death and is still recognised to have established the foundations of the liberation movement as an example of resistance for future generations.

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Nabawiyya Musa, an avid writer and academic was Shaarawi’s partner in forming the EFU. She has been known to be the first girl to finish high school in Egypt. She completed high school in 1907 and continued pursuing her degree and career in education. By 1908 where she went on to be a prominent educator for the middle-class and an advocate for women’s rights. Musa was a famous educator who lectured all around the country, typically promoting the education of women, for equality in the workforce and calling for an end on sexual abuse and violence.

She believed strongly that educated women would only improve the state by being able to be independent, bring in money for the household as middle-class women and/or raise their children to be independent so they could grow up to be assets to society. “

She also believed that education and equal status in the workforce would allow women to be less vulnerable and prone  to sexual violence. Musa strongly believed that the differences between men and women were nothing but a social construct and were concepts that would dissolve through time.

Musa and Shaarawi were integral in developing the feminist movement, but it was the concept of their intersection of feminism and nationalism which facilitated an impressive campaigning force – one which had a compelling effect on the progress of Egyptian society. Their views reflected the narrative of an “Egypt for Egyptians” and this coupling of thought broke down the traditional social constructs of the Egyptian woman. Through relentless political and social engagement, these women were two of many activists who helped achieve independence in 1922 before the revolution in 1952. Subsequently, several informal networks of activism and feminist groups were able to form, such as the Muslim Women’s Society in 1936, the Egyptian Women’s Party 1942 and the Bint al Nil aka Daughters of the Nile Union in 1948.

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Doria Shafik was the founder of the feminist association the Bint al Nil Union and due to her rebellious nature, she was seen as a force to be reckoned with. She represented the new generation of feminists, often recognised by modern feminists as she reflected the liberal ideology of feminism which openly challenged the state. Shafik propelled the middle-class activist to direct-action. Shafik has been credited to help win Egyptian women the right to vote in 1956 despite the oppressive nature of the state’s regime.  She was not content with “simply articulating the need for social change for Egyptian women”.  Bint al Nil’s focus was to claim full political rights for women, mostly for their inclusion in decision making processes at an institutional level. The association promoted health care services to the poor, literacy programmes as well as fought to improve mother’s rights and childcare.

Shafik famously gathered 1500 women to storm parliament demanding the government to give women full political rights as well as to reform the Personal Status Law and equal pay for work, echoing the demands of Egypt’s feminist mothers. Shafik organised several hunger strikes against Egypt’s leaders, especially against King Farouk whom she and a number of women engaged in a hunger strike that took place over ten days in protest of a constitutional committee on which women were not permitted any places that followed his deposition.

She staged a hunger protest in demonstration against the occupation of Egyptian territories by Israeli forces and (in her view) the "dictatorial rule of the Egyptian authorities driving the country towards bankruptcy and chaos”

With their successes and failures, Sharaawi, Musa and Shafik exposed the “opportunities and challenges facing women of different social classes in Egypt during the liberal age”. We can no longer overlook the contributions these women have made towards our feminist thought and communities. The work and dedication of these women have shaped the trajectory of the women’s movement and thus the foundations of its feminist consciousness in Egypt and across the Arab World.


Article by Yaz Omran