Written by Mariem ELTagoury
*Please note that names of places & people are kept discreet for privacy issues. Also the use of Franco Arab in this article is to deliver the detailed picture of incidents.
The 23rd of June 1879 is the birth date of the woman who changed the face of women in Egypt’s modern history –literally. She made it possible for us to bitch about our awesomeness and whine about our lack of freedom –because before she was there, that wasn’t even an option. She even gave women access to the luxurious pleasure of mall shopping (no kidding, there were times when a woman shopping was consideredindecent) She was the lady of all ladies, the late Hoda EL-Shaarawy, pioneer of women’s rights in Egypt.
You might say I’m exaggerating this woman’s epic-ness but trust me, the love and pride I have for this lady idol is based on far more than just my narcist pride of her coming from the same governorate as my mother, Minya. There’s a lot to learn from her life (which includes the women around her) as well:
1. Don’t let your jealousy evolve into hate but rather let it fuel in you what is great! As a child, Hoda suffered from discrimination in treatment between her and her younger brother. Preference for his gender had him always being showered with love and gifts. One time he was granted a pony and when she was asked for one like it, she was met with the response “riding is not for girls”. Umm Kabira, her father’s first wife, wisely diverted her jealousy from evolving into hatred for her brother, and with a lot of understanding somehow created a passion in her for something far more valuable.
2. Learn to understand, for in knowledge lies power. Before the age of 10, like privileged Muslim girls of the time, Hoda had memorised the Quran, but she was frustrated that she couldn’t understand the meaning of what she had memorised! (her home education had been in Turkish and French) When she asked for an Arabic grammar tutor, she was denied that request under excuse of “girls don’t need to know such things”. She would later study Arabic and her knowledge of religion would allow her to challenge the laws of the country at the time, to raise the minimum age limit of marriage of girls to 16 & boys to 18, add restriction to polygamy, and to set limits for men to prevent them from being the only controller of divorce in a marriage.
3. Every woman needs a guy friend! At the age of 11, Hoda went into a state of frustration as she was forced into a life of seclusion, due to her gender and age, from the boys that she had shared her childhood with – they included her brother and neighbours. Personally, I can’t imagine my life without my tribe of guy friends (a shout out to my pal, confidant and Cairo Contra’s Managing Editor, Alaa)
4. You’re old enough to get what you need yourself! (and every woman should have the holy right to shop!) At the time Hoda was a young lady, it was accustomed that women would not shop; their needs were to be received at home. Choices and opinions of course were out of the question. Whilst staying in Alexandria, a young Hoda wouldn’t take any of this bullshit any longer and insisted that she set out to a store and pick her stuff herself, according to her taste! In short, Hoda realised that being waited upon by servants didn’t make real women. Real women walk out and get their business done their way!
5. Make your own rules! Hoda was wed off to her 40 year older cousin, Ali EL-Shaarawy at the age of 13. Her mother insisted on including in the wedding contract a promise from him to leave his first wife and live a monogamous life with her daughter. Unfortunately not many young Muslim ladies today know this but, Muslim women & their families do have the right to add rules to their marriage contract which can include her being the only wife, i.e. a rule for a monogamous relationship, which if betrayed would cause the annulment of the contract all together.
6. Don’t treat marriage as a curse or a blessing; treat it as an adventurous experience! A 13 year old Hoda EL-Shaarawy strongly resented marriage and at that age, we can’t blame her. But little did she know that it would take her a million steps closer to achieving what no other woman had. Her husband, inspired by her intelligence, was a key to her education in politics. She became his most important council and he’d have her attend political meetings with him and she would at times fill in his place when he couldn’t attend.
7. And hey if it doesn’t work out, just rejoice; you still have “you time” to enjoy! When Hoda’s husband betrayed his promise and had his first wife bear him a child, she rejoiced at the news of the annulment and welcomed the separation. She happily headed back to her father’s home in Cairo and resumed her studies. They separated for 7 years which gave her enough time to educate and tutor herself as far as a girl could possibly go at the time. By the time they were united again, she had resumed her education, made new friends & contacts, many of whom were foreign and shared her passion for freedom and change.
8. Be grateful for the education you have; in 1910, she opened the first school for girls which focused on academics rather than midwifery skills. Before that, girls did not have the privilege of enjoying the education that we so easily have access to today.
9. With great worldly gifts comes greater responsibilities; Hoda EL-Shaarawy came from a very privileged family of wealth. She could have easily wallowed in her riches, enjoyed her new found freedom and relished in her shining glory. On the contrary, she believed that it was her responsibility as a privileged woman to care and help the poor women and children of her country. In 1908, she founded the first philanthropic society run by Egyptian women.
10. If you want change, start it yourself; her most famous act was, in 1923, the removing of her face veil, in front of the many spectators waiting to welcome her home, at the train station upon her return from Rome. This spectacular move would change Egyptian women’s fate forever – or at least till the new millennium!
11. Sometimes, you can’t take everything you want out of life... Hoda EL-Shaarawy received many rewards and some of the highest honours this country could give. Ironically, she never won the right to vote herself! That’s just life, I guess. Sometimes it’s just not meant to be.
For further reading about Hoda ELShaarawy’s life, feel free to check these links:
Do you find Hoda EL-Shaarawy’s life inspiring? Did you read her memoires? What topic would you like me to tackle next? Let us know in the comments section below!