Casting Off the Veil, by Sania Sharawi Lanfrachni, London:I.B.Tauris, 2012. 224pp.
Sania Sharawi, granddaughter of the legendary women’s rights movement activist, Huda Sharawi, wished to touch the world with a story. She chose to focus on her grandmother: a great woman who not only tried to secure rights for Egyptian and Arab women, but who also stood in solidarity with Palestine.
The book is not necessarily the first account of Sharawi's life, but coming from her granddaughter - it is a very unique account. Sania compiled the research and testimonies from family members, contemporary feminists, international organisations archives and many interviews with family friends and politicians of the time.
"The idea of writing this book came to me two years ago, when my daughter and I were watching Gaza being bombed and felt that we must do something," Sharawi told Ahram Online, "I wanted to address the international and Western community, so the work came out in English."
In a small, friendly gathering at the Women's Association in Cairo on Wednesday, 30 May, Sharawi openly shared many of the fascinating stories from her book, accompanied by photographs taken of the various events. She also shared her own life experience, which was deeply affected by her family’s actions and involvement in politics. The humble Sania Sharawi scrolled through the photos, naming the people posing for the photos and telling her grandmother’s story.
Casting Off the Veil was a strong gesture that Sharawi took in 1923 and left a most remarkable effect on women at the time - liberation. Before then, Sharawi was already active in politics and economics, influenced by her childhood upbringing when she noticed the differences between how she and her brother lived versus the servants of the family.
Being the daughter of a man who was disillusioned by the words of the British who came to occupy under the guise of supporting Egypt's khedive, Sharawi reacted by joining the fold of the Egyptian freedom movement. Huda also became a great advocate for the rights of women to receive education and get jobs. Also, she and her brother were among the big supporters for the first Egyptian bank, Banque Misr, established by Talaat Harb.
The granddaughter shared photos of her grandmother demonstrating in a women’s protest that was one of the turning points in ridding Egypt of British occupation in 1919. The Egyptian men had been defeated by the British army while demonstrating against the occupation. The British refused to allow them even a platform to speak their cause for freedom.
The women’s movement carried a flag with three crescents and three crosses that symbolised a united Egypt against the occupation, hoping that the army wouldn’t harm protesting women as much as they did the men. It worked, apparently, as history tells us, and Al-Wafd finally was able to voice its cause to the world and Egypt had its first constitution soon after.
Sania’s stories flowed. She gave a sense of the life women led at the time, highlighting the freedoms they enjoyed within certain protected boundaries. She spoke on the status of her grandmother’s friends, who went together on the international women alliance trips. Finally, she recalls her own memories, as a little granddaughter and what happened to her family’s property when her father was arrested, upon an order by the president Abdel-Nasser at the time.
As revealing as the look was into women’s status and life at the time, centrepiece of the book was actually in the elder Sharawi’s defense of the Palestinian cause. As it turned out, Huda Sharawi was a great advocate of Palestine and their cause. Through her periodical publications, much is revealed about the stage before 1948.
"The Jewish settlers were very welcomed by the Palestinians," Sharawi concludes from her research, noting that things started changing soon after the Zionist project became apparent.
"Despite being banned from speaking politics at the international women alliance, Sharawi spoke for the Palestinian cause, and requested that at least an apology be written for these people," Sharawi continued, "when the draft letter was refused, Sharawi was about to resign, but decided against that since that was the only forum through which she can spread word about this cause."
The story of Sania's family takes a sharp turn after her father was imprisoned for openly criticising then-president Nasser. The Sharawi home was confiscation and demolished. The family had to be split into different houses in different areas of the crowded Cairo and seek their own lives. Her mother and the three daughters had to endure life in one bedroom out of a two-bedroom apartment downtown and try to make the best of this misfortune.
"If it weren't for that, I wouldn't have met my husband," Sania shares openly, praising her Italian husband, who was from the family next door to their tiny quarters. "He was a handsome man, sought by many, and he chose to marry me at a time when many men were after me for other reasons."
Sania Sharawi now lives and works between Egypt and Italy, working as an interpreter. Casting Off the Veil is her first written work. Her storytelling reveals her great linguistic capacities, as does the fact that she was able to switch from a French education to English education after only three short months of tutoring.
In a quick glimpse to the future of women in Egypt, Sania shared a photo of a fully-veiled Mona Lisa, saying that "This is what we have to work against."