16 March marks Egyptian Women’s Day for a good reason. On this day in 1919, 300 Egyptian women led by Huda Shaarawi marched against British occupation. One woman, Hamida Khalil was killed, making her the first female martyr that day. On that same day four years later, Shaarawi led the march to form Egypt's first feminist movement. The march progressed from then on.
This year, Ahram Online celebrates Egyptian Women's Day in collaboration with The AUC Rare Books and Special Collection Library, by sharing the stories of inspiring Egyptian women who led the march for women's rights in the country. Every Thursday, the biography of an inspiring Egyptian woman will be shared. After exploring the life of Huda Shaarawi (1879-1947), the woman behind the march; we learn about Doria Shafik (1908-1975) the true 'Daughter of The Nile'
Doria Shafik (1908-1975): "O Freedom I make you the gift of my heart"
On 19 February 1951, the Egyptian Women's Federation led by Ciza Nabarawy, and The coalition of Women of the Nile led by Doria Shafik held a conference to discuss Egyptian women's political rights at Ewart's Hall in the American University in Cairo. Soon Doria Shafik took the floor announcing, according to news headlines, “this conference was the first Parliament for Egyptian Women's lost rights,” She led a march of 1500 Egyptian women towards the premises of the Egyptian Parliament, asking for political participation. Her slogan was: “Freedom, equality, peace and responsibility for us and for all"
The Daughter of the Nile
An icon of the Egyptian feminist movement, Doria Shafik often made headlines because of her boldness, soundness, and courage. She was a journalist, poet, social worker and the first to call for an Egyptian women's right to vote along with political representation.
"Our Mother was a very courageous woman, an idealist, a purist who sought the truth and truly believed that women will deliver their freedom by themselves," Professor Aziza Ragai Associate Provost for Transformative Learning and Teaching and Founding Director of Centre for Learning and Teaching at AUC, told Ahram Online.
Born to a renowned Egyptian family in Tanta, Doria Shafik spent her early childhood in Mansoura where agrarian life revolved around the magnificent Nile. This picturesque and serine environment brought out the poet in her at an early age. She marvelled at the richness of nature that always gave her a sense of freedom. "O Freedom I make you the gift of my heart, without thee life is worthless for me," are verses from her poetry published in the book that bore her memoirs titled Doria Shafik, Egyptian Feminist: A Woman Apart Cynthia Nelson.
However, growing up during this era was quite a puzzle to the bright girl who asked too many questions. Like why women were confined to their homes, why divorce was such a disgrace to prestigious families and what is the significant difference between a boy and a girl. In her memoir, it is very easy to detect her remarkable, resilient nature and passionate awareness of the self and her calling in life. Losing her mother at the age of 13 was a blow to the young girl, who soon went to live in Alexandria where her father transferred. Breaking off an arranged engagement to her relative at the same age, Doria Shafik's eye was on her career. She applied for a French baccalaureate diploma, which was only applicable to boys' schools. However, she registered through a summer programme, passing brilliantly and placing second in the country. She was awarded a silver medal of commendation, the youngest in the country to attain such a trophy.
Off to Paris
Determined to attain her dream of studying philosophy abroad, Doria Shafik reached out to Huda Shaarawi, the icon of Egypt's feminist movement at the time. "I am happy to see you, you are so clever and I am pleased that a girl of your standard will represent Egypt abroad," said Shaarawi. Doria Shafik then went to Paris, perusing her scholarship at age 19.
The Sphinx and Daughter of the Nile
Being away from Egypt for the first time evoked a lot of poetry in her. The first poem she wrote in Paris was a dialogue between The Sphinx and the Nile. Often nicknamed The Sphinx by her friends for being silent and reflecting most of the time. Doria Shafik studied philosophy and wrote a double thesis on Islam and modern Egyptian women's rights and on the significance of art in ancient Egypt. After attaining her doctorate from Sorbonne, she was denied the right to teach philosophy at Cairo University.
Soon she started to think about how best to serve her beloved country. Shafik managed to create from her women's movement, The Daughter of the Nile Union that had literacy classes for underprivileged women, a recruitment office for women and a magazine under the same title that is well preserved and digitally accessible at the AUC Rare Books and Special Collections Library
Her name continued to make headlines as she was a true example of the modern feminist movement in Egypt. Through all avenues, she continued to lobby for equal rights and topped it off by advocating for women’s suffrage.
Doria, Nasser regime and attaining the Absolute
The feminist star that literally roamed the world, was greatly honoured and welcomed by political leaders in the west, came to face her biggest challenge. Being connected to the west and coming from the upper middle class that represented a bygone era, Shafik's presence and political views disturbed the Nasser regime which was leaning towards pan-Arabism and centralization of all political parties. The conflict reached its peak when she opposed the Egyptian Constitution of 1956. The constitution replaced the parliamentary form of government with a presidential republican system, banned all political parties, and only allowed literate women to vote. It also demanded that female candidates be registered on the electoral list, unlike men who could run for elections independently.
As a result, members of her union could not run and people feared being affiliated with her activities because of conflict with the regime. The regime eventually forced her into house arrest for 15 years. The resilient and free-spirited philosopher transformed her solitude into four inspiring books of poetry that got her closer to what she always wanted, the Absolute. She died in September 1975 while remaining an exceptional inspiration to all Daughters of the Nile.
*Photos courtesy of AUC Rare Books and Special Collections Library