“Every woman who does not stand up for her legitimate rights would be considered as not standing up for the rights of her country and the future of her children and society. Every man who is pushed by his selfishness to trespass on the legitimate rights of women is robbing the rights of others and bringing harm to his country,” said Huda Shaarawy in the closing address to the Arab Feminist Conference in 1944.
We are standing on the sidewalk in front of the ruins of what was once Shaarawy’s home in the southern city of Minya. There is no evidence here of her role as one of the first Arab feminists, her sensational public unveiling in 1923, her confrontation of religious conservatives, and her life work to advance the causes of both women and her country.
She also played a key role in altering the image of the Arab women in the world’s eyes. “The image of the Arab women in the minds of the western woman was of a backward woman living behind the walls of the harem, ignorant, veiled and crippled in effort and movement, totally incapable of performing any role in the service of her country. But Huda Shaarawi, Saiza Nabarawi and Nabawiya Musa […] were able to break the detestable old image of the Arab woman in the minds of westerners […]. This news got back to Egypt to awaken Egyptians from their sleep and to turn their attention to the ability of the daughters of their country to bring benefits to their nation if given the chance.” (Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing, Edited by Margot Badran and Mirian Cooke)
“Yes, this is Huda Shaarawy’s house,” a passer-by confirms. What remains of the outer fence and door are ramshackle; we can’t get in but are told there is nothing to see as over the years the house has been dismembered. “There have been legal disputes and attempts to take what remains down as this is a lucrative part of the town,” the resident adds. He walks off as if it did not matter; just another old building eventually going down.
Shaarawy was preceded by figures such as Malak Hifni Nasif who wrote under the penname Bahithat El-Badiya (Seeker in the Desert) and men such as jurist and Islamic modernist Qasim Amin who wrote The Liberation of the Woman and the Egyptian journalist and anti-colonial activist Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed. And they have all been followed by many luminary activists and intellectuals such as Inji Aflatoun, Doria Shafiq, Nawal El-Saadawy and others.
And yet many years down the line, and at the same time that the National Council of Women (NCW) announces its celebration of 50 Egyptian women across all professions ahead of this year’s International Women’s Day (IWD), the Egyptian cabinet reportedly issued a draft of a new personal status law that would – according to analysts and among other things – diminish the legal status and capacity of women.
The draft is said to not recognise women’s right to choose their spouse, upholds the rights of any male member in the family to annul her marriage contract for any reason he specifies, allows male family members to prevent women from travelling regardless of her work or travel arrangements, and gives the father priority over the other and grandmothers of the family for child custody. If passed, this law would make it not possible for a mother to register the birth of her child, to obtain a passport or an identity card for her child, or even choose the type of education her child will pursue.
This after years of struggle to improve the legal status of women and reflect their current contribution to their families and society. For example, up until 100 years ago women could not initiate divorce. These codes changed over time until in 2000 when women were given the right to initiate non-consensual divorce.
“After a full century of time, we reintroduce a regressive conservative law that does not correspond to any roles that women play or with the requirements of reality. It contributes to more injustice and complexity in family life in Egypt,” concluded a statement released by Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights this week.
Over the years, the struggle for women’s rights has had to contend with proving it is not a “western” phenomenon, proving it is consistent with religion and cultural norms and values, proving it is a nationalist cause. But perhaps for the millions of women who toil every day – an estimated 18 percent of women in Egypt head households – to make life possible, happy, and productive for everyone around them there is nothing they need to prove to argue for the basic human right of equality.
In the words of painter and activist Inje Aflatoun in 1949 “To deprive a woman of her civil rights constitutes not only an injustice towards her, but also a harmful obstacle in the path of the development and evolution of the people, a lacuna in the country’s democratic process.”