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Inspiration to Live by

by Sherine el-Banhawy

An interview with the author of Casting Off the Veil, Sania Sharawi Lanfranchi

“It was difficult to try to understand such a public persona, and to find out all the minor intricacies.”

Casting Off the Veil is not just the story of a woman, a political party, a country, a region, or a movement. It’s the insightful exploration of an entire era with all the images, personas, and wonderful, detailed intricacies.

To finally have a book that encompasses and recognizes Huda Shaarawi could not pass uncelebrated by Rowayat. Egypt’s first feminist needs no introduction. Huda was a patriot, an activist, a poet, an ambassador of Egypt, a leader of women’s empowerment, a figurehead for all Arab women in international conferences, and the recipient of honorary medals from Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon.

Sitting with the author Sania Shaarawi Lanfranchi in her home, listening to her speak about her grandmother, about the amount of work and research that it took for her to write Casting Off the Veil, fills my heart not only with admiration and inspiration, but with overwhelming hope. How one family can be so impactful in the life of a nation.

“It was difficult to try to understand such a public persona, and to find out all the minor intricacies, including what she ate, who she liked, how she dressed,” explains Lanfranchi. “Understanding her and being as accurate and unbiased as possible was the work of a lifetime of research. It helped that I had first-hand accounts from family and friends such as my mother, Munira Asim, and Hawa Idriss— nannies, even. Through my own work as an interpreter, I travelled a lot, so I had the flexibility to meet people across the world who knew her and worked with her, such as Dame Margery Corbett-Ashby. So I had first-hand accounts from Egypt and abroad. I was also able to research the archives in Italy. I read and photocopied original copies of L’Egyptienne” (EFU monthly magazine Feminism-Sociology-Art 1925-1939).

For a glimpse of the amount of research and effort that Lanfranchi invested in understanding her grandmother, one need not look further than the acknowledgments at the beginning and the selected bibliography at the end. Lanfranchi worked on the book for years, continually adding to it. Her original manuscript had twice as many pages as it does now. Only with I.B. Tauris Publishing and lots of editing was the manuscript reduced to its current length. Lanfranchi felt a double burden: first, that it was her duty to her family and to the world to accurately tell the story of her grandmother; and second, that if she didn’t write the book, nobody would. Multiple times throughout the process, she nearly lost faith that she would ever complete the project. In the end, her sister Malak motivated her to the finish line.

Some of the issues Huda Shaarawi rallied for include:

Women’s rights, peace, disarmament
Heritage, music, art, architecture
Financial and educational support for artists like Abd al-Badi Abd al-Hayy
Events for women that educated them about art, science, literature, history, archaeology, and music
Her weekly Tuesday literary salons with Mayy Ziyadé
Egypt’s political independence from British occupation
The Wafd becoming an independent political party
A voice and support for the liberal Constitutionalists in Egypt
Removal of the face veil 
Creating an independent Egyptian financial institution, Banque Misr, through Talaat Harb
Promoting vocational training by founding a pottery factory and a carpet-weaving school, Wissa Wassef
Access and availability of healthcare for the poor
Education for women (compulsory achieved in 1925 and graduation from university achieved in 1933)

These were just a few of Huda Shaarawi’s initiatives. She succeeded in all of these domains, achieving concrete results. She was able not only to highlight all the causes she believed in, but also to fundraise and to convince international personas to sponsor her numerous endeavors.

When I ask Lanfranchi how her grandmother, just one person, could achieve so much, she explains how all of the people surrounding Shaarawi were equally strong and motivating. Women such as Nabawiya Musa, Malak Hifni Nasif, Mayy Ziadé, Hawa Idriss, and Ceza Nabarawi all greatly contributed to Huda’s efforts. Lanfranchi goes on to say that her grandmother was also a product of three very powerful, influential successful men—her father (Mohamed Sultan), brother (Umar Sultan), and husband (Ali Shaarawi).

The book emphasizes how one of Huda Shaarawi’s biggest achievements was the establishment of Egypt’s Feminist Union (EFU) in 1923. Lanfranchi points out how Huda created an advisory committee of “sympathetic men to assist in creating strong moral support for the EFU and in policy-making. In return, they would have an indirect platform for their own ideas at the international conferences and gatherings in which the EFU participated. Among these men were Muhammad Husain Haikal, Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayid, Taha Husain Pasha, and Ali Umar. These were men of ability in whom Huda had confidence, and most of them were or had been high officials in the Egyptian government or elsewhere. They were men of the world, who sensibly supported the empowerment of women” (175).

Lanfranchi highlights that it was this same entourage that endorsed Qasim Amin and the creation of his book The Liberation of Women, published in 1899: “Amin vigorously defended the rights of women, a position which gained him many enemies. In the book, he made the surprising suggestion that the lowly status of women in Egypt was a contributory factor in the perpetuation of Egypt’s subjection to British domination”(40).

It is in this context that “on March 16, 1919, Huda’s planned demonstration took place marching through Cairo. They marched in the front ranks. Huda believed that if women marched alone nobody would dare to shoot them. Were any to be killed, she reasoned international public opinion would not overlook such a massacre. This march symbolized the spirit of Egypt. Women of all classes took part; Muslims, Christians, and Jews marched shoulder to shoulder against the occupation, under the whole world’s eyes” (66).

The aim was to pressure the British to withdraw from Egypt. “The spouses from the finest families marched through the various quarters of Cairo, shouting ‘Long live freedom and liberty,’ as the crowds thronged the pavements to applaud and cheer them on, and women leaned out from windows and balconies, ululating in jubilant support. It was a fantastic scene that stirred every heart!” (66)

This situation is similar to what we saw in January of 2011, and to what we have seen on many occasions since—women participating, chanting, and leading the marches. A revival of Shaarawi’s dissolved EFU was even reestablished post-revolution in November 2011. It was formed again to combine the spirit of Shaarawi and the revolution. This practice of reestablishing past successful initiatives is key to our progress and to the continuation of where others left off. The success of the new EFU is the best way to honor Huda, and to leave hope to the coming generations.

Lanfranchi grants credit to the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), founded in 1904, for enabling a platform for discussion of not only women’s right to vote, but all women’s issues, including equality in wages and employment, rights to education, married women’s nationality, and the legal situation of women. They also argued against the persecution of minorities and advocated for peace, disarmament, independence, human rights, and the integrity of countries such as Ethiopia, Palestine, and India. At the first attendance of the Egyptian women’s delegation of the IWSA’s 9th conference in Rome in May 1923, Huda and the delegates explained that the flag they protested with in 1919 was designed with the white crescent and cross to symbolize that the Coptic and Muslim communities stood side by side in the struggle to free Egypt from British occupation.

It was after this conference that Huda and Ceza decided they would remove the face veil when they returned to Egypt. They had attended the conference without the veil and felt it would be hypocritical to wear it in Egypt. The atmosphere in Egypt was ripe and ready for such a change, and they had the backing of the men of the family. “Nabawiya Musa set off for Egypt first in order to prepare for their reception” (97).

“At Cairo Station they descended from the train with their faces uncovered. They were met by a moment of stunned silence, following which all the women of their circle who were waiting to welcome them also removed their veils. The scene was magnificent, and was always recounted with enthusiasm in later days by those who had attended it” (98).

The scene in which Huda takes off the veil, asserting her decision, while receiving a positive response shows how she had tremendous support from all those around her and how in reality the society was predisposed for such a move.

“Egypt’s women were not seeking to blindly emulate the West, and the face veil was now no longer an obstacle to communication. However, some women still wore it sometimes as part of their traditional costume, as an embellishment. There is a need for nations to become acquainted with each other’s customs and habits. Huda spoke while quoting the Qur’an and Hadith, making the point that men’s injustice towards women was an inheritance from pre-Islamic tribal customs and misinterpreted Islamic law, emphasizing that Egyptian women lived as well and were as active as women in the West” (138).

“The removal of the veil was not at all a rejection of Islam or of oriental values; it was based on the desire to make a statement about how women ought to have equal standing in society. She rejected Kipling’s dictum that East and West shall never meet. Strong and dedicated individuals could make communication possible against the odds” (177).

Shaarawi was proud of both her Egyptian and Islamic culture. She strived to defend it and to make it prosper as much as possible.

Huda Shaarawi’s entourage was filled with intelligent, ambitious young women. Ceza Nabarawi and Howa Idriss never left her side. Part of the mission of the EFU was creating a younger generation of educated activists that would take on leadership roles in the future. These were the cadettes. They “would leave the house each week with their baskets to dispense sugar, rice, soap, and other products to the poor. They would come back with the news of people’s health, and their reports about the lack of potable water, muddy streets, etc. Based on this, lists of necessary restoration works would be prepared and submitted to the government. The cadettes were earnest and strong-willed because they had contact with the realities of life. The subsequent inclusion of the cadettes in the international conferences was intended to be a demonstration that the younger generation could be relied on and that they were being trained to shoulder the responsibility in the future.”

Another highlight in Shaarawi’s life was when in 1926 she became a member of the executive committee of the IWSA, which is currently called IAW. Huda’s appointment to the committee was just three years after Egypt’s first participation in the organization. Lanfranchi describes how this appointment was an honor both for Egypt and for Huda, and reflected on her charisma and international popularity (148).

While reading, one begins to realize that Huda’s life was filled with daily interactions with the most cultured and politically involved individuals in Egypt and abroad. For example, on her way back to Egypt after one of her trips, she met aboard the ship Safia and Saad Zaghlul, who were family friends and had worked together on Egypt’s liberation. Huda briefed them on her activities with the IWSA, the EFU, the Arts Society, the pottery factory, and the carpet school. She believed that “there was indeed a revival in Egypt, which had originated with its cultural awakening” (148).

Huda was able to win people abroad, Lanfranchi claims, because at the time “[t]here was a fascination with ancient Egypt by the West and Huda was conscious that this was a power to attract sympathy” (148).

Huda’s ambitions and principles were not limited to Egypt and women, however. They went beyond that, to peace and disarmament. Yet, she believed women were more able than men to achieve these principles. She wanted women to refuse to work in war factories where weapons were produced.  “Women as mothers are the natural enemies of war, and that peace would best be promoted if justice prevailed in the world” (176). Shaarawi was not an inspiration for only those around her. She was also able to inspire people internationally and be a voice of international dialogue and peace.

Huda believed in communication and promoting understanding between nations and cultures as the key to peace: “As long as mutual fraternal trust does not exist between all the peoples of different color, there will be no peace.”

Her lectures were not just in Egypt. Huda’s tour with Ceza in March ’33 covered France—“Nice, Toulon, Hyeres, Cannes, Grasse and Menton, where they addressed local audiences about peace and feminism. Women who have known all the anguish of war and cannot forget the horrors they have witnessed, are today granting themselves the right to work for the consolidation of peace and understanding between peoples” (200-201).

Lanfranchi illuminates how one of Huda’s biggest disappointments was the inability of the West to listen to the issue of Palestine. “Huda could see no alternative than to support the Palestinians, the Syrians, and the Iraqis in their struggle against the continuing occupation of their countries by Western military forces. Force was being [used] to change the reality of the country through violent action, against the will of the local population. Huda felt defeated in achieving results in the struggle for Palestine in the same way that Nokrashi Pasha felt defeated at the height of Egypt’s struggle for independence from England.” It is so strange how almost a hundred years have passed, and yet, the same issues persist today.

There has never been a time in Egypt’s history when political struggles didn’t overarch all other aspects of life. Knowing that history repeats itself, we must learn through Shaarawi’s example of life and through Sania Shaarawi Lanfranchi’s tremendous perseverance and success in accounting her grandmother’s significant role in our history, culture, and heritage.

Lanfranchi states that an important date to which we must bear witness is December 1933, ten years after the foundation of the EFU. On this day, the EFU held a ceremony in honor of the first female university graduates to celebrate their achievement. Alluba Pasha introduced the first lawyer, Naima al-Ayubi. Then Taha Husain introduced his four graduates. Husain asserted that these young women were as capable as any man at the Sorbonne, declaring that he stood shoulder to shoulder with the feminists to make sure that the highest levels of education would be open to girls as well as boys. Then Dr. Sami Kamil introduced the first doctor, Kawkab Hifni Nasif, as well as Lutfia al-Nadi, the first airplane pilot, who had won an air race against all comers (206).

“Huda decided to encourage Lutfia al-Nadi further by buying her an aircraft of her own, and set up a fund for her at Banque Misr. Providing gifted young people with the means for their education was a personal policy that Huda believed in. And she hoped to see it applied in the country as a whole, at all levels, and irrespective of gender”(206). This is just one example of many young people that Huda believed in and supported. Lanfranchi affirms that “she was a maker of personalities.”

Casting Off the Veil gives us insight into the private, public, historical, and international life of Egypt during both world wars—the deep interactions of the dynamics between family members, their health, prejudices, supporters, lifestyles, everything that created them and everything that motivated them to do what they did and to be who they were.

Therefore we can emulate them, and attempt to continue the journey toward the goals that they established. All of their ideas, principles, and objectives are still unfinished, and are now accompanied by new hurdles and challenges.

Huda was a woman who reached out to the world on the local and international levels through her continuous activism and commitment to cultural missives. With her tireless determination to make women’s voices heard, she created publications through which they could command an audience, and designated women to run them. Huda worked on all her projects, found ways to sustain them, and was said to be stubborn in upholding her values.

All of Huda’s struggles tackled causes we are still fighting for today. Women’s participation in government, girls’ education, the union of Arab women, cooperation between east and west, disarmament, continuing the EFU, ending wars in Iraq, Syria, and Palestine: our headlines are still plagued with the same issues that concerned Huda 100 years ago. We must at least continue what she started and hope to leave a stronger thread of hope for future generations to build on.

“For many people, Huda was not so much a person as an idea, the embodiment of the virtues of courage, pride, integrity, and compassion” (259).

“I have always believed in the possibility of a fertile cooperation between the women of all the continents since we share the same ideals to build a better world, based on justice, equality and brotherly understanding between all peoples” (250).

“Huda would fight to the end for her principles.” She was the embodiment of activism and believed in the end that it was her soul that would survive. Indeed in the days of the January Revolution of 2011, those days chanting for bread, freedom, and dignity. Shaarawi was in all of us. She was concerned with all aspects of life political, economic, cultural, social justice, education, health, as well as global issues.

When we imagine all of the personal and political roadblocks, all of the heartache and doubt, that Huda Shaarawi was able to surmount while still dedicating herself to her causes, we cannot help but feel humbled. She is the model for what a single person with unlimited dedication can achieve.

This same spirit is in Lanfranchi, time flies when listening to her speak and we wish we could start all over again, after the end of the interview.

For us at Rowayat, commemorating someone like Huda Shaarawi means the world to us. Reading her story is the inspiration that keeps us going. In a year that is so filled with turmoil and upheavals, there is a campaign to #ReadWomen2014 if one is to read any book written by a woman, one should read this one. As Confucius said, “We must study the past to define our future.”

Huda Shaarawi


Images courtesy of Sania Sharawi Lanfranchi.

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