doria shafik

Doria Shafik (1908-1975) was one of the main leaders of the women’s liberation movement in Egypt. Women were granted the vote by constitution in 1956 as a direct result of her efforts.

She studied and obtained her PhD at the Sorbonne, but was refused a teaching position at Cairo University under the pretext that she was ‘too modern’. Instead she became editor-in-chief of the magazine La Femme Nouvelle, and later published a second magazine aimed at educating Egyptian women. In 1948 she created an organization that strived to offer women jobs and eradicate illiteracy. In 1951, she created the first female military unit of Egypt.

It’s Women’s History Month!  In the GWS Librarian’s office, we have a 17 volume collection of Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia.  Using these volumes, we’ll be showcasing a variety of women every week from across the globe and giving a brief biography.

Doria Shafik (1908-1975)

Born in Tanta, Gabiyya, Egypt, Doria Shafik studied at a French mission school, and later was schooled by private tutors, after her father recognized her academic prowess.  She studied for the French baccalauréat high-school degree and ended up receiving the second highest score in the nation.  Her father could not afford to send her to Paris for further education, so Shafik wrote to Huda Shaarawi, one of the best-known feminist leaders in Egypt, for assistance.  Shafik and Shaarawi met and talked about her future and feminism - a meeting that would influence Shafik’s life forever. 

Shaarawi arranged for Shafik to study in Paris, but when Shafik returned to Egypt, she felt estranged from the culture after having experienced the freedoms of Paris.  Shafik would later return to Paris to complete a doctorate, but when she applied to teach at the University of Cairo, her application was rejected and she was told “‘her beauty and modern style’ were not suited for the instruction of young men." 

Shafik went on to start her own journal, Bint al-Nil and wrote about women’s rights in Egypt.  Bint al-Nil was later expanded into a political movement, targeting an audience of middle-class women who experienced sexism in their careers in the form of laws and customs.  The Bint al-Nil Union had three objectives: "1) to establish constitutional and parliamentary rights for women; 2) to promote literacy programs, health and social services, and small industries to aid women; and 3) to arouse public awareness of the conditions of women and children.”  

In 1951, thousands of Egyptian women descended on Parliament and took over the chambers, yelling “Down with Parliament without women,” and “Women’s place is next to yours."  During this time, growing nationalism and resistance to British rule was also fomenting discontent.  Gamal Abdel Nasser soon seized control of Egypt and when the new government held elections, Shafik put her name in as a candidate, but the Minister of the Interior rejected her letter for candidacy.  Nasser’s government largely seemed to ignore the idea of involving women, so Shafik went on a hunger strike (along with 14 other women) to protest.  While the government appeared to give in to her demands, it would take another few years before Egyptian women obtained the right to vote (and even then, only with governmental permission). 

After her hunger strike, the Nasser government now saw Shafik as a threat.  In 1957, Shafik announced another hunger strike to protest the "dictatorship” government, but Nasser placed her under house arrest and banned her name from the media.  Ultimately, Shafik committed suicide after 18 years in isolation and being branded, by many, a traitor to the Nasser government, but her legacy in the fight for Egyptian’s women’s rights lives on.

“I discovered feminist writings from all over the world, but even more significantly I discovered that the Middle East had a feminist heritage of its own; it was not imported from the West as opponents of women’s rights sometimes claim. There was Huda Shaarawi, a feminist who launched Egypt’s women’s rights movement and publicly removed her face veil in Cairo in 1923; Doria Shafik who led fifteen hundred women as they stormed the Egyptian parliament in the 1950s then staged a hunger strike for women’s enfranchisement; Nawal Saadawi, an Egyptian physician, writer, and activist; Fatima Mernissi a Moroccan sociologist- all fierce advocates of women’s rights. They gave me a new language to describe what I was seeing around me…

When I write or give lectures about gender inequality in the Middle East and North Africa, I understand I am walking into a minefield. On one side stands a bigoted and racist Western right wing that is all too eager to hear critiques of the region and of Islam that it can use against us. I would like to remind these conservatives that no country is free of misogyny and that their efforts to reverse hard earned women’s reproductive rights makes them brothers-in-hatred to our Islamists. On the other side are those Western liberals who rightfully condemn imperialism and yet are blind to the cultural imperialism they are performing when they silence critiques of misogyny.

Criticisms of my essays are that they are in English. I don’t see these same criticisms in regards to articles that expose human rights violations or the failing economies in our region. The double standard is clear; when it comes to women’s issues, keep it between us in a language only we can understand so you don’t make us look bad.

While I am acutely aware of Islamophobes and xenophobic political right wingers who are all too glad to hear how badly Muslim men treat their women, I’m also acutely aware that there is a right wing among Muslim men that does propagate misogyny. We must confront both, not ally ourselves with one in order to fight the other.

Why do those men hate us? They hate us because they need us, they fear us, they understand how much control it takes to keep us in line, to keep us good girls with our hymens intact until it’s time for them to fuck us into mothers who raise future generations of misogynists to forever fuel their patriarchy. They hate us because we are once their temptation and salvation from that patriarchy, which they must sooner or later realize hurts them too. They hate us because they know that once we rid ourselves of the alliance of state and street that works in tandem to control us, we will demand a reckoning….”

Excerpts from Headscarves and Hymens by Mona AlTahawy


100 years of Beauty: Egypt

Not only did each look show the typical aesthetics during that decade, but also represents the political struggles at the time

1910s [Typical Urban Look]: Features the Abaya and a veil which allowed women enter society and the public’s eye while simultaneously keeping their conservatism

1920s [Huda Sharawi]: A pioneering Egyptian feminist leader and founder of the ‘Egyptian Feminist Union’. Took off the veil as a sign of resistance

1930s [Oum Kalthoum]: One of the greatest and most influential Arab singers of the 20th Century. Known as Kawkab al-Sharq كوكب الشرق (“Star of the East”) by many.

1940s [Princess Fawzia of Egypt]: Daughter of King Fouad I and descendant of Mohammed Ali, the founder of Modern Egypt. The next decade would see the end of her family’s rule during the 1952 Revolution.

1950s [Doria Shafik]: A philosopher, poet and one of the leaders of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Her efforts would grant Egyptian women the right to vote later on.

1960s [Factory Workers]: Former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser at the time started to focus on local manufacturing and economy. Labour Laws were changed to ensure women’s role in the workforce was legally protected. Also this decade saw the adoption of more western concepts after the liberation from the British.

1970s [Souad Hosni]: One of the major stars in the 70s known as the ‘Cinderella of Egyptian Cinema’.

1980s [Conservatism]: There was a social descent against Sadat’s open door policy and his acceptance of western norms to infiltrate Egyptian society. Many conservative people Egyptians migrated to the Gulf during this decade as the rise of the veil and, in contrast, western norms of fashion started to clash.

1990s [Sherihan]: An Egyptian singer who was influenced by the religious wave of the 90s. The 90s saw the return of the migrants from the Gulf during and after the Gulf War. They brought back many more conservative styles back to Egypt with them.

2000s [Hybrid Fashion]: This decade saw a reconciliation of people’s conservative aspects with the modernist aspects. Many veiled women started wearing sleeveless tops and clothes with cleavage but in a way that would be deemed acceptable by the conservative society [eg. wearing long sleeve tops under]

2010s [The Egyptian Revolution]: Represents the 2011 revolution and concepts that were adopted during that period. The Youth wanted their voice to be heard and to end the corruption in the government. Women role’s in the revolution was very significant.