New York Times Remembers Early Arab Feminist Who Lived – And Died – Ahead of Her Time

Al Jadid Staff
On the left, Doria Shafik, third from left, and other suffragettes during a hunger strike in 1964, and on the right, Shafik in the early 1940s at an international conference in London, both photos from Getty Images.

Since the dawn of the Arab Spring and the subsequent rise of counter-revolutions represented by Islamist groups in Egypt and Syria, many civil society organizations and intellectuals sought to defend the early liberal phase of the revolutions by posting photos of women in Western dress. It appears that these groups wanted to prove that women's liberation, or "Westernization," had roots in Muslim and Arab societies. Despite the good intentions of these liberal-minded activists, retrieving photos from private and public albums of a particular style of dress pales in comparison to the real accomplishments of other women in Egyptian and Arab history.
Once considered one of the most influential women in the history of the Arab world, only to disappear from the spotlight to be forgotten until years after her death, Doria Shafik spearheaded a feminist movement for women’s rights in Egypt. Best known for her leadership on February 19, 1951, of organizing a 1,500 women march through the American University of Cairo to Egypt’s parliament -- with an entirely male membership at the time in order to demand women’s rights to vote and hold office positions, Shafik’s movement succeeded, convincing the president of the upper chamber to agree to her demands. This dramatically changed the outlook of Egyptian women’s lives, and “yet many Egyptians today have never heard her name,” according to an essay by David Kirkpatrick in the new section of the New York Times called “Overlooked No More,” which provides obituaries of important people overlooked by the time of their deaths.
Born on December 14, 1908, to Ahmad Shafik and Ratiba Nassif, Shafik moved several times due to the nature of her father’s job as a civil servant, living in the Nile Delta towns of Tanta, Mansoura, and Alexandria. She attended and graduated from elementary school in Alexandria, but soon found Egyptian higher education reserved for boys. With self-study and the help of Huda el-Shaarawi, founder of the elite Egyptian Feminist Union, and still remembered as an icon of Arab feminism, Shafik continued her education in Sorbonne, Paris, studying philosophy with a government scholarship.
Shafik’s relationship with Shaarawi soon deteriorated, however, when Shafik returned to Alexandria in 1935 and decided to take part in a beauty pageant. Because Muslim women never participated in beauty pageants, leaving the events to European or Coptic Christian women, when Shafik ultimately took first runner-up place, she headlined the Egyptian press with her “scandal.” Her participation in the pageant caused Egypt’s national university to refuse her a teaching position, and Shaarawi, due to the sensibilities of her middle-class background, subsequently excluded Shafik from her elite Feminist Union.
These setbacks did not deter Shafik from her goals. In 1948, she created her own movement, the Daughters of the Nile Union, which fostered platforms for women to enjoy culture and arts, championed women’s political rights, and supported programs that helped improve literacy and employment. Until the British ouster in 1952, the Daughters of the Nile Union took part in campaigns for Egyptian independence, and, in 1954, she planned a hunger strike to protest for women’s rights to vote and participate in constituent assembly. At first, her tactic appeared to succeed, but the rise of the dictatorship of Gamal Abdel Nasser quickly snatched victory from her, with the Nasserite news media labeling her a traitor during her attempt at a second hunger strike. This resulted in the closure of her feminist magazine, and Shafik’s rejection from her own union. Worse still, Nasser placed her under house arrest, erased her from the history books and attempted to do the same with Egypt’s cultural memory, according to the New York Times.
“No one will deliver freedom to the woman except the woman herself,” Shafik once wrote, as cited by the New York Times. “I decided to fight until the last drop of blood to break the chains shackling the women of my country.”
After suffering 18 years of forced seclusion, Shafik committed suicide on September 20, 1975, jumping from her sixth-floor balcony. In the wake of her death, Egyptian feminist Fatima Abd al-Khalak wrote in the state newspaper Al Ahram, “There was a day when Doria Shafik was the only man in Egypt.”
Shafik’s “memory has been preserved mainly by a handful of Egyptian feminists who have sought, with mixed success, to rebuild an independent feminist movement,” according to the New York Times.
To read the New York Times obituary of Doria Shafik in the section called “Overlooked No More,” click on the link below.
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