July 14, 2012

1919: Egyptian Feminist Leads Liberation March

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[[image-with-caption:{ “caption”: “Huda Shaarawi in midlife”, “credit”: “Credit: From “Casting Off the Veil,” published by I.B.Tauris.”, “url”: “http://womensenews.org/sites/default/files/Huda-Shaarawi.jpg”, “width”: 576, “height”: 400, “alt”: “Huda Shaarawi in midlife”, “align”: “” }]]

(WOMENSENEWS)–By now, a general strike was paralyzing the country. The strikers were supported by the whole population, including wealthy women who waited for striking employees outside their offices and places of work to donate their jewels to the strikers, thus compensating them for their financial losses and encouraging them to maintain the strike.

Riots sometimes degenerated into bloody battles, and both men and women were shot in the streets by British soldiers. In one unpleasant incident, a woman who held a national flag from her carriage window was badly beaten by British soldiers, who unsuccessfully tried to wrench the flag from her while some observing foreigners made fun of them.

At that point, Huda Shaarawi decided to throw her own weight into the balance. Her plan was to mount a protest march, to be organized by her circle of upper-class women. If women marched alone, she thought, nobody would dare to shoot them. Were any to be killed, she reasoned, international public opinion would not overlook such a massacre. This could offer an opportunity to bring pressure to bear on the British, because of the impact that the women’s demonstration would have on world opinion. Her husband Ali could only approve of his wife’s spirited response.

On March 16, 1919, Shaarawi’s planned demonstration took place: some 300 or more upper-class Egyptian women marching through Cairo to bear witness to the solidarity and determination of the Egyptian people. Safia Zaghlul, Sherifa Riad, Wajida Khulusi and Dr Habib Khayat’s wife Regina were among those who marched in the front ranks. This march symbolized in many ways the spirit of Egypt. Women of all classes took part, Muslims, Christians and Jews. Some held high the flag of Egyptian unity they had devised, on which the three stars embraced by the crescent on its green background had been replaced by crosses.

Marching Side By Side

Within the women’s movement, rich women and poor marched side by side, in what later came to be seen as a significant event in modern Egyptian history. These were the same wealthy women as those who had offered their support to Egypt’s poorer citizens during the riots and the general strike that paralyzed the country.

The Wafdist women initially consisted of the wives, sisters or daughters of men in the Wafd party, Egypt’s nationalist movement that came into existence following World War I, and they enjoyed their men’s support. Like other factions seeking to liberate their country from the British protectorate they regarded as so odious, Egypt’s Coptic and Muslim women would sit side by side in the Committee and march shoulder to shoulder against the occupation, under the whole world’s eyes.

Naturally, the British sought to halt the women’s march, as they had suppressed other demonstrations. Russell Pasha, the chief of police, feared it might lead to student riots and to disturbances of a more serious nature. The British adamantly opposed the principle of any demonstration in which the students might join with the women, thus being able to use them, in Pasha’s words, “as a shield against the police and troops.”

The women were therefore refused permission to hold their peaceful demonstration, and their plan to march was frustrated by the presence of police cordons and British troops. Nevertheless, by arriving separately in their carriages and then descending to form up into a phalanx, the women succeeded in staging their march.

Stalling the ‘Poor Dears’

Pasha took great pleasure in setting the stage for a situation that he thought would ridicule the demonstrators. In his memoirs, he recalled the day:

“At a given signal, I closed the cordon and the ladies found their way opposed by a formidable line of Egyptian conscript police, who had been previously warned that they were to use no violence but to stand still and, if necessary, let their faces be scratched by irate finger-nails. The idea of being attacked by what they considered to be extremely immodest females amused my men enormously and considerable license was given them by their officers to practice their ready peasant wit on the smart ladies who confronted them.”

The idea was to keep what Pasha referred to as “the poor dears” standing under the midday sun “without fulfilling their requests.”

An Egyptian contemporary observer saw the events quite differently, however:

“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!”

Crowds had been waiting for the women near the embassies and many foreigners were present. Onlookers had brought flowers to strew on the ground as the women marched past. A few pictures remain to testify that the march took place. Veiled women carrying a flag on which the crescent and the cross symbolized religious harmony had marched unarmed, and they had been stopped by armed soldiers.

The news spread around the world and the feminists of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance heard of it, leading them to take an interest in this daring act of participation by Egyptian women in the political struggle of their country.

Excerpted from “Casting Off the Veil: The Life of Huda Shaarawi, Egypt’s First Feminist” by Sania Sharawi Lanfranchi, published by I.B.Tauris, 2012. Reprinted with permission. For more information: http://www.ibtauris.com/

Sania Sharawi Lanfranchi is a freelance translator, working with organizations such as the World Health Organisation, the Library of Alexandria, the U.N. Development Programme and the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She holds postgraduate degrees in both English literature and Arabic literature from the American University in Cairo.

For More Information:

Buy the book, “Casting Off the Veil: The Life of Huda Shaarawi, Egypt’s First Feminist”

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