Huda Sha’arawi was a daring feminist and activist of her time. Born in 1879 into a harem system in pre-independent Egypt, she was kept separate from men, veiled at all times, and essentially hidden from society. She was educated, but had little room to exercise her knowledge until after her separation from her early marriage to her cousin. Huda was then able to become more independent and focus on her education, and she quickly became an activist. KeriLynn Engel has mapped out some highlights of Huda’s activism at Amazing Women in History:
“Huda had a hand in many ‘firsts’ for women in Egyptian society. In 1908, she founded the first philanthropic society run by Egyptian women, where they offered services for poor women and children. She believed that having women run such projects would challenge the view that women are created for men’s pleasure and in need of protection. In 1910, she opened a school for girls focused on academics, rather than teaching practical skills like midwifery which was common at the time.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Even from a contemporary standpoint, Huda’s accomplishments and contributions are unparalleled. To name a few, she was the founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union, and the founding President of the Arab Feminist Union, and was Vice-President of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship in 1935. She even wrote a book, published in 1987, called The Harem Years: Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist.
But Huda was most famous for a choice she made in 1923. After her husband’s death in 1923, Engel writes:
“Stepping off the train back in Cairo, she removed her veil in front of the crowd in public. Everyone was shocked at first. After a few moments, the crowd broke into cheers and applause. Some women joined her in removing their own veils.”
Huda was fighting for something which many people today still do not understand. Defiantly removing her headscarf was a powerful choice, and in making it, she stood up for every woman’s right to express her religious and political views in the way that she chooses. Today, the choice to wear a headscarf is exactly that: a choice.
Quick PSA on headscarves: It is important — especially for Western feminists — to understand that women who wear headscarves do it out of their own volition and comfort. People like Huda helped them win that freedom. To say that wearing a headscarf signifies oppression is not only inaccurate, it denies women their agency if they do choose to veil. The now infamous “Veil Ban” law in France is a testament to the damage that misunderstandings around perceived vs. actual oppression can cause.
Rather than being discouraged by the oppression of a patriarchal society, Huda was driven by inequity and fought for lasting change. Her actions and beliefs were considered radical, and she succeeded in inspiring Arab women to demand their own independence. When Huda publicly removed her veil in a railroad station in 1923, it was an act of defiance. Today, thanks in part to her bravery, her actions would be considered her choice.