Nawal El Saadawi (1931- )
Nawal El Saadawi is a feminist, writer, activist, and physician. Born in the small village of Kafr Tahla in 1931, Saadawi was circumised at the age of six. Saadawi studied Medicine at the University of Cairo, graduating in 1955. While working as a doctor in her village, she attempted to protect one of her patients from domestic violence, resulting in her being sent back to Cairo where she eventually became Director of the Ministry of Public Health.
In 1972, she published Women and Sex, a book which confronted a number of aggressions perpetrated against women’s bodies. As a consequence, she was dismissed from her position at the Ministry of Health, as chief editor of a health journal, and as Assistant General Secretary in the Medical Association in Egypt. In 1981, she helped publish a feminist magazine in 1981 called Confrontation which led to her imprisonment by the Sadat regime. In 1988, she fled Egypt when her life was threatened by Islamists. She has held positions at Duke University, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Sorbonne, and Georgetown.
Nawal El Saadawi’s activism has spanned decades, from the 1950’s, to the Arab Spring, to today. She is without a doubt one of the pioneers of the women’s rights movement, not only in North Africa, but in entire MENA region. Women and Sex is often credited as being one of the fundamental texts that ignited second-wave feminism in Egypt. She is alive and well, and still as militant as ever.
Women are half the society. You cannot have a revolution without women. You cannot have democracy without women. You cannot have equality without women. You cannot have anything without women.
Doria Shafik (1908-1975)
Doria Shafik was a feminist, poet, and editor. Born in Tanta in 1908, she studied at a French mission school where, at 16, she became the youngest Egyptian to pass the French Baccalaureate. At 19 she was awarded a scholarship by the Ministry of Education to study at Sorbonne University in Paris where she went on to earn a PhD in Philosophy. Upon her return to Egypt in 1940, she was denied a position at the Faculty of Literature at Cairo University for being “too modern”.
In 1945, she took a position as editor-in-chief of La Femme Nouvelle, a French cultural and literary magazine designed for the country’s elite. In the same year, she also decided to publish an Arabic magazine, Bint El Nil, intended to educate Egyptian women. In 1948, she created Bint El Nil Union, to help ensure women’s inclusion in Egypt’s politics as well as working to eradicate illiteracy.
In February 1951, Shafak brought together 1500 women and organized a march storming parliament, protesting women’s right to vote. As a direct result of her many years of organizing and effort, women in Egypt were granted the right to vote in 1956.
A nation cannot be liberated whether internally or externally while its women are enchained.
Huda Sha’arawi (1879-1947)
Huda Sha’arawi was a feminist, nationalist and founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union. Born in Minya in 1879 to a wealthy family of Turkish origin, she spent her childhood and early adulthood in an upper-class harem. At 13, she was married to her cousin. She was taught to read the Quran and received tutoring in Arabic and Turkish and Islamic subjects by female teachers in Cairo.
At the time, most Egyptian women were confined to their house or harem, Sha’arawi resented these restrictions and began organizing lectures for women. This led women out of their homes and into the public sphere, the first time for many. In 1910, Sha’arawi opened a school for girls which focused on academic subjects rather than practical skills. In 1919, she organized the largest women’s anti-British demonstration to protest British occupation with women remaining still in the heat for over three hours despite orders to disperse.
In 1922, Sha’arawi decided to remove her veil. Her decision to unveil was influenced by French-born Egyptian feminist, Eugénie Le Brun as part of a wider movement. In 1923, Sha’arawi founded the Egyptian Feminist Union and removed her veil in public for the first time. In 1925, she launched the feminist magazine L’Egyptienne. She continued representing Egypt in women’s congresses and leading the Egyptian Feminist Union until her death.
While only some of Sha’arawi’s goals and demands were met during her lifetime, she is still widely considered to be Egypt’s first feminist and is praised for laying the groundwork for the generations, and women, that followed.
In moments of danger, when women emerge by their side, men utter no protest. Yet women’s great acts and endless sacrifices do not change men’s views of women. Through their arrogance, men refuse to see the capabilities of women.
Inji Aflatoun (1924-1989)
Inji Aflatoun was a painter and women’s rights activist. Born in Cairo in 1924 to a bourgeoise Muslim family, she discovered Marxism at the Lycée Français du Caire. In 1942, she joined Iskra, a Communist youth party. After graduating from Fuad I University in Cairo in 1945, she founded Rabitat Fatayat at jami’a wa al ma’ ahid. The same year she represented the League at the first conference of Women’s International Democratic Federation in Paris. She wrote political pamphlets Thamanun milyun imraa ma’ana and Nahnu al-nisa al-misriyyat, linking class and gender oppression, connecting both to imperialist oppression. She was arrested and imprisoned during Nasser’s roundup of communists in 1959. After her release in 1963, she devoted most of her time to painting.
She was a leading spokesperson for the Marxist-progressive-nationalist-feminist movement in the late 1940s and 1950s. She is also commonly referred to as a pioneer of modern Egyptian art.
Mona Eltahawy (1967- )
Mona Eltahawy is a feminist, journalist and writer. Born in Port Said in 1967, her family moved to the UK when she was 7 then to Saudi Arabia when she was 15. She graduated from the American University of Cairo with a Master’s degree in mass communication with a concentration in journalism in 1992.
Eltahawy was a news reporter throughout the 1990s, working as a correspondent for Reuters, The Guardian, and The Washington Post. She was also the managing editor for the Arabic language version of women’s issues from around the world. She wrote a weekly column for Asharq Al-Awsat from 2004 to 2006 before her articles were discontinued for being “too critical” of the Egyptian regime.
In November 2011, she was arrested during the uprising in Tahrir Square. She was held in custody for 12 hours and was physically and sexually assaulted. Her left arm and right hand were fractured. Eltahawy has been a strong critic of the Hosni Mubarek regime, the Muslim Brotherhood and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, referring to them as “old, out-of-touch men”.
Eltahawy often speaks out on behalf of women’s rights in the Arab world, including attacking FGM. Her first book, Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East needs a Sexual Revolution, was published in 2015. She is also acknowledged as one of the people who spearheaded the Mosque Me Too movement.
The most subversive thing a women can do is talk about her life as if it really matters.
Nabawiyya Musa (1886-1951)
Nabawiyya Musa was a nationalist and a feminist. Born in Zagazig in 1886, her brother taught her how to read and write during her childhood. At 13, when her family refused to allow her to continue her schooling, she stole her mother’s stamp and gold bracelet to apply for school. In 1907, she became one of the first women to ever finish high school in Egypt.
By 1922, when more women were let into the newly established Egyptian University, Musa was a key lecturer, educator and advocate for women’s rights. She frequently toured giving lectures on the importance of education for women.
She strongly believed that educated women would only improve the state by gaining their independence, as that would allow them to become assets to society. She believed that by giving women equal status in the workforce, and in education, would make them less vulnerable to sexual violence. She maintained that the differences between men and women were a social construct and could easily be broken with time.
Nabawiyya Musa was an integral part of the feminist movement in Egypt. She stood out for highlighting the importance of women’s education and was a leading figure in breaking down social constructs of women.
I preferred to live as the master of men, not their servant.
Suhayr Al-Qalamawi (1911-1997)
Suhayr Al-Qalamawi was a feminist, literary figure and politician who shaped Arab literature through her writing. Born in Cairo in 1911, she hailed from a family who took price in educating its female members so she was exposed to her father’s extensive library from an early age; this helped advance her literary talent and shape her voice as a writer. As a children during the 1919 revolution, she grew up influenced by legendary feminist Huda Sha’arawi and Safia Zaghoul. These women were responsible for bringing the feminist debate into the public sphere, something that greatly influenced Al-Qalamawi’s feminist ideals.
In 1928, after graduating from the American College for girls and being rejected from studying medicine at Cairo University, her father encouraged her to study Arabic Literature instead. During her studies, where she was the only woman amongst 14 men, she received guidance from writer Taha Hussein. In 1932, he made her assistant editor of the Cairo University magazine making Al-Qalamawi the first woman with a license in journalism in Egypt.
She began her career as the first woman lecturer at Cairo University in 1936, became the first woman to receive a PhD from Cairo University in 1941, and in 1958, she became the first woman chairperson of the Arabic Department. She also served as president of the Egyptian Feminist Union. She became a member of parliament in 1958 until 1964 and again in 1979 until 1984
Al-Qalamawi contributed to the fight for women’s rights not only through her literary works, but also through her participation in Arab Women’s Conferences where she advocated for equal rights. Her work analyzed the the female social role as a preserver of history through oral narratives and often suggested the bedtime tales told to us by our grandmothers often had a deeply feminist message.
Malak Hifni Nasif (1886-1918)
Malak Hifni Nasif was a feminist who contributed greatly to the intellectual and political discourse on the advancement of Egyptian women in the early 20th century. Born in Cairo in 1886 to a middle-class family, her father was a lawyer who was a member of Muhammad Abduh’s party. Malak’s father encouraged her to learn and be educated.
Malak was among the first graduating class from the Girls Section of the Abbas Primary School in 1901, and she continued her education at the Saniyyah Teacher Training College, where she graduated at the top of her class in 1903. Malak returned to the ‘bbas School to teach for two years. She was forced to quit when she married Abd al-Satar al-Basil Pasha in 1907. At the time, Egyptian law forbid women from teaching while married.
She moved to the desert with her husband, where she began writing under the pseudonym Bahithat al-Badiya. It was there that she found out her husband already had a wife and a child. The treatment she received from her husband, as well as the observations she made of other women, led her to write about the status of women in Egypt. The dominant feminist ideas at the time associated the advancement of women with westernization. Malak agreed on some level with her contemporaries, but, for the most part, she brought her own ideas.
Although many elite women began using unveiling as a symbol of feminism, Malak opposed it. She believed wealthier women who unveiled did so because of an obsession with European fashion, and not because of a desire for freedom. She also wrote extensively about the marital rights of women and vehemently opposed polygamy. She felt significant changes must be made with regards to marriage, argued that men and women should be able to divorce and that the legal age of marriage should be increased to at least sixteen.
Malak saw education reform as one of the most promising solutions to many of the problems that women faced. In her writings, she expressed that any girl that did not have an opportunity to attend and finish school had been treated unjustly. She opposed the implementation of missionary schools, and called for more more Egyptian control over the public education system to create schools that taught girls a more comprehensive curriculum.
Malak also argued that formal education alone could not solve women’s problems. She believed that much of injustice against women resided in the home. She insisted that mothers should take better care of their daughters’ physical health & mental development. Malak founded the Union for the Education of Women and later founded an emergency health service and a nursing school for women in her own home. She always made sure to physically represent the ideals she supported in her writing.
Fatimah Rifaat (1930-1996)
Fatimah Rifaat (also known by her pen name Alifa Rifaat) was an Egyptian author who is renowned for her depictions of female relationships, sexuality in Egyptian culture and problems inherent in a patriarchal society.
Born in Cairo in 1930, she was raised in provincial Egypt. Her interest in writing began at age nine when she wrote a poem expressing the despair in her village. For this she was met with punishment by her family due to the poem’s subject matter. Fatimah attended Misr al-Jadidah Primary school and The Cultural Center for Women for her intermediate education. She also attended the British Institute in Cairo from 1946 to 1949 where she studied English. When Alifa Rifaat expressed interest in continuing her education by enrolling in the College of Fine Arts in Egypt her father instead arranged for her to marry her cousin.
For the first few years of her marriage, her husband allowed her to write under her pseudonym, leading her to publish stories from 1955 to 1960 before a nearly 14 year long period of silence when she chose to stop after facing pressure from him to end her career. In 1973, her husband allowed her to write and publish her work once more.
In 1979, after the death of her husband, Rifaat began to travel. In 1984, she attended the first International Women’s Book Fair in London where she spoke about the rights of women in Islam and the topic of polygamy. Rifaat’s writing often centered upon the silent plight of women in a patriarchal Muslim society. She embraced her Muslim faith but was critical of how it was implemented with regard to women, her perspective often challenging fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic traditions.