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Overlooked No More: Doria Shafik, Who Led Egypt’s Women’s Liberation Movement

Posted August 22, 2018 5:58 p.m. EDT

By age 32, Doria Shafik had earned a doctorate in philosophy from the Sorbonne, competed in the Miss Egypt contest, published essays and poetry in Arabic and French, founded an Egyptian feminist organization and took on the editorship of two feminist magazines.

But it was what she did on Feb. 19, 1951, that had the biggest impact on Egyptian history.

She convened a crowd of 1,500 women at a lecture hall at the American University of Cairo for what she billed “a feminist congress.” But that was a just ruse to fool the police. Shafik had other plans.

“Our meeting today is not a congress but a parliament. A true one! That of women,” she declared.

Moments later, she led her army of women as they stormed through the marble gates and onto the floor of Egypt’s all-male parliament — “the parliament of the other half of the nation,” she called it that day.

“We are here by the force of our right,” Shafik told a parliamentary leader who tried in vain to stop them.

Her demonstrators shut down the legislature for more than four hours, until the president of its upper chamber pledged to take up their key demands: the right of women to vote and to hold office. (He did not address their other demands, for pay equity and for reform to the marriage and divorce laws.)

The demonstration helped earn Shafik a place among the most influential women in the history of the Arab world. Yet many Egyptians today have never heard her name.

Just six years later, in 1957, she denounced the “dictatorship” of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who then put her under house arrest, shut down her magazine and movement and erased any mention of her from history books or news media.

Banished from the public stage, Shafik died in obscurity Sept. 20, 1975. She threw herself from a sixth-floor balcony. Her memory has been preserved mainly by a handful of Egyptian feminists who have sought, with mixed success, to rebuild an independent feminist movement.

Shafik was born on Dec. 14, 1908. Her father, Ahmad Chafik, was a civil servant whose jobs moved the family among the Nile Delta towns of Tanta, Mansoura and Alexandria, while her mother, Ratiba Nassif, kept house.

After graduating from an elementary school run by French missionaries in Alexandria, Doria Shafik found that further education there was open only to boys. So she studied on her own and completed the official French curricular exams ahead of schedule; the teachers who shut her out were forced to acknowledge that she had earned among the top scores in Egypt.

On the strength of that performance, she appealed for help from Huda el-Shaarawi, an aristocrat who had organized elite women to form the Egyptian Feminist Union, which sought social freedoms for women and supported independence from Britain. Unlike Shafik, Shaarawi never pushed for political rights for women and is still celebrated as a national hero.

Back then, she used her status to boost Shafik into government scholarship to study philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Returning to Alexandria for the summer of 1935, Shafik saw that a beauty pageant was taking place to select a Miss Egypt. Teachers of Islam extolled the virtue of modesty, including the full covering of women’s bodies and hair, and only women of European or Coptic Christian heritage had ever entered the contest — never a Muslim like Shafik. She saw that as an opportunity. “In Paris I had asserted myself in the intellectual sphere. Now I wanted to assert myself in the feminine sphere,” she once said, according to “Doria Shafik, Egyptian Feminist: A Woman Apart” (1996), by Cynthia Nelson, Shafik’s English-language biographer.

“It was as if nature, in a sort of immanent justice, having deprived me of class, status and wealth, had compensated me with these qualities,” Shafik wrote of her beauty.

She entered without telling her family and was named first runner-up. But the Egyptian press was scandalized. “I was a Muslim girl who had acted against Islam!” Shafik recalled.

While studying in Paris she met and married Nour al-Din Ragai, who was earning a doctorate in commercial law. They later had two daughters, Aziza and Jehane. Shafik earned her doctorate in 1940, but Egypt’s national university refused her a teaching position, evidently on the grounds that her beauty and liberal mores might somehow damage its scholarly reputation. Then her patron, Shaarawi, shut Shafik out as well, excluding her from the elite Feminist Union because of her middle-class background.

Shafik instead started her own movement, the Daughters of the Nile Union, dedicated to educating and organizing working women of all classes. The Daughters of the Nile ran literacy classes, an employment agency, mutual aid programs, a discounted cafeteria and cultural events including theatrical performances for women. Most of all, it agitated for political rights.

“No one will deliver freedom to the woman except the woman herself,” Shafik later wrote. “I decided to fight until the last drop of blood to break the chains shackling the women of my country.”

When Egyptians were campaigning for independence from Britain, Shafik started a uniformed paramilitary unit of the Daughters of the Nile. In January of 1952, she led a brigade of its members to surround and shut down a branch of Barclays Bank, deeming it an icon of British colonial rule. (After the crowd outside turned rowdy, security police hauled her away and dispersed them.)

She had expected that once the British-backed monarchy had been overthrown in 1952, Egypt would see “the beginning of a renaissance for women.” But nothing changed — women still were not permitted to vote or participate in a constituent assembly.

In 1954, Shafik tried a new tactic: She vowed to go on a hunger strike “to my last breath” and was joined by a handful of other women in a fast that made headlines around the world.

“We are convinced that the women who form more than half of the Egyptian nation must not, at any cost, be governed by a constitution in the making of which they played no part,” she said in messages to the ruling party, according to a New York Times report.

After 10 days without food, hospitalized because of her deteriorating condition, she appeared to succeed; the acting president promised her that women would have “full political rights.”

But it turned out that no one would have such rights. Nasser had consolidated his power as Egypt’s new strongman, giving neither men nor women the right to exercise a meaningful franchise.

In 1957, she tried another hunger strike, this time for six days. The Nasserite news media attacked her as a traitor. Her female allies now turned against her, and she was expelled from her own Daughters of the Nile. With almost no one on her side, she was forced to spend the next 18 years in near total seclusion.

A decade later, Nasser also jailed Shafik’s husband for several months on suspicion of subversion unrelated to her and, blacklisted in Egypt, he was forced to travel abroad to continue to work. Their separation and ultimate divorce, in 1967, completed her isolation.

“There was a day when Doria Shafik was the only man in Egypt,” Egyptian feminist Fatima Abd al-Khalak wrote in the state newspaper Al Ahram decades later, after Shafik’s suicide, in 1975. Nasser had died seven years earlier, removing the danger from such sentiments.

“Doria Shafik emerged in 1957 to tell us that we were on the way into dictatorship,” she said, but “we were ‘struck dumb.'”