As we celebrate these magnificent advancements, it is important not to forget the generations of people who believed and fought for women’s rights all over the world and throughout history. While we have all heard of the feminist movement and famous feminists like Simone de Beauvoir, Maya Angelou and Hillary Clinton, there are many notable feminists whose names may not be known despite their considerable efforts to help achieve equality, dignity and liberty for women everywhere.
Feminism has many faces: It can be veiled or bare, male or female, European, Middle Eastern or African. This is a tribute to just a few of the many faces of feminism — Nana Asma’u, Huda Shaarawi, Nur Jahan and Jehan Sadat.
Asma’u was a Nigerian princess, poet, scholar, teacher, polymath and intellectual. The daughter of the Nigerian Sokoto Caliphate founder Usman dan Fodio, she devoted her life to educating women both rich and poor, Muslim and non-Muslim. She believed that seeking education was the religious duty of both men and women, and was responsible for the creation of the female educational movement known as “Yan Taru.” This consisted of a network of travelling female teachers who walked long distances to educate women in rural villages.
As a result of this movement, most women in Sokoto became poets who were well versed in classical Arabic literature. The impact Asma’u made was so significant that, during the British colonization decades later, delegates would respond in amazement to the level of intellect in Sokoto society, particularly among women. British delegate Jean Boyd, who was sent to Nigeria to educate locals, recorded: “There is literacy here, there is God, so let me go back and try to learn from the very people I was supposed to educate.”
Shaarawi was not only the pioneer of feminist activism in Egypt, but an active campaigner against the British occupation. She founded the first philanthropic society for poor women and children run by Egyptian women, in order to show women they were capable of more than what society made them believe they were at the time. In 1910, and due to her belief in the value of educating women, she opened a school that taught girls academic subjects rather than practical skills like midwifery in an effort to broaden their horizons.
Demand for gender equality is not a cause for liberal Western women alone — it is for every man and woman hoping to improve the state of the world we live in for generations to come.Maria Hanif Al-Qassim
In 1923, Huda famously removed her veil in Cairo train station in a bold move that made her one of the most important feminists of the 20th century. While considered a controversial gesture to this day, Huda’s removal of the veil was a symbolic act of rebellion against the isolated and restricted lives she and other women experienced while living in harems at the time.
Before Coco Chanel’s tweed jacket, simple black dress and other practical garments that revolutionized the female fashion industry, there was the empress Jahan, who redefined women’s fashion in Mughal India. Jahan effectively ruled the Mughal empire during and after the reign of her husband, Jahangir. She was an accomplished hunter and horse rider and it was said she enjoyed hunting on horseback so much that she redesigned the customary extravagant skirt and replaced it with what is now known as the shalwar (loosely fitted trousers), which made such feats easier and women’s movements far less restricted.
Well versed in Arabic, Jahan wrote under the pseudonym Makhfi (concealed one) and was a patron of all forms of art. She oversaw the building of her father’s mausoleum, an exquisite marble structure in Agra. She also ordered the construction of several mosques and gardens, like the Shahdara (royal threshold) in Lahore, which surrounds her husband’s tomb.
While former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat remains a controversial figure long after his assassination — particularly due to his domestic and foreign policies — very little is known about his wife Jehan outside of Egypt and the Arab world. She used her platform as the First Lady of Egypt to help millions of women and children, and was the one voice fighting for the rights of Egyptian women, changing the customary role of the first lady by giving it more weight and meaning.
Most importantly, however, she played a key role in reforming Egypt’s civil rights laws during the late 1970s in favor of women. Often called “Jehan’s Laws,” they aimed to grant women in Egypt a variety of rights, including to alimony and the custody of children in the event of divorce.
Jehan was married to Sadat at the age of 15 and was only able to attend university when she was 40 years old. It is due to that, perhaps, that she was a firm believer in the power of educating women. She later said: “Education is the most valuable gift you can give a woman and the nation. An educated woman will raise a worthy generation that can improve the standards of the country.”
Globalization and the unprecedented access to knowledge we enjoy today have introduced us to countless examples of people who broke the stereotype of what feminists ought to be, leading to more people identifying with the movement. Time and again during political campaigns, warfare, and economic and social crises, women have been called on to “hold up half the sky” and support their male counterparts. And hold up the sky they did.
The time has come for women to ask the same of every member of the global community. It is time to step up and achieve universal and uncontested equality for women everywhere, once and for all. Feminism is not a cause for liberal Western women alone — it is for every man and woman hoping to improve the state of the world we live in for generations to come.
Maria Hanif Al-Qassim is an Emirati from Dubai who writes on development, gender and social issues. Twitter: @maria_hanif