INSPIRING, informative and insightful. These are some of the words that could be used to describe ‘Harem Years- the memoirs of an Egyptian feminist’ by Huda Shaarawi, translated by Margot Badran. Anyone familiar with the nationalist movement in Egypt and the associated women’s movement there in the early 20th century will know Huda Shaarawi and the significant role she played in both movements. This book, Huda’s memoirs written in Arabic near the end of her life, reveals more about her private early years — the harem years — and can thus be seen as the “final unveiling” and her “final feminist act”, according to Badran. The memoirs were kept by Huda’s young cousin and confidant, Hawa Idris, who met Badran while the latter was in Cairo doing research on the Egyptian feminist movement and its leader twenty years after Huda’s death in 1947. Hawa agreed to have the memoirs translated into English and published.
Huda made the first move to end the system of harems in Egypt in 1932 when she arrived in Cairo from an international feminist meeting in Rome and lifted the black veil from her face. With that single courageous act, she marked the beginning of her public life as the head of the women’s movement, participating in the country’s nationalist activities, calling for independence from British occupation as well as promoting women’s rights. In her memoirs, she sheds more light on women’s life in the harem and how her life evolved from that of a typical upper-class girl and wife to that of an active feminist.
Badran writes in the introduction that the word “harem” conjures up a number of exotic images in the western mind but the reality is that the harem is simply the part of the house where the women and children lived their daily lives. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, among the upper and middle classes in the Middle East, women and men were segregated. The women, or harem, lived their private lives within their domestic quarters and when they went out, they veiled their faces as a way of continuing their seclusion from public life and their exposure to unfamiliar men. As such, one can almost say that Saudi Arabia still has the system where the segregation of men and women is adhered to, even in the outer dress code, which means this book carries a relevance to our lives today, decades after its main events took place.
Huda was born in 1879 to a wealthy Egyptian father, Sultan Pasha, and a young Circassian mother who was one of her father’s many consorts. Sultan Pasha died when she was five and the harem was left to the guardianship of a cousin, Ali Shaarawi, whom she was persuaded to marry at age thirteen. In her memoirs, Huda talks about her father, her mother, her younger brother, her father’s widow (his first wife) and her relationship with them as she grew older and began noticing the differences and discriminations between the life men lived in comparison to that of women, confined as they were to menial harem domestic activities with limited opportunities for education and independence. She was eager to educate herself, read books that opened her mind to greater issues and met people who widened her horizons. At that time, Egypt was going through a change in culture and understanding of women’s rights, Islamic teachings and the public role of intellectual men and women. All of those had an impact on Huda’s beliefs and her pursuits in life.
After the first years of marital tension, reconciliation, motherhood and child-rearing, which she goes through in some detail, a daring and unusual revelation in itself given the conservative and secluded attitude toward women, Huda became more involved in social work and political activism. Her husband was a prominent member of the party (Wafd) which was calling for national independence and Huda became president of the women’s committee. She talks about that period of her life — the struggles, the disagreements and the personal losses. Through it all, we see a woman of substance, defiance, confidence, intellect, energy who held a strong belief in women’s rights and equality. A truly inspiring role model for the generation of women in the Middle East who might — or might not — have had the same privileges she had of wealth and status yet who have decided to make more of their lives. She could have lived a life of comfort and ease but instead chose to do something with her advantages which would benefit her fellow women and her country. The book is full of pictures of Huda, her family and the leading figures and events of the time in addition to valuable historical information and anecdotes.