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Excerpts from Harem Years: Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist, 1879-1924


The peace process that followed World War One catalyzed calls for self-determination around the colonized world. Existing nationalist organizations seized on the liberal pretensions of the Entente Powers to articulate social and political demands to colonial powers. Egypt, occupied by Britain in 1882 and declared a British protectorate in 1914, was one prominent site of this struggle. Leaders of the nationalist Wafd party directed demands for Egyptian independence to British and US officials, including President Woodrow Wilson whose phrases and professed ideals they appropriated for their appeals. In March, 1919, British authorities arrested nationalist leaders, and mass demonstrations erupted in Egyptian cities in support of national independence.
Men publicly led nationalist organizations, including the prominent Wafd Party. Women were active in these organization while also participating in emerging feminist movements. A women's march for freedom on March 16th in Cairo brought these developments together. Huma Shaarawi, an Egyptian nationalist and feminist, wrote about this march in her autobiography. Some women, including Shaarawi, participated in the march as part of family commitments to Egyptian independence, while other women defied their husbands or fathers to participate. Shaarawi’s description illustrates the planning that went into a protest that was described at times as spontaneous. Family and social networks connected nationalists, including Wafd leader Saad Zaghlul who had been arrested and exiled by British authorities on March 8th. As Shaarawi's text suggests, the Egyptian Revolution continued in the face of British oppression. Egyptians confronted British authorities across the country.


We got on the telephone again, telling as many women as possible that we would proceed according to schedule the following morning. Had we been able to contact more that a limited number of women, virtually all of the women of Cairo would have taken part in the demonstration.

On the morning of 16th March I sent placards to the house of the wife of Ahmad Bey Abu Usbaa [prominent nationalist], bearing slogans in Arabic and French painted in white on a background of black -- the color of mourning. Some of the slogans read ‘Long Live the Supporters of Justice and Freedom,’ others said ‘Down with the oppressors and Tyrants’ and ‘Down with Occupation.’

We assembled according to plan at the garden city park, where we left our carriages. Having agreed upon our route and carefully instructed the young women assigned to carry the flags and placards in front, we set out in columns toward the legation of the United States and intended to proceed from there to the legations of Italy and France. However, when we reached Qasr al-Aini Street, I observed that the young women in front were deviating from the original plan and had begun to head in the direction of Bait al-Umma (The House of the Nation), as Saad Zaghul’s house was called. I asked my friend Wagida Khulusi to find out why we were going to Saad Pasha’s house and she returned saying that the women decided it was a better route. According to our first plan we were to have ended our demonstration there. Reluctantly I went along with this change. No sooner were we approaching Zaghlul’s house than British troops surrounded us. They blocked the streets with machine guns, forcing us to stop along with the students who had formed columns on both sides of us.

I was determined the demonstration should resume. When I advanced, a British soldier stepped toward pointing his gun, but I made my way past him. As one of the women tried to pull me back, I shouted in a loud voice, ‘ Let me die so Egypt shall have an Edith Cavell’ (an English shot and killed by the Germans during the First World War who became an instant martyr). Continuing in the direction of the soldiers, I called upon the women to follow. A pair of arms grabbed me and the voice of Regina Khayyat rang in my ears. ‘This is madness. Do you want to risk the lives of the students? It will happen if the British raise a hand against you.’ At the thought of our unarmed sons doing battle against the weaponry of British troops, and of the Egyptian losses sure to occur, I came to my senses and stopped still. We stood still for three hours while the sun blazed down on us. The students meanwhile continued to encourage us, saying that the heat of the day would soon abate. Some of the students departed for the legations of the United States, France, and Italy, announcing that the British had surrounded the women in front of Saad Pasha’s house. I did not care if I suffered sunstroke--the blame would fall on the tyrannical British authority--but we stood up to the heat and suffered no harm. The British also brought out Egyptian soldiers armed sticks…

The women rebuked the soldiers...Yielding in the face of force, we made our way to our carriages. After departing from the scene we called on some of the legations to inform them of events to register protest against the Protectorate (imposed by the British in 1914) and martial law. We received courtesy but nothing more. Before returning home we promised to hold another demonstration.


Huda Shaarawi, trans. Margot Badran, Harem Years: Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist, 1879-1924 (New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1986), pp. 113-115, via Google Books.

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"Excerpts from Harem Years: Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist, 1879-1924," in World History Commons, [accessed August 9, 2022]