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Harem Years: Huda Shaarawi

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Anita Amirrezvani “Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist, 1879-1924. – book reviews”. Whole Earth Review

Huda Shaarawi, an upper-class Egyptian woman, was married at thirteen to an older cousin. But when her husband refused to divorce his first wife, Shaarawi returned to her mother’s house and remained there until their reconciliation seven years later. In this book of memoirs. Shaarawi vividly describes life in her father’s and then her husband’s harem, recounting the stings of being female and her numerous attempts to rebel. As a young woman, she scandalized her neighbors by visiting local shops in person; much later, she flouted convention by casting off her veil in public. In her late thirties, Shaarawi became a leading figure in the Egyptian revolution against the British and one of the Arab world’s first outspoken feminists. Although her memoirs of these active years are sketchy. her book is well worth reading for its rare portrayal of a strong-willed woman who flouted the conventions of the harem

I followed my mother into the sitting room, where we removed our izars, and sat down. Suddenly, she asked me why I had hidden the real cause of my unhappiness, whereupon I asked her what she meant. `Are you still trying to keep the truth from me?’ she asked. `I know all about your husband’s return to his former slave who is about to have a child.’ When I heard that I clapped my hands with joy. I rushed to my companion and confidante and told her the news that would bring the end to my misery. Amazed by my reaction, my mother demanded to know if I was feinting joy to conceal my real feelings and hide the fact that I had known about matters all along. I swore that it was the first I had heard of it and assured her that my happiness was genuine. I confessed that I had been in misery and that my constant tears were proof of it

At Cairo station one spring day in 1923, a crowd of women with veils and long, black cloaks descended from their horse-drawn carriages to welcome home two friends returning from an international feminist meeting in Rome. Huda Shaarawi and Saiza Nabarawi stepped out on to the running board of the train. Suddenly Huda- followed by Saiza, the younger of the two — drew back the veil from her face. The waiting women broke into loud applause. Some imitated the act. Contemporary accounts observed how the eunuchs guarding the women frowned with displeasure. This daring act signalled the end of the harem system in Egypt. At that moment, Huda stood between two halves of her life — one conducted within the conventions of the harem system and the one she would lead at the head of a women’s movement


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