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Huda Sha'rawi's 'Mudhakkirati': the memoirs of the first lady of Arab modernity.

Huda Sha'rawi's name is a household word in the Arab World, a name that calls up the image of an activist for women's rights and social change. Born in 1879, Sha'rawi entered public life in the period leading to Egypt's nationalist Revolution of 1919. She remained in the forefront of nationalist work and women's rights reform in the ensuing decades and was decorated with the state's highest honor, Nishan al-Kamal. Sha'rawi died in 1947. What is her legacy?

Huda Sha'rawi's Mudhakkirati (ed. Abd al-Hamid Fahmi Mursi, Cairo: Dar al-Hilal, 1981) has been read as an historical document, but what if we read it as literature, as adab (belle-lettres)? Adab in the Arabic tradition has always been a more open and democratic countryside than the snobbish modern realm of Literature (which emerged in the West only during the last hundred years and is now, under the barrage of postmodern theory, easing its border restrictions). Adab is not limited to fiction or to the clearly defined genres of high Literature. To its realm a work of ambiguous genre such as Sha'rawi's memoirs has no problem being admitted on several grounds. Leila Ahmed, in her groundbreaking study of this Arabic text, links Sha'rawi's text to the genre of seera dhatiya (autobiography) in classical adab (1988, 154-155). The possessive in the title declares the autobiographical pact (Lejeune 13-14), as do the embedded documents whose authorship the narrator claims and which are signed "Huda Sha'rawi." Certainly, the way Sha'rawi opens, "When I stand before the memories of my childhood . . ." announces her autobiographical intentions and easily calls to mind the model modern Arabic autobiography, Taha Husayn's Al-Ayyam (1929). Specifically, Mudhakkirati could be considered of the species of professional autobiography ("how I found my calling") which form part of the classical autobiographical heritage in Arabic (cf. Ghamdi).

We might also consider how portions of the memoirs draw on the rihla (travelogue) tradition of writing ("places I have been and things I have seen") and can be read as contributing, along with works such as Fadwa Tuqan's Rihla Sa'ba, Rihla Jabaliya and the third volume of al-Ayyam (translated as A Passage to France), to a modern Arabic corpus of autobiographical travel narrative. A small part of the text consists of diary entries, a modern element frequently appearing in women's lifewriting, particularly in American letters. Neither should we ignore the title's literal meaning, "memoirs," or the way the opening lines invoking childhood memories give way quickly to public documents about the 'Urabi nationalist movement, recalling that some critics separate between memoir and autobiography (e.g. Pascal). Yet we need not, according to Malti-Douglas, take "mudhakkirati" in as restrictive a sense as the translation would indicate (13), and the text's beginning section discourages such limitation.

In short, Sha'rawi's variegated text evokes the traditional literary heritage but brings other, less familiar, elements into it, in a pragmatic re-cutting of old fabric into new shapes that is the signature of her style and her message. What concepts does Sha'rawi's work generate, what scenarios and characters does she give us, what new voice does she author, and how does she add to our reservoir of cultural models? What is the significance of Sha'rawi's Memoirs for modern Arabic cultural studies?

Sha'rawi's Mudhakkirati writes the modern female individual into the Arabic literary tradition by achieving a public inscription of the heroic female ana ("I"), the female version of the Arab renaissance period's new individual, otherwise usually conceptualized in heroic male terms. Her memoirs loosen the language of tradition and change the meaning of its words, just as in her life she loosened the sartorial symbol of tradition and changed the meaning of its name. These are not radical feminist aims but contributions to the moderate modernist reform of Arabic tradition, as befits Sha'rawi's status as a Lady, a leading Lady of Egypt in the late khedival-monarchical era. The unique significance of her contribution to modern Arabic culture is both limited and enriched by her class status. Despite the fact that Sha'rawi's "woman" is untheorized and almost always conceptualized as upper-class, Sha'rawi's rich narration of a life of intense social interaction and political activism during a time of local and global change releases an amplitude of voices in tension with the controlling purposes of the Lady narrator. Just as the lower-class female peddlers whom she does not trust wheedle their ways into the houses of the wealthy, these dynamic voices insinuate themselves in the narrative and undermine Sayida Huda's ideological concerns, making her text all the more valuable for the successors to modern Arabic culture.

Mudhakkirati (an unfinished work interrupted by Sha'rawi's death) evolves in three stages from autobiography to memoir. The first eleven chapters, with the important exception of the chapters on her father's relationship to the 'Urabi movement, flow in generally chronological order and satisfy typical expectations for autobiography, ranging over such topics as "my father," "our house," "my mother," "my education and daily routine." Here is the sister-peer, shaqiqa, putting into the narrative style of interior monologue a claim for the equal and ineffable selfhood of the female individual, daughter and heiress to the same legacy as the valorized man of the Arab renaissance. In the small section from chapters twelve to seventeen, the mature woman's self-consciousness rises from private journal entries to the level of the world stage as the narrative moves into her emerging public life. The interior monologue begins to alternate with the public speech of the nationalist lady, sayida. In the third tier, roughly from chapter eighteen on, the lady activist takes the identity of a leader, ra'isa, and the narrative is more and more interspersed with the letters, lectures, and communiques that constitute her public voice and yet simultaneously reduce her authorial control over the text. In this narrative collage, documents authored by Sha'rawi and those with whom she communicated are braided together by a connecting narrative to enact the rise of the Egyptian woman in the person of Sayida Huda Sha'rawi.


Sha'rawi's text shows her negotiation of maximum dividends out of old and venerable cultural concepts for the benefit of the feminist nationalism/nationalist feminism she espoused. The move to claim legitimacy for the new female individual by affirming its authentic patrilineage appears in two ways: in the functions of the father and the brother in the text and in the introduction of reforms under the cover of conventional language. Sha'rawi begins her memoirs with her father (or more precisely with her memory of the moment his death was not announced to her five-year-old self), establishing a legitimate lineage for the autonomous nationalist-feminist woman she will propose and textually enact. She tells of his father's and his family's virtues in a manner evoking traditional Arab attitudes of genealogical pride. But that is not enough; she must clear his name from the charges that he supported the entry of the British colonizers into Egypt by opposing the ultra-nationalist 'Urabi movement. Thus she enters the lists as her father's champion, rallying newspaper articles and witnesses to his defense against his slanderers. This beginning injects the text with the anxiety of her class about the double-edgedness of its role as cautious collaborators with the British on one hand and ardent Egyptian nationalists on the other, an uneasy duality not directly acknowledged.

From the narrative emerges a Lady much of whose power comes from upper-class status and alliance with men who shared a particular intersection of class, ideology, and political interests. These men, as they appear in Sha'rawi's memoir, were the gentlemen of the Nahda(1) who responded to the call for an Arab awakening, who moved away from the moribund values of the generations before them of their own class and became the cavalry of Arab intellectual modernity, the knights of Arab political independence. Despite their initial discomfort and the inconvenience of breaking old habits, the "liberation" of "woman," (as it was defined by men in their era) fit, to a certain degree, with their image of themselves as "civilized" people on the model of "the civilized nations," and with their national and class interests. This loose social grouping embraced Islamic reformist Muhammad Abduh as well as Qasim Amin, that pariah among Islamic conservatives; it included Sayida Huda's much older husband Ali Basha Sha'rawi as well as her younger brother Umar.

Sha'rawi's memoirs often refer to her brother Umar as shaqiqi: He is her equal, peer, brother from the same mother as well as the same father; shaqiqi means all these things and implies "other half," as of something cloven in half, coming as it does from the verb shaqqa, to tear. Frequently the sister and brother are included in one dual form, e.g. "the two children" (tiflayn), as in the sentence Sayida Huda will never forget:(2)

Then there came that day which it is not possible for me to forget, ever. I was playing with my brother when there came to us suddenly the sound of a loud scream. It filled the expanses of the house and fear filled my heart. I and my brother clung to our nanny. At that moment my wetnurse came running, wrapping herself in black, and she shouted, "The news about the Basha has proven true, so give me, Siyah, the two children (tiflayn) and I will take them to Mas'ud Basha's house so they will not be disturbed by the screaming and shrieking." This sentence rings in my ear until this day and its echo still reverberates in my depths. Its fervor still singes my heart and my self. . . . (11)

It is in the distillation of such dramatic moments and the assigning to them of meaning by weaving into them the complex network of tensions between then and "until this day," between classes, between genders, between memory and language, that Sha'rawi's narrative mastery shines. The boy and the girl in the lap of the nanny are referred to by the wetnurse in one word, Arabic's dual form for "the children" (al-tiflayn), reflecting on the microlevel of grammar one of the larger themes of the narrative which might be phrased thus: "Women's equality to men, at least within the same class, is the logical implication of a promise made by our first language, by our Arabic culture, and by the ideology of our class, and we must see to it that this implicit promise is honored." The specific occasions of favoring the brother over the sister, with its violation of the implied promise of this grammatical unit is the first narrative mention of gender as an issue (33). As Ahmed points out, there are reasons why the first occasions of boy-favoring would contradict the daughter's expectations of equality, expectations developed from the segregated domestic context itself: ". . . the practice of segregation and the importance of the larger, as opposed to nuclear, family would make women the presiding presences in many households. This phenomenon, as part of the order of childhood, could contribute to a strong sense of self-worth and personal empowerment for girls and women; such an order could nurture a conviction of the innate and 'natural,' even though not societal, ascendancy of women. In this case the society's formal and explicit gender system, valuing boys over girls, could have been experienced by girls as bizarre, unreasonable laws. . . ." (1988, 167) Sha'rawi's text tells the story of her coming into feminism as a natural growth, not a radical break with the past or tradition. Sha'rawi's case for feminism is a plea for honoring the promise in the word shaqiqi and the primal childhood experience associated with this word.

The woman emerging from Sha'rawi's text as the shaqiqa is based on the model of the new, autonomous Arab human which lay at the heart of the Nahda and the ideologies intersecting in Egypt's nationalist independence movement. Insan (human) and insaniya (humanism) run through her text as important if nebulous concepts among that almost-first tier of the ruling elite in Egypt, those gentlemen- and ladies-in-waiting just below the Turkish royals, waiting for Britain to apply to Egypt the liberal humanist beliefs enunciated, for example, in Wilson's Fourteen Points. They hoped and waited, like Sayida Huda and her family waiting at the empty train station in Europe on 1 August 1914, for the liberal humanist train to stop for them. No one told Sayida Huda and Ali Basha that the train was taking soldiers to the war that would kill liberal humanism.

Even when the war's aftermath made clear the Eurocentric limitations of the European nations' commitment to humanism, Sha'rawi's language reveals that hope and trust in humanism did not die in Egypt: If the European nations oppressed Egypt, it is because they fail to live up to their humanist ideals, not because those ideals might be inherently flawed. In protest letter after protest letter included in the Memoirs, Sha'rawi's organization rebukes the British for not living up to their own honorable principles (204), even quoting their own MacCauley at them for shame (217-220). Just as Sha'rawi's nationalist feminism calls on Arab men of the dominant class to live up to their own chivalric values and affirms these values while seeking to extend them to women, her feminist nationalism is articulated in terms which refer to "the civilized nations" as the ultimate criterion for universal values. (The Wafd, the party which sought independence from and supplanted the British, articulates its nationalist aims in similar terms, in texts Sha'rawi includes.) She recounts how the Egyptian delegation to the International Women's Conference in Rome in 1923 vowed "that we would follow in the footsteps of the women of Europe in the awakening of our women so that we could take our land to its rightful place among the genteel nations (al-umam al-raqiya) . . ." (252). The language of the agenda submitted by the Sha'rawi-led Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU) to the government reiterates the reasoning that their feminist program is needed, not because of its inherent rightness, but because Egypt needs "to reach a level of glory and might like that reached by the civilized nations" (262). That such an agenda is validated by the "spirit of religion," as they add, is a secondary justification, not a primary truth value in which their arguments are grounded, which is understandable given the need to find in insaniya common ground on which Copts and Muslims, men and women, could build an Egyptian nationstate.

However, the linguistic sign and what it signifies - the word and what it means-exist on two separate planes which shift and slide, especially during times of political and social transition. Insaniya is one of those words in Sha'rawi's memoirs which exhibit this flux. The insan is constantly referred to "the civilized nations" for the standard of what he, and now she too, is to be. Simultaneously, insaniya seems watered by a spring of Arab values, suggesting that it is a term for a symbiosis of elements. For example, the narrator relates that during a harrowing escape from a houseboat fire, Huda Hanim rebukes the young men of quality who stand heckling instead of helping, "Has chivalry (muru'a) lost its supporters that you do not aid me or offer me a carriage?" The narrator adds, "I recall this incident with distress, noting that some of our youth remain, to this day, unmoved by anything but what is for the sake of personal benefit. Humane feelings (al-masha'ir al-insaniya), on the other hand, are weak, almost extinguished, among many of them . . ." (107). Here, insaniya is evoked as the modern form of that most ancient and manly of Arab ideals, chivalry (muru'a). Yet insaniya also appears in many places as a trait of women, or more properly of ladies. The narrator recalls that when the Princess 'Ain al-Hayat asked Sayida Huda to support her endeavor to establish a clinic, she confided, "I have a larger goal: It is to nurture the spirit of cooperation and assistance between the princesses and the Egyptian ladies, so that this project will be built upon the foundation of humanistic nationalistic emotion (al-'atifa al-insaniya al-qawmiya)" (120). The hospital she founded remains, we are told, a place where humanitarian (insaniya) services are rendered until "now" (122).

Honor (sharaf), valor (shahama), and possessiveness or protective jealousy (ghira) are related concepts drawn from Arabic culture which seem to enter into insaniya as qualities required in nation-building and as qualities of the new woman of the Nahda. They are traditional heroic qualities, celebrated in Arab poetic traditions of patriotism or hamasa, the boast in its collective form. In the nationalist and feminist discourses represented in the documents of the memoir, Sha'rawi and her movement are praised by others for exhibiting these supposedly manly qualities. Nationalist hero Sa'd Zaghloul, for example, writes glowingly of Sayida Huda's ghira in a 25 May 1921 letter to her, at a moment when his political agenda agreed with hers (274). "There is no one in Egypt who can deny the possessiveness (ghira) and valor (shahama) shown by her and her Committee in protesting the policies of Nasim Basha's administration," declares an unnamed newspaper in mid-November 1923 (284). Sha'rawi is careful to include these documents in her memoirs. Like the naming of the father, the invocation of these concepts grounds Sha'rawi's modernism in exemplary traditional values.


Sha'rawi's fuzzy use of the terms "woman" (mar'a) and "lady" (sayida) show the class borders of her feminism. The narrator first mentions "woman" (mar'a) as a general category when describing Helwan. Sayida Huda says she loved their stays in this suburb; it was the winter seat of the Khedival court and on holidays, "most of the great families" of Cairo amused themselves in its bistros and stage-plays. Especially, she adds, since "woman (mar'a) did not go out much in the cities at that time, so she used to find in Helwan some freedom which she did not enjoy in Cairo, and women (nisa') would go there for recreation" (73). This after the narrator has regaled the reader with stories of the female peddlers, the female door-to-door storyteller and perfumer, the shaikha who recites the prayer on the occasion of Nisf Sha'ban every year, and the serving women who stream in and out of the house every day on errands in the city. The masses of Cairo's poor urban women certainly did not go out to the resorts in search of amusement every Friday, Sunday, or holiday. The narrator's use of words shows her early assumption that the experience of very small category of women who are ladies, women of the "great families," represents the condition of "woman" (mar'a) in general, and prepares for her later tendency to speak on behalf of the Egyptian "mar'a." The silliest example of this assumption is the tennis-court liberation fiasco: Young Huda Hanim and a close friend have been thinking hard to come up with "a good, practical way to arrive at improving the condition of the Egyptian woman (al-mar'a al-masriya) and easing it for her. And we lit upon beginning our project by directing woman (mar'a) to practice physical exercise first of all, and urging her toward the arena of social life and encouraging her to study arts and literature . . . thus combining intellectual and physical exercise. We decided to begin by making a tennis court. . ."(99). They actually succeed in causing a tennis court to be built on the estate of a cooperative Basha-for the sake of "the Egyptian woman." Alas, when they throw a tennis party, nobody plays. While young Sayida Huda, the character in the memoir, learns a practical lesson from this, Huda Sha'rawi, the narrator, is still using "woman" when she means "lady," until the "now" of writing.

The narrator's class loyalty sideswipes her gender consciousness entirely in the case of Fatanat, the lower-class divorcee who finds refuge with young Huda's mother. Sayida Huda waxes nostalgic about the calm and order and harmony of her childhood home, much of which, she notes, was provided by servants and slaves who knew their work and were faithful to their masters back in those days. "But every paradise, it seems, must have its Satan," and their Satan "took the form of a corpulent woman, short of stature, round of face, green of eye, sharp of glance, thin of lip, with a protruding nose like a parrot's beak" (59). Fatanat was a Circassian freedwoman married to a clerk in the late Basha's village; when her husband takes a second wife she leaves him and appears at the Sha'rawi home with his orphaned niece whom she is raising. The good lady of the manor provides refuge and sends for the husband. Sayida Huda describes the scene that ensued:

She swore she would not return to him and demanded divorce. Before her obstinacy he could do nothing but divorce her. But this did not happen before we witnessed a sight the likes of which we had never seen in our lives: Fatanat rose in revolt (tha'ira), opening her trunks and pulling out his clothing and flinging it from the window to the far ends of the house; she would have thrown his niece at him too, because he asked for her. The whole time, there reached our hearing a variety of curses and slurs we had never heard before. (59)

Busybody Fatanat wreaks havoc on young Huda's relationships in the household after she is settled among the mother's attendants. Yet when the narrator offers the similar story of the upper-class 'Atiyya Hanim, a relative of her mother who lodges with them after leaving a marriage ruined by polygamy, Huda Hanim brings out all manner of delicate feelings and excuses for the jealousies and annoying interventions of this lady in her life. Moreover, while Fatanat is a parrot-beaked devil, 'Atiyya is "beautiful" (90), "the model of decency, purity, integrity, and perfection" (97). Fatanat's insistence on divorce is reported with censure while Lady 'Atiyya's is justified. Fatanat's story is a comic interlude; 'Atiyya Hanim's sad story is almost, the narrator says, "the archetype of the life of an Eastern woman (mar'a) in that era." Most importantly, 'Atiyya Hanim's story is reported in 'Attiya's direct discourse, while the narrator tells us Fatanat's story in the third person; the reader never gets to know those colorful curses.

There is some evolution in Huda Sha'rawi's use of the terms mar'a and sayida. In early chapters, she uses "woman" (mar'a) when she is actually speaking about the condition of a much smaller group, i.e. ladies (sayidat). In the central chapters where she speaks about the group of upper-class women who organized in support of the Wafd and the push for Egyptian independence, she uses the more precise and frank term, "ladies." Soon, this Wafd Central Committee for Ladies (Lajnat al-Wafd al-Markaziya li al-Sayidat) was not enough to sustain the dynamism of what is taking shape as a movement of Egyptian women, so Sha'rawi led women in forming the Egyptian Feminist Union, literally "the Egyptian women's union" (al-Ittihad al-Nisa'i al-Masri). The term nisa'i, from nisa, women, has no singular form. Al-Ittihad al-Nisa'i al-Masri was called l'Union Feministe Egyptienne in French, adding the meaning "feminist" to the Arabic word nisa'i, but without erasing its general collective reference to women. While ladies constituted most of the group at first, middle-class membership grew, and the group's agendas began to reflect issues concerning women across classes, although some of its priorities reflected the class bias of the group.

In the first tier of the memoir spanning Sha'rawi's early years, the text is more tightly crafted into story than elsewhere. Yet a plenitude of voices hums under the narrative attempt at monologue and the text can be read against the grain of authorial control. What is not stated, but made available to the reader by the text itself, is that enormous class inequalities also violate insaniya and are addressed neither by Sha'rawi's feminist critique of gender inequality nor her nationalist critique of British oppression. Throngs of household servants buzz "like bees" through the story (57); droves of women peddlers crowd the foyer and the text; "the poor" overrun the streets on holidays waiting for charity from the great house. The vitality of those people exceeds her controlling purpose. Their voices are kept at bay by the hand of the narrator as she tries to balance between describing the development of her self and describing the people whose energies and utterances contributed to it. She subordinates that potential discursive plurality to her unified voice by evading their direct discourse and keeping their characters half-acknowledged on the margins of the story. She does not, for example, allow the recital of the servants' nightly lifestories, with which they fascinated the children, to enter the narrative as direct discourse, although her own manner of storytelling, particularly her thrilling manner with dramatic incidents, surely owes much to the servants. She repeats only fragments of the servants' speech so that its charm cannot attract the reader; enough that the wetnurse's sentence is still ringing in her ear. Only enough of the, women peddlers' discourse is reported so that Sayida Huda can warn her reader against the wiles of these homewreckers, although it is from them that she used to secretly buy the cheap storybooks that were the only Arabic reading she could lay hands on. The text of the awe-inspiring prayer (du'a) recited by the female religious elder (shaikha) on the occasion of the full moon of the lunar month of Sha'ban is omitted. These discursive presences return subtly, in the form of motifs, such as the recurrent image of the saintly woman in the white headdress (tarha). Fatanat's shrill voice lingers at the edges of the text's corridors. The hordes of the poor resurface as the revolutionary masses in the chapters on the Revolution of 1919; in the third tier the narrative method changes to one in which the narrator's will to narrate singly is partially relinquished to more collective utterances released in post-Revolution Egypt.


A striking example of the way in which an alternative meaning for one of the narrator's characters resurfaces from underneath the design imposed by the narrator in the early chapters is the mother in the text. The Caucasus-born, Turkish-bred mother represents Huda Hanim's corporal link to the extra-Arab Islamic world, a world, in the period chronicled, slowly being eclipsed by Europe as the motherlode of values, the determiner of boundaries. The implications of Sha'rawi's deliberate choice to under-emphasize the influence of her mother in her organization of the narrative material should not be missed, as Leila Ahmed points out (1992, 178). Readers need not, however, accept Sha'rawi's understanding as final, since the text contains other possibilities.

The narrative begins with a supine mother who produces in the daughter a pity and resentment held tightly in rein by the narrator. Sayida Huda does not mention her mother until chapter three, and even then she introduces her through the motif of the father's death. The chapter opens thus:

My mother had not yet reached the age of twenty-five when my father died in the city of Graz, Austria. I still remember, until now, the day the news of my beloved father's death reached us. Then there were the days of deep mourning that we passed, and the long gloomy years during which blackness draped all the furniture and equipment of the house. The news fell like a lightning bolt upon my mother's head. I still remember her image supine in her bed with the doctors hovering around her every now and again. They would take me and my brother and we would stand beside her bed. Whereupon she would glance at us with sadness and then her utterances would choke her and she would put her head under the cover and say, "Take the two children away from me! (ab'idu al-tiflayn 'anni!)" (32).

The pair of children would go to the next room where their father's first wife was in no better state. "Big Mommy" (Mama al-kabira) is another passive mother. This mother also occupies the place of illiteracy, sadness, and acquiescence, mitigated by her willingness to tell the little girl the truths from which the rest of the household shelters the child (71).

"I still remember her image (surataha):" The insertion of "image" between "I still remember" and "her" allows the meaning of the mother to remain open. Although Sayida Huda maintains a narrative distance from her mother, only rarely reporting her direct discourse or describing her directly, the mother's voice in the narration belies the narrator's attempt to freeze her as a lethargic figure. Slowly, the mother frozen in the narrative by the primacy given the father's death thaws into the animated mother, whose utterances are not choked but rise into the text with increasing resonance:

And today I close my eyes and I retrieve memories of these empty rooms one by one. I see my mother on her knees sewing clothes on a white sheet spread on the mat in the middle of her room, or sitting on the stool before the handloom on which she used to weave our clothes, or playing backgammon or cards with her friends laughing and amused if she was winning, or discussing certain issues, her voice, which we were accustomed to being subdued, rising as she defended her point of view. (57)

Here the writer performs the quintessential act of the Arab poet, the imaginative standing at the deserted homesite, al-waqf 'ala al-atlal and the invoking of those who used to inhabit it. The image of the mother comes to life in response to the narrator's call to memory, her body to action, her voice to speech, her hands to creativity. The clothes made by the creative activity of the mother both adorn and stifle:

But there were many of these garments which used to make me choke and sullied my serenity and stripped me of the joy and cheer of Eid when they were woven contrary to my wishes. And it used to increase my sorrow and pain that I could not articulate this; I was always expected to accept them, small and grateful and without offering any observations or objections. . . . These old customs and traditions deprived me of enjoying the benefits and advantages they had to offer, with the excuse that it was inappropriate for small ones to object or offer an opinion. . . . And my mother, may God have mercy on her, was conservative and observant of traditions. . . . And she was inclined to charity and kindness, and that is why the poor had a large portion of her munificence . . . (52-53).

Thus we learn that there is an animated mother who has friends, makes clothes, engages in charitable activities whose influence as possible models for Huda Hanim's own charitable activities later is never acknowledged. In fact, her mother's participation in the establishment of a clinic sponsored by the first Lady Cromer is deliberately buried by the narrator and comes out as an incidental detail in a story about Sayida Huda's work on the establishment of a second clinic sponsored by Princess Ain al-Hayat and conceived as a more authentically Egyptian project than the Cromer precedent (119-120). The animated mother made her home a hub of social activity, a haven for sojourners, and a halfway house for women with sad stories:

Her home was open to every visitor and every caller, because my mother was benevolent and democratic. So our house was almost never empty of guests for a whole day. Often their stay would lengthen given what they found of goodwill and generous treatment, and often guests would appear suddenly, at both convenient and inconvenient times. So our table was always ready to receive guests and our guestroom prepared for the sojourn of lodgers. . . . The "salamlik" [reception room for male guests] was a docking place for relatives and employees. (33)

In the narrator's description is an understated awareness of the worth of the mother's "democratic" openness yet no acknowledgment of it as a source for the grown daughter's readiness to open her house to the public, or at least to large numbers of middle class women. The narrator's description of the child's response to this hospitality suggests her lack of appreciation for this "democracy:"

Often I would rebel against this intrusion of uninvited guests (tatafful) which forced me to leave my room to one of the guests or to share it with her. I always preferred the former, since I am discomforted by certain odors and from the lack of a change of air in my room.

The child is sullen at the invasion of her personal space by these parasites [tufailiyat-my word-whence comes her word tatafful] who have the temerity to smell bad, which implies that their class status may have been a little lower than her own.

We are already far from the supine mother. From the animated mother to the angry mother is a short distance. The angry mother appears in the narrative when the girl enters marriageable age. The narrator reports the mother's angry voice rising in the background of those chapters, as a sound she overhears in a semi-conscious state between sleeping and waking (70-71). The mother is angry about the unwanted suitor from the palace, then she is angry about arranging the girl's marriage to her middle-aged cousin-guardian, and finally she is angry at him, the husband. Meanwhile, the narrator reproduces in the reader the girl's position of ignorance about the significance of the mother's anger throughout her fifteen months of married life. Finally the narrator reveals that the angry mother had negotiated a pre-nuptial agreement. What the narrator does not explicitly say is that she who could read had wrested a written contract out of the husband to safeguard the daughter from the very experience of the mother as younger wife of a much older polygamous man. That is what all the angry conversations were about, and this action of the angry mother prefigures Sayida Huda's later work to restrict polygamy in Egypt, and such buried connections in the text show how Sha'rawi's feminism sprouted not from an experience of victimization, not by escape to foreign climes, but by catching light rains in local soils.

It is not the husband's violation of this agreement but the mother's knowledge of his violation, and her passing of the knowledge to her daughter and informing her of the pre-nuptial agreement, which results in suspension of the marriage and Huda Hanim's movement from the marital quarters to her own "wing" of the patrimonial house. This happens in a confrontational scene between Huda Hanim, her mother, and her husband. The mother, who has just learned of the husband's doings on a social call to relatives, enters the house, removes her cloak, and demands to know why Huda has not confided in her that the reason for her unhappiness is the husband's resumption of marriage with his first wife (who is of lower class). This is news to Huda Hanim, who is unhappy with the marriage for her own reasons related to its intrusion on her autonomy. Enter the husband. Mother and daughter confront him; he is caught. Huda Hanim takes advantage of the moment and turns from her husband to her mother, performing what is "arguably her most daring and authoritative act-the act of leaving a marriage in defiance of husband and family" (Ahmed, 1992, 178). The husband attempts reconciliation but the mother is described as "in a state of revolt and anger" (fi halat thawra wa ghadab) (83)-recalling termagant Fatanat's rising "in revolt" at her husband's suggestion she return to him (qamat . . . tha'ira) (59). It is the angry mother who has provided her daughter with the space - the fresh air - she needs to continue her education and self-development. Huda Hanim greets the separation with relief. This place opened under the "mother's wing" is the space of a growing personal autonomy, the womb wherein the embryonic self is to be nurtured. At one point, when the mother hears the estranged husband has manipulatively withdrawn funding for a seaside vacation Huda Hanim desires for a "change of air," she promptly goes and rents for her daughter a house in the seaside resort at her own expense and "allows" Huda Hanim to travel there with an aunt (88). She also grants her "permission," after a great deal of persuasion, for Huda Hanim to go shopping for the first time; what wins her over is their shared mother-daughter class animosity toward the peddlers whose middlewoman profit the ladies' newfound mobility will eliminate.

The mother wields a great deal more power than the narrator wishes to discuss. She both grants autonomous space and delimits its borders; she stands for a suffocating traditionalism yet offers her daughter a path through it. The narrator admits to ambivalence toward her mother when depicting the effect of her mother's death: "I cannot describe what deep grief befell me at the loss of my mother, toward whom I felt two conflicting emotions . . . filial emotion and maternal emotion, which had merged during her long illness . . ." (152). The text returns us to the supine mother, but now the daughter's pity and resentment at the mother's posture has matured into a more empathetic awareness of her powers and a protective knowledge of her limitations. Still, it is only by reading against the way Sha'rawi chose to organize the text that the reader can resurrect the powerful, angry mother.


The first eleven chapters, except for the Urabi material, tell the story of the journey to acquisition of voice by the girl who had been left outside the door of Arabic self-articulation, and they constitute a claim to authority over her life and her story. (This claim is complicated by the collaborative nature of this memoir project given the editing role of her secretary, Abd al-Hamid Fahmi Mursi. However, Mursi is much closer to the subordinate role of ghostwriter to the great than to the controlling role, described by Lejeune, of the ethnographer or recorder of those who do not write for themselves (195-196). This journey culminates in a moment of self-awareness in chapter twelve. Soon after this discovery of the "I" (ana), the narrative voice clearly emerges as that of a public figure, not a private woman in search of an individual identity. The shift in narrative inflection from personal monologue to public lecture occurs in chapters twelve through seventeen, where the earlier and later narrative methods meet side by side. In these chapters, the mother passes away and the old Europe dies; Sha'rawi discovers that she wants to be her own autonomous self and Egypt demands independence; the ancien regimes of the world totter and a new pace of flux begins and it is bewildering, polyphonic, and exhilarating.

In chapter twelve, the retrospective narration of past events is interrupted by the inclusion of entries from Huda Hanim's private journal for selected dates in the summer of 1914. The jump into journal entries is a brief experiment. Instead of the narrator representing her younger self to her reader, she temporarily gives us over to that self and its impressions of the moment. Huda Hanim has embarked on a journey to Europe, her first trip abroad without her mother, to seek with her sick brother the health benefits of a "change of air," European air being frequently recommended as a cure for what ailed Egyptians. Her thoughts are on her ill mother while she talks with European women pacifists as Europe girds for war. While her husband the Basha is taking the waters for his health, she wanders the parks with her children feeling at loose ends without her mother's usual companionship. There, cut off from many of the resources at her command in Egypt, she discovers the meaning of personal autonomy by its lack, and writes in her journal on 10 July 1914:

Oof, how long last night was for me. And how heavy is this melancholy day! I shall spend the whole period of "Ie cure" - the treatment - in this way . . . deprived of the bits of my freedom with which I rise to the clouds on the shoulders of my thoughts and remembrances, alone with them away from every distraction and distracter, among my books and my reveries, my dreams and my illusions, my prayer and my worship, my past and my present. In short, my true life. My personal life, in which I am me (ana) . . . with my self . . . for or against it, depending on the situation . . . So, until we meet again, O "I!" (ya ana) (138).

Here, finally, the claim to an identity as a modern individual of the Arab Nahda in female form is made explicit. Here the speaker defines herself as an individual in the gender-neutral term of the first-person singular: ana. It has to be done in the form of the first-person journal entry; the claim to a space of gender-neutral selfhood would be marked with a grammatical feminine specificity had she described this "self' in the third-person. The intimacy of the journal entry is allowed only once again in the text - to record her reaction to the news of her mother's death. Huda Hanim, writing in her diary, names this "ana" but immediately adds that while she is in Europe, it is in a suspended state. She must return to Egypt (not to mention a well-equipped writing desk in her wing of a well-serviced house) to put her identity into action by using the pen and the podium. During the narration of her shift from Europe to Egypt at the outbreak of war, the Huda Hanim who is a character within the memoirs has a moment of economic insight to go with her existential one. Swaying on a ship in the Mediterranean and glimpsing through the fog the possibility of the end of aristocracy, Huda Hanim suddenly realizes she has no marketable skills. She is reassured to recall, however, that she and her children could live off her jewels - her legacy from father, mother, husband, class. Tradition has its advantages and they are not to be thrown into the sea. The "I" of the 10 July entry is defined, then, in terms of a personal autonomy that is taken for granted by men of Huda Hanim's class but, of course, is available to neither men nor women of the lowest classes. This privileged approach to the definition of women's priorities is common to women's movements in many nations, but, as Carolyn Heilbrun points out, it is their privilege which enables women of this class to generate new feminine consciousness: "Who else has the time and money for such thoughts, for the enactment of such daring?" (63).

The private and public voices are impossible to separate because of Sha'rawi's unique position in a class and family of public officials. Is the "ana" in her journals an attempt to reach around the names which indicate her social position, around the clothes imposed on her by her mother, toward some true self? Is it an attempt to retrieve some pre-gendered self who was a twin-equal, a shaqiq, and who was promised, in some primordial grammatical contract, real selfhood (a promise she believed so intensely that she says she nearly lost the will to live when her beloved brother died in the prime of their young adulthood)? The very narration of her brother's death is intertwined with Sha'rawi's narration of growing Egyptian resentment toward the British and interrupted by gossip about a divorcee in the khedival family, verses from the court poet Ahmad Shawqi, and a quote from a French newspaper editorializing about the British deposing of the Khedive who, like her brother, was pro-Turkey during the War. Her "I" is and is not, at the same time, a person who takes pride in signing herself the wife of Ali Basha Sha'rawi (rendered sometimes as "haram Sha'rawi basha" and sometimes as "Madame Sha'rawi") and in being Nur-ul-Huda the daughter of Muhammad Sultan Basha. That person is Huda Sha'rawi, which is how her correspondences in the latter portion of the memoirs are signed and how she named herself for posterity. An autobiography brings together an author, a narrator, and the younger self, described within the text. This text is narrated by a subject whom I characterize as a lady narrator. Huda Sha'rawi is the flesh-and-blood woman authoring/dictating the narrative. These three subjects meet in the signature of "Huda Sha'rawi" within the text.

The first time Huda Sha'rawi "arose to the pulpit," as she puts it (159), is when she eulogizes sister feminist Malak Hifni Nasef (158-160). Her "first protest" in the cause of the nationalist revolution, she proudly states, is a letter to the wife of a British official (185-187). Both these speech acts are transitional, being semi-public versions of private speech (the eulogy is given to an audience of ladies at a memorial; the letter is addressed to the official's wife but intended for the official and is reviewed by the Wafd Party before being sent).

By the middle of this narrative section, Sha'rawi is narrating, almost exclusively, events in Egyptian political history. This is accomplished as if it were the most natural thing in the world for the narrator to have told the reader, up to now, so much about the personal sensibilities, private pastimes, and familial relationships of Huda Hanim, only to drop these topics and narrate her political views, civic activities, and public relationships exclusively from here on. The final cut-off is when she recounts Malak Nasef's death, beginning with a sentence which fuses the private and the public voices: "I would like, before I speak about political life in Egypt in the period which followed the First World War, and about what resulted from it in terms of events which led to the Revolution of 1919. . . . I would like, before that, to speak about an event which occurred in those days, and had an effect and a bearing on my psyche and my thinking" (158). This was the death of Nasef. Sha'rawi's moving narration of her initial denial of personal grief and focus on Egypt's deprivation, followed by her admission of the pain of losing "the Bahitha" ("I used to search for her in the critical days that we traversed during the Revolution and after it, and I would call to her within my self, but her voice responded only within my conscience" [15960]) is the last time she will tell us what had an effect on her inner life. From that point on, her word choices take on the inflection of a lecturer. "We have said that Egypt was under the yoke of military rule . . ." she says in chapter fourteen, assuming for the first time the lofty first-person plural to refer to herself alone (165). This history-lecturer's tone asserts that, just as she is a legitimate actor in public life outside the text, the lady is an authoritative transmitter and interpreter of the modern political history of her nation, with a range of subject matter as wide as that of a MacCauley, or a Tabari.


The Revolution of 1919 broke out after the news of Sa'd Zaghloul's exile spread, despite the fact that the British military leadership forbade the newspapers to publish it. Sha'rawi's unfolding of the story of the outbreak takes up four chapters and belongs with the world's great commentaries on historical revolutions. After the farewell to Nasef, the narrator recreates for the reader the terse meeting of Sa'd Basha, Ali Sha'rawi, and Abdul Aziz Fahmi with British high commissioner Reginald Wingate on 13 November 1918, in which the Egyptians request the right to represent themselves at the Paris peace talks. Egypt is, as the men put it, "concerned about her future." Wingate offers evasion and excuses and quotable gems including "Egypt has been a slave to Turkey; would she be more lowly if she becomes a slave to England?!" The Egyptians offer guarantees of Britain's geopolitical interests in Egypt and "the friendship of the free with the free," object to martial law and the clampdown on speech and assembly, and express the desire for independence from the Mandate (162-3). Egyptian disinclination notwithstanding, Britain goes ahead with its plans for this arranged marriage (as it were). Sa'd Basha is arrested on 8 March 1919 and sent to Malta. Sha'rawi cannot write quickly enough - that is, the linear line is not adequate for expressing the burst of nearly simultaneous activity that ensued: "The revolution burst into flames" and the "ladies' movement" arose; the students went on strike, followed by the tram workers, merchants, Azhar University students, the lawyers' union, and unspecified masses (166-7). British brutality in suppressing demonstrations by firing indiscriminately on the crowds provoked "the anger of the people" and more demonstrations (167). When news of the killing, wounding, and arresting of protesters spread,

the anger overflowed and raged. Its manifested itself in one form in all the vicinities of the land without contrivance or prior agreement: The ripping up of the iron rails between Tanta and Tala began on the thirteenth day of March. Then the rails were ripped up in many directions, in one upsurge. The destruction and demolition took the telegraph and telephone cables and even the shafts of the railway, because the hands of the revolutionaries reached them.

This demolition was not devoid of purpose aimed at by the revolutionaries with a deliberate design: to obstruct the armed trains and patrol units from circulating in the cities and villages to collect arms and search houses and harm people. Yet the greater motivation for the destruction and demolition was a defiant impetus without specific intent . . . the impetus of the wrathful who does not know what to do with his wrath . . . as if in this defiant revolt he wants the world to hear him even if it is in the smashing of his own furniture and the burning of his own house (168-9).

It is only in women - Fatanat and the mother - that anger has previously flared in the memoir. The two terms used to describe these women, anger (ghadab) and revolt (thawra), reappear in the text to describe Egypt's 1919 Revolution against the British Mandate. From angry women who rise in revolt, with and without design, and throw belongings and husbands out of their houses and lives, encountered in the narration of the early years, the reader has arrived at the narration of public, nationalist anger. Sha'rawi offers this explanation of the reason for the sudden explosion:

The people had indeed endured for some time the oppressions of war and its effects. Then they had waited for relief after the armistice. But all they got were draughts of bitter failure. They were made to dread the anxieties of the future after having been made to dread the anxieties of the years past. Added to the bitterness was that they were experiencing all this subjugation at a time when the calls for justice were ringing out and reverberating with glory and hope. What's more, they were asking for an easy thing, the right to complain and protest, and they were confronted with threats and banishment from the land (168).

Sha'rawi here suggests that the War years had laid bare the concealed contradictions of imperialist ideology and depleted the patience of the people (especially the educated upper class) with the explanation that colonialism was being done for humanitarian reasons and that the colonized could not rule themselves because they were not capable. Her description of the meeting with Wingate bears up this explanation: First the British commissioner brings up the humanitarian argument-Egypt cannot rule itself because there is too much illiteracy. When the Egyptian men counter that, indignantly pointing out that they were a much more advanced people than the likes of the Serbs and the Bulgarians, who were getting their independent countries, Wingate drops the mask and admits that Britain has its own geopolitical interests in Egypt which it has no intention of giving up. Sha'rawi declares that the Wingate meeting, and the War years more generally, exposed to the Egyptian people the truth about the "honor" and insaniya of the British. British atrocities during the Revolution clinched this unveiling.

Yet how much of an unveiling was it? While the masses of people who spontaneously rose to shake off the British yoke released an energy that had the potential for transforming the entire social structure, the Revolution was quickly reined in under the leadership of a tiny, traditional elite who were not interested in a comprehensive critique of inequality, but simply in removing the British as rulers. As one of the Egyptian men said to Wingate in that momentous meeting, there was no need to make the illiteracy of the masses an excuse for not granting Egyptian independence, "because those who lead nations in every land are the few individuals" (163). Independence does not necessarily mean democracy or radical social transformation. When the revolution comes to Minya, Huda Hanim's place of birth and the location of her family estates, she does not look kindly upon the energy of the angry mob as it targets privileged positions of the British which look dangerously similar to those of the Egyptian upper class. Solidarity of the rich prevails:

Some of the folk were excessive in their revolt . . . They attempted to assault the houses of the English administrators. However, some of the nobles blocked them and prevented them from that. At their head was Dr. Mahmud Bey Abdulrazzaq and my sister's son Tawfiq Bey Ismail . . . Tawfiq protected some of them at his place . . . and exposed himself in so doing to the anger of his countryfolk and their assault. As for Dr. Mahmud Abdulrazzaq, he stood in front of the gate of one of the English administrators and bared his chest before people, saying "Don't kill him until you have killed me" (171-2).

Not only can the lower-class masses not be trusted, but the indeterminacy of any widely dispersed decisionmaking power is suspect, to hear the narrator tell the story of the first ladies' demonstration. The full account is a rich microcosm of the tensions running through Sha'rawi's narrative. She begins the story of the demonstration right away with a contest over mastery of the written word:

On the morning of 20 March 1919, I sent the posters which I had prepared for the demonstration to the house of Ahmad Bey Abu Usba'. They were written in Arabic and French with white shoe polish on black cloth signifying mourning: "Long live the supporters of justice and freedom;" "Down with the despotic oppressors and down with occupation."

We had organized the line of march for the demonstration . . . and assigned it to the girls at the forefront to whom we had given the flags and the placards. My astonishment was immense when I did not see the placard on which was written "Long live the lovers of justice and freedom." I asked my friend Wajida Hanim Khulusi, who had delivered the placard with me to the house of Ahmad Bey Abu Usba', for the reason, and she told me that one of the ladies had claimed that there was a linguistic error in it . . . so she did not allow it to be exhibited. So I said at the top of my voice among the ladies, "Whoever is not proficient at writing the language, it is better for him not to write it." As a matter of fact, she was the one who was ignorant, and I convinced her of her error later, but she never forgave me that incident ever after (188-89).

It is not clear whether the "we" who planned the line of march refers to a collective, which is more than likely but in any case would probably mean a handful of Wafd women under her strong leadership, or if she is using the lofty "we" to mean "I." In any case, the spontaneous energies of the younger, unmarried women who are given the vanguard of the march are easily misled and do not produce good results:

But that was not the only incident; there was another one. The agreement determined that we would head for the American Embassy first, then the French Embassy. . . . However, I saw our girls change the direction of the march and head for the House of the Nation [Zaghloul's home] first. When I sent my friend Wajida Hanim to alert them to that, they said to her that most of the ladies had decided upon this. So I submitted to this reluctantly, and we began at the House of the Nation instead of finishing there as we had agreed. We had hardly reached there before we were surrounded by the soldiers of the English authorities. They encircled us, armed, and blocked the streets with machine cannons, so our rows stopped, encircled by rows of the students who had been following us all along the path for our protection.

I realized that there was a prior plot between our guides and the authorities, who were waiting for us confidently on Sa'd Zaghloul's street. In that way, our plan failed, and no one saw us except a few people. We learned later that a large number of foreigners had waited for us in front of the embassy buildings with bouquets of roses to throw at our feet. (189)

Her leadership having been frustrated once, Sayida Huda grows impatient at the forced passivity of the situation:

While we were at this standstill to which they compelled us, I wanted to tear a path by force to lead the procession of the ladies. So I pushed toward the front, whereas an English soldier quickly squatted and aimed the muzzle of his rifle at my chest. When I tried to advance toward him, one of the ladies rushed and grabbed me from behind to prevent me from advancing, and I said to her in a loud voice, "Leave me to advance so that Egypt will have a Miss Cavell(3) today!" As soon as the soldier heard that name, he was ashamed and rose immediately.

I wanted, after that, to penetrate the rows of soldiers, and I requested of the ladies that they follow me. . . . (190)

Here again there is a double enactment of linguistic mastery: Sayida Huda's cultural fluency enables her to overpower the English soldier by invoking his cultural icons even if he has more firepower; meanwhile Sha'rawi the memoirist is proficiently able to create for posterity the story of her role in the great event. Both her attempt to push her way to the forefront of the crowd and her attempt to part the sea of soldiers show a tremendous will-to-power in the service of nation and gender, a will-to-power which is realized in her later activism, her energetic formation and leadership first of the Wafd Central Committee for Ladies (WCCL), then of the Egyptian Feminist Union. Obviously, she did not create those organizations single-handedly. From her own narrative, however, the roles played by specific other persons in the formation and leadership of these organizations are not clear.

Sha'rawi's description of the Revolution betokens two impulses at tension in her narrative generally: the impulse to seek for a few women the same mastery, authority, and individual control which powerful men have always had, and the impulse toward a more extensive opening of closed power structures and a yielding to the pluralism and indeterminacy such opening necessitates. This tension is reflected in her narrative method. If the demonstration which assembled great numbers of ladies brought out Huda Hanim's will-to-power and revealed the need of human energies for a leader to guide them up the right street, the third section of the memoirs assembles nearly one hundred documents.

Sha'rawi's narrative strategy of including such quantities of original documents abandons, to some degree, the pretense that realistic linear representation could capture the plenitude of meaning in the events of Revolution and post-Revolution, and makes an attempt at presentation itself-that is, letting the original documents of the period tell the story. At the same time, Sha'rawi maintains authorial control by choosing the documents and organizing them within her connecting narrative so as to guide the reader in the right ideological direction. After all, of the one hundred documents, twenty-six are pieces authored solely by Huda Sha'rawi and another thirty-two are texts produced collectively by organizations she founded and headed and whose communications she usually drafted herself, albeit as the result of a group process (WCCL, fifteen documents; EFU, six; Boycott Committee, four). Another thirteen are newspapers articles lauding her and/or her organization's activities, leaving only twenty-nine documents from other sources. Yet this will-to-narrative-mastery exists in tension with the unfinished state and sheaf-like status of the latter part of the memoirs, which end in medias res, Sha'rawi having died before completing the work. Nor does it appear that her secretary-editor Mursi attempted to finish the work (as, for example, Khalil Gibran's secretary Barbara Young did with his last work, The Garden of the Prophet) since the memoir leaves off rather abruptly.


One national figure who is a major character in her narrative is Sa'd Zaghloul, Wafd leader, Prime Minister, aristocratic man of the people and the national hero of Egypt's struggle for independence from the British Mandate. In Sha'rawi's memoir he is also her nemesis and the greatest test of her narrative skill: Can she overcome popular adulation of Sa'd to show his offenses toward her and his mistakes toward Egypt without losing the sympathy of her implied reader (although by the time she wrote, Sa'd-debunking was by no means without an audience)? Even more intriguing, how will she overpower, through her writing, Zaghloul's attempts to manipulate her image in the public discourse? For, by the time recounted in this part of the memoirs, Huda Sha'rawi had acquired an image. Like Sa'd Basha, Huda Hanim had led a political organization in the nationalist struggle against the British; like him, she had captured the public imagination in that role and became something larger than herself in the public eye.

Our narrator is careful to present the correspondence of the early Huda Hanim-Sa'd Basha relationship in a neutral tone. The first note of tension in their relationship enters in a letter to Zaghloul in Paris, drafted by Sha'rawi on behalf of the WCCL to protest the Wafd's exclusion of the WCCL from deliberations on the Curzon Plan for Egyptian independence. Zaghloul's response, which Sha'rawi includes in full, is contrite and courteous. There follows the text of the perfunctory apology from the Wafd secretary, then the text of the WCCL's criticism of the Curzon Plan. This was published in the newspapers and provoked a stir "among those who followed our activities" because it disagreed with the Wafd leader (228). Here the narrator remarks that among the majority of people, "everything coming from Sa'd was acceptable even if it was not in the interest of the nation," foreshadowing her portrayal of him as a man who fed off the adulation of the ignorant masses and manipulated the unruly mob (e.g. 340).

This cluster of four documents spaced closely together is an example of the dominant narrative method in what I see as the third section of the memoirs: The narrator identifies the selected documents and lets them create the story; indeed, the way in which one document causes the next to be produced almost is the story. Sha'rawi does not, for the most part, interpret the documents for the reader. This puts, in good modernist fashion, greater responsibility on the reader to interpret the text; the more the reader knows about Egyptian history, the more invested she or he will be in producing one particular meaning out of the range of possibilities. This narrative method alternates, however, with intervals of traditional narration reminiscent of earlier chapters. In particular, the narrator reverts to traditional storytelling methods when depicting key encounters in the Huda-Sa'd relationship, in an attempt to assert more control over meaning than is possible with the method of presenting integral documents.

In order to understand how Sha'rawi deploys her narrative skill to win the battle of the word against Sa'd Basha, let us examine a pivotal episode in their relationship: their conflict over the Wafd's policy on Sudan. Sha'rawi gives the text of a June 1922 WCCL communique which takes the stand that Sudan must remain part of Egypt. Then, in a brief comment between documents, she says "the wheel of events turned" and in 1923 she found Sa'd Basha praising an advocate of the opposite view of Sudan. Therefore she was surprised to find her name listed, in the newspapers, among the attendees at a 13 November meeting of Sa'd supporters over Sudan (283). "I realized very well what the purpose was in mentioning my name," she notes. Here the narrator inserts the text of the communique (bayan) Sha'rawi immediately sent to the press denying attendance, sharp!y criticizing Sa'd Basha's Sudan stand, and offering final clarity (bayan) on the situation. In the communique, she lacerates "his Excellency the President" for being so manipulative as to exclude her from the meeting and then send her name to the papers among the attendees, in an obvious ploy to cash in on her reputation. Contiguous to this, the narrator inserts a long quote from a news article lauding her communique and her position on Sudan. The fourth document in this episode is Sa'd Basha's absent letter of explanation to her. The narrator mentions it but excludes its text, making it easy to dismiss what she calls his "attempt to give another version of events" (285). The fifth and sixth documents are long excerpts from two more news articles endorsing Huda Hanim's side in the fallout. The former praises her "valor"; the latter compares the Wafd's "cowardice" to Huda Hanim's "courage" and "boldness" (284-5). Following this scintillating deployment of multiple texts, the narrator recalls that Sa'd Basha's animosity toward her had its beginnings on the ship ride home after Zaghloul's exile, then ends the chapter on a Scheherazadish note of tantalizing delay: "As for what dialogue spun between us on our return, this is a story in itself . . . on the deck of the steamboat during his journey, and it is a story which was broadcast at that time . . . and its disclosure was the motive that pushed Sa'd Basha to write his letter" (287). In the following chapter, the narrative picks up that story and returns to representation in the realistic mode of a peppery dialogue between the two great nationalist figures, which commences with this characteristic exchange:

He said, with a brooding look: Very strange! I said: What's very strange? He said: I heard that you have compromised your principle and turned on us. . . . I said: And what is your evidence for that?

In this dramatic telling, Huda Hanim's eloquent rapid-fire questions (e.g. "Would you have done the same if you were in Nasim Basha's place? Sell the country for the sake of the king's tears?") disconcert and finally silence Sa'd Basha. In her overall representation of Zaghloul and presentation of texts he authored, it is Sha'rawi who successfully paints a portrait of a man changed by fame, compromised by power. She organizes the narrative so as to show the reader how she, in contrast to Sa'd Basha, maintained her sincerity and clear-sighted commitment to the nationalist cause.

Sudan is the central issue she uses to show the firmness of her nationalist commitment. Zaghloul and his Wafd Party favored compromising with the British and relinquishing Egyptian prerogative over Sudan. Sha'rawi and many women in the Wafd Central Committee for Ladies insisted that Sudan must remain part of Egypt and anything less was a shameful capitulation to the colonizer, leading one researcher to remark that they "were more radical in their nationalism than the male leadership" (Badran, 1995, 87). The one glaringly blind spot shared by all of them - Zaghloul, Sha'rawi, and the researcher - is the ironic fact that none of these impassioned nationalists seemed aware of such a thing as Sudanese nationalism, or the troubling nature of Egypt's collaboration with the British in colonizing Sudan. Among all the documents which Sha'rawi generously and democratically allows to inhabit her memoir touching the issue of Sudan, there is no acknowledgment of the Sudanese struggle for self-determination against the resented Anglo-Egyptian alliance ruling that land. Just as Sha'rawi's narrative glosses over class in its vision of women's liberation, it fails to recognize the flaws at the borders of its nationalist ideology. This failure, in addition to class background and early political affiliation with the Ward, she shares with Zaghloul.

It is a strength of her text that it lays out much of the Huda-Sa'd correspondence for the readers to evaluate, even though that freedom to interpret allows us to deduce meanings she does not admit. From this correspondence the reader may note that, like Sa'd Basha, Huda Hanim also came to see herself reflected back from the iris of the public eye. He was, for a time, the President (ra'is) of the country and she was known as "the President" in the feminine (ra'isa), referring to her leadership of the WCCL and the EFU. In fact, they are so similar that perhaps, despite her brother's death, she has a shaqiq after all. Perhaps Huda Hanim is the shaqiqa of Sa'd Basha, his female twin, and he her male mirror. This makes it all the more painful that Sa'd Basha, unlike her first shaqiq whose generosity with his schoolbooks helped her overcome the barriers to upper-class women's education, does not afford her access to the privileges denied her by a sexist political system. It also explains the volume and intensity of the place occupied by Sa'd Basha in Huda Sha'rawi's narrative.

He appears, in her narrative, taken aback at the intensity of her political and epistolary relationship with him, snapping at her in a tete-a-tete which she titles "A Stormy Meeting" (335), "Why do you take me to task for every error while you do not do that with anyone else?" "Anyone else is responsible for themselves alone - you are responsible for a nation," she retorts. "And who are you? (wa man anti?)" he lashes back without missing a beat, in this razor-sharp dialogue. "Who might you be, that you give yourself this right?" (337). She does not say, "The woman who, in another age, might have led Egypt herself. Your twin in every capacity of leadership." She says, "I am an Egyptian, one of fourteen million, and I speak with their tongues. That is why I claim for myself the right to take you to account for what you do." Then, ever the patrician, she adds, "Besides, you cannot deny who I am (man ana), nor what I have done in the service of my country, nor the merit and investment of my house and my family in this cause" (337). We are back to the site of the great family, pushed there by the challenge to her identity and her right to speak with authority. Once again, she shapes her speaking position out of two elements in tension with each other, one democratic, the other aristocratic; one seeking gender-neutral ground (in this case, by emphasizing Egyptianness over gender), the other wielding the power of the patrician house with its implicitly male-identified womanhood.

Fate allows Huda Sha'rawi the last word; Sa'd dies first. Still, ever the gracious hostess of her pages, Sha'rawi allows him the last words in her own narrative, giving him a generous portion of direct discourse with which to exit with dignity (her husband's passing is not even noted in the text). Sa'd Zaghloul is reported, through the medium of a newspaper account, as meeting with a prominent journalist who is nevertheless awestruck at being in the presence of the great man. Sa'd Basha notices this and, gracious host himself, endeavors to make him at ease with charming banter. Then he explains, in semi-colloquial style, what he believes good reporting should and should not do. "I am a man who holds criticism and freedom of opinion as holy," he says. "Say to people, if you wish, that Sa'd is a charlatan and a swindler, for that is an opinion and you are entitled to an opinion. But do not publish to people that Sa'd went to the High Commissioner's office, or that he sent an envoy to the British resident general to speak to him about this and that affair, when I never went and I never sent an envoy. This is the weapon which I caution you and every honorable journalist against resorting to" (378). From this final Sa'd-moment in the narrative, which is, despite everything that has passed between them, commendatory, the reader is to know that by Sa'd Basha's own standards, Huda Hanim meets the test of honor in representing Sa'd Basha.


The press is important not only in the Huda Hanim-Sa'd Basha conflict, but as a site for voluminous debate over "the woman question" in general. The press, or more literally, the papers (suhuf) emerge, in the third narrative section, as almost a sort of multi-headed character, one whose very. name bespeaks its plurality and indeterminacy. Sha'rawi recognizes that her name had become embedded in this debate of many "papers," and that she had become a symbol:

Much and much more has been said regarding the participation of the Egyptian woman in the International Feminist Conferences, and I wanted to record here some of what men said, and also what women said. This discourse does not concern me here as about Huda Sha'rawi the person as much as it is about me as a symbol . . . The voice of the Egyptian woman has indeed burst out in the international assemblies, and she has been able to serve the Egyptian cause in addition to the causes of women and society.

The newspapers wrote saying "Sayida Huda Sha'rawi has spoken dressed in the garment of the nation on behalf of Egyptian women, and the great approbation with which her lectures were received are the greatest 'propaganda' for Egypt in many newspapers and many contexts, and her lecture was broadcast on the wireless."

From these lines, the salient meaning is that we were carrying the message of Egypt to every location, expressing the countenance of Egypt in every conference, and speaking in the name of Egypt in every area (358).

It is the benign side of being a symbol that strikes the great lady. Being a national symbol is a good bully pulpit, especially if you belong to a gender not given a formal channel for participation in the great decisions of the nation, and Sha'rawi did not hesitate to use it in the service of her feminist nationalism and her nationalist feminism. On several occasions Sha'rawi reports communicating through the newspapers with Zaghloul during his presidency. One of her communications to him, urging him to reject certain British stipulations, was published by the papers under the headline "Sage Advice Ignored by Sa'd Basha;" he, too, responded by sending an article addressing her points directly to the newspapers (316-318).

On the other hand, becoming a national symbol also meant that what Huda Sha'rawi signified had spun out of her control and taken on a life of its own, and Sha'rawi does not seem to understand that she could no longer regain control of her image by issuing corrections, however sharply worded, to the newspapers. On one of the numerous occasions when the papers misrepresented her, she kept a low profile and left early from a Zaghloul reception because of a strain in their relationship. Despite this, she notes that "the owner of al-Kashkul wrote in his magazine that I sat at Sa'd's side giving the ladies instructions on baring the face" (232). Here is a clue to what Huda Sha'rawi came to symbolize during her own era. The public debate, represented here through "the papers" and dominated by men, was obsessed with the issue of the veil (hijab), for reasons astutely described by Leila Ahmed in Women and Gender in Islam. The hijab had come to be the single most loaded symbol of the ideological conflicts over culture and collective identity in the Arab World from the late-colonial to the post-colonial period, although there was no inherent reason why it should be so. It was first targeted by European colonial ideology as a sign of Islam's inferiority and degradation of women, then alternately defended by Arab anticolonialists as if it were the key to the resistance to imperialism and attacked as backward by the elite classes which ruled after independence (Ahmed, 165-167). Both its proponents and attackers tended to assign an absolute essential meaning to hijab. That is, both saw hijab as either a good or an evil; neither group examined the possibility that it might be both, or neither, or that its meaning shifted with its historical context.

What is fascinating is that Sha'rawi skirts the issue of hijab in her memoirs. She notes in passing that she discussed hijab with various friends along the path (such as Malak Nasef) but does not include the substance of those discussions; she speaks about the controversy caused by Qasim Amin's book Tahrir al-Mar'a (in which he advocates unveiling) but never says whether she actually read the book or discussed its arguments. Whatever her reasons for minimizing this issue, this makes the discourse of the veil something that happens largely outside the memoirs. She does remark, in the context of narrating her participation in the 1923 international feminist conference in Rome, that the Western women were incredulous at finding an Egyptian delegation, "as if the veiled Egyptian woman was stamped in their imagination with the characteristics of ignorance and barbarism" (251). In her Rome speech, she cites seclusion and the face-cover (niqab) - but not hijab - as barriers to women's advancement (253, 254).

Other than these allusions, the only place where she mentions this issue for which she is so well known in "the papers" is the paragraph in which she describes the modification she made in her way of dress, in a section of chapter twenty-five entitled "Statutory Hijab" (al-hijab al-shar'i). During a hiatus in an argument with Sa'd Basha, he "began to congratulate me on my success in arriving at lifting the veil (hijab) and my devising a manner of wearing the statutory veil (hijab shar'i) which I had donned" (291). Here, in one sentence, Sha'rawi uses the word hijab in two different meanings, and the transition from the former to the latter meaning in the modern era across the entire Arab World can be followed back, as if running a filmstrip in reverse, to this seemingly minor aside in Sha'rawi's memoirs. That is, the word hijab has always had two layers of meaning in Arabic: concealment and covering. The dominant meaning of hijab for most of Islamic history has been concealment, manifesting itself in face-veils and seclusion in regard to women. In the Twentieth Century the meaning of covering has slowly gained prominence and hijab has come to refer simply to certain garments rather than to the sequestration or masking of women. I lifted the hijab; I donned the hijab: The king is dead; long live the king. The sign is the same but the moment between those two sentences is one in which language is loosened from its hinges and resignified. Lifting the hijab: I removed the facial screen that I used to wear; I opened the curtain behind which the upper-class household secluded its ladies; I dislodged the barrier impeding women's access to public life. Donning the hijab shari'i: I ground my action in Islamic religion and Arabic culture; I claim the right to interpret that culture anew with authority and legitimacy; I offer a new symbiosis of tradition and modernity which gives women the autonomy, individuality, and efficacy demanded by modernity yet enables them to benefit from the advantages offered by tradition.

Sayida Huda Sha'rawi may have been the first upper-class Egyptian woman in the modern era to publicly appear barefaced, but she did not "remove the veil." That is, she did and she did not, depending on what is meant by "the veil," and that mutation in the meaning of the word is precisely the point. To decide that she did "remove the veil" because veiling means what it did in the early part of the century-concealment, seclusion, and the face-cover - is to freeze a word in flux and to miss the point of her cultural. Huda Sha'rawi redefined hijab as a signifier in discursive as well as sartorial practice and was the first to model in the public eye the modernist dress which constitutes what is today largely known as hijab in most Islamist circles. That Doria Shafik and others in the subsequent generation of Egyptian feminists took Sha'rawi's moderate modification of dress as a removal of hijab is their transfiguring for their own purposes of an action much more modest in its claims and entirely capable of being interpreted otherwise. Islamist leader Zainab al-Ghazali, who worked with Sha'rawi until she saw that she had a calling to "the Islamic path" and left her to form a religiously based women's organization, testifies to the less known view, that Sha'rawi removed the face covering (niqab) only and never removed hijab (Ghazali interview). Margot Badran, along with popular opinion generally, adheres unquestioningly to the reading of Sha'rawi's action as a removal of "the veil" (cl. Badran, 1995, 22-23). In fact, Badran's very abridged adaptation of Mudhakkirati affixes Sha'rawi in the Anglophonic readership as the "first" Arab woman to "take off" the veil (1986, 5, 7). Yet whatever else she did, Sha'rawi was the first upper-class Arab woman in the modern era to wear hijab - in its modern meaning.


Huda Hanim went to the mother's wing, opened the door, changed the air. Sayida Huda wrote the papers, cut an old cloth for a new dress, modeled Egypt in the parade of nations. Huda Sha'rawi took the podium and the pen and put her hand into history, into culture, into language. Shaqiqa, sayida, ra'isa: She was one of the makers of the modern Egyptian nation-state. She was the mother and benefactress of many (but not all) Arab feminisms of conflicting faces. Some claim her loudly and refuse to let anybody else have her, violating her example of ladylike generosity. Some who owe her .the most refuse to recognize her among their foremothers. This woman's life and contribution, not only to the Egyptian nation-state but to the culture of the entire Arab World, and from there to the Muslim world, are complex, contradictory, pioneering, and invaluable.

Positioned as she was-the daughter of a deceased Egyptian landowner and government official and his Turco-Circassian widow with ties of friendship to the Palace, wife of a Wafd member, and most of all, leader of a nationalist-feminist movement during a formative transitional era in Egypt-Sha'rawi manifests in her narrative the plenitude of ideological contradictions in whose crosscurrents she existed. The memoir itself, if judged as an attempt at the final bayan (clarity; communication) of Sha'rawi's life, fails, its authority undermined by its own modernism, liberality, and pluralism. There is an unplanned population in the text, of people, images, and themes which exceed their purpose within the story, springing into their own lives and truths, genies out of the bottle not bound to the master consciousness which was the agent of their release.

Sha'rawi the indefatigable narrator rattles off her list of conferences attended and communiques sent to the very end, where the text abruptly falls off after describing, not without a laudatory quote from al-Abram newspaper, how she managed the marriage negotiations of her niece, Huriya Idris, in a manner which struck a blow at the destructive aspect of traditionally high mahr (bridegift) costs while simultaneously preserving the marriage-protecting function of this tradition (456-457). This is not only another manifestation of Huda Sha'rawi's style of modernist reform discretely gloved in tradition and of her narrative interweaving of private event with public implication, but a shifting of scene to a new site, the site of the prospective home of the symbolic daughter. The new homesite, unlike the homesite with which she began the memoir, is founded on terms set up by Huda Sha'rawi, the great lady in all her mature powers; it is the future where her memoirs end. After it, a blank page, thought not for lack of will; the history she set out to write was larger than herself. Huda Sha'rawi leaves off the scroll for the rest of the century to fill out. It is this present imperative that sends us back to assess the cultural resources and models which are Sha'rawi's largess to us.

Rather than close the book, Mudhakkirati opens up the possibilities for interpreting Huda Sha'rawi's life and significance. Regardless of the dominant representation of Huda Sha'rawi, her own discursive and sartorial legacy are generous to all serious interpreters.


1. The Nahda, meaning renaissance or awakening, is usually periodized from the middle of the Nineteenth Century and tapers off in the first few decades of the Twentieth, and refers to the revival of cultural and political energies in the Arab World.

2. All translations from the Sha'rawi text are my own.

3. Cavell was "an English nurse shot and killed by the Germans during the First World War, who became an instant martyr" (Badran, 1986, 113).

4. For an example of an essentialist equation of "the veil" with backwardness, see Zeidan's chapter on "Women in Arab Society" in his otherwise very useful book. For an example of conservative condemnation of Sha'rawi's action as a "removal of the veil" and belief in hijab as an absolute good, see Ghawaji.


Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

-----. "Between Two Worlds: The Formation of a Turn-of-the-Century Egyptian Feminist." Bella Brodzki and Celeste Schenck, eds. Life/Lines: Theorizing Women's Autobiography. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1988.

Badran, Margot. Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

-----. Trans. Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist (18791924) by Huda Shaarawi. New York, NY: The Feminist Press, 1986. [An abridged & rearranged translation.]

Daif, Shawqi. Al-Tarjama al-Shakhsiya. Funun al-Adab al-'Arabi. 2nd ed. Cairo: Dar al-Ma'arif, n.d.

Ghamdi, Saleh Moed. Autobiography in Classical Arabic Literature. Ph.D. Dissertation, Indiana University, 1989.

Ghawaji, Wahbi Sulaiman. Al-Mar'a al-Muslima. Beirut: Mu'assasat al-Risala, 1982.

Ghazali, Zainab. Interview. Questions written by Mohja Kahf; interview conducted and audiotaped by Jumana Mubarak-Afifi. Cairo, April 1992.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. "Non-Autobiographies of 'Privileged' Women: England and America." Bella Brodzki and Celeste Schenck, eds. Life/Lines: Theorizing Women's Autobiography. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1988.

Kilpatrick, Hilary. "Classical Arabic Autobiography." Journal of Arabic Literature, Vol. 22, No. 1, March 1991.

Lejeune, Philippe. On Autobiography. Ed. Paul John Eakin. Trans. Katherine Leary. Theory and History of Literature, Vol. 52. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1989.

Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. Blindness & Autobiography: Al-Ayyam of Taha Husayn. Princeton: Princeton University, 1988.

Pascal, Roy. Design and Truth in Autobiography. Cambridge: Harvard, 1960.

Raghib, Nabil. Huda Sha'rawi wa 'Asr al-Tanwir. Tarikh al-Misriyin. Cairo: Al-Hay'ah al-Misriyah al-'Ammah li al-Kitab, 1988.

Sha'rawi, Huda. Mudhakkirati. Ed. Abd al-Hamid Fahmi Mursi. Cairo: Dar al-Hilal, 1981.

Zeidan, Joseph T. Arab Women Novelists: The Formative Years and Beyond. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Mohja Kahf is an assistant professor in the Department of English and in the Middle Eastern Studies Program at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
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Title Annotation:female Arab activist for women's rights and social change
Author:Kahf, Mohja
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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