The Life And Voice Of Doria Shafik
To Want and To Dare! Never hesitate to act when the feeling of injustice revolts us. To give one's measure with all good faith, the rest will follow as a logical consequence.
What capable hands can rouse them out of their sleep if not those of women? What heart is more susceptible to sympathizing with the sufferings of the woman if it is not the heart of a woman? Women must not only be present when laws concerning them are legislated; they must be involved in writing them. By demanding the totality of her rights, particularly her political rights, which are the basis of all rights, the woman could bring about fundamental changes in society.
A nation cannot be liberated whether internally or externally while its women are enchained.
In the Middle East and North African region, feminism and human rights have endured long struggles, challenges and paths; considering regional and global patriarchal oppression, non-secular state rule regionally, in addition to the perceived foreign exposure, occupation and colonialism, which forge dichotomies on the perceptions of Western influences, between violence and security, oppression and modernity visible most particularly in the claim and practice of human rights. Egyptian and Arab women organized and continue to write histories to claim their human rights, historically and up until present day. In the struggle for emancipation against oppressive forces, there are major leading figures, outstanding names, and many more that collectively fulfil the struggle not forgetting their role, and that the successes or achievements are the outcome of the combined efforts of all of them. Among the lesser known comes Doria Shafik.
Doria Shafik was indeed a “woman apart” as she is often described - and too often excluded from National history textbooks, global feminist struggles and collective memory archives. She is worthy of greater recognition underlining her, life, voice, death and mark in “memory” as a leading figure in her struggles within feminism and human rights in the Arab and global arenas. She was an Egyptian feminist, poet, writer, activist, philosopher and editor - in addition to being one of the main leaders of the Egyptian women’s liberation movement in the mid 1940s. She is a Teacher of the World not only for her courageous life and voice which is an example to feminism in the region and in the global sphere, but also for her struggle to be heard and known as such, and her tragic struggles against dictatorship, patriarchy and the hegemonic canons of feminism, knowledge, which continuously challenged and silenced her heroicness. Doria Shafik is an example of a woman who, personally and professionally, acted, organized, travelled and spoke - for women’s rights and political engagement; which personally and professionally affected her on cultural, political and social levels. Her education allowed her to research and instrumentalize a socio-academic analysis of social, internal means of oppression and emancipation.
Living on through her legacy, Shafik is remembered as a powerful force resisting the status quo and its constraints. Shafik was born in 1908 in Tanta, into a middle-class family and was supported in her pursuit of education. After attending a French mission school, she was awarded a scholarship by the Egyptian Ministry of Education to study in Sorbonne, Paris, upon being the youngest Egyptian to complete the French baccalauréat at sixteen years of age. Coming from a moderate family background, she was encouraged to pursue her education at a time of transition and complex sociopolitical contexts.
She defied governmental guidance to study subjects of “feminine education”, to study Philosophy. Continuously resisting and breaking barriers and records, at only twenty-nine years of age, she completed her Ph.D. in Philosophy with honours, where she wrote two doctoral theses; the first; she argues against the merely utilitarian ends generally connected with Ancient Egyptian art, and the second, arguing that Islam amply recognised women's equal rights and that the possibility of gender equality is not in contradiction to Islam. Maurice Halbwachs praised her work as original and informative effort defending an original thesis on the relation between religion and social conditions in today's Egypt (Nelson, 1996:89).
She “campaigned for women’s rights and human rights in the language of secularism and democracy” (Ahmed, 1992:196). Despite her foreign exposure, Shafik was, at home, an active combatant against patriarchy, where she organized meetings to advance women at the political sphere as well as the academic one, and:
was trying to render to the West the nationalist/feminist message about Egyptian civilizational greatness (with the expressed purpose of altering the negative image of the Egyptian woman), she was engaged in challenging those patriarchal barriers that curtailed the human freedom of the Egyptian woman in her own society (Nelson, 1996:283).
Her resistance to the barriers she faced at the time is truly worthy of great recognition, much more than she received while she was alive. Shafik returned to Cairo, and applied for a teaching position at Cairo University only to be rejected - due to her gender, and due to her thinking being dismissed as “too modern”. Her biographical journey portrays her struggles, and her commitment to her cause - women to be recognized and fully represented in the political and social arena, and in contesting the notion that human rights are foreign or Western import and incompatible with the culture of Egypt in Islam. Her research and education were multidimensional, in that she used her voice, her writing, poems, and public action to resist against Western moral superiority, and nationalist systems of patriarchy and oppression - both directly impacting women’s emancipation.
Doria Shafik’s Life and Voice must be honoured in their time and in the current persisting importance of her efforts, and struggles, which continue to be a matter of great concern and continue to live in today’s discussions concerning resistance against forms of colonial, moral and imperial oppression and domination present within intellectual, political and influential writing and action. She was one of the pioneering feminists, next to Huda Shaarawi on the path towards justice, equality and social emancipation against these forces of domination. The power of her testimony, is in her life and voice, in her global exposure and internal influence, her courage in leading the feminist movement, and use of her education as a pillar to her knowledge and action. Through the Bint Al Nil Party (a Union, magazine and party) and the Egyptian Feminist movement which she led, she organized secretly a collective movement bringing together at least fifteen-hundred women from society to march and break into parliament. This physical occupation of a political space broke the male dominated representation to demand women’s participation, voice, presence and active role in gender and socio-economic rights. Secretly organized, and first thought to ostensibly be a large feminist congress, Nelson (1996:170) describes that Shafik maintained the surprise until the moment she stood on the podium and announced:
Our meeting today is not a congress, but a parliament. A true one! That of women! We are half the nation! We represent here the hope and despair of this most important half of our nation. Luckily we are meeting at the same hour and in the same part of town as the parliament of the other half of the nation. They are assembled a few steps away from us. I propose we go there, strong in the knowledge of our rights, and tell the deputies and senators that their assemblies are illegal so long as our representatives are excluded, that the Egyptian parliament cannot be a true reflection of the entire nation until women are admitted. Let's go and give it to them straight. Let's go and demand our rights. Forward to the parliament!
Doria Shafik, 19 February 1951 Before leading at least 1500 women to storm the Parliament
This landmark moment in history was suppressed and rejected by broken promises, although Shafik was considered as a celebrity in the press. For her and other Egyptians, the battle had just begun as they were “swept up by the events surrounding the national struggle, events that would shape the course of her fight for women's rights in the years to come” (Nelson, 1996:175).
Shafik is often compared to Huda Shaarawi1 and other prominent activists due to the stigmatization of women activists and the “degree to which their lives and actions have been misrepresented” (Kheir, 2012); whether disparaging them as “Westernized” or as subversive to identity and religion. Through language, religion, and politics, she challenged the dangerous connection of feminism and representation to being misconstrued as enemies of the state and religion. Her actions and organizational and inspirational ability to collect and demand change made her outstanding. When not a single woman was included in the drafting of the Constitution, she demanded the political rights of women to be secured, particularly “the right to run for office and vote for the first time” (Kheir, 2012).
She is a strong leader of feminist dissent as she actively reflected in her steps and life’s work. In 1954 and 1957 she undertook two hunger strikes, firstly for eight days at the press journalist syndicate against the creation of a constitution without women, and secondly at the Indian embassy protesting Gamal Abdel Nasser’s dictator regime. The first strike ended when President Mohamed Naguib at the time, issued a written statement that he was committed to a constitution respecting the rights of women. Under the 1956 constitution, as a result of Shafik’s endeavours, women were finally granted the right to vote (despite being under the condition that they are literate which was not required of men). Her hunger strike and success resulted in global exposure and led Shafik to travel across the world, speaking of and exposing Arab feminist struggles, and representations of Egyptian women. This broadened exchange, and solidarity in addition to global exposure and support tackling the misrepresentations and inequalities in social global and gender discourses. The second strike, however, had severe consequences on her personal life, voice and work when she was put under house arrest by Gamal Abdel Nasser, and had her name banned from the press, in addition to censoring her magazine from circulation, in attempts to incapacitate her activism and her influence. Ahmed (1992:206) states that “denouncing her was in effect to collaborate with the regime in silencing radical criticism”. Despite the controversies she faced and which persist around her name; her work and agency was highly significant in mobilizing women, bringing the topic of women’s rights and political participation to national and global discussions, and in nevertheless displaying her strength, despite being perceived as a threat to the governmental apparatus which dismissed her as too modern or a threat.
Shafik transformed the Bint Al Nil Union into a political organization and party, and nationally advocated for women’s access to literacy, education and political participation as well as establishing a “women's paramilitary force to join the resistance against the British occupation in the cities around the Suez Canal” (Kheir, 2012). The Daughters of the Nile Party was headed by her and thrived after the 1952 Egyptian Revolution run by the Free Officers Movement overthrowing King Farouk, and dissolved by 1955. Shafik “argued that the very raison d'etre of the Bint al-Nil Union was the struggle for women's political rights” (Nelson, 1996:268). Struggling with censorship after “all publications were placed under state control, the lack of income from advertising brought all the Union projects to the verge of collapse”, Shafik “refused to pare down her activities, regardless of the increasing criticism expressed mainly through vicious articles in the national press” (Hassan, 2001). Despite being minor successes compared to her ambitions and dreams, her efforts and struggle remain significant, and celebrated today. Unfortunately, she faced overbearing obstacles some of which she overcome and others that attempted to stop and silence her, that she could not. Her voice and access to international legitimacy not only was respected, but Shafik used it to internationally pressure Nasser. In 1957 upon entering the Indian Embassy Shafik stated
Given the hard times that Egypt is now enduring I have decided with determination to hunger unto death in order to gain my external and internal freedom. As an Egyptian and as an Arab, I demand that the international authorities compel the Israeli forces to withdraw immediately from Egyptian lands and reach a just and final solution to the problem of the Arab refugees. Second, I demand that the Egyptian authorities give back total freedom to the Egyptians, whether male or female, and put an end to the dictatorial rule that is driving my country towards bankruptcy and chaos. And if I sacrifice my life for the liberation of my country, I alone take responsibility for this action…
Shafik, Doria written in a declaration sent to Nasser and to the secretary-general of the United Nations 6th February 1957 in Hassan (2001)
As a means of silencing her voice and influence she was condemned as a foreign instigator and had “her publications confiscated by the state and her name officially banned from the Egyptian press, Doria withdrew into the shadows” (Nelson, 1996:250). There are several interpretations on her retreat on a personal level, and she faced rumours of instability or depression, dismissed and forgotten, as unwell, or silenced. Kheir (2012) states that “The demise of political activism after the dismantling of political parties and organizations – when the intelligence services reigned – [which] forced Shafiq into her final isolation”. She is said to have jumped to her death in Cairo in 1975 which “seems to be common form of suicide by illustrious Egyptian women, such as writer Arwa Saleh, who killed herself in 1997, and actress Suad Hosni, who jumped (or was pushed, as some suspect) from her balcony in London in 2001)” (Kheir, 2012). Shafik, “having finally exhausted her strength, she arranged her papers and unpublished books, packed them neatly into several old suitcases, and entrusted them to her younger daughter” (Nelson, 1996:284). Upon having her “voice effectively silenced, Doria eventually disappeared from public consciousness until her tragic death on September 20, 1975, brought her name back onto the front pages of the Egyptian press” (Nelson, 1996:253-4).
Shafik’s life and voice has left a footprint on feminism which resonates into the future. Her historical narrative poses questions on questions of universality of human rights, struggles to be recognized, and the potentials of resistance. To what extent may being exposed to other cultures and values bring change in a traditional society, while still remaining “of” that society and accepted by it? Shafik leaves a strong legacy and sheds light on pressing issues in contemporary and future feminisms of dissent. Although illiteracy, oppression, silences and misrepresentations persist; the dynamics of the world today provide more opportunities for knowledge and exposure, in addition to emphasising the importance of literacy and education of girls as essential in allowing more Doria Shafiks to emerge, to be heard, to occupy spaces and move people, shake oppressive status quos, and live on through the memories of their voice and legacy.
- Hassan, Fayza. 2001 "Speaking for the Other Half" Weekly Special Issue No.523. Al-Ahram Weekly, 1 Mar. Web. Nov.-Dec. 2016.
- Ahmed, Leila. 1992. DIVERGENT VOICES. In Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (pp. 189-207). Yale University Press.
- Nelson, Cynthia. 1996. Doria Shafik, Egyptian Feminist: A Woman Apart. Gainesville, FL: U of Florida Print.
- Kheir, Mohammed. 2012. "Durriya Shafiq: Rebellious Daughter of the Nile." Al Akhbar English. March 8. Web. November 2016
- 1 - Huda Shaarawi (1879-1947): prominent Egyptian feminist, nationalist, founded Egyptian Feminist Union at her own home in March 1923
Como citarLoza, Yasmine Hamdi (2019), "Doria Shafik ", Mestras e Mestres do Mundo: Coragem e Sabedoria. Consultado a 26.05.22, em https://epistemologiasdosul.ces.uc.pt/mestrxs/?id=27696&pag=23918&id_lingua=1&entry=35264. ISBN: 978-989-8847-08-9