I debated how to start this blog post a lot. I thought I should dive right in and start the biography of this amazing feminist icon, but then I thought it might be better to introduce her in the way I was first introduced to Doria Shafik. A serendipitous accident which started with me taking a part time job during my studies at an interior design firm.
It was the year 2016 in which I was working for the Egyptian interior design firm Jamspace which was based in London and run by Hedayat Taymour, a very talented and kind lady whom I had the pleasure to work for selling furniture and interior design services. One day she asked if I could rearrange some items in the store and one of the items were these beautiful bookends. However, being more of a book worm my eyes were drawn to the two books in the store that had been held up by these bookends. One was a coffee table book displaying pictures of Cairo, the other was called ‘Doria Shafik, Egyptian Feminist’, written by Cynthia Nelson. I asked Hedayat who Doria was and what had she done for Egypt. Hedayat replied telling me that Doria was her grandmother and did a plethora of amazing deeds for the women of Egypt. She gave me the book to keep and told me that I would be fascinated by Doria’s life story and indeed I was. I could not put the book down. I was transfixed reading the story of this amazing woman who has little to no recognition by Western feminism. From that moment on, I have felt it my duty that I should tell anyone and everyone Doria’s story so that this amazing woman’s story can inspire not only Egyptian women, but women around the world.
Doria was born December 14th 1908 in Tanta, Egypt. She was raised in a middle class family and from an early age, discovered gender inequality in her own home, often listening to female family members discuss unhappy stories of their domestic life. She was schooled in French missionary schools in which it was soon discovered that she was extremely bright and talented. She excelled throughout her academic years and when it finally became time to go to university she chose to study at the Sorbonne in Paris. However, her family were against it and school fees were too expensive, especially if it were to be spent on schooling a woman. Doria, not willing to be stifled by her family, took her education into her own hands and wrote a letter to Huda Hanum Sha’rawi- the founder and principle organiser of the first feminist organisation in the Arab world.
Sha’rawi was touched by Doria’s letter and invited her to Cairo where a strong (yet eventually complicated) friendship blossomed. With Sha’rawi’s help, Doria obtained a government scholarship to study philosophy at the Sorbonne and left for Paris immediately. Doria was enchanted by the different outlook on life that Paris had, where she could further educate herself on philosophy and women’s rights, and yet she couldn’t help but miss her homeland and her beloved Nile. She returned to Alexandria in 1935 and competed in a beauty pageant in which no Muslim woman had ever entered on account of it being immodest. She placed first runner up but caused scandal amongst the Muslim community as she had behaved immorally by entering the pageant.
She returned to Paris in 1936 to focus on her doctoral thesis where she met Nour al-Din Ragai who was studying commercial law. They eventually married and returned to Egypt in 1939 where Doria was eagerly awaiting her final doctoral dissertation defence date. The date eventually was set for March 9th 1940 and Doria immediately hurried to Paris eager to defend her thesis. To her delight she was awarded her doctorate with honourable mention. One member of the panel Emile Bayet stated; “Madame, your thesis is the best defense of women’s rights existing or ever likely to exist. You have proved things about Islam about which there can be no doubt. You have succeeded in correcting our erroneous ideas about Islam. You can consider yourself as the lawyer of Muslim women in general and the Egyptian women in particular”. She returned to Egypt hoping to be praised but was met with a lack of interest from her family.
Back in Egypt in 1945, Doria was approached by Princess Chevikar who wanted her to serve as editor-in-chief of a new magazine ‘La Femme Nouvelle’. Doria relished the challenge, but this appointment put her relationship with Huda Sha’rawi and the Egyptian Feminist Union who saw the princess as attempting to compete with Huda. Despite the tensions between the two powerful women, Doria saw the appointment as an opportunity not to be missed. However, Doria found the elite classes surrounding the princess out of touch and found no friends at the Egyptian Feminist Union who saw her now as the enemy.
Doria finally decided to step out on her own and start her own Arabic women’s magazine ‘Bint al- Nil’– daughter of the Nile. The magazine included articles on women’s issues, nutrition, fashion, and advice on how to raise children. It became extremely popular and with Doria’s control over both magazines, she became a symbol of women’s rights in Egypt. With growing political unrest in Egypt, Doria set out to change the fortune of women in her country, not only demanding suffrage but wanted to change the laws that prohibited women from running from elected office as well as certain Islamic laws that allowed the husband unlimited polygamy.
The Daughters of the Nile Union organised and ran literacy classes, an employment agency, mutual aid programs, a discounted cafeteria and cultural events, including theatrical performances for women. Most of all, it agitated for political rights. Her main ambition however, was to improve the literacy of Egyptian women.
Doria, at the height of her fame travelled around the globe lecturing about women’s rights and their relation to Islam. She was well regarded by everyone as a great speaker and a great campaigner.
When Egyptians were campaigning for independence from Britain, Shafik started a uniformed paramilitary unit of the Daughters of the Nile. In January 1952, she led a march to surround and shut down a branch of Barclays Bank, deeming it a symbol of British colonial rule.
In 1954, Shafik vowed to go on a hunger strike “to my last breath” and was joined by a handful of other women in a fast that made headlines around the world. “We are convinced that the women who form more than half of the Egyptian nation must not, at any cost, be governed by a Constitution in the making of which they played no part.” After 10 days without food, hospitalised because of her deteriorating condition, Shafik appeared to succeed; the acting president promised her that women would have “full political rights.”
As a result of Shafik’s efforts women were granted the right to vote under the constitution of 1956 only if they were literate, which was not a rule for male voters. In 1957 Doria attempted another hunger strike, this time for six days. Doria decided to start her strike in the premises of the embassy to avoid the risk of being arrested. The media attacked her as a traitor to the government. Her female allies now turned against her, and she was expelled from her own Daughters of the Nile. With almost no one on her side, she was forced to spend the next 18 years in near total seclusion.
Doria was sentenced to house arrest and spent eighteen years in solitude with only her family visiting her. She was essentially forgotten by those who once revered her. On September 20th 1975, Shafik committed suicide by throwing herself off her balcony.
Doria Shafik is remembered fondly by her family and friends and the women of Egypt rightfully as a champion of women’s rights and women’s education. To the Western world, Doria still remains an overlooked figure with many western women failing to recognise her achievements. Since learning about her story, I have felt that it is my duty to share her story wherever I can and on International Women’s Day her story should be shared.
All information is courtesy of Cynthia Nelson’s book: Doria Shafik, Egyptian Feminist: A Woman Apart.