Her granddaughter later it called it "a spectacular gesture," but for Shaarawi it was only one of the ways she sought to bring women in the Arab world into the public sphere. She was born into a wealthy and well-educated family, and gradually grew dismayed that Egypt's women were denied civic, legal and educational equality. Shaarawi and many other women had a particularly stinging taste of that inequality after standing in the streets with men to fight against British colonial rule in 1919. Having helped to win Egypt's independence, these politically active and physically brave women soon found there was no place for them in the new government.
But after that, Shaarawi said that the success of Egypt was intertwined with the future of its women, and in 1923 she helped to found the Egyptian Feminist Union. The EFU launched a journal of women's issues called L'Egyptienne (and later published in Arabic as al-Misriyya--The Egyptian Woman), and Shaarawi became a noted speaker in the international feminist community.
Although she acknowledged a debt to some of those international feminists--particularly the Americans Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul--she found some of her inspiration in ijthihad, a form of Islamic legal scholarship that emphasizes independent reasoning and that has been used by some Islamic feminists and others to re-examine the Quran's teachings on the status of women.
In this speech delivered at the opening of the first Arab Feminist Conference--and in many others--Shaarawi stressed that there was no incompatibility between Islam and modern feminism, saying "the woman also demands with her loudest voice to be restored her political rights, rights granted to her by the Sharia and dictated to her by the demands of the present." You can hear echoes of this statement in Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's speech on Islam and women in 1995, another Famous Speech Friday here on the blog.
You can read the rest of her short opening remarks at the conference in the collection Documenting First Wave Feminisms, edited by Maureen Moynagh and Nancy Forestell. What can you learn from this famous speech?
- Signal what's to come with a strong start. Shaarawi begins her speech by declaring that women have the same obligations and duties of men--and that therefore it seems odd that they shouldn't also have the same rights. The rest of the speech follows naturally from this contention, whether speaking about political duties and elections or family duties and religion. In her first sentence, she clearly defined a single theme that connects her entire talk.
- Use repetition wisely. Shaarawi uses a classical rhetorical device called anaphora, a repetition of phrases, as her way to compare and contrast the rights of women and men. The phrases "The woman [does this]," followed by "The man [does that]" help heighten the inequality she is speaking about, and bring a movement and rhythm to the speech that makes it easy to follow.
- Bring some humor to a serious speech. She is the opening speaker at the first-ever Arab feminist conference, and as such Shaarawi is charged with setting the historic tone that will make participants and observers recognize the gravity of such a gathering. But I can't help but chuckle at her tiny zing in this remark on male "generosity," and I wonder if her listeners did too:
However, the man who alone distributes rights, has kept for himself the right to legislate and rule, generously turning over to his partner his own share of responsibilities and sanctions without seeking her opinion about the division.
(Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this Famous Speech Friday post. Photo by REVOLUCIÓN ESPIRITUAL)
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