On February 19, 1951, a crowd of 1,500 women convened in the University of Cairo under the pretense of organizing a “feminist congress.” The group stormed the Egyptian Parliament asking for voting rights and refused to budge until the chamber agreed to consider a bill. The woman who organized this demonstration was Doria Shafik. She devoted her life to fighting for the freedom of Egyptian women, sometimes at the peril of her own life.
Born in 1908 to a middle-class family, Doria Shafik was deeply affected by the death of her mother when she was 13. However, her grief was no obstacle to her academic achievements: she attended French schools and at 16, she succesfully passed the “baccalaureat” (end of high school examination), finishing second best in the country.
Young Doria Shafik was eager to learn and wanted to study at La Sorbonne in Paris. Her family could not afford it and, determined to pursue her dream, she got in touch with Egyptian feminist Huda Sha’arawi. Sha’arawi helped her to secure a scolarship from the Egyptian ministry for education and influenced Doria Shafik’s feminist ideas until their views eventually diverged.
Paris was a vibrant city at the time and a haven for the avant-garde movements. Doria Shafik moved there in 1928 to study philosophy. She discovered new ways of thinking and when she moved back to Egypt after graduating, she was gazing at her society with a new perspective. In 1933, she decided to be the first Muslim woman to take part in the Miss Egypt contest in an attempt to challenge the norms of modesty and to claim back her right to be feminine. She became the runner up in the competition and the press treated the event as scandalous.
In 1936, she went back to France and graduated with a doctorate in philosophy a few years later. Upon her return in Egypt, she was denied a teaching position at the University of Cairo on the grounds that “her beauty and modern style” were not suited to teach young men.
But more was needed to discourage Doria Shafik! She began a career as a journalist, working for a journal called La Femme Nouvelle and eventually founding her own: Bint al Nil (Girl of the Nile). Convinced that women needed to take action and organize themselves, she created a Bint al Nil union that even included a paramilitary group of about 200 women trained in the arms.
Not only did Bint al Nil storm parliament in 1951, it also blocked Cairo’s Barclays bank in 1952. Shafik believed that fighting British imperialism would lead Egypt to redefine itself and that this would mean more rights for women. She saw feminism and nationalism as closely entertwined, but her hopes were shattered when she realized the new government of Nasser had no intention to improve women’s condition.
To demand voting rights, Doria Shafik and 14 other women went on a hunger strike. The 1956 constitution eventually gave women the vote but few other rights were granted. In 1957, Shafik went on an other hunger strike to denounce the government’s dictatorial tendencies. She was immediately placed under house arrest and remained secluded for 18 years. Unable to bear isolation any longer, she took her own life in 1975 at the age of 67 by jumping from the 6th floor of her apartment building.
Doria Shafik was characterized by her integrity. Throughout her life she pursued one goal: equal rights for women, whether that meant challenging British imperialism, questioning a traditional interpretation of Islam, or opposing a dictatorial government. This cost her her freedom, but it also made her an inspiration for anyone trying to hold on to their ideas.