Casting Off the Veil: The Life of Huda Shaarawi, Egypt’s First Feminist (1879-1947), by Sania Sharawi Lanfranchi. Publishers: I.B. Tauris, London – New York
The life of people who make a difference is not their own. It belongs to humanity to learn from. The first thing one learns from probing into their lives is that it is neither their strength nor their vulnerability; neither the stability they enjoy nor the turmoil they live in; neither their being wealthy nor their living in poverty that makes them who they are. All such factors are immaterial as what gives them the drive to pursue the path they choose for themselves comes from the passion that glows within them. It comes from a sense of determination that enables them to cross all the bridges that come their way until they reach their destination.
However, reaching the destination requires going through ups and downs, moments of success, others of failure. Such people may ultimately become incapacitated by illness or aging, or they may face death, at any moment of success or of failure. This does not mean that the issue is forever resolved, or that it is irreversibly blocked. In the two alternatives, it becomes incumbent on equally passionate and engaged people who share the same vision to pursue the path taken by such exceptional people for the purpose of sustaining and building on the moment of success reached by their predecessor, or, to overcome their moment of failure.
It so happened that at the time of her death, Huda Shaarawi was living a moment of great disappointment after having reached apogees of successes on many fronts. With regards to the advancement of women, the impact of her achievements has crossed generations. The causes she staunchly supported, as a nationalist and for the modernization of Egypt, were won, spearheading the establishment of women as full citizens after their confinement to harem life. Currently, however, the status of women in Egypt is being eroded and adversely affected by mounting waves of religiosity, as has been happening in other parts of the world where bigotry and chauvinism prevail.
Near the end of Huda Shaarawi’s life, the ever escalating Palestinian-Israeli conflict had started to emerge on the world scene. Her protest and calls for humanitarian resolve and justice towards the Palestinian people - ruthlessly dispossessed and displaced from their fathers’ land - remained unmet. She left this world greatly shocked upon realizing that the international community and the civilized world she had admired as advocates of human rights, when summoned to act, did not honor their commitment to universal values, and instead sided with aggression.
However, going through the pages of Casting off the Veil and the life of Huda Shaarawi, one learns not to surrender to a status quo that - as we also learned from history - is time bound when human beings are determined to change it.
Huda Shaarawi’s biography as a feminist icon and a pioneer has been frequently covered in books and by the mass media over the years. But this is the first time that a close family member, in this case her granddaughter, takes upon herself the duty to probe into documents, memoirs, letters, tales and the memories and anecdotes surviving in the mind of close relatives, friends, and contemporaries. Sania (Nini) Shaarawi Lanfranchi even followed Shaarawi’s footsteps in the countries she had visited to search archives, to offer the wide public in Egypt and abroad, an account of who Huda Shaarawi really was, and how she possessed enough drive and strength to challenge the conventional and mobilize movements towards change.
Huda Shaarawi was wealthy, from the upper class, and she was raised by a single mother with the help of foreign nurses as was customary for the elite of her time. She could have become a spoilt brat if it were not for her strong personality, her determination, her generosity and her integrity that characterize a special breed of people. Driven by her inner passion, she fought for women, she fought for the dignity of the people of Egypt, she took the side of the oppressed and the displaced and she projected a proud image of her country abroad. Her name has been honored by history.
On a more mundane note, this, as the case was and continues to be for mothers who pursue a career, does not come without cost to the family unit. She became estranged from her own two children, Bassna and Muhammad, who had wished for a traditional mother. It is always the case that children of special mothers or fathers have at all times paid the price of sharing their parents, or one of them, to the role such parent(s) is (are) destined to play in public service, away from home. Although, in the case of Huda Shaarawi her yearning to serve was not always understood by her children, it is her granddaughter, who, by paying a public tribute to her grandmother more than sixty years later, acknowledges that the sacrifices endured by her family were not in vain.
By tracing the life of Huda Shaarawi with depth, honesty, and completeness, Lanfranchi not only takes us back to a journey in the past, but to a journey in the mind, heart and soul of one of the greatest women of all times.