Guest Commentary: Egyptian activist stands tall for Iranian women


Dr. James W. Finck is a professor of history at the University of Science & Arts of Oklahoma and author of the Historically Speaking blog. He is chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium.

With all that is going on in our nation, it is understandable if you have not been paying attention to what is going on in Iran. However, it is something worth our attention.

Back in September, a 22-year-old woman named Mahsa Amini died in custody of the morality police after being arrested for improperly wearing a hijab or headscarf. Her death has led to protests across Iran and a brutal crackdown from the government that has led to at least 300 deaths.

Historically speaking, this is not the first time women have protested the wearing of the hijab. Ironically, one of the most famous protests happened in Egypt in the 1920s. That protest was successful. Yet, 100 years later, women are being forced again to make the same protests and, this time, with even greater risks to their lives.

Since Amini’s death, other women have been arrested. Most notably, Elnaz Rekabi, an elite Iranian competitive climber, was arrested after she returned from a climbing competition in Seoul, South Korea, where she did not wear her hijab as required of Iranian women competing abroad. After not being seen for about two weeks, she emerged only to report that it was an accident that she did not wear her hijab, stating it got tangled during her climb, so she took it off. Then, there are women like Oscar-winning actress Taraneh Alidoosti, who posted a picture of herself unveiled to show support for the movement. What all these women are doing is brave, considering the cruelty of the regime. They are gaining more support for their cause, and even more are standing on the shoulders of giants who have come before them.

Next year will be the 100-year anniversary of arguably the most famous feminist event in the Middle East. Huda Sharawi was born in Egypt in 1879 to a prominent family. Though she was married at age 13 against her will, her husband, Ali Sharawi, was a nationalist who helped lead the fight against England for independence, a cause that was important to Huda, as well.

The early years of the 20th century brought a great deal of change for women. Egypt, wanting to fit into the West, was attempting to modernize and so was opening the door for women’s rights. Egypt was suddenly open to women’s education and allowed them to not only attend schools at all levels but also form intellectual societies, which published dozens of new journals dedicated to the advancement of women.

In the beginning, Sharawi’s principal fight was against England. Her husband was a founding member of the Wafd party, which was fighting for independence. Sharawi organized the “March of Veiled Women” through the streets of Cairo, one of the largest anti-colonization marches in Egypt. In 1922, England folded to pressure and granted Egypt its independence, even though not full control. The Wafd party then took power of the government. Although women were instrumental in the success of the Wafd party, the women found there was no room for them at the seat of power. Discouraged by the lack of freedom for women that came from liberation, Sharawi organized the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923 and turned her efforts towards women’s suffrage.

In 1923, Sharawi’s husband died, granting her a certain amount of freedom. That year, she attended a women’s conference in Rome, and on her return, she decided on an act of defiance that became symbolic for Islamic women everywhere.

When she and her companions disembarked from the train, they stood on the station platform and removed their veils. They could not claim to be free anywhere if they were not free at home. She started a movement of women wearing the hijab only if they wanted, out of religious devotion, not because of law or custom. Sharawi would go on to bring about many reforms in Egypt for women. In fact, from the 1930s to the 1960s, it became unfashionable to wear a hijab in public in many Middle Eastern nations. It was not until the 1970s that hijabs were seen in public again, after Islamic movements began to sweep through the Middle East, leading to calls to return to Islam and reject Western culture. Of course, the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran changed everything in that nation, as government-sanctioned modesty became law, and hijabs were required.

Women like Sharawi did not face the same penalties as women do in Iran today for removing their veils. They faced family shame and cultural pressure, whereas these modern women face possible death. Yet women like Sharawi were still incredibly brave and faced enormous odds. It was their fight for women’s rights that created a precedent and a good example for women today. It is a shame to see the regression in places like Iran after the work of Sharawi, yet the movement in Iran does not seem to be dying down. Inspired by women like Mahsa Amini and led by women motivated by Sharawi’s example, maybe things can change in Iran. Maybe all Iranians can someday be free to make their own choices.

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