Feminists of the Arab World
People don’t know much about Arab feminists. In this article, we briefly cover the lives and contributions of four of them.
Feminism ultimately seeks equal rights and opportunities for women. In order to achieve this, feminism seeks to end male dominance and eliminate gender roles. Although feminism seems to have more influence in Europe, other types of feminism have sprung up all over the world. In this article, we talk about four feminists of the Arab world.
Feminists of the Arab world
At the beginning of the 20th century, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon saw an awakening of movements that sought to empower women. Malak Hifni Nasif, Huda Sha‘rawi, Hind Nawfal, and Fay Afaf Kanafani are just some of the faces of these movements. However, many of these figures aren’t well-known outside of the Arab world. In this article, we’re going to talk about some of the most renowned feminists of this region.
Doria Shafik (1908 – 1975)
Doria was an Egyptian scholar, journalist, professor, and activist. She studied at Cairo University and the Sorbonne. She eventually became a leading figure in the political struggles of the time. The government placed her under house arrest because they considered her a threat. Shafik fought for secularism and democracy. Additionally, she argued that Islam speaks of equality between the sexes, that it doesn’t demand women wear the hijab, and that it doesn’t advocate female subjugation.
One of her main achievements was the creation of a magazine that promoted political and women’s rights. She also founded a middle-class feminist association with the goal of increasing women’s literacy and their political participation. Shafik founded the Bint-Al Nil political party, although the other parties eventually dissolved it.
She also went on a hunger strike to achieve political rights for women. Thanks to her strike, the new constitution guaranteed women the right to vote. However, people stopped supporting her when she decided to start a new hunger strike to protest the Nasser dictatorship and the Israeli occupation of the Sinai. Doria was denounced as a traitor and the government put her under house arrest. After that, she suffered from frequent emotional crises which ultimately lead her to suicide.
Zaynab Al-Ghazali (1917- 2005)
Zaynab Al-Ghazali was an Egyptian writer who promoted the establishment of an Islamic state ruled by Sharia (Islamic) law. She believed that this would give women more rights. Al-Ghazali founded the Muslim Women’s Association. This group rejected nationalism and the semi-secular nature of the country.
Al-Ghazali communicated with other Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. When the government jailed some of its members, Al-Ghazali served as a communication link between prisoners. She became the leader of the Islamic opposition. Consequently, the government jailed and tortured her.
Nawal El Saadawi (1931)
Some have called El Saadawi the “Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab world”. This psychiatrist has dedicated her professional career to defending women’s political and sexual rights. She was fired from her position at the Ministry of Health because of the things she wrote. She was also imprisoned for two months due to her work. During this time, using just a roll of toilet paper and an eyeliner, she wrote Memoirs from the Women’s Prison.
During her prolific career, El Saadawi tried to found a feminist political party in Egypt. However, she couldn’t carry out this plan because the government prohibited it. Nawal also co-founded the Arab Association for Human Rights and the Arab Women’s Solidarity Organization. Islamist groups threatened her because of her beliefs, which forced her to flee her country. She eventually returned to her country in 2011 due to the Arab Spring.
Fatema Mernissi (1940 – 2015)
Fatema Mernissi was one of the most renowned Moroccan feminists. Mernissi was a global authority in the field of Quranic studies. After studying the different versions of the Quran, Mernissi concluded that the prophet Mohammad was both progressive and feminist. She also noted that he wasn’t the one who began to consider the opposite sex second-class citizens.
You can read about her theories in the book The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Islam. This book was banned in her home country of Morocco because it posited that the sacred writings had been misinterpreted by authoritarian men who defended their misogyny with specious religious arguments. However, it won several awards, including the Princess of Asturias Award in 2003.
Throughout history, feminists of the Arab world have fought for women’s rights despite the high costs of doing so. Some have done this by arguing that their religion was more egalitarian than some people believed. Others sought to do it by advocating secularism or democracy. Regardless of their philosophy, feminists of the Arab world have left their mark and people shouldn’t ignore them.