Doria Shafik was a feminist and founder of the Bint al-Nil Union who became one of the leaders of the women’s liberation movement in Egypt in the mid-1940s. Her efforts led to Egyptian women being granted the right to to vote by the Egyptian constitution.
Shafik was born in 1908 in Tanta, in the Nile delta. She attended Notre Dame des Apôtres, a prestigious French mission school and at sixteen became the youngest Egyptian to earn the French Baccalaureate degree. In 1928, she entered a national contest for the best essay honouring Qasim Amin, an eminent scholar who worked to advance the cause of reforming Islam to reflect the essential contribution of women in society. Shafik won the contest and was invited to speak at an event commemorating Admin. Feminist Huda Shaarawi chaired the event and the two began a manor-student relationship. Shaarawi introduced Shafik to feminism, and she felt that “Liberty was the profound goal of her ‘feminism’.“
At 19, Shafik she was awarded a scholarship by the Egyptian Ministry of Education to study at the Sorbonne University in Paris, where she studied for a PhD in philosophy. While in Paris, Shafik married Nour Al Din Ragai and together they returned to Egypt in 1940. She applied to teach at Cairo University, but was rejected because of her gender although they claim she was “too modern”. She was also blocked from trying to join Shaarawi’s Feminist Union by members who did not approve of her friendship with their leader. Shafik began working for the Ministry of Education as an inspector of French language in secondary schools across Egypt but harboured desires to do something more.
In 1944, Shafik wrote a paper entitled La Femme Nouvelle en Egypte in which she stated her belief ”that if Islam were properly understood, it would not be seen as preventing women from having freedom, it would be seen as inclusive of women’s rights, as being equal to men’s.” and that “Feminism in the true sense of the word is the total comprehension between man and woman, not a perpetual fight between the two sexes.” She dedicated the paper to Princess Chavikar (the first wife of Egypt’s then former King Fuad I), who then set up a magazine of the same name and asked Shafik to become the editor-in-chief. She steered the magazine to success, meanwhile publishing an Arabic Magazine entitled Bint Al-Nil (Daughter of the Nile) which aimed to educate Egyptian women in both their family and societal role. The first issue sold out immediately and its success led to Shafik creating the Bint Al-Nil Union to help deal with issues that disproportionately affect women and fight for them to be included in the countries policies. The Union worked to eradicate illiteracy by setting up educational centres throughout Egypt, set up an employment office and opened a cafe for working women.
In 1947, following the death of Huda Shaarawi, Shafik began to focus her writing more on women’s rights, stating “Depriving educated women of that which illiterate men enjoy is a sin against Egypt, which will remain an undemocratic society so long as women are deprived of their full political rights. Men who stand between women and their political rights do not love their country for they insist on depriving Egypt of the services of their women.” In February 1951, Shafik and nearly 1,500 women who were either members of Bint Al-Nil or the Egyptian Feminist Union stormed the Egyptian parliament to fight for women’s socioeconomic rights. The President of the Senate promised change, but none came and Shafik was summoned to appear in court. Following a swell of support from female lawyers and students who petitioned the king on her behalf, Shafik gained national and international celebrity and her case was thrown out. That same year, Shafik contributed to efforts to overthrow the occupying British by gathering a female military unit of 2,000 women.
In 1952, following the Egyptian Revolution, Bint Al-Nil became a political party with Shafik as its leader. Although she had hoped this would herald a new direction for Egypt, this was not the case and in 1954 she showed her anger at the fact that her country’s new constitution being drawn up without the involvement of women by staging an eight day hunger strike. Her strike ended after President Naguib committed to producing a constitution that respected the rights of women. Shafik’s actions led to her travelling the world to lecture on Egyptian women.
In 1956, women in Egypt were granted the right to vote due to her efforts. There was one catch, the women had to prove their literacy, a rule which men were not subjected to. A year later, Shafik staged her second hunger strike in the Indian embassy over President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s dictatorial rule. Shafik was sentenced to house arrest and her name banned from the media and her magazines shut down. Shafik spent her years under house arrest reading and writing. In 1975, she died after falling from her balcony.