Huda Sha'rawi's 'Mudhakkirati': the memoirs of the first lady of Arab modernity.

AuthorKahf, Mohja
PositionFemale Arab activist for women's rights and social change

Huda Sha'rawi's name is a household word in the Arab World, a name that calls up the image of an activist for women's rights and social change. Born in 1879, Sha'rawi entered public life in the period leading to Egypt's nationalist Revolution of 1919. She remained in the forefront of nationalist work and women's rights reform in the ensuing decades and was decorated with the state's highest honor, Nishan al-Kamal. Sha'rawi died in 1947. What is her legacy?

Huda Sha'rawi's Mudhakkirati (ed. Abd al-Hamid Fahmi Mursi, Cairo: Dar al-Hilal, 1981) has been read as an historical document, but what if we read it as literature, as adab (belle-lettres)? Adab in the Arabic tradition has always been a more open and democratic countryside than the snobbish modern realm of Literature (which emerged in the West only during the last hundred years and is now, under the barrage of postmodern theory, easing its border restrictions). Adab is not limited to fiction or to the clearly defined genres of high Literature. To its realm a work of ambiguous genre such as Sha'rawi's memoirs has no problem being admitted on several grounds. Leila Ahmed, in her groundbreaking study of this Arabic text, links Sha'rawi's text to the genre of seera dhatiya (autobiography) in classical adab (1988, 154-155). The possessive in the title declares the autobiographical pact (Lejeune 13-14), as do the embedded documents whose authorship the narrator claims and which are signed "Huda Sha'rawi." Certainly, the way Sha'rawi opens, "When I stand before the memories of my childhood . . ." announces her autobiographical intentions and easily calls to mind the model modern Arabic autobiography, Taha Husayn's Al-Ayyam (1929). Specifically, Mudhakkirati could be considered of the species of professional autobiography ("how I found my calling") which form part of the classical autobiographical heritage in Arabic (cf. Ghamdi).

We might also consider how portions of the memoirs draw on the rihla (travelogue) tradition of writing ("places I have been and things I have seen") and can be read as contributing, along with works such as Fadwa Tuqan's Rihla Sa'ba, Rihla Jabaliya and the third volume of al-Ayyam (translated as A Passage to France), to a modern Arabic corpus of autobiographical travel narrative. A small part of the text consists of diary entries, a modern element frequently appearing in women's lifewriting, particularly in American letters. Neither should we ignore the title's literal meaning, "memoirs," or the way the opening lines invoking childhood memories give way quickly to public documents about the 'Urabi nationalist movement, recalling that some critics separate between memoir and autobiography (e.g. Pascal). Yet we need not, according to Malti-Douglas, take "mudhakkirati" in as restrictive a sense as the translation would indicate (13), and the text's beginning section discourages such limitation.

In short, Sha'rawi's variegated text evokes the traditional literary heritage but brings other, less familiar, elements into it, in a pragmatic re-cutting of old fabric into new shapes that is the signature of her style and her message. What concepts does Sha'rawi's work generate, what scenarios and characters does she give us, what new voice does she author, and how does she add to our reservoir of cultural models? What is the significance of Sha'rawi's Memoirs for modern Arabic cultural studies?

Sha'rawi's Mudhakkirati writes the modern female individual into the Arabic literary tradition by achieving a public inscription of the heroic female ana ("I"), the female version of the Arab renaissance period's new individual, otherwise usually conceptualized in heroic male terms. Her memoirs loosen the language of tradition and change the meaning of its words, just as in her life she loosened the sartorial symbol of tradition and changed the meaning of its name. These are not radical feminist aims but contributions to the moderate modernist reform of Arabic tradition, as befits Sha'rawi's status as a Lady, a leading Lady of Egypt in the late khedival-monarchical era. The unique significance of her contribution to modern Arabic culture is both limited and enriched by her class status. Despite the fact that Sha'rawi's "woman" is untheorized and almost always conceptualized as upper-class, Sha'rawi's rich narration of a life of intense social interaction and political activism during a time of local and global change releases an amplitude of voices in tension with the controlling purposes of the Lady narrator. Just as the lower-class female peddlers whom she does not trust wheedle their ways into the houses of the wealthy, these dynamic voices insinuate themselves in the narrative and undermine Sayida Huda's ideological concerns, making her text all the more valuable for the successors to modern Arabic culture.

Mudhakkirati (an unfinished work interrupted by Sha'rawi's death) evolves in three stages from autobiography to memoir. The first eleven chapters, with the important exception of the chapters on her father's relationship to the 'Urabi movement, flow in generally chronological order and satisfy typical expectations for autobiography, ranging over such topics as "my father," "our house," "my mother," "my education and daily routine." Here is the sister-peer, shaqiqa, putting into the narrative style of interior monologue a claim for the equal and ineffable selfhood of the female individual, daughter and heiress to the same legacy as the valorized man of the Arab renaissance. In the small section from chapters twelve to seventeen, the mature woman's self-consciousness rises from private journal entries to the level of the world stage as the narrative moves into her emerging public life. The interior monologue begins to alternate with the public speech of the nationalist lady, sayida. In the third tier, roughly from chapter eighteen on, the lady activist takes the identity of a leader, ra'isa, and the narrative is more and more interspersed with the letters, lectures, and communiques that constitute her public voice and yet simultaneously reduce her authorial control over the text. In this narrative collage, documents authored by Sha'rawi and those with whom she communicated are braided together by a connecting narrative to enact the rise of the Egyptian woman in the person of Sayida Huda Sha'rawi.


Sha'rawi's text shows her negotiation of maximum dividends out of old and venerable cultural concepts for the benefit of the feminist nationalism/nationalist feminism she espoused. The move to claim legitimacy for the new female individual by affirming its authentic patrilineage appears in two ways: in the functions of the father and the brother in the text and in the introduction of reforms under the cover of conventional language. Sha'rawi begins her memoirs with her father (or more precisely with her memory of the moment his death was not announced to her five-year-old self), establishing a legitimate lineage for the autonomous nationalist-feminist woman she will propose and textually enact. She tells of his father's and his family's virtues in a manner evoking traditional Arab attitudes of genealogical pride. But that is not enough; she must clear his name from the charges that he supported the entry of the British colonizers into Egypt by opposing the ultra-nationalist 'Urabi movement. Thus she enters the lists as her father's champion, rallying newspaper articles and witnesses to his defense against his slanderers. This beginning injects the text with the anxiety of her class about the double-edgedness of its role as cautious collaborators with the British on one hand and ardent Egyptian nationalists on the other, an uneasy duality not directly acknowledged.

From the narrative emerges a Lady much of whose power comes from upper-class status and alliance with men who shared a particular intersection of class, ideology, and political interests. These men, as they appear in Sha'rawi's memoir, were the gentlemen of the Nahda(1) who responded to the call for an Arab awakening, who moved away from the moribund values of the generations before them of their own class and became the cavalry of Arab intellectual modernity, the knights of Arab political independence. Despite their initial discomfort and the inconvenience of breaking old habits, the "liberation" of "woman," (as it was defined by men in their era) fit, to a certain degree, with their image of themselves as "civilized" people on the model of "the civilized nations," and with their national and class interests. This loose social grouping embraced Islamic reformist Muhammad Abduh as well as Qasim Amin, that pariah among Islamic conservatives; it included Sayida Huda's much older husband Ali Basha Sha'rawi as well as her younger brother Umar.

Sha'rawi's memoirs often refer to her brother Umar as shaqiqi: He is her equal, peer, brother from the same mother as well as the same father; shaqiqi means all these things and implies "other half," as of something cloven in half, coming as it does from the verb shaqqa, to tear. Frequently the sister and brother are included in one dual form, e.g. "the two children" (tiflayn), as in the sentence Sayida Huda will never forget:(2)

Then there came that day which it is not possible for me to forget, ever. I was playing with my brother when there came to us suddenly the sound of a loud scream. It filled the expanses of the house and fear filled my heart. I and my brother clung to our nanny. At that moment my wetnurse came running, wrapping herself in black, and she shouted, "The news about the Basha has proven true, so give me, Siyah, the two children (tiflayn) and I will take them to Mas'ud Basha's house so they will not be disturbed by the screaming and shrieking." This sentence rings in my ear until this day and its echo still reverberates in my depths. Its fervor still singes my heart and my self. . . . (11)


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