The New York Times started a great new column called “Overlooked No More”, which profiles minorities and women whose deaths were not covered by the paper. Last month, they profiled Doria Shafik, who was one of the most important – and unknown – figures in Egyptian history.
Shafik was born in northern Egypt, and went to a French missionary elementary school. When options for secondary school were only open to boys, she studied on her own, completed the official French curricular exams early, and was the youngest Egyptian to earn the French Baccalaureate degree, at just 16. She later earned her PhD, and went on to run a French cultural and literary magazine. She also began publishing an Arabic magazine in order to help educate Egyptian women in particular. By age 40 she had created a union to speak for women – to help solve their issues within society and fight for their inclusion in Egypt’s laws. They ran literacy classes, employment resources, and cultural events for women.
She was thus perfectly suited to bring together two leading feminist groups (one of which was the union she founded) to march into Parliament on February 19, 1951. There, 1500 organizers interrupted proceedings for four hours in order to speak for the women of Egypt. While the president of the upper chamber “pledged to take up their key demands: the right of women to vote and to hold office.“ Despite this, no real change ensued. Shafik continued to push for political change, using hunger strikes as another tactic to gain attention and pressure Egypt’s leadership. After speaking out about the dictatorship of Gamal Abdel Nasser, she was placed under house arrest, and was largely silenced. Her magazine was shut down, and she led a solitary life.
Shafik’s story is one of triumph: Where educational opportunities did not exist, she created them; where women were not included, she protested and pushed for change; and where she saw indignities, she created and participated in groups to correct them. But it is also one of immense sadness. She lived a very secluded life and limited her movements, even when it wasn’t required. She was erased from history books and news media. She was expelled from the same union that she founded. She ultimately committed suicide at age 67. It’s just a reminder that change – real change – comes with great sacrifice. And while we celebrate our heroes today, they are still human. They experience sorrow, they are misunderstood, and they make mistakes. It reminded me of a quote from an Ursula Le Guin book, A Wizard of Earthsea, “To light a candle is to cast a shadow.”
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