By her early thirties, Doria Shafik was already an accomplished woman with a doctorate in philosophy. Despite her young age, she had published essays and poems in both Arabic and French, competed in a beauty pageant, and founded an organization of Egyptian feminists. Nevertheless, she would go on to do even greater things in the name of Egyptian women’s rights.
Doria Shafik was born on December 14th, 1908, in Tanta, Egypt, to father Ahmad Chafik, who was a civil servant, and mother Ratiba Nassif, who was a home maker. When Doria was only 12, her mother died, which made a tremendous impact on her; in her memoirs, Doria said: “[s]uch a day remains in my memory as a profound and incurable trauma, a wound so huge that it marked, with its desolation, the whole of my life.”
At the time, girls from good middle class families, like Shafik’s, could expect to access elementary education, but afterwards marry and take care of the house and the children. Nonetheless, Shafik knew from an early age that she wanted more than that, and stated herself that “if I were to have a career I decided it would have to be a brilliant career.” Even though further education was only open to boys, she managed to undertake studies on her own and, at age 16, become the youngest person in Egypt to obtain the French Baccalaureate – French A-level. Not only did she finish the official French curricular exams ahead of schedule, she was also among the top scores nationally, earning her a silver medal – the first of many academic accomplishments.
After spending time in Paris finishing part of her degree in philosophy at the Sorbonne university, she returned to Egypt for a few years, which is when she decided to enter a beauty pageant, unknown to her family. During her time in Paris, she discovered and developed her interest in women’s role in society – an issue that would remain as the centerpiece throughout her lifetime. Explaining her interest in a pageant then, Doria stated: “In Paris I had asserted myself in the intellectual sphere. Now I wanted to assert myself in the feminine sphere.” Although she was only runner-up for the title of Miss Egypt, her participation in the contest was an opportunity for her to challenge ideas from her Islamist background about female figures’ virtue of modesty, implying coverage of the hair and the body.
On the 19th of February, 1951, Shafik truly marked herself as a key figure in the Middle Eastern history of feminist advocacy for equal rights. She arranged a “feminist congress” at a lecture hall at the American University of Cairo, where 1,500 women turned up. However, the assembly was not in fact intended to be a congress – this was merely a ruse to fool the police; “[o]ur meeting today is not a congress but a parliament. A true one! That of women,” Shafik declared. And upon those words, she led the group of women through the marble gates of the all-male, Egyptian parliament, demanding their attention. For more than four hours, the decision makers of the country were forced to listen to the women’s call for voting rights for women, opportunities for women to hold office, as well as other demands such as equal pay. This act, though it was only moderately effective, ensured Shafik’s place among some of the most influential women Arab women.
Throughout her lifetime, she tirelessly resumed the quest for women’s cause. In 1954, she caught the attention of the international press by going on a hunger strike with a group of other women, conveying the message that “…the women who form more than half of the Egyptian nation must not, at any cost, be governed by a Constitution in the making of which they played no part”. Upon the 10th day of the fast, she was hospitalised due to weakening. But the strike had made an impact and promises were made by the acting president to give women “full political rights”.
Doria Shafik also started the Daughters of the Nile Union, which was dedicated to education and organisation of working women across classes. In 1957, she denounced Gamal Abdel Nasser as a dictator and was subsequently put under house arrest, erased from all historical print media, and had her own magazine shut down.
Shafik had two daughters by her cousin, Nour al-Din Ragai, whom she married in 1937 and divorced in 1968. After years of seclusion due to the house arrest, she jumped to her death from a sixth floor balcony in 1975.
By Ida Larsen, WAVE Intern