by Sania Shaarawi
Cynthia Nelson, who was the head of the sociology and anthropology department at the American University in Cairo, wrote the biography of Doria Shafik in 1996, almost twenty years after the tragic death of this exceptional woman. Doria Shafik was a writer, a poetess and a journalist who graduated in philosophy at the Sorbonne University in Paris. She wrote poetry in French and was a feminist and political activist. Her story is an additional example of how writing can restitute life and a voice to those who have lost theirs.
Doria Shafik was born in the Egyptian Delta, in the city of Mansura, on 14 December 1908. She lived in a home characterized by differences of all kinds , that were often difficult to understand for a child. Her mother came from a well-to-do family that suffered a turn of fortune after the father’s death. She was then married to a government employee, a young and affectionate man who only had his salary to support his wife and children. Doria therefore lived within the context of an enlarged family with her mother, grandmother and aunt who spent six months with them and six months in Tanta in the grandmother’s house, leaving the children with their father in the care of the Syrian nanny and a host of servants, including a eunuch.
The long separations from her mother made the child worried and vulnerable. The different social classes, races and behaviours that coexisted in her immediate environment during her childhood gave her a lifelong sense of uncertainty. But she also acquired a premature, albeit deep understanding of the intrinsic humanity that binds people together, beyond differences.
In 1915, at the age of seven, the little girl was sent to a nuns’ school, Notre Dame des Apôtres, in Tanta where she lived with her grandmother. However, she lost her mother in 1920 at the age of twelve and was again moved over to her father’s house in Alexandria where she went to the missionary school of Saint-Vincent de Paul, that was considered one of the best in Egypt. She then began to live in a cosmopolitan environment where news from the whole world were freely circulated. That was when Doria first heard about Huda Shaarawi and her victories in the Egyptian feminist movement.
In 1928, Doria wrote Huda Shaarawi a letter and went to meet her in Cairo. She obtained, with her help, a scholarship from the Egyptian ministry of education to continue her studies in Paris. Furthermore, Huda Shaarawi invited her to deliver a speech at the Egyptian Feminist Union’s headquarters the same year on the fourth of May. Doria travelled to Paris in August to study philosophy at the Sorbonne where she obtained a Licence d’Etat and a Licence Libre in 1933. She then went back to her father’s home in Alexandria where, given her remarkable beauty and elegance, she participated in the Miss Egypt beauty contest.
After a brief and unhappy marriage with an Egyptian journalist that she could not put up with for more than a year, Doria met up in France with a cousin that she had not seen for a long time - Nur al-Din Ragai, who was studying law in Paris. The two young people found that they had many things in common and decided to get married in Paris in 1937. After spending their honeymoon in England, they returned to Cairo when Nur finished writing his thesis for the doctorate, but Doria had to go once more to Paris to discuss her own thesis for a Doctorate of State. “L’Art pour l’art dans l’Egypte antique” and “La Femme et le droit religieux de l’Egypte contemporaine” were the titles of the two theses she wrote at the Sorbonne, and these were indeed the two concerns that directed her thinking and her life. She said later on that she wanted to turn her life into a work of art. She tried to demonstrate that a correct interpretation of the verses of the Quran would have liberated women rather than limiting their freedom.
Back to Cairo, Doria began to work at the ministry of education. She had hoped to work for the French magazine, L’Egyptienne, which was founded by Huda Shaarawi , but she was impeded from doing so by the chief editor, Céza Nabarawi. She was then invited by Princess Shivekiar, King Fuad’s former wife, to direct another French magazine -“La Femme Nouvelle”. Doria accepted the offer and also began to publish her own magazine, “Bint al Nil” (The Daughter of the Nile), in 1945, as well as a children’s magazine “Al-Katkut”. Shivekiar’s providential help meant, however, that Doria had to frequent the corrupt and amoral court of the princess where she, given the high standards she believed in, felt uncomfortable. When her benefactor died in 1946, Doria personally took over the French magazine, La Femme Nouvelle, and went on publishing Bint al-Nil thanks to the moral and material support of her husband , who was a very successful a lawyer.
The death of Huda Shaarawi at the end of the year 1947 determined her decision to take the lead of the feminist struggle and her entrance in the arena of Egyptian politics. Doria delivered a statement at Huda Shaarawi’s memorial in which she expressed her ideas: “This fourtieth day after the death of Huda Shaarawi conveys the weight of everything she has done for the Egyptians and for all the people of the Orient. Remember her, because remembrance serves to reinforce faith and because she has struggled to create a proud and cultured society. Remember her until you understand your indebtedness to her. She lived for you and she has also died for you. And I shall make sure that mourning helps us to continue what she began… you must struggle to reinforce her memory. If women are learning to read and write, if they go to university, if they work in the fields, if they go to restaurants and if some day they obtain seats in parliament, all this will serve to remember Huda Shaarawi much better than our tears and our laments for her death.”
From that moment, Doria launched a persistent struggle for women’s rights and participation in politics. The suffragettes wanted to share into political and administrative decision-making, given the fact that they had run the administration of cities during the war. They struggled to obtain the individual freedom that would have allowed even the repudiated women to lead acceptable lives in society.
Doria had two daughters. She dreamt of a future based on justice, participation, responsibility and freedom for her daughters. She was conscious of the fact that someone had to intervene immediately in order to carry forward the late feminist leader’s struggle. At that point Doria decided to adopt a specific agenda. The time had come for her to reorganize feminist action and her program was simple and clear.
She immediately began with the house of parliament, inviting all the women, near and far, to participate with her in a invasion of the House while a session was underway, to demand the participation of women in decision-making and suffrage. Doria was arrested for leading this demonstration, but the trial was postponed sine die.
The defeat of 1948 was by and large the result of the ill-functioning weapons purchased by the Egyptian government. It was followed by mass anti-government demonstrations and the Egyptian monarchy even prohibited ships heading for Israel to cross the Suez Canal. In 1951, the manifestations became a mass phenomenon and “liberation battalions” were launched against the British forces in the area of the Suez canal. The prime minister, who was also the president of the Wafd party, then decided with the endorsement of the House to unilaterally abrogate the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936, because the treaty allowed for the presence of the British forces, even several decades after the presumed end of the occupation, to monitor the traffic of the Suez Canal without reporting to the Egyptian authorities. It also allowed for the permanent presence of the English military in the cities of the canal, including Ismailia, Port-Fuad and Port-Said. The Egyptians also demanded the complete withdrawal of the British from the whole area of the Suez Canal and therefore started preventing the food supplies from reaching the Canal area. In January 1952, aside from destroying a whole village near Ismailia, the British soldiers massacred about fifty Egyptian policemen in their headquarters, because they refused to raise arms against their insurgent co-citizens. The Egyptian reaction was immediate and on 26 January the people rose massively in the streets of Cairo and burned the properties and other symbols of western presence in the capital. By the end of the so-called “black Saturday”, 750 thousand establishment had been burned or demolished. Tens of persons were wounded or killed. The Free Officers, a group of military men who had been horrified for having had to fight practically without weapons, decided to take power into their own hands, under the leadership of General Muhammad Naguib.
Despite the heavy political situation, or perhaps because of it, Doria felt by duty bound to accelerate the implementation of the feminist and political program and decided at that point to run for elections, albeit illegally, after setting up the women’s party, that she named “Bint al-Nil”. Following the military putsch of 1952, the Free Officers decided to abrogate the Egyptian constitution, to nationalize the press, to abolish political parties and to appoint a committee of fifty members to enshrine the new constitution. Doria was then left without her political party, but still convinced that the new president of the republic, general Muhammad Naguib, would have supported the feminist movement. When Naguib was forced to step down in 1954, the new president Gamal Abd al-Nasser imposed martial law, the dissolution of all parties and the sine quae non postponement of elections. The women were therefore left without any hope of participating in political life and without the right to suffrave. Doria, together with eight members of her organization, launched at that point an eight days hunger strike at the seat of the Union of Journalists to protest against the exclusion of women from the constitutional committee.
In the month of April 1955, President Nasser went to Bandung where he met the Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, the Yougoslav president, Marshal Josip Broz Tito and the Chinese premier Chu-En-Lai. Egypt became a member of the movement of non-allied countries. A year later, the new Egyptian constitution went into force. Suffrage was finally conceded to women on paper, but all the non-governmental organizations were prohibited and were affiliated to the Ministry of Social Affairs. One of the articles of the new constitution limited the women’s voting rights to educated women while the same limit did not apply to men.
Doria was therefore left without a party, without an organization and without any means to protest at her disposal. She therefore decided, a year later, to begin another hunger strike in February 1957. Gandhi’s influence was remarkable in Egypt and, being a friend of the wife of the Indian ambassador, Doria decided to start her strike in the premises of the embassy to avoid the risk of being arrested. Her requests were clear and were inspired by her love of justice and freedom: she demanded the end of the dictatorship in Egypt and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Egyptian territories occupied during the Tripartite Aggression of 1956.
This time the presidential reaction was immediate. Doria was accused of treachery and placed under house arrest. Her magazines and her publishing house were definitively closed down. Furthermore, a special edict was issued to remove her name from any publication. A long period of seclusion then began in her apartment in Zamalek. Thanks to Nehru’s intervention in her favour, Gamal Abdel Nasser did not brutalize her more than this. Her feminist colleagues, who were silenced at that point, made fun of her hunger strike and left her to the solitude of her homebound exile. Nasser, who was considered a hero and the main exponent of the liberation of Egypt by his people, based his power in reality on negating freedom of speech and action of his political opponents. Doria then entirely lost the freedom that she had so much desired for herself and for the who Egyptian population.
That was when she began to write her autobiography. She wrote it twice in French and a third time in English. She felt that she lived in hell. According to Winnicott, in fact, “when one reads of individuals dominated at home, or spending their lives in concentration camps or under lifelong persecution because of a cruel political regime, one first of all feels that it is only a few of the victims who remain creative. These, of course, are the ones who suffer.” This was the case with Doria, who wrote volumes of poetry such as Les Larmes d’Isis and Avec Dante Aux Enfers. She had already written a novel, L’Esclave Sultane, in 1951. She wrote to survive to the isolation that stifled her. She felt akin to Dante in exile, when he was forced to create the imaginary bolgias of his hell. She had learned Italian to read the Divine Comedy.
Compagnon d’ultime voyage
mon Guide et mon Maître
comme Virgile fut le tien
Aux heures de détresse
J’accours vers toi
pour me tenir la main
et pour guider mes pas.
J’ai appris ta langue
le tréfond de ta chanson,
pour te comprendre
Nous voilà descendant
La pente d’inconnu
vers les abîmes sans fond
dans l’espoir de saisir
par-delà les cloisons des Enfers
les grands secrets
du Cœur humain.
Companion of this last journey,
My guide and master
As was Virgil for you
I run towards you
In times of dismay
You hold my hand
And guide my steps
I’ve learned your tongue to grasp
The essence of your song
To understand you
Now we start descending to the unknown,
To the boundless abysses
Hoping to understand
Beyond the walls of Hell
The great secrets of
The human heart
In 1961, Doria was probably informed by her daughter about worrisome news concerning her acquaintances, like Mary Kahil, a friend and colleague from the days of La Femme Nouvelle, who had embarked on a witty remark while speaking with president Nasser at a reception at the Apostolic Nunciature in Cairo: “two thousand greetings like the two thousand hectars you took away from me,” she mocked, with reference to the agrarian reform. Whatever Miss Kahil still possessed was confiscated the day following this unfortunate pleasantry and she also began to live withdrawn and isolated.
In the course of the same year Muhammad Shaarawi, the son of the feminist activist Doria had so much admired, was arbitrarily detained and completely ruined for daring to criticize the impact of the selfsame agrarian reform, and especially its implementation in the sterile rocky mountains of Syria. One by one, all the people that Doria had mingled with in the past were treated to the same regime of misery.
Doria certainly was persecuted, because the power of the secret services spread all over the country. In this reign of terror she was abandoned by everyone except her daughter Jehan. Aziza was forced to follow her husband in America where he worked. Doria, however, had already decided to live isolated in her home. She wrote continuously. Writing, even without any hope of ever being published, could not be taken from her. And even after Nasser’s death in 1970, she opted for solitude, despite President Sadat’s decision to set her free. Pierre Seghers, a poet and friend from the old Parisian days, eloquently described this nightmarish isolation:
Who were the real authorities… to whom Doria paid her ransom? It hardly matters! Idealistic, passionate, Doria Shafik interfered in their eyes in forbidden domains where fine feelings were out of place. Those who claimed they would save men from their ancestral misery, in fact did everything in their power to increasingly enslave and persecute them. JUSTICE, THE ABSOLUTE, LOVE, THE INFINITE, TRUTH, BEAUTY, GOODNESS, how many armoured squadrons did these abstract notions have at their disposal? To ward-off the dramas of time and blood, Doria Shafik kept on proclaiming them… She had become all conscience, an implacable and relentless gaze. A voice that spoke on everyone’s behalf. She was unbearable for the authorities. Pierre Reverdy’s words: “There is no such thing as a suicide, there are only murderers!” should be pondered within this context.
Doria only accepted to travel abroad to see Aziz’a newborn son, who was born in America. In Cairo, she focused her life on Nazli, Jehan’s daughter, that she picked up from school every day and with whom she talked a lot, telling her about the legends of ancient Egypt. She did not try to resume her relations with people. She went for long walks every day along the banks of her beloved Nile, but in her intense inner life she went down with Dante to the hell of her wounded memories, to the point of wondering if she had not been entirely mistaken, she who had wanted to turn her life into a work of art. She was assailed by doubt. Despite the freedom granted her by President Sadat the ruthless eyes and ears that she had endured for a long time seemed to be still present and terrified her. She chose an inner exile to eschew the claustrophobia of her daily life.
Jehan, who was always around her, was forced to spend the summer of 1975 in England, to complete her Phd thesis. She had taken her daughter along. When she returned in September, Doria was very tired, agitated, unsettled. She said she had finished writing, she had put all her writings in a chest. She told her about her doubts, her daily difficulties. One day, before going to the office, because she thought her mother looked very fragile, Jehan slipped a ring set with a turquoise on her finger, saying that it would have brought her luck. Doria simply replied “you are my soul, Jehan.”
When Jehan returned to her mother’s house the next day, after having lunch with her husband and in-laws, she saw a body covered by a bed sheet and surrounded by a group of people in the building’s garden. It was Doria. Many different opinion were expressed. Someone said that she had jumped from her balcony, others thought she might have felt dizzy and fell while looking down, and some even thought that she had been pushed to jump.
The fact remains that Egyptian women obtained the right to vote thanks to the sacrifice made by this beautiful, educated and refined woman, this stubborn lover of justice, truth and freedom, as conveyed in this early poem entitled Sans Poids:
Où sont vos bagages, madame,
Qui faites le tour du monde? Je n’en ai point
Voyez-vous… je voyage
ainsi à la ronde,
libérée de tout poids!
mon cœur sur la main
Tenez… le voilà !!
Mais faites bien attention
Il est de cristal.
Where is your baggage… madam,
As you tour the world?
I have none
You see… I travel
My heart is in my hand,
Here it is…
But do be careful with it,
It is made of crystal.
The written word has triumphed for Doria. In the words of Pierre Seghers : “she was hunted down, trapped by time, but the devastation failed to destroy everything. Her tragic destiny… failed to wipe out her words.”