Huda Shaarawi: A New Mentor and Her Salon for Women

Men such as Wasif Jawhariyyeh were not the only ones to participate in the salon culture of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Middle East. Women did as well. In this selection, Egyptian feminist Huda Shaarawi describes her experiences at one such salon in Cairo.

Eugénie Le Brun, a Frenchwoman, was the first wife of Husain Rushdi Pasha. I met her for the first time at a wedding reception and was immediately taken by her dignity, sensitivity and intelligence. In spite of my extreme youth I attracted her attention as well. We were introduced by Rushdi Pasha's sister and spent most of the evening in delightful conversation. Some time later, my brother arranged for me to take a day's excursion on the Nile to the Delta Barrage with Mme Rushdi and a number of other European women. The hours I spent in her company on that occasion were the beginning of a close relationship. She soon became a dear friend and valued mentor. She guided my first steps in 'society' and looked out for my reputation....

Mme Rushdi not only guarded my reputation, but also nourished my mind and spirit. She took it upon herself to direct my reading in French. She would assist me over difficult passages in a book and when I had finished it she would discuss it with me. In that way, she helped me perfect my French and expand my learning.

Soon, at her request, I began to attend her Saturday salon during the hours set aside for women. She would tell me, 'You are the flower of my salon.' On the days when I was unable to attend I used to send flowers. Once she responded with a sweet note saying that the flowers I had sent could not make up for the absence of her 'beloved flower'. She begged me to lessen the number of bouquets so I would not diminish her joy. Her growing affection toward me made some of her friends jealous but others applauded her devotion to me.

As mistress of the salon, Mme Rushdi adroitly guided the discourse from issue to issue. There were debates about social practices, especially veiling. She confessed that although she admired the dress of Egyptian women, she thought the veil stood in the way of their advancement. It also gave rise to false impressions in the minds of foreigners. They regarded the veil as a convenient mask for immorality. Plenty of lurid tales were circulated by ignorant outsiders about Egyptian morals. Foreigners not infrequently departed from Egypt under the mistaken impression they had visited the houses of respectable families when, in truth, they had fallen into the hands of profiteers who, under the guise of introducing them into the harems of great families, had in fact led them merely to gaudy brothels.

The conversation would move to another topic such as offspring and immorality. Mme Rushdi believed that people who had children never died, as their children were extensions of themselves who kept their memories alive. 'I have no children to perpetuate my memory,' she would say, 'but I shall remain alive through my books.' She once revealed that she had provided for a burial plot in the cemetery of Imam al-Shafai. In answer to our surprised looks she said,'You didn't know that I embraced Islam after my marriage? I wish to be buried in the Muslim cemetery next to my husband so we shall never be separated in this world or the next.'

Speaking of her books, she said,'I have signed them, as I have written them— Niya Salima ('In Good Faith'). My purpose in Harem et les musulmanes (The Harem and Muslim women) was to describe the life of the Egyptian woman, as it really is, to enlighten Europeans. After it appeared in Europe, I received many letters saying my book had cleared up false impressions of life in Islamic countries. They said it had corrected outsiders' images of Egyptians. In fact, they said Egyptians seemed not unlike themselves.' That restored her peace of mind, she said. She had been very upset when she heard that many Egyptians had thought she had criticized the condition of women in Egypt.

'However,' she continued, 'my second book is different. I decided to attack the problem of the backwardness of Egyptian women, demonstrating it arose from the persistence of certain social customs, but not from Islam, as many Europeans believe. Islam, on the contrary, has granted women greater justice than previous religions. While working on the book I attended sessions of the Shariah Courts (religious courts where personal status or family law cases are heard) to find out for myself how women fared. I was aghast to see the blatant tyranny of men over women. My new book will be called, Les Repudiées (The Divorcees)'. Mme Rushdi read me portions of the book as she completed them, asking for my reactions.

Huda Shaarawi, Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist (1879-1924), trans, and ed. Margot Badran (New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1986), pp. 76-81.

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