“To know, to be able, to want and to dare,” Doria Shafiq
Britain today is celebrating the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, passed on 6 February 1918, which gave women over the age of 30 who owned property the right to vote. The outcome was a huge achievement in the long road to equal rights for British women, but a 2015 film “Suffragette” has forced us to confront some uncomfortable details about the women’s movement itself.
The nuances were not exactly captured in the film but in the reviews that followed it. Observers noted that suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst – played by Meryl Streep – had some outrageous views on imperialism; for a start she strongly supported colonisation and declared in 1912 that not having the vote was “the most appalling slavery, compared with which negro slavery falls into insignificance”.
The British Indian women who played a central role in the movement were visibly absent from the white cast of “Suffragette”, made up of Ramola Garai, Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter. In fact there are many women all over the world who fought for the vote in their own countries, but they, too, are largely absent from the official narrative of who is and who is not a feminist.
The Middle East is a case in point – we know little of women’s achievements there, favouring a single story that is pushed by the likes of former Prime Minister David Cameron, who once declared that women from this region are “traditionally submissive”. In other words, not only does the establishment here shape its own view of who our heroes are, it does the same for everybody outside Britain.
History tells us a different story. In February 1951 Doria Shafik gathered together 1,500 women, stormed the Egyptian parliament and refused to leave until the president of the Senate listened to their demands. Women should be given the vote, they told him, and be able to run for parliament. Women deserve equal pay for equal work.
At that time Shafik was in charge of two magazines, La Femme Nouvelle and Bint Al-Nil and through these publications she published articles promoting equal rights and the importance of women gaining an education. She set up training centres in which reading, writing and vocational studies were taught – eradicating illiteracy was essential if society was to move forward, she believed.
Shafik is not only credited with gaining the vote for Egyptian women in 1956 but she also played a huge part in helping kick the Brits out of Egypt in the fifties and ending colonialism. As part of her contribution towards these efforts she created the first female military unit and shut down the British bank, Barclays, which was back then an icon of colonialism. But she was not the first – Egyptian women played a huge role in the uprising against British rule in 1919, which led to their partial withdrawal in 1922.
Algerian women were such a strong force in the 1954-1962 war for independence that the French imprisoned, tortured and sexually assaulted them to try and break them, whilst at the same time publically declaring they would liberate them. Following the arrest of the first female activist Nassiba Kebal campaigners published a statement in La Voix du Peuple:
“Men and women from Algeria, you, who have a brotherly bond and fight for the same thing, we will make sure that Algeria is free and independent, that we will feel finally at home in our own country, all being equal before the law in regard to our rights and obligations.”
The constitution that was passed in 1962 after independence recognised equality between the sexes and granted women the right to vote, a direct achievement of the role women played in the war. Ten female deputies were elected into the National Assembly.
So whilst the British suffragettes were busy fighting against male domination and supporting imperialism, feminists in the Middle East were busy securing the right to vote and ridding their countries of this imperialism. There are numerous example of this.
Sadhij Nassar was the first Palestinian Arab woman to be imprisoned by the British Mandate and was eventually exiled for her opposition to the British occupation of Palestine. Nasser edited the women’s section in Al-Karmel newspaper where she appealed to Palestinian women to raise their sons and daughters as equals. Women should be educated, she said, and should work and contribute towards resisting colonialism.
It’s interesting that in “Suffragette” women see peaceful protest achieve nothing before turning to violence as a route to change. Several journalists here in Britain refer to them as “freedom fighters” and “heroines” for, among other things, blowing up one of former prime minister Lloyd George’s homes, smashing shop windows and setting fire to post boxes and public buildings.
One suffragette managed to strike Winston Churchill with a dog whip, another smacked him in the mouth. An activist in the Middle East would likely be labelled a terrorist – or simply ignored by Western feminists – for doing the same thing, as was 17-year-old Palestinian Ahed Tamimi, when she slapped an Israeli soldier who was trespassing on her land and now faces a lengthy prison term.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.