Today in Feminist History: Women Belong in the Egyptian Constitution (March 12, 1954)

March 12, 1954: Durriya Shafik, founder and president of the Bint al-Nil (Daughter of the Nile) Party, announced today in Cairo that she would be undertaking a fast to protest the exclusion of women from elections for a Constitutional Assembly.

The Constitutional Assembly in question will meet on July 23rd to draft changes to the Egyptian Constitution.

She sent telegrams to General Naguib, President and Prime Minister, as well as members of the ruling junta and the nation’s religious and political leaders. In her message she said:

“I have taken a firm resolution to go on a hunger strike until my last breath, or until Egyptian women attain their constitutional rights, without any conditions. I demand their admission because we are convinced that women, who form more than half the nation must not, at any cost, be governed by a constitution in the making of which they played no part.”

In her strike headquarters at the Cairo Press Syndicate, she repeated her pledge:

“I am going to fast until I get a written promise from someone in authority that under the new constitution women will have the same political rights as men.”

One of the objectionable proposals under consideration would bar women from holding office and would grant the vote to women on an individual basis, and only if their request was approved by the government.

This is not her first protest. On February 19, 1951, she and nearly 1,500 women were meeting at the American University. She declared: 

“Our meeting today is not a congress, but a parliament! A true one! That of women! We are half the nation! We represent here the hope and despair of this most important half of the nation. Luckily we are meeting at the same hour and in the same part of town as the parliament of the other half of the nation. They are assembled a few steps away from us. I propose we go there, strong in the knowledge of our rights and tell the deputies and senators that their assemblies are illegal so long as our representatives are excluded; that the Egyptian Parliament cannot be a true reflection of the entire nation until women are admitted. Let’s go and give it to them straight. Let’s go and demand our rights. Forward to the Parliament!”

After a four-hour demonstration inside the building’s gates, she was given an assurance from the President of the Senate that the demands of the women would be taken up by Parliament. These demands were for permission to participate in politics, limitations on polygamy and divorce, and equal pay for equal work. The politicians soon went back on their promises, and she was arrested for her rebellion. But support for her was so strong that when her trial opened, it was quickly adjourned and “postponed,” never to resume again.

Shafik has continued to fight for women’s equality despite provoking great hostility from religious leaders, with political leaders eventually following their lead. After a revolution deposed the monarchy, she formed the Bint al-Nil Party, which was recognized by the Ministry of the Interior and held its first convention on December 11, 1952.

But the new military regime has since proven to be no more sympathetic to women’s equality than the old King and Parliament, so protests have begun again.

Durriya Shafik, born in 1908, has studied at the Sorbonne, where she wrote her doctoral dissertation on “Egyptian Women and Islam.” Upon her return to Egypt in 1945, she founded a magazine entitled Bint al-Nil, which eventually included a section on political issues.

In 1948, she founded the Bint-al-Nil Union, which focuses on literacy and political rights for the nation’s women.

Hopefully this latest action will be successful in bringing about true constitutional reform in regard to women’s rights.


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.