Book Review – Shaarawi, Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist

by Rachel S

So I’ve been interested in Huda Shaarawi since I first came across a small reading section about her life and work in our Arabic textbook in college (Al Kitaab fi ta’allum al-arabiyya vols. 1 & 2 in the second edition, and Alif Baa for the alphabet, for those of you who are nosy). But the story of how she and another Egyptian woman dramatically unveiled when disembarking from a train in Cairo station upon returning from a conference in Rome really struck me for some reason.

So, a few years later, I come across this book while trolling alibris and dreaming about what I wanted to read next, it seemed like a good fit — figure out more about this apparently rad lady and read for fun. And yes, I do mean fun — for everyone right now who is telling themselves “oh god nonfiction for pleasure reading how do people even do that,” stop that and get on board.

This memoir is incredibly readable, well-translated (at least as far as I could see), and full of incredibly helpful contextual information in the Preface/Introduction. I was a little dismayed when I realized that the period covered by Shaarawi’s memoirs would not include her later days of political work, but I found reading her account of life growing up in an upper-class Egyptian Harem (which, contrary to what you may have been reading or understood before this, simply refers to the secluded area for the women of the family within an Egyptian home at the time) fascinating, engaging, and educational.

In short, I breezed right through it, and it gave me a whole slate of new ideas that I want to research further and follow up on. Definitely recommend spending the time reading the Introduction (this is coming from someone who typically skips over that), especially if you’re not very familiar with early 20th-century Egyptian history. Also, looking through online catalogs for the Feminist Press at CUNY makes me wish I was a billionaire just so I could create a section of my own personal library populated entirely by their books. Just throwing that out there, maybe it’s just me

The gory details:

Huda Shaarawi, trans. Margot Badran. Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist, 1879-1924. New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1986.

On Amazon:

On Alibris:

Writer’s Notes: Sorry for being a day late, a friend was visiting over the weekend and I got a bit carried away~~