Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.

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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 the elections for a Constituent Assembly, which will meet on July 23rd to draft changes to the Egyptian Constitution.

She has 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 that the women of Egypt be admitted to the Constituent Assembly. I demand their admission because we are convinced that the women who form more than half the Egyptian 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,” she said. One of the proposals under consideration would bar women from holding office, and would grant suffrage to women on an individual basis, and only if their request was approved by the government.

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This is not Shafik’s 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 promise, however, 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, and so it is time to protest 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 country’s women.

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David Dismore

David became a lifelong admirer of the suffragists after briefly encountering them in a high school textbook in the early 1960s. Though missing out on that first part of the struggle for equality, he became active in "second wave" feminism through LA NOW in 1974 and has been a full-time feminist, TV news archivist, and women's history researcher at the Feminist Majority Foundation since its creation.