Like most people at the moment, I don’t know what to do. Scrolling through endless feeds and WhatsApp messages bring a strange feeling into my gut – helplessness. So many people working hard to help others, while I spend the day checking in online for my students or finding ways to amuse my toddler. Somehow, in the general scheme of things, it doesn’t seem like enough. In an effort to help out, I thought I’d turn my hand to providing some light relief. But what do people want to read at such a difficult time? Our faith in humanity feels like an important thing to boost, so to that end I’m going to publish weekly fiction which celebrates individuals that have done amazing things. Partly to take you away from the daily difficulties of life during a pandemic, and partly to remind you that, as a species, we can be pretty amazing.
For this piece of fiction, I was inspired by the song The Lioness on Frank Turner’s album No Man’s Land, where he celebrates women many have forgotten or may never have heard of. The song celebrates Huda Shawaari, an Egyptian nationalist and feminist who founded many campaigns for women and is often considered the founder of the Women’s Movement in Egypt. The chorus of the song refers to a pivotal moment in her life – she removed her veil in front of a crowd of people. After that point, the Women’s Movement in Egypt accelerated, changing the lives of thousands. I thought about why she chose that moment in particular to show her face to her supporters, and wondered what she might be thinking just before it happened. The result is this story.
No Longer Hidden
The train shudders her awake. Heavy with miles, she looks out of the window. Not far now. Soon they will pass over the thick water of the Nile, see the square tower of Cairo station waiting to meet them. Saiza sits opposite. Still fast asleep, she has been for over an hour.
Sweat gathers at the top of Huda’s cheeks, as it always does. The line where the veil meets her face. The scant breeze coming through the crack of the window doesn’t help much in this heat. She peels away one side of the white material, stuck to her cheek with moisture. It was an uneasy comfort to put it back on after seeing all the European women. It felt strange, like people seeing you wash your feet, to have her face so exposed in public.
Outside, the signs of civilisation grow. Buildings huddle together, increasing in size. She clenches her hands against the black fabric of her dress. There might be many of them to greet her. She hasn’t yet decided what she’s going to say. In Rome, in those cool halls, she was euphoric. Lifted by the presence of so many women in one place, their accents and colours more varied than shifting sand. Everything was possible.
Now her resolve rattles with the train. The warm hands and touches fade from her skin as she approaches her home. Once again shrouded, as she has been her whole life. All that time spent working and fighting for the independence of her country. Only to be cast aside again once the British acknowledged their struggle. It was as though she stood immobile while opportunity rushed past her. She felt again the futility of it, rooted in one place. Like her wedding day, her feet unable to take her away from the ugly old figure of her cousin, claiming her as his wife. She hadn’t yet grown dark hairs under her arms when she lay down that night.
In the luggage rack her trunk bangs against the side of the carriage. It took two of them to lift it up there. Too many books, but they’d felt necessary. A talisman of her status. That she deserved to be there too. Not that they had always been a source of comfort. That day in the harem when Said Agha had turned the teacher away with his book of grammar. What need did she have of it, he’d said, would she be a judge?
The preferential glances to her brother that had led to perverse dreams where animals attacked her and her mother looked on. She wasn’t really her daughter. Why else would she treat her so differently? The way all the women would run behind a curtain whenever a man approached. The ache when her brother left for school and she had watched from the window. Enrobed in a prison, prettily caught.
She’d been lulled by it, at first. The spectacular jewel she wore after Big Mother died. The poet who visited – the way she’d spoken so confidently to the men from behind the screen. Surely better to be kept like that, her status elevated the more she was hidden away. Better that than the women crammed in their houses with their men, the peasants in the fields with their bare faces turned to the sun.
It was only later she found herself unable to swallow this irregular skew of her country. Each morning she felt like she had the morning after her wedding day. The night before, after weeks of preparation, lights hung everywhere, transforming the house into a magical place. An enormous tent furnished with rich rugs stood grandly in the garden. The following morning it was all gone. They even cut down the trees. It was then she realised the gilded ropes with which she’d been tied.
Dust creeps through the window. She pushes it shut, sees the horses outside scrape the ground with their hooves. Is that carriage on the way to the station, for her? There could be many of them. Expectant, filled with desire for change. She left them with hope and promise clinging to her skirts. They will want something more than that now.
She has achieved so little. A few steps forward in schooling, for some. At least not everyone wallows in ignorance. They are meagre offerings. Perhaps she should tell them this. That the hope in their hearts will turn foul with disappointment, like the stench their horses leave in the street.
Her freedom rests on the shoulders of dead men. Her father, her husband, the men that left a gulf behind them when the boy children died. Sometimes she felt guilty, that Ismail and Umar’s death had been a necessary part of her success. Until the age of eleven they’d been her constant companions. The abandonment into the world of women afterwards left a sour taste in her mouth. She wanted what the boys had – horse riding, grammar and freedom to roam. It is hardly possible to tell the women waiting that they should wait for all their menfolk to die. That only then will they be unburdened.
But something is stirring. Shattered windows in London and marches in Paris. The meeting they attended in Rome was the ninth of its kind. Women in fashionable hats and slim skirts, holding their heads up when they spoke. Cracks are appearing in what they had thought were immovable foundations. The soft voices of women have roared.
A lurch as the train slows. Each carriage resists, metal grating, swinging in opposition. And yet they move forward. The engine with its stubborn steam has propelled them all this way. They have traveled hundreds of miles and arrived safely. When she was there, her tongue moved into shapes that were recognisable to those who spoke French and Turkish. Words she sighed over when her brothers were at school.
They stop. Saiza awakes and looks outside. She jumps to her feet, pressing her face to the window. They are so many. More than Huda could have imagined. They jostle and push, black cloaks dipped in dust. Their laughter shakes their veils.
Still, she lingers by her luggage. With what tongue can she speak to her friends? Saiza waits to see what she will do.
She clenches her robe. This was a journey she chose. To cradle Egypt in her palm and carry her out into the world. It is her who must tether them together, her resolve the steam that will pull them all forward.
As she steps onto the runner, the chatter stops. They turn. She has no words to offer them. Something more is needed. She reaches up, takes the veil, and rips it away. The clock in the square tower strips away the seconds in the silence that follows.
Joyous sound returns and she sees other women follow her lead. Stern faces on the eunuchs that stand beside them. They are immune from their judgement today. From this moment the women of Egypt will stir.
Not, after all, a spectacular gesture. It was her face and she showed it to them. She gave them her skin.
From ‘Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist,’ by Huda Shaarawi, introduction and translation by Margot Badran:
“Veiling and high seclusion were the marks of prestige and sought-after symbols of status. Only the few very wealthy families could afford the most elaborate measures for secluding women — the grand architectural arrangements and eunuchs (castrated men who were usually slaves from Sudan) to guard their women and act as go-between with the outer world. In the houses of the poor, women and men were crammed together in the same, limited space. However, when poor women went out — at they did far more often than their richer sisters — they too veiled. Life was different in the countryside, where any visitor could plainly see peasant women moving freely with faces unencumbered by the veil. Veiling and the harem system were social conventions connected with economic standing. They had nothing whatsoever to do with Islam.”