In 1919, Hoda Shaarawi, one of Egypt’s most recognized feminists, was at the forefront of a movement that would lead to women’s emancipation. Feminism had been slowing growing since the late nineteenth century, but women activists made their first public appearance when they joined the male-dominated Nationalist movement in Egypt’s fight for independence against British rule.
Photographs from this period show veiled women with raised fists parading in the streets of Cairo with placards condemning the foreign occupation. In 1922, after her husband’s death, Shaarawi challenged the system yet again by removing her veil in public. This defiant act gave birth to a new era where women began to stand up for their rights, including the right to compete in sports.
This collection of photographs features a sporting competition in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, which included swimming and running events for women and men. What makes this contest unique is that it is one of the earliest events where Egyptian women athletes competed in the same venue as their male counterparts. However, many of the women captured in these photos appeared to be of European origin, particularly those participating in the swimming event.
Since the photographs were not dated, I examined several elements to determine their history. These included the photographic paper, the athletes’ and spectators’ outfits and the photographer, Sellian who was active in the 1930s. Based on these considerations, the sporting competition must have taken place between the late 1920s and the early 1930s.In the 1920s and 1930s men and women wore similar one-piece swimsuits, as shown in these photos. What’s more is that female competitors today have gone back to wearing full body one-piece suits similar to the ones worn by their predecessors a century ago.