Shaarawi was from an upper-class background, with extensive political connections—her husband was one of the founders of the Wafd Party in 1919, and she was the daughter of the president of Egypt's first national assembly.
However, Shaarawi fought the upper-class institution of the harem by removing her veil in 1923 when she disembarked from a train station in Cairo, marking the beginning of the end of the harem in Egypt.
In 1923 she also formed Egypt's first women's organization, the Egyptian Feminist Union, whose agenda focused on women's political rights, including the right to vote and the right to stand for parliamentary elections.
In her activism Shaarawi reflected two ongoing social and political movements, Islamic modernism and secular nationalism, challenging both British colonial rule over Egypt and Egyptian patriarchy by claiming that they concurrently served to eclipse women's voices.
She was the founder and president of the Arab Feminist Union and vice president of the International Women's Union. She was a strong advocate for girls' education and participated in more than 14 international women's gatherings on behalf of Egyptian women.