Of Turkish origin, Sha'arawi was born into a wealthy family in Minya, she was the daughter of Muhammad Sultan, the first president of the Egyptian Representative Council. Sha‘rawi spent her childhood and early adulthood secluded in an upper-class Egyptian harem. At the age of thirteen, she was married to her cousin Ali Pasha Sha‘rawi. According to Margaret Badran, a "subsequent separation from her husband gave her time for an extended formal education, as well as an unexpected taste of independence." She was taught to read the Quran and received tutoring in Arabic and Turkish and Islamic subjects by female teachers in Cairo. Sha‘rawi wrote poetry in both Arabic and French. Sha‘rawi later recounted her early life in her memoir, Mudhakkirātī ("My Memoir") which was translated and abridged into the English version Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist, 1879-1924.
At the time, women in Egypt were confined to the house or harem. As seen in all of her pictures, Huda is wearing a Hijab. Sha'arawi resented such restrictions on women's movements, and started organizing lectures for women on topics of interest to them. This brought many women out of their homes and into public places for the first time. Sha`arawi even convinced them to help her establish a women's welfare society to raise money for the poor women of Egypt. In 1910, Sha'arawi opened a school for girls where she focused on teaching academic subjects rather than practical skills such as midwifery.
After World War I, many women took part in political actions against the British rule. In 1919, Sha`arawi helped organize the largest women's anti-British demonstration. In defiance of British orders to disperse, the women remained still for three hours in the hot sun.
Sha`arawi made a decision to stop wearing her veil in public after her husband's death in 1922. Within a decade of Huda’s act of defiance, few women still chose to wear the veil. Her decision to unveil was part of a greater movement of women and was influenced by French born Egyptian feminist, Eugénie Le Brun, but it contrasted with some feminist thinkers like Malak Hifni Nasif. In 1923, Sha`arawi founded and became the first president of the Egyptian Feminist Union, after returning from the International Woman Suffrage Alliance Congress in Rome she removed her face veil in public for the first time, a signal event in the history of Egyptian feminism. Women who came to greet her were shocked at first then broke into applause and some of them removed their veils.
Even as a young woman, she showed her independence by entering a department store in Alexandria to buy her own clothes instead of having them brought to her home. She helped to organize Mubarrat Muhammad Ali, a women's social service organization, in 1909 and the Union of Educated Egyptian Women in 1914, the year in which she traveled to Europe for the first time. She helped lead the first women's street demonstration during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, and was elected president of the Wafdist Women's Central Committee.
She led Egyptian women pickets at the opening of Parliament in January 1924 and submitted a list of nationalist and feminist demands, which were ignored by the Wafdist government, whereupon she resigned from the Wafdist Women's Central Committee. She continued to lead the Egyptian Feminist Union until her death, publishing the feminist magazine l'Egyptienne (and el-Masreyya), and representing Egypt at women's congresses in Graz, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Marseilles, Istanbul, Brussels, Budapest, Copenhagen, Interlaken, and Geneva. She advocated peace and disarmament. Even if only some of her demands were met during her lifetime, she laid the groundwork for later gains by Egyptian women and remains the symbolic standard-bearer for their liberation movement.
She began to hold regular meetings for women at her home, and from this, the Egyptian Feminist Union was born. She launched a fortnightly journal, L'Égyptienne in 1925, in order to publicise the cause.
Sha`arawi received a major English-language biography by Sania Sharawi Lanfranchi.
Sha`arawi was involved in philanthropic projects throughout her life. In 1909, she created the first philanthropic society run by Egyptian women (Mabarrat Muhammad 'Ali), offering social services for poor women and children. She argued that women-run social service projects were important for two reasons. First, by engaging in such projects, women would widen their horizons, acquire practical knowledge and direct their focus outward. Second, such projects would challenge the view that all women are creatures of pleasure and beings in need of protection. To Sha`arawi, problems of the poor were to be resolved through charitable activities of the rich, particularly through donations to education programs. Holding a somewhat romanticized view of poor women's lives, she viewed them as passive recipients of social services, not to be consulted about priorities or goals. The rich, in turn, were the "guardians and protectors of the nation."