5 Egyptian Women that have Impacted Modern Egyptian Society
By: Pamela Dimitrova / Arab America Contributing Writer
Despite the belief that Egyptian culture is bound by oppression and Egyptian women would never stand a chance in acquiring the same success, there are female figures that changed not only these beliefs, but also the whole Egyptian society through their activism. These are the women who defended their country, women who recreated art, women who took office, women who changed policies and women who thrived in business and ethics.
Nawal El Saadawi
Nawal El Saadawi is an Egyptian feminist writer, advocate for women’s rights, physician and psychiatrist. She has written many books on the subject of women in Islam, paying particular attention to the practice of female genital mutilation in her society. She has been described as “the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab World”. She is the founder and president of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and co-founder of the Arab Association for Human Rights. She has been awarded honorary degrees on three continents.
Nawal el Saadawi has held positions of Author for the Supreme Council for Arts and Social Sciences, Cairo; Director-General of the Health Education Department, Ministry of Health, Cairo, Secretary-General of Medical Association, Cairo, Egypt, and Medical Doctor, University Hospital and Ministry of Health.
Long viewed as controversial and dangerous by the Egyptian government, Saadawi helped publish a feminist magazine in 1981 called Confrontation. She was imprisoned in September by President of Egypt Anwar Sadat. She was released later that year, one month after the President’s assassination. Of her experience, she wrote: “Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies.”
Huda Sha’arawi was a pioneering Egyptian feminist leader, nationalist, and founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union. At the time, women in Egypt were confined to the house or harem. As seen in all of her pictures, Hude 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.
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 numerous European cities. She advocated peace and disarmament.
Nabawiyya Musa is recognized as one of the founding feminists of the 20th century in Egypt. She is often partnered with Huda Sharawi and Malak Hifni Nasif as all three of these women gave lectures and put on other events to further education, health and reduce sexual exploitation among other things for women. She grew up in Alexandria and was part of the middle-class. Along with being an avid educator she wrote and published articles such as “al-Ayat al –badyyina fi tarbiya al-banat” (a treatise on girls’ education) in 1902, “al-Mar’a wa-l-‘amal” (Woman and Work) in 1920 as well as editing a woman’s page for al-Balagh al-usbui (The Weekly News).
She was one of the first and last women to complete the education exam and be accepted into the Saniyya School under the colonial rule because of their fear of women becoming too powerful in a society led by men.
Nabawiyya Musa believed strongly that educated women would only improve the state by being able to be independent, bring in money for the household as middle-class women and/or raise their children to be independent so they could grow up to be assets to society. She believed strongly that the lack of hierarchy in the peasant and lower classes was actually a good model of how women can be an asset to work and equal opportunities with men. She also believed that the differences between men and women were nothing but a social construct and could easily be broken with time.
Doria Shafik was a feminist, philosopher, poet and editor, and one of the principal leaders of the women’s liberation movement in Egypt in the mid-1940s. As a direct result of her efforts, Egyptian women were granted the right to vote by the Egyptian constitution.
Shafik was born in Tanta, in the Nile Delta and studied in a French mission school. At sixteen she became the youngest Egyptian to earn the French Baccalaureate degree. At nineteen she was awarded a scholarship by the Egyptian Ministry of Education to study at the Sorbonne University in Paris. She also studied for a Ph.D. in philosophy at the Sorbonne.
In 1948 Shafik created the Bint Al Nil Union, to help solve women’s primary social problems and to ensure their inclusion in their country’s policies. The union also worked to eradicate illiteracy by setting up centers for that purpose throughout the country, set up an employment office and a cafeteria for working women.
Jehan Sadat is the former Egyptian First Lady and widow of former President Anwar El Sadat. Jehan dedicated much of her life to volunteer work with the less fortunate. During her husband’s presidency, Sadat changed the world’s view on Arab women by participating in volunteer work.
Sadat also received many national and international awards for public service and humanitarian work with women and children. She has been awarded over 20 national and international honorary doctorate degrees from universities and institutions around the world. She was also the first female chairperson for the People’s Council of Munofeyya Provincial governorate and has been a visiting professor at many universities such as the University of South Carolina, Radford University and American University (AU).
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