The women of modern Egypt, between myths and realities

Ramona Sandrina Ilie is a journalist, writer, blogger, mother and wife who settled in Egypt with her family for many years. All this time, Ramona studied the history of her adopted country and was a keen and curious observer of how the condition of women in Egypt was evolving. We invited her to share her knowledge in order to better understand the history of this country we perceive through a lot of stereotypes and clichés.

In a patriarchal society, contrary to what is believed, the Egyptian woman always had something to say and knew how to stand out both in family life and in society and politics. Quite a few books have been written about women’s condition throughout the ages, from Ancient Egypt to the modern era. Still, in this feature, I will focus on the modern Egyptian woman, since we already have quite a lot of information about her from the historical past. Most of the references in this feature follow several studies, texts, articles or books, and others represent personal conclusions, following several years of study, observation of this process, discussions with various women involved in activism, and of course, all the years I lived here, alongside them, in Egyptian society.

Regarding women’s rights, Egypt is a more tolerant society, in the context of the Middle East

Since ancient times, Egyptian women have almost always been allowed to have their own businesses, to own and sell property, to serve as witnesses in court cases. Unlike most women in the Middle East, Egyptian women could be found in the company of men, both on the street, in restaurants and at work. Compared to other Middle Eastern women, the Egyptian woman could enter a cafe (sometimes even an all-male one) unaccompanied by a man.

Egyptian women have always had the right to study, drive and work, but also to divorce, remarry and inherit – a third of the property owned by their husbands.

Abbasia Farghali, born in Assiut, was the first Arab woman to obtain a driver’s license in 1920. At the same time, she decided to move to Alexandria Governorate to live alone, to be educated and travel the world.

During “La Belle Epoque”, this cosmopolitan environment was also a driving force for Egyptian women of the time, who by the 1930s were studying in universities in Britain and France, despite the fact that, at exactly the same time, for example, women studying at certain German universities did not receive degrees.

The first female pilot in Africa and the Arab world

Lotfia Elnadi was born on October 29, 1907, and on September 27, 1933, she became the first female pilot in Africa and the Arab world, after only 67 days of studies. Initially, after graduating from the American College, at the suggestion of her mother, her father expected her to get married and become a housewife. But Lotfia read everything about the flight classes because she was attracted by this feeling of total freedom and ignored all the warnings of her father, who was very angry and disappointed for a long time. However, the pioneer of female pilotage in Egypt was very well received all over the world, making headlines in all the major newspapers of the world, a fact that attracted congratulations from King Fouad and the well-known feminist leader of the time (the first one), Huda Sha’ Arawi. She congratulated her and then organized a fundraiser to buy Elnadi a plane of her own. Elnadi later worked as secretary general of the Egyptian Aviation Club.

The first president of the Egyptian Feminist Union

Huda Sha’arawi founded and became the first president of the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923. She campaigned for the removal of the veil and was the head of the Feminist Revolution of 1919. She was the daughter of Muhamed Sultan Pasha Shaarawi, who became later president of the Egyptian Chamber of Deputies. Sha’arawi was educated at an early age along with her siblings, studying various subjects such as grammar and calligraphy in several languages. She spent her childhood and early adulthood secluded in an upper-class Egyptian community, and after her father’s death, she was taken under the guardianship of her older cousin, Ali Shaarawi, to whom she was married at the age of thirteen.

Later, she broke up with Ali Shaarawi, a fact that gave her the possibility of even more in-depth education, an education that also brought the taste of independence.

Sha’arawi wrote poetry in both Arabic and French. Sha’arawi later recounted her life in her memoir, Modhakkerātī (“My Memory”), which was translated and abridged into the English version Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist, 1879–1924.

Undoubtedly, Huda Sha’arawi was the most significant image and personality of the feminist movement in Egypt, a movement that has continued and strengthened over the years, until today.

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Ramona Sandrina Ilie
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