Photo Essays

23 Egyptian Women Who Made History

23 Egyptian Women Who Made History
“The godmother of Egyptian Feminism”: Nawal El Saadawi. Credit: Kristina Budelis
“The godmother of Egyptian Feminism”: Nawal El Saadawi. Credit: Kristina Budelis

In a culture bound by oppression, Egyptian women never stood a chance in acquiring the same fame, power and success of that of an Egyptian man. Women stood in the background while men stood in the forefront taking credit for work women also contributed too. Women were regarded as second-class citizens and women’s rights issues were ‘elitist’ and unimportant.

Yet, despite all of that, there are many women who have soared to heights of success that were unmatched to that of a man at the time. There have been women who thrived and triumphed against all odds. There have been women who defended their country, women who recreated art, women who took office, women who changed policies and women who thrived in sports, business and ethics.

This is just a sample of kind of the women who existed and still exist in Egypt.

1. Cleopatra

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra
Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

“I will not be triumphed over.”

Known as the last active Pharaoh of ancient Egypt, Cleopatra was a politician, mathematician and a businesswoman. She was fluent in nine languages and during her rule she defended Egypt from the vastly expanding Roman Empire.

2. Lotfia El Nadi

pilot

“It was my revolt, I had to do it.”

Eighty years ago, Lotfia El Nadi became the first Egyptian woman to be a licensed pilot. At age 26, she was among the youngest at the time to achieve her lifelong dream.

This remarkable woman, who was also a friend of Amelia Earhart, was made an honorary citizen by Switzerland and was an inspiration for women across Egypt and the world.

3. Jihan El Midany

 jihan

“I want to prove that the veil does not have to prevent girls from doing anything.”

Jihan El Midany is an Egyptian pentathlete who was the first Egyptian woman to carry the national flag into the Olympic ceremony. Jihan, who was 18 at the time, came in 12th place.

4. Mona Eltahawy

Mona-Eltahawy-tedxams-©Bibi-Veth

“The Woman Explaining Egypt to the West”

Mona Eltahawy is a distinguished Egyptian-American freelance journalist, whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Miami Herald Tribune, U.S. News and World Report. She was ranked the 30th most powerful Arab Woman in 2012 by Arabian Business.

5. Tahany El Gebali

Tahani-el-Gibali

“Everything new is at first resented. When women first went out to learn, people said it was the end of time, when they went out to work they said it would be the end of the world. But it wasn’t. And women have proven themselves in all fields.”

Tahany El Gebali made headlines in 2003 when she was appointed as Egypt’s first female judge. She gained nationwide prominence after acquiring a series of high-profile cases. She was also the first woman to be elected on the Permanent Bureau of the Union of Arab Lawyers. Tahany was ranked 23rd on The World’s 100 Most Powerful Arab Women by Arabian Business. Recently, Tahany was appointed Deputy President of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court.

6. Nawal El Saadawi

nawal

“To me, ‘beauty’ means to be natural, creative, honest – to say the truth.”

Nawal El Saadawi is an Egyptian women’s rights activist, author, physician and psychiatrist. Saadawi has published many books pertaining to women and Islam. She has also founded the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and co-founded the Arab Association for Human Rights. Saadawi has been awarded honorary degrees in three continents, some of which entail North-South prize from the Council of Europe in 2004 and the Inana International Prize in Belgium in 2005.

7. Hilana Sedarous

hilana

‘The first female Egyptian doctor’

Hilana Sedarous is the first female Egyptian doctor. Born in Tanta, Sedarous was sent to London in 1922 to study mathematics and medicine. In 1930, she earned her doctoral and returned to Egypt. She established a private clinic specializomg in obstetrics and gynaecology.

8. Yousra

yousra

‘Star of the Middle East’

The biggest female entertainment name in the Arab world was born as Civene Mohamed Nasim. Yousra, her stage name, began making films in the 70’s. Yousra has worked as an UN Goodwill Ambassador and was ranked 29th most influential Arab woman by Arabian Business. Yousra has received more than 50 awards in recognition for her work as a UNDP Goodwill Ambassador.

9. Umm Kulthum

oum-kalsoum-503-14600-7186204

“My father was uneasy. The idea that his daughter should sing in front of men he didn’t know, was difficult for him to accept, but my singing helped support the family. So he dressed me in boy’s clothes, and I sang this way for several years. I realize now that he wanted to convince himself, and the audience too, that the singer was a young boy, and not a young woman.”

Umm Kulthum was an Egyptian singer, songwriter and actress who sang for almost four decades. Her success as a singer and a song writer exceeded that of others and the cultural power she has is unparalleled. She recorded hundreds of songs and her fame rose to levels unforeseen for Arab women at the time. She toured in the Middle East singing in cities like Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut, Tunis and Tripoli. She had private concerts for Presidents and Royals. Today, Kulthum is regarded as the greatest female Arabic singer in history.

10. Dalia Mogahed

mogahed

“I can tell you character traits I admire and work to develop in myself – perseverance, self-discipline, courage to stand up for what is right even when it is against one’s friends or one’s self.”

Dalia Mogahed made history when she became the first veiled Muslim woman to hold a position in the White House. In 2009, she was selected to be Barack Obama’s advisor on the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships. Mogahed was also the Executive Director of the Gallup American Centre for Muslim Studies.

11. Anissa Hassouna

DSC_0040-620x330

First woman elected on the Board of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs

Anissa Hassouna currently holds the position of executive director of Magdi Yacoub’s foundation, vice president of the board of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, and is a lecturer at the Banking Institute in Cairo and the Diplomatic Institute. Hassouna began her career as a diplomat for the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She later went on to work for the Council of Arab Economic Unity, Egypt’s International Economic Forum as the Director General, and Misr Iran Development Bank as Assistant General Manager.

12. Mervat Tallawy

ميرفت-التلاوى-3

“In Egypt we are saying the fall of the existing system will be because of women. They don’t sit still at all. Their voice is very raised at demonstrations, signing petitions—they are everywhere. We will not accept the situation. We will fight it until the end. Either they will put us in jail or they will change their attitudes.”

Mervat Tallawy is currently one of Egypt’s most prominent female figures. Tallawy is the former Under-Secretary General of the UN and former deputy director of the UN International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women. She was also Egypt’s Minister for Insurance and Social Affairs during 1997-1999 and served as ambassador to Japan and Austria. Recently, she was elected as the head of the National Council for Egyptian Women (NCEW).

13. Nadia Younes

mandelayounes

‘One of the most respected, effective and charismatic officials’ – WHO

Nadia Younes was a remarkable Egyptian national who worked for 33 years with the UN and the World Health Organization. Younes served as Deputy Spokeswoman for the Secretary-General from 1988 until 1993 and Director of the United Nations Information Centre in Rome. After a long, successful career, her life was tragically cut short on August 19th 2003 by the devastating bombing at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, which was being used as the UN Headquarters in Iraq.

14. Sameera Moussa

mousa

“I will make nuclear treatment as available as aspirin”

Sameera Moussa was a nuclear scientist who dedicated her life to make medical nuclear power affordable to all. Moussa arranged the Atomic Energy for Peace Conference.  A pioneer in her field, she was honored and awarded posthumously by the Egyptian Army, and former President Anwar Sadat.

In 1952, however, she was killed when her car plummeted from a height of 40 feet after being invited somewhere in California, following a visit to the US. Her death is shrouded in conspiracy, with some blaming the Mossad or other intelligence organizations for her death. The driver of her car disappeared and the the invitation she had received turned out to be false.

15. Kamilia Abdelfattah

kamilia

Paving the way for child psychology in Egypt

Kamilia Abdelfattah is a pioneer in the field of child psychology. Abdelfattah established and headed the childhood higher institute studies of graduates Ain Shams University (1981–1986). She was also chosen as woman of the year in Who’s Who UK encyclopaedia 1997 and Cambridge University.

16. Farkhonda Hassan

pack09

“The objective now is not to renegotiate our dreams, but to emphasize the accountability of all actors. We are no longer seeking promises, but are demanding action.”

Farkhonda Hassan is a geology professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and is chair of the Commission on Human Development and Local Administration of the Shura Council. Since 2000, Hassan has been a member of the National Council for Women in Egypt and is currently the Gender Advisory Board of the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development and Secretary-General. Her career is centred around women’s causes in many aspects of society on a grass-roots level.

17. Jehan Sadat

jehan

“They put aside the talk of peace and instead acted for peace.” [Referring to the Peace Treaty made Between Her Husband, Anwar Al Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Begin.]

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 Univeristy (AU).

18. Huda Sha’arawi

Egyptian Women Speaking on Patriotism in Public Square

“Men have singled out women of outstanding merit and put them on a pedestal to avoid recognizing the capabilities of all women.”

Huda Sha’arawi is perhaps one of Egypt’s most famous feminist figures of all time, along with Durriya Shafiq, Safia Zaghloul and Ester Fanous. Sha’arawi was the founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union. In 1919, Sha’arawi helped organize one of the largest women’s anti-British protest of all time. After attending the International Woman Suffrage Alliance Congress in Rome, Sha’arawi made a conscious decision to remove her face veil, an act that would go down in history as one of the most defining moments of feminist resistance in Egypt.

19. Gazbia Sirry

gazbia

‘Spokesperson of the People’

Gazbia Sirry is a prominent artist and professor of fine arts. Sirry has about 70 personal exhibitions across the Arab world, Europe and the US.  Regarded as one of the most distinguishable Egyptian artists of the past fifty years, her work has been featured in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Art & Science Museum Evansville, Indiana; The National Museum for Women in the Arts, Washington D.C.; and Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris. She has been awarded several fellowships from international universities one of which is the University of London.

20. Tahani Rached

tahani

“The message should be delivered that there is no art unless we have the freedom to construct that art.”

Tahani Rached is an Egyptian Filmmaker who has produced several movies some of which include Four Women of Egypt. Her work has received several awards, some of which include Public Award in the International Documentary Film Festival.

21. Azza Fahmy

Azza-Fahmy-CEO-Chief-Designer

“So I tied my hair back, put on my overalls and spent my days in a workshop full of men learning the tricks of the jewellery making trade.”

Azza Fahmy is an iconic Egyptian jewelry designer who founded the Azza Fahmy Company. After acquiring a BA in Interior Design, Fahmy began her journey with jewelry in a Khan El Khalili workshop. Forty years later, her work has been featured globally in international Fashion Shows and her jewelry is recognized everywhere.

 

22. Tahani Toson

tahanu

‘The Volleyball Player of the Century in Africa’

Tahani Toson is a professional Volleyball trainer and former player for the Egyptian National team and Al-Ahly Club. She was named most valuable player 35 times in just 18 years. She has led the Egyptian national team to 14 championship wins. Toson was named Ninth-Best Player during the 2003 World Cup in Japan and Fifth-Best Bulwark during the 1995 World Cup in Japan, also. In 2000, she was named “Player of the Century” in African Volleyball.

23. Durriya Shafiq

Durriya_Shafiq_pic_1

“To want and to dare! Never hesitate to act when the feeling of injustice revolts us. To give one’s measure with all good faith, the rest will follow as a logical consequence.”

During the 1940’s, Durriya Shafiq was among the leaders of the women’s liberation movement that took place in Egypt. A women’s rights activist, Doria Shafik is the reason women were granted the right to vote by the constitution. Shafiq also formulated the Bint Al-Nil Party and translated the Qur’an to English and French.

Editor’s Choice: Faten Hamama

‘Lady of the Arab Cinema’

Faten Hamama is one of Egypt’s and the Arab world’s most prominent producers and actresses and was chosen as ‘Star of the Century’ by the Egyptian Writers and Critics organization at the 2001 Alexandria International Film Festival.

Hamama made her silver screen debut in 1939 when she was only seven years old, and from there, she was on a path to shatter the common depiction of Egyptian women in film as objects – secondary to their male counterparts. Hamama chose to play roles that depicted women as independent and powerful. For example, in Sira Fi Al-Wadi, she played a rich man’s daughter who was a down-to-earth woman that helped the poor.

Today, she remains to be regarded as one of the most important and inspiring actresses in the history of Arabic cinema and is commonly known as ‘The Lady of the Arab Cinema.’

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  • Ramy

    Well, this is your blog. You can write whatever jumps to your mind :-)))))
    But of course some of the names quoted are not all that disguting, some others are not all that bad. And in fact few are good names for the list

  • Ramy Zein

    THIS POST IS A DISASTER !!!!!

  • Mohaly

    Why is everybody that Harsh on a young amateur who is trying to be a writer ?!…Yes the article has many mistakes and doesn’t reflect enough knowledge of history, but we should nicely guide her instead of destroying a young person and lose her passion and motivation.. We all had mistakes when we were young, and still do.

  • A.Rashdan

    The author, Ms. Farida Ezzat, should have stated her biases at the beginning of the piece to make it more professional.

    Thank you for the effort you exerted, but the choices made here present a secular side of Egyptian history, which by all means is biased and unprofessional if presented without a note.

    Lists like those are usually made based on criteria of selection, and not the author’s interests and beliefs, unless it is categorized under the “Opinion” section.

  • Reem H

    Wonderful. I would have also liked to see Ghada Amer. One of the most influential visual artists in the contemporary art world.

  • Omar Hashem

    What history do you speak of?

  • Brigitte

    What about the famous Dawlat Abiad…..who was in the theatre as well as the cinema……quite a bit more famous than little Faten Hamama…..and also Liz Taylor is not Egyptian…Just because she played Cleopatra?????

  • Yasser Ahmed

    Cleopatra is Greek not Egyptian. Please check wikipedia before writing articles on history. Secondly, Yousra is more important than Safia Zaghloul? Amazing!!!!!!!!!!!!

    You didn’t read history? your article is disaster for sure. Several mistakes and very very poor research.

    • Asmaa

      I totally agree with you. I hate how the writer dropped Hatshepsut (in my opinion the greatest pharaoh lady) to mention Cleopatra instead.

    • Minymina

      Actually she was half greek on her father’s (side who by the way was third generation egyptian).

  • Moody Jones

    Heba Soliman should be on this list.

    She is the main contact at the American Consulate in Saudi, and survived a terrorist attack where 8 people died.

  • M

    Just to let know the clown that posted this is going for sure to hell .. Who is Yousra .. Nadia lotfy ????? What the hell is going on with you people .. !!!!!! Crap Articular.. only to divert people

  • Even though I am an American now, I have strong, emotional feelings for anything that is Egyptian since I was born and raised in Alexandria. Women in Egypt have always been overshadowed by men, because of the culture, but its about time the whole world learns about these incredible women that have strived their whole lives to give Egyptian women their fair share of notoriety.

  • samir shukri

    I am 80 years old man. When I read the list of those fine women, I had tears on my eyes! Where are we from those golden years of women’s participation and involvement in both the political and social changes in Egypt. Is there still hope!

  • Amr

    Ah, well, I just noticed you also think Sisi should be a president.
    Sorry for wasting your time ya Farida, you can, of course, add any name to the lists you come up with and find people to publish them 🙂

  • Amr

    The list is a good seed to work on, But there is ZERO ground to include Yousra in any list beyond one of Egyptian actresses. She is an OK actress, she was a very successful one at times, but she has nothing to do with anything other than that ya Farida. Thanks 🙂

  • Tahany El-Wardany

    Please include Madiha El Mehelmy Kotb, ASME’s 132nd president. American Society of Mechanical Engineering is the largest professional organization of the world

  • mohamed Ali

    WTF article , in which base or criteria you enlist that ..!!??

  • Please include Marie Assad. She was the first to research, write about, and publically speak on the issue of femail circumcision. She is responsible for making the GOE aware of the issue in Egypt and making it illegal to practice. She also has founded numerous programs with women in Egypt to address this harmful practice and to stop its continuance. She co-founded the Egyptian Agency for the Protection of the Environment and has worked for decades helping the garbage collectors (zabaleen) organize themselves with schools and health facilities and more.

  • Mona

    Very shameful article to include Yousra!!!!! what about the female martyr of 25 Jan revolution!!!! You spoke about Hoda sharwai revolution that changed history and you didn’t speak about 25 Jan hero female. What about also Safia zaghluol.

  • ishraq

    Leila Doss. First lady to broadcast in the Middle East. Interviewing Kings and Queens. Lila is 94 years old has been working for the UN for the past 36 years and is still active.

  • N.H.

    I just can’t take this list seriously.

  • Ahmed Medhat

    Mona Tahawy?? Tahany El Gebaly?? and Yousra????
    I think whoever wrote this has actually made history… weep!

    • Sam Zaher

      And I am weeping with you Ahmed.

  • Reem

    I disagree about Youssra (changing history? She’s a great star, but didn’t change history)

    And would add: Samia Allouba, the lady who pioneered gym business and aerobics in Egypt for 30 years.

  • Samy Fouad

    Yousra and Mona El-tahaway in one list with those great women? What a shame!

  • ishraq

    Leila Doss. First lady to broadcast . At 94 she is still living alone in NY and is still involved with the UN projects. Leila has been working with the UN for the past 36 years and had reached the level of assistant UN secretary. Very independent and positive lady.

  • Mohamed Fawzy

    Ehmm, Maggie Gobran anyone? She was nicknamed Mother Teresa of Cairo!!

  • ali sabaa

    History is documented since Pharoes nefertity at least should be in in addition to rasha elwany for sure

  • Tamer Ibrahim

    To put Youssra on the same list with Nawal El Saddawi is insulting to a great thinker who has fought ignorance for so long, sometimes at great personal risk.

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  • Nadia

    Leila Ahmed should be on this list as well.

  • Nermyn

    As an aspiring journalist, youshould consider the grammar and spelling mistakes.
    Good list.

  • so historic and hopes today’s women in Egypt could print their foots on the sand of history..God bless Egypt.

  • Marlyn

    Good list. However I am not sure what the criteria you used was. Since you went back all the way to Dorriya Shafeek and even to Cleopatra, there and you even mentioned a female pilot, I think it is important to name one particular pilot who is considered the ‘mother’ of pilots in Egypt -known only as Captain Aziza. [Her real name is Aziza Moharram Fahim, born 1919]. She actually trained ALL the Egyptian male pilots and they feared and revered her more than any other.
    Besides her, there are also Aziza Hussein and Marie Asaad, both of whom are pioneers in their work in civil society. Of course the list goes on, but certainly what you wrote requires some form of criteria as to why you chose those particular women of the many women who contributed to Egypt’s progress.

    • Mohamed Khairat

      Hi Marlyn,

      Thank you for your comment. The list is definitely not conclusive and there are many other outstanding women in Egypt. As stated by the writer, it is a sample.

      She also explains, on her Facebook page, that “The choices were infinite and outstanding. There are many women out there that don’t get recognized for the efforts they contribute to change and build our society.”

Photo Essays
@FaridaMEzzat

A young passionate writer hoping to become an established journalist, entrepreneur and a women's rights activist. Farida hopes that by achieving her dreams she can pave the way for other women to do the same. http://faridaezzat.wordpress.com/

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