What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Egypt? It’s probably the pyramids and Rami Malek as a Pharaoh in The Night at The Museum movies. But there is so much more to Egypt than Pharaohs. The country endured through Macedonian, Ptolemaic, Roman, Byzantine, Sasanian, Arabic, Fatimi, Ayyubi, Mamluki, and Ottoman eras. We survived French and British occupations, and we went from a kingdom to a republic.
Egypt has gone through so much, and it has so much more to offer in return. The one thing that has sustained over the ages is the Egyptian people’s resilience and their ability to bounce back from bad times to worst times. Strong Egyptian women have always been right there in the thick of things. Even now in the twenty-first century, the Egyptian woman is the backbone of our society.
1. Huda Shaarawi (1879 – 1947)
She was one of the first feminist documented in Egyptian History. Born into a wealthy family in Minya, she was the daughter of Muhammad Sultan, the first president of the Egyptian Representative Council. She married her cousin at the age of thirteen, yet subsequent separation from her husband gave her time for an extended formal education, as well as an unexpected taste of independence.
During Shaarawi’s time, Egyptian females were confined to homes. They were denied education and ordered to wear a burka in public. Yet, Shaarawi was an active political participant who protested against British rule and she was one of the founders of the Egyptian Feminist Union. Shaarawi’s biggest legacy was her advocacy for women’s education.
2. Nabawiyya Musa (1886 – 1951)
Nabawiyya is recognized as one of the founding feminists of the 20th century in Egypt. She partnered with Huda Shaarawi and Malak Hifni Nasif to lobby for women’s education, as well as awareness for female health and reduce sexual exploitation of women.
Many of her views addressed nationalism and equal opportunities for women. She was a role model in breaking down the social constructs of the Egyptian females. After attending a conference in Rome in 1923, she, along with Huda Shaarawi and Ceza Nabarawi, came back to the country unveiled as a proclamation to the Egyptian society.
3. Safiya Zaghloul (1895 – 1972)
Safiyah Zaghloul immediately comes to mind when I hear the saying “Behind every great man is a great woman.” She is best known as the wife of Saad Zaghloul, an Egyptian revolutionary and statesman. However, Safiya is more aptly described as the co-leader of the Wafd Politcal Party. Egyptians lovingly adorned her with the title of Um Al Masreyeen, the Egyptian Matriarch.
She was the daughter of a former Prime Minister to Egypt and rooted into politics from a very young age. After her husband was exiled to Malta, Safiya became a central figure of the Wafd Party. She turned her home into a center for the party and organized women demonstrations. After her husband’s death, she was paramount in selecting his successor to lead the Wafd.
4. Aisha Abd Al-Rahman (1913 – 1998)
She was an Egyptian author and professor of literature who published under the pen name Bint al-Shati. She was born in Damietta, a town along the banks of the River Nile. At the age of ten, her mother, who was illiterate, enrolled Aisha in school. Although her father objected, Aisha later went to the city of Mansurah for further her education. Later, she studied Arabic at Cairo University earning her undergraduate degree in 1939 and Master’s in 1941. In 1942, Aisha began work as an Inspector for teaching of Arabic literature while earning her PhD with distinction in 1950.
She wrote fiction and biographies of early Muslim women, including the mother, wives and daughters of the Prophet Muhammad. She was the second modern woman to undertake Quranic exegesis, and though she did not consider herself to be a feminist, her works reflect feminist themes. Upon her death she donated all her library to research purposes.
5. Sameera Moussa (1917 – 1952)
She was an Egyptian nuclear physicist who held a doctorate in atomic radiation and worked to make the medical use of nuclear technology affordable to all. She organized the Atomic Energy for Peace Conference and sponsored a call for setting an international conference under the banner of “Atoms for Peace.”
She is quoted as saying, “I’ll make nuclear treatment as available and as cheap as Aspirin.” She came up with a historic equation that helped break atoms of cheap metals such as copper. Moussa also volunteered to help treat cancer patients at various hospitals especially since her mother went through a fierce battle against this disease.
Moussa received a scholarship to California University from the Fulbright Atomic Program. In 1952, while still in the US, she was invited to a trip. On the way, the car fell over a 40-foot cliff and Moussa immediately died. Mysterious circumstance shroud the accident, leading many Egyptians to believe that Moussa was assassinated.
6. Ratiba Hefny (1931 – 2013)
She was an Egyptian and International Opera Soprano, with over 500 performances. Born to a musical family, Ratiba’s father Mohamed Ahmed El Hefny wrote more than 45 books on music and her maternal grandmother was a german opera singer. She studied at the Faculty of Music Education in Cairo, mastering the piano among other oriental instruments. Hefny continued her education in Germany, studying operatic singing in Munich and folkloric arts in Berlin. She was the first Egyptian opera singer to receive a diploma from an international music institution.
In the early 1950s, she was assigned as the rector of the Institute of Arabic Music, and later became the Dean of the Higher Institute of Arabic Music in 1962. Hefny established the first choir for children in Egypt and later the Cairo Opera Children’s Choir and Um Koulthum Ensemble for Arabic Music. She also founded the National Arab Music Ensemble. She curated an assortment of music radio and TV programs, including a series of educational shows for children. She was the first chairperson of the new Cairo Opera House when it began its activities in 1988.
7. Nawal El Saadawi (1931 – )
She is a modern Egyptian feminist writer, activist, physician and psychiatrist. Described as “the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab World”, Nawal has written many books on the subject of women in Islam, paying particular attention to the practice of female genital mutilation.
She founded and headed the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and co-founded the Arab Association for Human Rights. She is the founder of the Health Education Association and the Egyptian Women Writer’s Association. Fluent in both Arabic and English, she accepted an offer to teach at Duke University’s Asian and African Languages Department in North Carolina, as well as at the University of Washington. She continues her activism and writing.
Long viewed as controversial and dangerous by the Egyptian government, Saadawi helped publish a feminist magazine in 1981 called Confrontation. She was imprisoned for a year by Anwar Sadat. 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.”
8. Jehan El Sadat (1933 – )
Jehan is best known as the wife of Egypt’s somewhat controversial president, Anwar Al Sadat. After her husband’s assassination in 1981, she continued her activism in public services with the aim of improving Egypt, particularly, Egyptian women.
Born in Upper Egypt, she earned her Bachelor’s in Arabic Literature and Master’s in Literature from Cairo University while married to Anwar. Over the course their 32-year marriage, Jehan supported her political husband who become President of Egypt in 1970. She used her platform as the first lady to improve the lives of millions of Egyptians.
Jehan played a key role in reforming Egypt’s civil rights laws during the late 1970s by granting women a variety of rights, including alimony and custody of children in the event of divorce. She founded al Wafaa Wa Amal Rehabilitation Center, which offers disabled war veterans medical and rehabilitation services, as well as vocational training. She played crucial roles in the formation of the Talla Society, a cooperative in the Nile Delta region that assists local women in becoming self-sufficient, the Egyptian Society for Cancer Patients, the Egyptian Blood Bank, and SOS Children’s Villages in Egypt, an organization that provides orphans with new homes in a family environment.
9. Azza Fahmy
She is a prominent Egyptian jewelry designer. Her designs are sold worldwide with boutiques in Cairo, Jordan, Dubai, the UK, and US.
Azza graduated with a Bachelor’s in Interior Design. Although she initially planned to further pursue an Applied Arts degree from the Faculty of Fine Arts, Azza opted for an apprenticeship in jewelry design. She joined the ranks of Egypt’s famed bazar and handcrafts district, Khan El Khalili, and learn at the hands of the most skilled masters in the craft. She stayed there for two years.
In the mid-seventies, Azza was granted a fellowship at the City of London Polytechnic School to study jewelry craft. Upon returning to Egypt, Azza setup her first workshop, with a team of two other craftsmen. Her first collection was titled “Houses of the Nile”. It was inspired by Nubia and the traditional architecture of Egypt. She soon started to incorporate colloquial arabic poetry into her design by engraving verses on her pieces. Her aesthetic is copied by designers throughout the regions, as every Egyptian woman covets to own an Azza Fahmy original.
10. Manal Mohei Eldin
She is a well known Harpist and accomplished Egyptian musician. She began harp lessons at the age of ten with Professor Nahed Zikri at the Cairo Conservatoire. Later, she graduated with honors in 1987, and the next year she received a scholarship from DAAD (the German Academic Exchange Service) to continue her studies at the Hochschule der Musik and Darstellende Kunst in Frankfurt, and at the Hoch Institute der Musik in Wurzburg. After retuning to Egypt, Mohei Eldin became the first Egyptian harpist to join the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. She also joined several ensembles and introduced new formations to the Egyptian audiences such as Jazz and Oriental melodies.
Currently, Mohei Eldin is a professor at the Cairo Conservatory and she continues to perform in Omar Khairat’s ensemble and with her own Oriental cast. Over the past decade, she became well known at a popular level through her many performances with the Banat Al-Nil (Daughters of the Nile) ensemble, which she co-founded in the early 2000s.
11. Dame Nemat Talaat Shafik (1962 – )
She is a prominent figure in global economic and finance. Nemat was born in the costal city of Alexandria. Her family left Egypt and moved to the US during the sixties. She lived there until returning to attend the American University in Cairo. She completed her studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst with a Bachelor’s in Economics and Politics. In 1986, she got her Master’s in Economics from the London School of Economics, followed by a PhD. from the University of Oxford’s St Antony’s College.
She worked for two years on developmental issues in the Cairo office of the US agency of International Development. Later, she became the youngest Vice President of the World Bank at the age of 36. In 2009, she was named “GG2 Woman of the Year” at the 11th Annual GG2 Leadership & Diversity Awards, and she as made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in June 2015. Recently, Shafik was appointed as the 16th Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
12. Sandra Nashaat (1970 – )
She is a modern Egyptian filmmaker who is known for her action packed movies. Sandra graduated with duel degrees in Cinema from the Higher Film Institute and French Literature from Cairo University. She continued her studies in the US.
Her fascination with storytelling began in the theater of her all girl Catholic school. She was captivated by the concept of becoming a woman director in the patriarchal Egyptian society, despite her fathers reservations. She was seduced by the freedoms associated with expressions of art. Her older brothers have immigrated to California because they didn’t feel that they belonged in Egypt, but Sandra still see hope in the country, a sentiment she conveys through her films.
13. Rana El Kaliouby (1978 – )
She describes herself as a scientist, innovator and entrepreneur. She is the co-founder and CEO of Affectiva, leading the company’s Emotion Science team.
El Kaliouby earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s of Science degree from the American University in Cairo. She earned her Ph.D from the University of Cambridge. El-Kaliouby worked as a research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, helping to found their Autism & Communication Technology Initiative. Her original goal was to improve human-computer interaction, but she quickly became fascinated with the possibility of applying technology to improve human-human communication, for the benefit of those who struggle with emotional understanding. She was part of a team that pioneered the development of the “emotional hearing aid,” a set of emotion-reading wearable glasses which the New York Times included in their Top 100 innovations of 2006. She was inducted into the “Women in Engineering” Hall of Fame in 2014.
14. Mai Medhat
Mai is a computer engineer and tech entrepreneur. In her mid-twenties, she co-founder Eventtus, an all-in-one events platform and networking app. She’s now the company’s CEO.
She graduated from Ain Shams University in 2009 with a Bachelor’s of Science in Electrical Engineering from the Computer and Systems Department. She worked as a software engineer for a few years before starting her own company. She received several awards for her entrepreneurship, namely the “Thinking Outside the Box” award in 2014 from the Public Affairs Office at the US Embassy in Cairo, and she was selected as a “High-Impact Entrepreneur” by Endeavor Global in 2015. In 2016, she was invited to Silicon Valley to join a discussion panel at the seventh Global Entrepreneurship Summit.