We remember twenty-five of the most influential women who have shaped the country’s history; women whose memory should not be forgotten as Egypt looks to the future.

Almost 4,500 years ago, Peseshet, a physician in ancient Egypt, became the first woman in recorded history to practise medicine, maybe even the first female scientist as well. It took several millennia for another Egyptian woman, Helena Sidarous, to re-enter the field of medicine, in the 1930s.

Throughout the history of humanity, during the highs and lows of the fight for female emancipation, Egyptian women have fared quite well. Their status may have fallen sharply at certain times, but they have always managed to dust themselves off and re-emerge. In this article, we remember twenty-five of the most influential women who have shaped the country’s history.

Singling out specific names for this list posed quite a challenge. There have been many strong women who have left their mark on Egypt’s history; however, we chose to limit it to historical figures up to the mid-twentieth Century, enabling us to see more clearly if their impact has in fact, extended to the present.

What we mean by influence must also be explained. The influential women chosen are those who held positions with a high degree of political power; those who acted as pioneers in certain professions, opening the door for future generations of women; or those who became icons, inspiring men and women alike.

It would be impossible to list every woman who has had an impact on Egypt’s history, but this is our attempt to pay tribute to twenty-five of them, hoping to portray more stories of trailblazers and  icons in the years to come.


Hatshepsut, 1508–1458 BCE, Pharaoh

Why is Hatshepsut first on our list?

It isn’t simply because she ruled Egypt as a woman in antiquity. There were other women before her who ruled the country – Nitocris of the Sixth Dynasty and Sobeknefru of the Twelfth are among other female monarchs who preceded Hatshepsut of the Eighteenth Dynasty. So, what makes her worthy of being number one on a list like this, prepared more than three millennia later?

It is simply because she is among a handful of Egypt’s greatest rulers. She towered over her peers, regardless of gender, and appropriately so, since Hatshepsut ruled Egypt not as a great queen, but as a great king. Hatshepsut, who normally portrayed herself as a man for social acceptance, ushered in one of the most prosperous and peaceful reigns of Ancient Egypt. She led armies to war at the start of her reign, but focused her energy mostly on establishing trading relations with foreign countries and bringing immense wealth to Egypt. This wealth helped launch an era of fne art and architecture as well as grand building projects of unrivalled standards in the classical world. As with all pharaohs, immortality was no trivial matter to Hatshepsut. She endearingly expresses this worry on one of her obelisks at Karnak Temple, saying, ‘Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say. Those who see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done’.



Tiye (ca. 1398 BC–1338 BCE), ‘Great Royal Wife’ and mother

She is the first figure you notice as soon as you walk into the Egyptian Museum, and she probably wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Queen Tiye’s monumental statue, which portrays her sitting alongside her husband, Amenhotep III, with her arm around his shoulder, makes a clear statement about the level of authority she had. It isn’t just this monumental statue that is intriguing, even her smaller sculptures stand out as slightly odd. She has an uncommonly serious (almost angry) expression on her face in practically every depiction. The no-nonsense Tiye has caused many historians to wonder about this woman, who obviously must have been a force to be reckoned with.

Wife of Amenhotep III and mother of the infamous Akhenaten, Tiye was not of royal blood herself, yet she exercised great influence over the reign of both kings. The first Egyptian queen to have her name recorded in offcial acts, Tiye’s role during her husband’s reign mostly involved dealing with foreign dignitaries who respected her strength of character and wisdom.

Tiye’s influence, however, is perhaps most significant when it comes to her son Akhenaten, known as the ‘heretic king’. Was it Tiye who led him to follow such controversial religious beliefs? Or maybe Akhenaten simply inherited his mother’s strength of character, enabling him, against all the odds, to abolish the deities of a highly religious country like Egypt? In all cases, letters to and from Amarna (Akhenaten’s new capital city) show us that his mother, who outlived his father by twelve years, continued to be his guide, confidant and adviser during one of Egypt’s most revolutionary periods.



Cleopatra VII (69–30 BCE), Queen of Egypt

The last pharaoh of Egypt, Cleopatra was from the line of the Ptolemies, of Greek-Macedonian origin, who ruled Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great. Like Hatshepsut, she began her reign as co-regent to her brother/husband, and eventually saw to it that she ruled on her own.

Cleopatra is mostly known, of course, for a life of epic love affairs, all to keep Egypt independent from the Roman Empire.

Little attention is given to how the Egyptians themselves perceived their pharaoh. Was Cleopatra loved by the Egyptians? Well, for one, unlike most of her Ptolemaic predecessors, Cleopatra actually learned to speak the Egyptian language. By trading with Eastern nations, she built up Egypt’s economy, reinforcing her country’s status as a world power and bringing some peace to a country that had been riven by internal wars. The few available Egyptian sources contemporary to her reign suggest that she was actually quite popular among her own people.

A recently discovered coin (found in 2007) bearing a portrait of Cleopatra sparked a debate on whether she was, in fact, beautiful. Struck two years before her death, the coin shows a rather unattractive Cleopatra with a large nose, narrow lips and a sharp chin – nothing like Elizabeth Taylor or Vivien Leigh. But perhaps this is why she is a woman still worth remembering thousands of years later. She wasn’t just a pretty face. Plutarch says it best when he explains, ‘Her actual beauty … was not so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence … was irresistible. … The character that attended all she said or did was something bewitching’.


Shajar al-Durr (d.1257 CE), Sultana

A former slave girl who was elected queen by a group of military men in a medieval Islamic country … Shajar al-Durr must have been quite a woman.

Her husband, the Ayyubid sultan al-Salih Ayyub, had purchased her along with other Mamelukes of Turkic origin, and it was this group of Mamelukes who remained most faithful to him and managed to establish a new Mameluke state in Egypt after his death. Al-Salih Ayyub’s final years in Egypt were mostly spent on military campaigns against the crusaders. At this time, Shajar al-Durr exercised great influence over the army and eventually ran the kingdom’s affairs when her husband fell ill. When al-Salih Ayyub died in the midst of the crisis created when Louis IX of France invaded Egypt, Shajar al-Durr decided to conceal his death until she had secured the support of the army by putting his son, Turanshah, in power. 

Turanshah’s incompetence led to his murder by his father’s Mamelukes, and they later convened to elect Shajar al-Durr as queen of Egypt. The Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad (theoretically considered the source of authority over Muslim territories) disapproved and sent the Mamelukes a threatening letter saying, ‘If you are left with no man fit to rule but this woman, then it is our obligation to send you one of ours to take the sultanate’. A co-regent was thus chosen, Ezz al-Din Aybak, whom Shajar al-Durr married in order to cement her position. She did, however, keep the reigns of power in her hands. When Shajar al-Durr learned about Aybak’s plans to take another wife, she had him murdered. Three days later, Aybak’s other widow murdered Shajar al-Durr using wooden bath clogs in one of the most famous stories of Egyptian folklore.



Suhayr al-Qalamawi, (1911–1997), Academic and Journalist

Being the sole woman in a class of fourteen men at the school of literature at Fuad I University in 1929 must have been awkward for everyone. Suhayr al-Qalamawi probably wasn’t very intimidated; she outperformed all her colleagues practically every year. She became one of the first women to graduate from university and obtain a master’s degree. She was also the first woman to earn a PhD, which was for a study of the epic One Thousand and One Nights, a book that would be attacked more than fifty years later for being ‘immoral’.

Al-Qalamawi became professor of modern Arabic literature in 1956 and later became head of the department of Arabic language at Egypt’s leading university for nine years.

Born in the city of Tanta, al-Qalamawi went to school at the American College for Girls and took the bold step of being one of the first young ladies to register for classes at Fuad I University. The dean of the school of literature at the time was Taha Hussein (known in Egypt as the ‘dean’ of Arabic literature), who was very supportive of al-Qalamawi’s endeavor. Hussein helped her find work as a writer with the university magazine, after which she worked her way up to become editor, launching a long career of writing and journalism.

Al-Qalamawi, who joined the Egyptian parliament in 1967, chaired and helped to establish the first Cairo Book Fair, which remains a strong institution to this day. She wanted to make international literature available to the regular Egyptian and saw to the establishment of libraries and projects that provided affordable books and translations of numerous international classics for Egyptian readers. It was also she who introduced modern Egyptian literature as a discipline of study at the university level, a genre that was and remains somewhat underappreciated vis-à-vis classical Arabic literature.

Samira Moussa, (1917–1952), First Egyptian Nuclear Researcher

Her mother’s fierce battle with cancer may have been what propelled Samira Moussa to study science and to eventually explore the medical uses of nuclear energy.

Born in a small town in Gharbeyya, Moussa moved to Cairo with her father, and he enrolled her in one of the first girls’ schools in Egypt. At Banat al-Ashraf High School, she ranked first countrywide in the secondary school certificate examinations of 1935. This made her school eligible for a financial grant from the government, and Nabaweyya Moussa – the school’s founder – decided to invest this prize money in a laboratory for Moussa’s use. She later graduated with high honors from the Faculty of Science, Fuad I University (the future Cairo University) and, with the aid of Dr Mostafa Mousharafa, dean of the faculty, became its first female Egyptian faculty member. She eventually obtained her master’s degree in gas thermal convection and later travelled to the UK, where she got her PhD in atomic radiation.

Moussa believed in the concept of ‘Atoms for Peace’ and is quoted as having said, ‘My wish is that through the use of atomic energy, cancer treatment will be within the reach of the masses, just as aspirin is’. Maybe it would have come true had she lived long enough to pursue her dream. In 1952, Moussa embarked on a trip to the US on an exclusive visit to several state-of-the art atomic research facilities. On 5 August 1952, while driving along a mountainous road to the University of California, an opposing truck suddenly appeared on the high cliff road, pushing Moussa’s car off the edge. She was killed immediately but the driver seems to have jumped out of the car right before it fell off the cliff and has never been found. The case remains unsolved to this day.

Lutfia al-Nadi (1907–2002), First Female Pilot

An adventurous rebel with a fascination for aviation, the young Lutfia kept her father under the impression that she was attending a study group while she took aviation classes twice a week. She later got herself a job as a receptionist at Cairo Airport (to pay for her classes after her father found out) and hid in a two-seater plane before it took off so she could experience flying for the first time.

In 1933, al-Nadi got her pilot’s license (the thirty-fourth license issued in Egypt), and, at the age of twenty-six, she finally realized her dream of flying a plane on her own from Cairo to Alexandria, competing in a race where she achieved first place and simultaneously became the first female pilot in Egypt’s history. Later,al-Nadi took her father on a flight and circled over the pyramids a few times; awestruck, he eventually became her biggest supporter, despite having earlier opposed her flying classes.

Feminist Hoda Shaarawi started a fundraising campaign to buy an aircraft for al-Nadi so she could spread her wings over the world and show the capabilities of Egyptian women. Many women were to follow in al-Nadi’s footsteps subsequent years (Blanche Fattouche, Aziza Moharram, Aida Takla, Leila Massoud, Aisha Abdel Maqsud, and others). Although female pilots are now rare in Egypt, there are a few exceptions, such as Captain Dina al-Sawi, who ably flies jumbo jets for Egypt Air today.


Amina al-Said, (1914–1995), Writer and Magazine Editor

A pioneering magazine editor, al-Said is known for her flagship publication Hawaa (Eve), still a popular publication, that printed 175,000 copies at its launch in 1954. As a writer, she tackled more than beauty tips and kitchen recipes. Her cause was female equality, and she used the might of her pen to fight for it through many turbulent events.

It was during her childhood in the strict society of Assiut that the work of feminists like Hoda Shaarawi and others started gaining momentum. At the age of fourteen, al-Said joined the youth section of the Egyptian Feminist Union, and, in 1931, she became one of the first women to attend Fuad I University. In her obituary in The Independent, journalist Adel Darwish tells us that, ‘Although she was married to a millionaire member of the semi-feudal aristocracy, … she insisted on giving him half her monthly salary towards running the home, since their marriage contract was based on equality’.

Soon after she graduated in 1935, Amina was hired by the popular al-Musawwar magazine, where she wrote a regular column until shortly before her death. She used her column to support fellow activists, like the controversial and militant Doria Shafk, and her popular ‘Is’alouni’ (‘Ask Me’) column to encourage political debate. Having the courage to speak openly about politics during the dictatorship of Nasser gained al-Said immense respect from her fellow journalists.

As she rose in status, eventually becoming chairperson of the monumental Dar al-Hilal publishing group, the gutsy al-Said began taking on a new cause for women: fighting  the Islamic fundamentalist tide that began in the 1970s. Unfortunately al-Said died in 1995, disappointed in Egyptian women, as she felt that the fundamentalist tide was getting the better of them. Three days before her death, she is quoted as having said that ‘Contemporary [Egyptian] women have no stomach for a fight’.

Moufida Abdel Rahman, (1914–2002), Egypt’s Pioneering Female Lawyer

Although not the first female lawyer (that credit goes to a Naima al-Ayouby), Abdel Rahman is the most well known of the pioneering generation. The ultimate working mother, Abdel Rahman was a successful lawyer, activist, board member of several major organisations, and parliamentary member for seventeen years, all while raising nine (yes, nine!) children.

Like most of the other women on this list, Abdel Rahman was among the first females to graduate from Fuad I University and the first one to graduate from the faculty of law. She was already a mother of five at the time but had the immense support of her husband, who had encouraged her to enroll in 1933, a few years after they married.

Abdel Rahman’s first case was one that most paralegals would consider too intimidating to start with: one of involuntary manslaughter. Abdel Rahman, who convinced her boss to let take the case on her own, walked into the courtroom (as she told a journalist half a century later) ‘having studied my case very well, looking very serious and without a speck of makeup on’. She won the case and her client was acquitted; the budding lawyer became very popular and eventually started her own firm.

Among Moufida’s most significant cases was that of fellow activist Doria Shafk, who was summoned to court after she stormed  parliament with 1,500 women and a list of demands. There were hundreds of female lawyers in Egypt at the time (1951), but Moufida was the strongest. She and the other lawyers who volunteered to defend Shafik succeeded in getting the case postponed sine die.

Abdel Rahman was also the only woman to participate in the work of the Committee for the Modifcation of Status Laws for Muslims. The laws that regulated family matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance were crucial in reshaping the legal system to adapt with the progress women had made in entering the workforce and participating in public life.


Hypatia (ca. 350/70–415 CE), Scholar

Inspiring writers, poets, feminists, scholars and filmmakers well into the twenty-first century, Hypatia’s brutal murder immortalized her legacy rather than killing it. Hypatia is considered the earliest female scientist with a well-documented life . She wrote numerous books on mathematics and astronomy, her main passion.

Hypatia, who dressed as a scholar or teacher rather than in traditional women’s clothing, moved about Alexandria freely, driving her own chariot. She taught at the Neoplatonist School of Philosophy at the Lyceum where she eventually became director in 400 CE.

Little historical evidence on Hypatia survives, but what does remain implies that she invented the plane astrolabe, the graduated brass hydrometer, and, with the aid of her student, Synesius of Greece, the hydroscope.  It is through the letters of her students that we learn about her life and influence outside her native city of Alexandria. Hypatia was a popular lecturer, drawing students from many parts of the Roman Empire.

Although many of Hypatia’s students (such as Synesius himself) were Christians who revered their teacher, it was an angry Christian mob that ultimately killed her due to conflicts with Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria. A pagan philosopher encouraging experimental science was too much of a controversy in the increasingly religious environment of the time, leading to the tragic end of her life.

Hypatia was riding her chariot around Alexandria when the angry mob captured her and dragged her naked body through the city, mutilating her flesh and burning her remains. In doing this, they unwittingly immortalized the memory of a woman who was to be an icon to scientists and philosophers from then on.


Safeyya Zaghloul, (1878–1946), Political Activist and Revolutionary Figure

One of the most famous and unprecedented aspects of the Egyptian revolution of 1919 was that for the first time in the country’s history, women took to the streets with men, demanding their country’s liberation. The revolution that was inspired by nationalist leader Saad Zaghloul, however, was not led by him. Zaghloul was in exile at the time. It was his wife who announced through her secretary at the door of their home where people gathered that, ‘If Saad Zaghloul has been detained, with God and the nation as her witnesses, his wife and partner, Safeyya Zaghloul, shall place herself in his position of sacrifice and struggle for our nation, and she considers herself mother to all those who marched to face bullets for the sake of their country.’ From that day, Safeyya Zaghloul became known as the ‘Mother of Egyptians’, and the home that she shared with her husband was and remains known as the ‘Home of the Nation’.

Daughter of a prime minister, Zaghloul walked a very unconventional path for a member of the conservative aristocracy of the time. She married a man of humble origins (Saad Zaghloul), removed her veil (the Turkish ‘yashmak’) in 1921 and stood at the front lines of political activism, during her husband’s life and long after his death.


Um Kulthum, (c.1898–1975), Singer

On the first Thursday of every month, Egyptian royalty and aristocracy would gather around their radios in their posh Garden City or Zamalek villas. More modest families from Cairo all the way to Aswan would huddle next to their smaller radios.

Taxi and bus drivers would park their vehicles and gather at the nearest café. The streets of Cairo would be practically deserted on the first Thursday of every month from the 1930s to the 1960s. This was the regular day for Egypt’s diva to sing them into a state of euphoria. All Egyptians, rich and poor, men and women alike, relished it like little else. Born to humble origins in a small village in Daqahleyya, Um Kulthum’s father dressed her up as a boy when she was twelve to sing ‘inshad’ with his troupe of religious chanters at local gatherings and celebrations.

She was introduced to the music scene in Cairo at age sixteen by the famous composer Zakareyya Ahmed and, through her collaboration over the following years with some of the finest composers, lyricists and musicians of the time (and perhaps of Egypt’s history), Um Kulthum’s career reached stellar heights.

She sang her epic songs to the Egyptian King Farouq and was deemed too valuable to lose; it was President Nasser who insisted on bringing her back into the limelight after a brief withdrawal following the 1952 coup d’état. Um Kulthum went on to provide great support for the Egyptian military and travelled the world raising funds for the wars Egypt fought to defend its borders.

Um Kulthum is today still regarded as possibly one of the greatest female singers to have ever lived. Her signature look, with the chignon and dark glasses, has become iconic and still inspires pop artists and designers across the Middle East.


Rose al-Yusuf, (1898–1958), Publisher

Born in Lebanon, Rose al-Yusuf moved to Egypt at the age of ten and grew up with the family of theatre troupe owner Iskander Farag in Alexandria. Al-Yusuf began her career as a stage actress and joined the troupes of Aziz Eid, then Okasha, followed by Ramsis, and made a name for herself as an actress. She retired from acting, however, by 1925 and applied for a publishing license.

With limited funds, but supported by friends in the artistic and creative fields, she established a magazine that worked ‘without an office, without salaries and without rest’, as her daughter Amaal (Zaki) Tulaimaat would recall in an interview. This was the beginning of the career that immortalized her. Rose magazine (named after its founder) started off as a literary and cultural publication, but it soon became more political.

Being a political magazine in turbulent times had its cost, though, and at some point, her license was revoked, forcing her to reapply under a new name. In time, her magazine would return and Rose would continue to publish fiery articles against the British occupation, irking the ruling powers and leading to her arrest on several occasions.

The loves in her life also added to her enigma. Al-Yusuf first married engineer-turned-actor Mohamed Abdel Qudous. Her son Ihsan would later become one of Egypt’s most eminent novelists. She then married actor-producer Zaki Tulaimaat. Both marriages did not last very long, however. Rose al-Yusuf’s name survives to this day through her publishing house and its flagship publication, Rose Al Yusuf magazine.

Princess Fatma Ismail (1853–1920), Patron of Education

Egypt’s renaissance during the first half of the twentieth century was largely attributed to one major factor, the establishment of an Egyptian university. The institution that was created to qualify Egyptians to lead their country produced both men and women who would go on to become acclaimed writers, scientists, thinkers, artists and politicians.

The project, however, did not come about very smoothly. At first, a nationwide subscription campaign collected donations from everyone from wealthy industrialists all the way down to schoolchildren. Along with some financial support from Khedive Abbas Hilmi II (who ruled Egypt at the time), the institution managed to rent its first building but soon had to move to another location, remaining in a state of financial instability for almost ten years.

The university’s future was finally assured with the support of Princess Fatma Ismail. The daughter of Khedive Ismail donated a vast plot of land in Giza where the university was finally built. She paid for the construction and donated a large quantity of her jewellery for set-up costs. To ensure the university’s sustainability, she endowed the yield from 600 feddans (578 acres) of land to cover annual operating expenses.

Today, with twenty-three faculties and more than 200,000 students graduating annually, Cairo University is Egypt’s largest higher education institution. The university celebrated its centenary in 2008, and throughout its entire journey, it has never forgotten the patronage of this one woman, whose generosity changed the face of an entire country.



Hoda Shaarawi (1879–1947), Feminist Pioneer

The word feminism in Egypt is practically synonymous with the name of Hoda Shaarawi, but of all her actions and deeds, it wasn’t until 1923 that she made the statement that she would cement her legacy. Upon her return from a women’s conference in Europe, Hoda Shaarawi and her partners, Ceza Nabarawi and Nabaweyya Moussa, stepped off the train at Cairo Railway Station and removed their veils.

The scores of women who were waiting for them at the station gasped in shock. There were a few moments of silence, and then everyone broke into raucous applause with some of the braver women proceeding to remove their veils as well. Although Shaarawi is most remembered for removing the veil, she did not dedicate much more energy to this cause, and rather addressed the core of women’s issues in Egypt, such as education and suffrage.

Shaarawi, who was born into aristocracy and was married to a prominent Wafd party leader, led a life of activism long before the infamous veil incident. In 1914, she founded the Intellectual Association of Egyptian Women, and, during the 1919 revolution, she led Egyptian women to march alongside the men – an unprecedented act.

After her famous return in 1923 from the International Woman Suffrage Alliance Congress in Rome, Shaarawi founded and became the first president of the Egyptian Feminist Union. The EFU focused on various issues, particularly women’s suffrage, increasing education for women, and changing the Personal Status Laws. In 1924, she led a group of women to picket the opening of parliament 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. It was not an easy battle, and Shaarawi would not see most of the fruits of her labor during her lifetime, but through the EFU, she laid the groundwork for future feminist victories long after her death.


Ceza Nabarawi (1897–1985), Feminist Activist

Ceza Nabarawi was the youngest of the three women who famously removed their veils in 1923 in front of a shocked audience. The twenty-six-year-old had followed in the footsteps of Hoda Shaarawi, leading women in the 1919 revolution and continuing the struggle of the Egyptian Feminist Union long after its main founder’s death.

Born Zeinab Murad, she was renamed by her mother’s cousin, who adopted her as an infant after her parents separated. She lived in Alexandria and moved to Paris, where she was educated at the Lycée de Versailles until the age of seventeen.

When she returned to the confnes of bourgeois Egyptian life, Ceza fell into a depression. She did not come out of it until Hoda Shaarawi took her under her wing to join the fight for the emancipation of the Egyptian woman.

In addition to being editor-in-chief of the EFU’s feminist publication, L’Egyptienne, Nabarawi was also the organisation’s leading figure for decades and chairperson of the Berlin-based International Democratic Women’s Federation, a position that she later renounced after disagreeing with the organisation’s stance on the Palestinian question.

Nabarawi was more fortunate than Shaarawi in that she lived to see many of the EFU’s demands met, the first of them being the raising of the minimum age for marriage to sixteen, followed by the provision of equal opportunities for education and the right for women to run for parliament, among many others.


Doria Shafik (1908–1975), Activist and Writer

Once described in the press as ‘the only man in Egypt, Doria Shafik was the driving force behind the modification of the Egyptian Constitution to give women the right to elect and be nominated for political office. On 19 February 1951, she led a 1,500-woman demonstration and stormed through the gates of the Egyptian Parliament while it was in session. She declared a hunger strike until Egyptian women were granted equal constitutional rights to men.

A week later, the council granted Egyptian women the right to vote and run for political office. Shafik earned her PhD in philosophy at the Sorbonne in 1940; her thesis subject was on women in Islam, and in it she argued that Islam does allow equality for women. She returned to Egypt to set up a woman’s liberation movement entitled ‘Daughter of the Nile Union’ in 1948.

After the coup d’état of 1952, Shafik requested the government to transform ‘Daughter of the Nile Union’ into the first women’s party of Egypt; it was subsequently recognized as an official political party with a feminist agenda. However, as all the political parties of the time were soon rendered inactive, she realized that her battle was not getting any easier.

In 1957, following a hunger strike in protest against Nasser’s regime, she was placed under house arrest. Soon after that, her magazine (named New Woman) was closed, and her name was officially banned from the press. Shafik entered a long period of seclusion and depression that ended with her suicide in 1975. 


Nabaweyya Moussa (1887–1951), Educator

Raised by a single mother in a middle-class family, Moussa grew up knowing first-hand just how important it was for a woman to be able to make her own living. One of the key feminists of twentieth-century Egypt, she fought not only for women’s rights, but also against colonial rule. Her image was perhaps cemented in Egyptian memory in 1923 when, along with Hoda Shaarawi and Ceza Nabarawi, she removed her veil to announce to Egyptian society that Egyptian women would be silent and hidden no more. Although she was an activist on many fronts, Moussa’s primary passion was education. Education would empower women, giving them a stronger footing in the labour force and more financial independence, all crucial for ending sexual violence against them and ultimately lessening their vulnerability.

The first female to graduate with a secondary school certificate from the famous Saniyya school, Moussa dedicated her life to the pursuit of educating women and advancing female Egyptian teachers in the school system.

She became the first Egyptian headmistress, the first female chief inspector at the Ministry of Education and the first female member of the Press Syndicate. Eventually, she, together with two other pioneers, Malak Hefni Nassef and Labiba Hashem, was invited to lecture at the then newly established Egyptian University (later to become Fuad I and then Cairo University).

Among her numerous publications is a book entitled Women and Work, and another called Fruits of Life on Girls’ Education, which, in 1908, was incorporated as a part of the curriculum by the Ministry of Education. Moussa also wrote her autobiography, in which she described her life of struggle advocating for women’s emancipation in a male-dominated society that also happened to be under colonialist rule.

Malak Hefni Nassef (1886–1918), Writer and Activist

One of the earliest women to advocate women’s rights, Nassef’s demands were quite modest compared to later feminists and even some of her contemporaries. In a lecture she gave to a group of women in 1909, she listed her demands for women’s rights, which included the provision of basic education and a quota for women to work in the fields of teaching and medicine.

In contrast to Shaarawi’s secular and Western-oriented feminism, Nassef promoted a view that worked within the Islamic system of nineteenth-century Ottoman Egypt. Among her list of demands in the 1909 lecture was that Islamic Sharia be observed in the rituals of marriage (thus allowing women to see and approve their future husbands before an arranged marriage). Malak’s 1910 collection of talks and essays entitled, Al-Nisa’iyyat (Women’s Affairs) disregarded Western values of feminism and attempted to define an improved status for women within a reformed Islamic context instead.

Known also by her pen-name ‘Bahithat al-Badia’ (‘searcher of the desert’)  inspired by her post-marital life in the Fayum – Malak produced poetry and literature that was lauded as among the finest of her time. Known as more of a reformer than a revolutionary, her ideas moved quite safely within the confines of a conservative religious society. It would have been interesting to see how her life would have played out vis-à-vis secular revolutionaries such as Hoda Shaarawi and Doria Shafik, but it wasn’t meant to be. Nassef died at the age of thirty-two from Spanish fever at her home in the Fayum.


Aisha Taymour (1840–1902), Writer and Poet

Born to an upper middle-class family in the Darb al-Ahmar district, Aisha Taymour’s family produced many literary figures that would rise to fame in Egypt. Her mother, however, only wanted her to learn the domestic skills that high-born girls of that era were expected to master; Taymour recalls in her memoirs that her mother tried to force her to learn embroidery, for example. Taymour, on the other hand, was obsessed with books and reading, and her greatest joy was hearing the sound of a pen gliding over a piece of paper. Her father was the one who came to the rescue, and he nurtured his daughter’s love for writing and literature.

At the age of fourteen, Taymour married Mahmoud Bek al-Islambouli and moved to Istanbul, where she lived until his death in 1875. She then returned to Egypt, aged thirty-five, and resumed her studies with two women tutors who helped her master Arabic grammar. Thereafter, she authored and published several works of fiction, discussing issues related to gender, religion and politics. She authored a work of fiction entitled Al-Luqa Ba’d al- Shatat (Reunion After Separation) as well as an allegorical tale, Nata’ig al-Ahwal fil-Aqwal wal-Af’al (The Consequences of Circumstances for Words and Deeds), and a treatise on gender relations, Mir’at al-Ta’mmul fil-Umur (The Mirror for Contemplating Affairs). She is, however, most remembered for the heart-wrenching poems she wrote when mourning her daughter who died at the age of twelve.

Aziza Amir (1901–1952), First Actress to Star in a Full-length Egyptian Motion Picture

Born Mofida Mohamed Ghoneim in Alexandria, Aziza Amir is not just remembered as one of the ‘firsts’, she was one of the genuine founders of the Egyptian film industry. Amir’s career began with Youssef Wahbi’s Ramsis theatre troupe but she soon made the jump from acting to producing. In an age teeming with national sentiment (these were the post-1919 revolution years), Amir was praised as a ‘pure Egyptian’ pioneer, and true to her cause, she made films that addressed issues that deeply concerned Egyptian society.

She is most famous for her 1927 re-adaptation of Laila, which was Egypt’s longest feature film at the time. A newspaper reporter recounted that banker Talaat Harb praised Amir at the movie premiere and said to her, ‘You have accomplished what no man has accomplished’.

Aziza relied significantly on the men in her life to fulfill her goals. She first married the wealthy Upper Egyptian Ahmed al-Sherei, who was disowned by his family for marrying an actress. She then left him to marry his younger brother and finally married her co-star Mahmoud Zulfikar, with whom she founded a production company, Amir Film. Wanting to prove that Egypt produced world-class actresses, Amir sought to star in films outside Egypt, acting in the French film The Tunisian Girl in 1930 and the Turkish film, In the Streets of Istanbul.


Fatma Rushdi, (1908–1996), Pioneering Female Director and, Iconic Actress

Known as the ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ of the East, the Alexandria-born Rushdi was discovered by fellow Alexandrian Sayyid Darwish. After hearing the ten-year-old Rushdi sing one of his songs, it is said that he was so impressed that he went and bought her two pounds-worth of chocolates and candy. Two pounds translated into a lot of candy at the time! He later convinced her mother to take Fatma and her sisters Ratiba and Ensaf to Cairo to open up more opportunities for them in the performing arts. When established in Cairo, Fatma began acting in small parts in Naguib al-Rihani’s plays.

Sayyid Darwish opened the door for Rushdi’s career, but it was theatre troupe owner Aziz Eid who took it to the next level. After two years of intensive classes in acting and oration, Fatma, who eventually married Eid, rose to become the prima donna of the prestigious Ramsis theatre troupe. After the couple’s divorce, Rushdi established her own troupe and named it after herself. The popular Fatma Rushdi troupe was to incubate the talents of future greats such as Mahmoud al-Meligi, Mohamed Fawzy, Abdel Moneim Madbouly and many others. Rushdi later established a film production company and moved from the theatre to movie-making and acting, her most famous cinematic role being in El Azima (Determination) in 1939. Rushdi authored two books about her life and career, Ana wa-l-Regal (The Men and Me) and Kefahi fil-Masrah wal-Cinema (My Struggle in Theatre and Cinema).


Inji Efflatoun (1924–1989), Artist and Activist

A riddle to many, Inji Efflatoun came from a comfortable, bourgeois family but exhibited immense torment in her paintings. Not satisfied with a life of Parisian dresses and piano classes, she went from being a silver-spoon-fed baby to becoming a leading feminist and communist. It is said that it was her art tutor, Kamel al-Telmissany, who spoke to her of the plight of the Egyptian peasant and inspired her lifelong struggle for the rights of the working classes.

In 1948, she wrote Thamanun Miliyun Imra’a Ma’ana (Eighty Million Women With Us), a strong condemnation of imperialism. The following year, she published Nahnu al-Nisa al-Misriyyat (We, The Egyptian Women), an analysis of women’s oppression as well as national oppression. By that time, Efflatoun was an active member in Egypt’s communist party, fighting  for women’s rights around the world and representing Egypt at women’s conferences.

Considered a pioneer of Egyptian modern art, Efflatoun started painting at a very early age and achieved great success later in life, leading her to exhibit at the Venice Biennale in 1952 and at the São Paulo Art Biennial in 1956, as well as in many other countries. She was arrested and imprisoned during Nasser’s roundup of communists in 1959, yet continued to paint in prison, preserving a powerful visual record of the women’s prison experience at al-Kanater. Following her release in 1963, with Egypt’s communist party dissolved, she continued to focus on painting. Efflatoun held many exhibitions worldwide after her release from prison, the final one being in Cairo in 1987. She died, aged sixty-five, while still writing her memoirs.



Isis, Goddess

Isis was not the only female deity in the ancient Egyptian pantheon; however, it is the cult of Isis which has spread beyond the borders of Egypt, been appropriated into icons of ensuing religions, and in one way or another managed to survive into Egypt’s modern era.

Isis, the primary goddess in ancient Egypt, was worshipped as the ideal mother and wife, as well as the matron of nature and magic. She was also the protector of the dead and goddess of children, from whom all beginnings arose.

Following the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, the worship of Isis was Hellenisized and spread throughout the Graeco-Roman world. Temples were erected for her throughout Europe, Africa and Asia, and her cult grew strong in the Roman Empire in spite of several periods of persecution.

Scholars have drawn clear links between the Holy Trinity of Isis, Osiris (Serapis) and Horus and the Holy Trinity of Christianity. The way Isis was perceived and the practice of her faith is very similar to the reverence for Mary among Christians. In fact, many chapels built for the Virgin were built purposely on the remains of temples to Isis. Moreover, some of the most familiar iconography of the Madonna and Christ is very similar to that of Isis and Horus. The impact of Isis in Europe was so strong that some historians have claimed that the origin of the name of the city of Paris comes from ‘Par Isis’ meaning ‘near the temple of Isis’. The temple of Isis meant here, stood where the church of St Germain-des-Prés stands today.

In contemporary Muslim Egyptian culture, anthropologists have noted that many of the habits followed by the elderly women who tend the mausoleum of Sayyeda Zainab for blessings have many similarities with the women of the cult of Isis.

The Egyptian Fellaha, Symbol of Egypt

What can we say, other than that the Egyptian Fellaha (peasant woman) was the first Lady Liberty. When Bartholdi, who sculpted New York’s iconic Statue of Liberty, was first inspired to create a figure of such epic proportions, it was in Egypt.

The monumental statues of Karnak inspired the French sculptor to create a statue of an Egyptian Fellaha symbolizing Egypt in its renaissance, holding the light to the East ‘shining the road to Asia’. By the time Bartholdi was finished, Khedive Ismail could no longer foot the bill and a few years later, Egypt’s Fellaha underwent some changes and was shipped to Ellis Island as Lady Liberty.

When Mahmoud Mokhtar depicted Egypt in his famous ‘Egypt’s Renaissance’ statue, he also envisioned her (Egypt) as a Fellaha. In popular Egyptian poetry and prose, the country is often referred to as ‘Bahia’ (a genuinely rural Egyptian name for girls). Egypt’s golden-hued land is often likened to the sun-kissed skin of the Fellaha, who toils the land daily.

The image of the ancient Egyptian woman farming the fields with her husband on tomb walls shows how deeply entrenched her role was in Egypt’s main source of income and strength over the millennia: its agriculture. The Fellaha is the symbol of Egypt’s sacred fertile land and the bearer of prosperity who has fed and nurtured Egyptians from the dawn of their existence until today, when she has come to represent the country itself.

An earlier version of this article named a Merit-Ptah as the first female physician in Egypt, this fact was debunked by Jakub Kwiecinski, a medical historian at the University of Colorado. To learn more about why read here.  

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 3, 2011

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