This could also have been subtitled, “Egyptian women out in the world,” since more than half of the subjects are not living in their native land. This tome is a kind of scrapbook or victory lap if you will of thirty-seven high-achieving Egyptian women in the business, public-service, and academic domains writing brief sketches of their lives. The proceeds of the book are being donated to charity and it doesn’t claim to be a scientific study of Egyptian female achievers, so we can’t judge it too harshly. Nevertheless, a reading of the book brings to light several common characteristics of these women and some noteworthy statistics.
First of all, and getting out of the way a point which may disappoint some but will not surprise most: no social mobility emerges in these self-portraits; these were all daughters of the technocratic middle class, the elite or of the ionospheric sub-set of diplomatic families; no contributor fought her way up from humble beginnings. And the least of these women “merely” succeeded. However, many of the careers of the contributors do demonstrate gender pathbreaking; i.e. many of them achieved positions which are “firsts” on a global scale, not merely in Egypt. In the domain of engineering, Tyseer Aboulnasr is currently Dean of Engineering at the University of Ottawa, Safaa Fouda rose to be a Deputy Director at Natural Resources Canada, and Awatef Hamed became the first woman to head a Department of Aerospace Engineering in the U.S.
Others excelled in unexpected ways: Caroline Maher at one point was the global number three-ranked female Tae Kwan Do competitor and later entered the Egyptian parliament, Mona Risk pursued a career in chemistry but now pens bestselling romance novels, and Helene Moussa, who also did praiseworthy work with refugees, was at one point the Dean of the School of Social Work in Ethiopia. There is no sectarian point to be made, but the proportion of Christian contributors, about 25 percent, conforms to the estimated (but non-official) percentage of non-Muslims in the Egyptian population. Western education: nearly all the subjects attended a variety of western or Catholic elementary schools (nineteen per cent of them attended Notre Dame de Sion in Alexandria); a startling sixty-one percent attended or later taught at the American University in Cairo (AUC, one attended the American University in Beirut). We shouldn’t read too much into the attendance at AUC, but it is interesting.
As might be expected in gender groundbreaking cases, many of these women launched themselves by conspicuous academic outperformance, as in: it’s difficult to ignore or dismiss a young woman’s achievements when she has been ranked number one in Physics at the country’s premier university, etc. Even the most hardened male chauvinist is unable to argue away such a demonstration of excellence. Most of these women have taken such beginnings and proceeded on from there.
Nor do these women shy away from culture wars; indeed they are ready to enter the fray—though not speaking with a uniform voice. For example Azza Heikal, lamenting that the most famous book about Alexandria, Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, was written by an English author (Durrell provokes the same complaint in Cyprus, about which he wrote Bitter Lemons) and panning the depiction of Egyptians in the work, penned her own The Education of an Alexandrian in 1996, in an attempt to redress the balance. But Mona Abeid, another contributor, speaks of Durrell positively. Cultural warriors don’t always agree. Two of the contributors quote Constantine Cavafy, probably Alexandria’s most famous 20th century poet—but who wrote in Greek. These women are well-read, aware of world cultural trends, and expect to play a role therein and in several cases have done so. Generally, the worldview of these women is inclusive, culture-spanning, and optimistic.
As I suggested, some of these individuals are not only high achievers but genuine non-conformists as well. When the Mubarak regime permitted the New Wafd party to be formed as a sop to democratic impulses, they forgot to tell Mona Ebeid (another AUC graduate) that the new party wasn’t actually supposed to do anything. She entered parliament and debated, pushed legislation, and after the 2011 revolution participated in the Advisory Committee of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
When we view the 2014 photo of Ebeid with then-Minister of Defense El-Sisi, it is evident that the Field Marshal regards the parliamentarian with genuine affection and admiration. Readers will feel the same about Ebeid and most of these women.
Kenneth W. Meyer, Western Washington University
To find out more about Daughters of the Nile: Egyptian Women Changing Their World and to purchase a copy, please click here.