A woman from the 1930s who did as she pleased
Profile by Inas Mazhar
Safiya Abdel-Rahman was born in Mounira district in Cairo on 11 October 1929. Her father an engineer and her mother a teacher, Safiya's family was among the cultured elite of Egyptian society. She went to school and showed great interest not only in her academic subjects but in sports classes as well. At the time, schools had a greater emphasis on sports, with popular inter-scholastic competitions, which unfortunately have declined more recently.
"I was fond of sports, though it was something very strange for girls in the 1930s and 1940s to show any interest in sports," recalls Safiya. "My favourite sport was tennis and every week I waited impatiently for the sports class. While other classmates would escape the lesson by hiding in classes or anywhere, I was always be eager to attend," she adds.
Safiya graduated from Helwan Secondary School in 1945. In those days, the secondary school certificate known then as the Tawgehiya or Al-Thaqafa Al-Nasawiya was normally considered sufficient for upper-class girls. Most of the families would then pressure their girls to stay at home, learn cooking and piano and train to become a lady and a housewife. Few were those who would successfully fight to convince their parents to allow them to pursue a higher level of university education.
But Abdel-Rahmanhad no problem of the kind. Her parents were already broad-minded and recognised the importance of girls maintaining their education and so they even encouraged their daughter to go to university. Nearly all young women studied literature, law, occasionally medicine and Moalemat, the programme for those wishing to become teachers.
However, Abdel-Rahman never thought of any of these. She decided to go against the odds. Abdel-Rahman, who was a mathematics whiz and was expected to follow her father's footsteps in engineering, revealed to her family that she was interested in joining the Physical Education Institute. To her surprise, her parents encouraged this unorthodox choice.
"I was very much fond of sports. Actually, when I was young and thinking about sports, I dreamt of travelling and international sports accompanied by fame and glory. That was a main reason that pushed me to make up my mind and study physical education," admits Abdel-Rahman. Now a ripe 75 years of age, Abdel-Rahman has never questioned that decision. "Whatever the reasons were then, I don't regret it and would have loved to study physical education and take the same career," she confessed.
"I was the only student to apply for the institute which was located at Qasr Al-Eini. Four other students joined later and our class was only five students. The Egyptian professors there were the best in the country and had received their education abroad. Dr Nefissa El-Ghamrawi, Dr Aisha Mourad and Dr Laila El-Safi were all my professors and mentors. They were the first generation who introduced physical education to universities," said Abdel-Rahman.
Abdel-Rahman graduated in 1949 before she turned 20. "I was still very young and full of ambition. I refused to stay at home and decided to work instead. My parents never stood against me and supported me throughout. My first job was a physical education school teacher in Damanhour Secondary School. I worked there for two whole years during which I wasn't only doing my job but participating in many activities as in overseeing physical examinations and creating women's workshops and centres and clinics in first aid and nursing. In terms of my job, I introduced rhythmic gymnastics," she recalled. In appreciation for her efforts, she was firmly supported by the governor of Damanhour.
Despite her deep devotion to her work and social activism, Abdel-Rahman decided to raise a family as well. She married a loving husband and later had two daughters. "I thank God that my husband was another copy of my father. Yes, he was a typical Oriental man but a broad-minded and understanding husband. He supported me and always pushed me forward. He helped with the children whenever I had to travel for conferences or for other work. And unlike other men who would feel jealous of their wives' success, he was always glad for me." Dr Abdel-Rahman smiled as she remembers her late husband. "He was a successful banker and the one who introduced travellers' banks and cheques to Egypt," she continued proudly.
As a mother, she kept a watchful eye on her daughters. Abdel-Rahman taught her daughters Moushira and Hala to become educated and independent.
The demands of her job required that Abdel-Rahman leave her daughters for long hours in the care of their father or her parents. "When I was at home, I would provide them with all the love, care and affection I could give," she added defensively.
Her career kept her very active. She introduced the Girl Guides organisation to Egypt at extracurricular camps. "Girl Guides were being learned as classes in schools, but I made it a practical study instead of a theoretical study. I started arranging for camps outside of school to teach the girls how to actually become guides. I was the first to represent Egypt in 1955 in an international camp for Girl Guides leaders in London," Abdel-Rahman said.
"After my return I continued spreading the movement of the Girls Guides all over the country. My first significant project was in the camp organised in 1960, which participated in widening the Suez Canal, then in El-Natroun Village the girls worked in collecting the crop harvest, also paving four kilometres of road and planting different crops in the valley," recalled Abdel-Rahman.
In 1960, Dr Abdel-Rahman was selected to represent the country in Athens and was also named as Africa's Girl Guide leader.
Twenty years after her graduation from university, Abdel- Rahman finally claimed her PhD. "It took me a long time for many reasons. First, I was so involved in practical and social work in addition to being a wife and a mother that I had no free time to study. I had to compromise because as my family had helped and supported me and tolerated my lengthy absence, I had to compensate them. When I was applying for my Master's and PhD, I received several offers from abroad, but I turned them all down and instead decided to finish them here in Egypt at national universities so as to be among my family," she said.
In 1981, Abdel-Rahman was appointed as dean of the Faculty of Physical Education at Helwan University. She maintained her position until 1990 before she went on pension.
Abdel-Rahman is widely respected for her dedication to her academic job. "In my capacity as dean of the Faculty of Physical Education I had been encouraging holding camps, competitions and different activities. I wanted the students to love sports." She explained.
"It has become different from my generation to this new generation. In my time, we were only 29 girls divided among the four years of the institute. We were allowed to join the institute after passing practical tests. But now, the number of students is in hundreds in each academic year making the overall number to thousands. Girls nowadays join the Faculty of Physical Education because of their percentage in the Thanawiya Amma not because of their love for sports," Abdel- Rahman remarked.
She points out that students now are looking for the graduation certificate, "just to be a university graduate is what they all care about, they don't care about their studies because nobody has been working in the same field of his academic studies. Just a certificate, a paper or document to secure them a respectable job," she said accusingly.
Never one to rest on her laurels, Abdel-Rahman has been serving as an interim professor in several universities throughout the country, despite her advanced age.
Abdel-Rahman also holds several high posts, the most important of which are as a member of the National Women's Council Health and Population Committee and a member of the National Specialists' Council in the Department of Youth and Sports since 1981. She has helped supervise PhDs and research in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and Iraq. As if that were not enough, Abdel-Rahman was on the Supreme Consulting Committee for Egyptian sports at the Supreme Council for Youth and Sports from 1994 to 1996, deputy chairperson at the Sports Profession Syndicate from 1987 to 1997, board member of the Egyptian Volleyball Federation in 1994 and 1995, an international representative for African Girl Guides, board member of the Girl Guides Association from 1960 to 1992.
She had participated in several sessions in management, public relations, clinics for physical education teachers' camps and sessions to prepare leaders in scouting and national service. She has also participated in and chaired scientific conferences, organised a physical education conference at the Helwan University in 1987 which was inaugurated and patronised by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak.
Her contributions to sports in the Arab world are many and impressive, including setting up the physical education department at King Qabous University in Oman, and doing likewise at the University of Al-Ain in the UAE.
Her CV was published in the National Egyptian Encyclopaedia in 1989 and 1992 and in the international 1989 Who's Who.
Though she is so energetic and continues working, I suppose with the same enthusiasm and energy she had started almost 50 years ago, her two daughters Moushira and Hala never followed her footsteps. Surprisingly, they have become housewives. "I am not disappointed , but I believe they have reached this point because they saw the sacrifices we made together and how much I have fought for so many things, I guess they don't want to go for the same experience with their children," she explained.
Moushira, the elder of her two daughters, is an accountant. "She is clever. She worked for some time and her father and myself supported her when she applied for her master's. But when she got married and delivered my first grandchild, Rasha, who later became a journalist, she threw away everything and decided to dedicate her life to her children." Abdel- Rahman added, "Hala, on the other hand, achieved my father's dream by joining the Faculty of Engineering. She became a good engineer, but like her sister, she never continued her career. Being a mother is more important to her."
Abdel-Rahman believes that the quality of sports in school has deteriorated to a disturbing degree. "Sports classes and lessons are included in the schedule only nominally. Principals will just take the sports classes and give them to other subjects for yet more review. There are no sports facilities in schools to practise the classes or to train pupils and students to become sportsmen and sportswomen and maybe champions one day. The system needs to be revived. Even physical education teachers are not qualified or trained. As I said before, they enter the university to obtain the certificate but they are not trained or qualified to become teachers," she says.
Because of her experience, Abdel-Rahman was selected to head the committee set by the Ministry of Education to improve physical education in schools and reintroduce sports.
Nonetheless, Abdel-Rahman believes that women's sports in Egypt have developed substantially in recent years. "Women are allowed to practise and compete in many sports. There has been a remarkable change in the traditions and taboos concerning the dress code. Girls no longer retire at an early age for marriage or because they are shy about playing sports in front of male spectators. It still exists with some sportswomen and their families but the percentage is decreasing," she said.
As women's sports spread on the international level, Minister of Youth Alieddin Hilal appointed Abdel-Rahman to head the Supreme Committee for Women and Sports.
Abdel-Rahman explained that women have become more aware of the importance and the relation between sports and health. "You can find women practising aerobics or walking in the streets or in the club just for the sake of practising and to remain always in shape. I myself, practise sports on a daily basis like walking at home or in the street. Even during my lectures at the university, I am always moving and exercising with my students for refreshment. The scene of women practising sports is increasing and it delights me. I'm really proud of the state that women have reached in terms of their awareness of sports."
Abdel-Rahman has been showered with decorations and honours throughout her long career. She received the Sports Order of Merit of Second Class in 1964, Silver Eagle Order for the Girl Guides in 1964 and the Silver Fish Order the next year, was nominated by the sports profession syndicate as "ideal mother" on the national level in 1989 and was selected by the working group at the Prime Ministry in August 1996 to promote Egyptian sports.
Safiya Abdel-Rahman believes that she will continue working in the field of sports until her last breath. "I was born to work and committed to it. As long as I could offer my experience and science to anyone and in any field I'm always willing to do it. But if I felt that I have nothing to offer in a certain place, I would immediately give it up. I don't like people using my name as head of an association or an organisation when there's nothing for me to do. I don't care for chairs, positions or titles. All I care is work and sports." Abdel-Rahman downplayed her own role in developing Egyptian sports, saying that she is only continuing the job of her predecessors and mentors who have passed away. "My colleagues and myself are continuing their work, but one wonders who would follow us and would show the same commitment to the women and sports field and become as sincere, dedicated and devoted to the task as we have always been," she concluded.
photo: Salah Ibrahim