Wednesday,14 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)
Wednesday,14 November, 2018
Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Cleopatras among us

Daughters of the Nile: Egyptian Women Changing Their World, Samia I. Spencer (ed), Cambridge Scholars, 2016, pp402

Cleopatras among us
Cleopatras among us

The experiences of 38 contemporary Egyptian woman who have attained a major status in their professional lives is delineated with depth and lucidity in this academic volume. With an introduction by the editor Samia Spencer, an Egyptian-born French professor at Auburn University in Alabama, as well as a preface by the former US Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer, the book is a welcome intervention in the context of the prevailing literature on Egyptian women. 

Writings on Egyptian women have traditionally focused on the experiences of a pioneering generation which received a modern education at the beginning of, and up to, the mid-twentieth century. At the other end of the spectrum, gender-based research has been predominantly concerned with the causes leading to the marginalisation of Egyptian women in a diverse number of fields. The message of Daughters of the Nile is as such best expressed in the introduction by Spencer, whose interests include the French Enlightenment as well as women and politics: “Other than Nefertiti or Cleopatra, most people would be hard-pressed to mention an Egyptian woman by name, much less to speak of accomplishments."

The compelling testimonies presented in autobiographical chapters written by the 38 women delve into childhood and family environments, social and political developments and personal insights, which helped shape careers. Revealed is a generation of Egyptian women who have made notable inroads in diverse fields both at home and abroad. Many if not all have trodden new ground by heading financial, banking, scientific and academic institutions. Several have broken male-dominated leadership positions within the USA and Canada in professional and scientific associations. And some initiated powerful and inspiring modes of social activism. There are also the entrepreneurs who created new commodities in the Egyptian market and internationally in advertising, mosaics, jewellery, broadcasting, furniture, beverages, plants and the dissemination of books and culture. There are those who have contributed to the worlds of sports, diplomacy, archaeology, aerospace science, medicine, chemistry, engineering and international development.

The vividly narrated chapters, all in the first-person, hold many memorable phrases and much candour. The story in each becomes not only that of the individual woman narrating her experience but also the history of a society and a country. Through the eyes and documents of these women, we see pressing Egyptian issues coming to the fore. The changing political, social and architectural landscape of Egypt is dealt with in vivid detail. Topics range from social inequity and the plight of street children to economic development, tackling bureaucracy, preserving heritage and the environment and negotiating cultural divides. A consistent strain of the book is the suggestion that these women can become catalysts and pave the way for other generations of women to follow suit. It is telling that proceeds from the sale of the book will go, in equal part, to two NGOs, both documented in the book by their founders. One is the Mokattam-based Association for the Protection of the Environment APE, which helps empower the Zabbaleen (garbage collectors) community. The other is Banati (My Daughters), an organisation that tends to girls in street situations.

For those interested in Egypt or women’s progress, or those who enjoy engaging and well-written autobiography, this book is a must.

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