Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1197, (15-21 May 2014)
Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Issue 1197, (15-21 May 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Once upon a time - The political glass ceiling

A century ago, poet Hafez Ibrahim, said: “If adequately trained, a mother is like a school from which the nation may learn greatness.”

Ibrahim said this at a time when women were taking their first tentative step from the confines of the household to the challenges of the public domain. In the next generation of so, women will not only change their attire, but become writers, teachers, scientists, and artists.

The tide of modernity was powerful, but not as irreversible as some may have hoped. And women had to fight many small battles to prove themselves, to stand up to women, and to be accepted in positions of authority and leadership.

In his book, Al-Amel Al-Dini Fi Al-She’r Al-Masri Al-Hadith, or The Religious Component of Modern Egyptian Poetry, published in 1961, Saadeddin Al-Gizawi discusses the changing role of women in society.

“One of the interesting aspects of our social development is the manner in which women made the transition from a life that was confined to house and family to a life of active participation in most aspects of public life. Women became educated, joined government service, and became lawyers and lawmakers.”

In the early 1900s, women had scant access to formal education. Tradition was so strong that when Mohamed Ali decided to create a girl school for nursing, no one applied.

In his book, Tarikh Altaleem Fi Masr, or History of Education in Egypt, Amin Pasha Sami mentions that Mohamed Ali had one of his aides, Habib Effendi, buy women slaves to receive training under Clot Bey, Egypt’s to physician, in midwifery and nursing.

In the 1860s, under Ismail Pasha, two elementary schools for girls were opened in Cairo: Al-Siyufiya School and Al-Qirabiya School.

By 1875, 445 Egyptian girls were enrolled in Egyptian schools, as well as 2,832 in foreign schools. The nursing school had 29 students.

In 1900, the Siyufiya School was renamed Al-Saniya School, and it created a Teaching Section for women wishing to work in education.

In 1901, a school for Home Economics was created.

In 1908, when the Egyptian University (now Cairo University) was founded, no girls applied. Although the university did not ban girls from enrollment, no girls had the necessary qualifications for entering — as only boys had the Baccalaureat, the high-school-finishing exam that was a condition for enrollment in college.

 In 1914, the Saniya School had 265 students and the Saniya Teaching Section had 48 students.

The 1919 revolt changed all that.

Having participated in political protests, women’s interest grew in national affairs. It was only a matter of time before a new sense of empowerment, fuelled by acts of resistance to the British occupation, propelled women into the limelight.

In 1923, a delegation of Egyptian women went to attend a women conference in Rome. Coming back to the country, they discarded their traditional face veil and made public speeches — a step that was quite revolutionary at the time.

The first high school for girls opened in Shobra in 1925, followed by another — called the Girls College — in Zamalek.

Meawhile, several Egyptian women went to study medicine in England as part of what became known as the Kitchener Mission. They were: Hilana Sidaros, Kawkab Hefni, Tawhida Abdel-Rahman, And Habiba Eweis.

In 1928, the first batch of Egyptian girls sat for the High School Final Exam, the Baccalaureat. Of those of passed the exam, five women went to college including Soheir Al-Qalamawi who studied literature, and Naima Al-Ayoubi who studied law.

By the 1960s, Egypt women with master’s and doctorate degrees began to appear on the national scene and were soon to rise to prominence in the media, the medical profession, and the academia.

As women became an integral part of the economy, their responsibilities in the family also changed. Contributing to the family’s income, running a modern household, and supervising the children are now part of the daily routine of women all over the country.

But the progress is far from complete.

As recent rounds of elections illustrate, women are far from gaining parity with men on the political scene. The significance of the symbolic change of women headdress, from unveiling to re-veiling, may denote a level of return to pre-modernity ways.

But in the seats of power, from cabinet to parliament, women remain to be grossly underrepresented. After a century or so of education, women may have become prominent scientists and academics, business leaders and artists — but the glass ceiling of power politics remains too touch to crack.

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