Republished: Princess Fatma Ismail - The woman behind Cairo University

Amira Noshokaty , Sunday 14 Mar 2021

While Egypt yet strives for women's right to proper education, let alone higher education, Ahram Online celebrates the woman behind the founding of Cairo University

princess fatma ismail
Princess Fatma Ismail

In celebration of the many achievements of Egyptian and Arab women over the years, Ahram Online republishes this article as part of a nine-day special series of gratitude and pride for women's achievements — from 8 March, which is International Women’s day, to 16 March, which is Egyptian Women’s Day.

The series aims to refresh the collective memory of our nation of the many, and often forgotten, women who excelled against all odds.

While Egyptian women in the 21st century are still lobbying for basic human rights, these republished stories serve as a reminder to society that Egyptian and Arab women fought for and enjoyed similar rights as men across many decades.

From the first woman doctor in the world, to the first woman to fly in Egypt and the Middle East, these women's stories are interweaved, and all deserve to be shared with a younger generation that needs to learn the truth about the accomplishments of their grandmothers and great grandmothers.


"This is one of the relics of her royal highness Princess Fatma Ismail," reads a sign crowning the main entrance of the Faculty of Arts building at Cairo University.

Fatma Ismail (1853-1920) was unique among the daughters of Khedive Ismail (1863-1879) for the footprint of philanthropy and social work she left on Egyptian history, most notably in the form of today's Cairo University.

In the late 19th century, Egyptian intellects called for the creation of a national university to provide modern, professional education to Egyptians. A committee of intellectuals and public figures began a fundraising campaign but were unable to sustain the costs of such a huge project.

To meet the pressing need for funding, Princess Fatma Ismail intervened, providing a waqf (endowment) of 661 feddans to cover the costs of establishing the Egyptian University. She donated 6 feddans of royal land in Giza's Dokki area to expand the university's grounds and EGP 18,000 (a significant sum at the time) for its construction.

The princess ensured that two of the era's most enlightened sheikhs, as well as the country's supreme judge would sit on the university's founding board.

The Egyptian public praised her intervention, which rescued the dream of an independent institute of higher learning in Egypt.

On 21 December 1908 the Egyptian University opened its gates for the first time.

In 1913, Al-Ahram published a piece thanking the princess for her efforts, which read "this is how efforts should be exerted" (hakaza takon al hemam).

The same year, Princess Fatma was applauded for acting on the wisdom of iconic enlightenment figure Sheikh Mohamed Abdu, who believed Egypt had focused so much on building mosques that the buildings themselves outnumbered those who prayed. He argued instead for educating the people—something the princess took to heart. 

In 1923, the university established the Fatma Ismail scholarship for students to study Egyptology abroad.

In 1929, the princess' mansion, located a few blocks from the university, was transformed into the Museum of Agriculture.

In 1940, the university was renamed King Fuad I University, in honor of the lately departed monarch.

After the 1952 revolution, the new regime changed the school's name to Cairo University. Yet, the iron gates still proclaim its original title, funded and supported by Princess Fatma as an institute for all Egyptians: "The Egyptian University."

*The above information was provided courtesy of the Al-Ahram Digital Archive   

*This article was first published on 8 March, 2017.

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