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.
In our series on women that broke the mould, we take a look at our grandmothers whose stamina and urge to serve their society is nothing but inspiring.
The notebooks of Gamila Sabry offer enchanting memories of one of the leading women in the Egyptian civil movement, published in a series entitled "The Voice of Women" by the Women and Memory Forum, founded in 1995 by a group of women academics, researchers and activists aiming to highlight and revive the role of Arab women in history as a means of empowerment.
The book sails back in time and tells tales of solitude and bravery of a woman that stood up to restrictive traditions and how she escaped them sometimes to have her way.
Gamila Hanem Sabry (1887-1962) was born and raised in Zagazig. Her older brother was her father figure after her real father died when she was only three years old. The brother opened up the gates of knowledge to their very end. And young Gamila was allowed to explore everything, including a religion other than her own. "I have permission to follow the religion that I choose," Gamila would boast at school when someone asked why a Muslim was attending a Christian religion class.
Though being married off at an early age, like most of her peers at the time, Sabry's new role as a wife never took her eye off the community at large. She was a dedicated social worker, from teaching her own household to read and write to her efforts to create Egypt's first national school for girls — known later as Tarqeyat Al-Fatah, run by Nabawia Moussa.
Gamila Sabry in 1914
Since she spent her life in various governorates as her husband was a police officer who was transfered often. She had to create many homes for him and her children. However, wherever she set foot, she was known for natural community leading skills. Women would consult her on various problems as they trusted her good judgement.
"Developing women was my aim," she explained referring to the informal women seminars she created where she would read and discuss national topics and columns written by Malak Hefni Nassef and other women figures. Being a columnist herself, she took upon herself to teach many others how to read and write.
Gamila Sabry with her husband, Judge Ahmed Sabry
In 1923, Sabry was shocked to know that licensed women sex workers reached some 12,000 woman. And so she thought of providing job opportunities for those women in order to give them the chance for a decent means of living. She managed to fundraise and open up Al-Affaf (Chastity), a sewing workshop for women.
Pretty impressive for a mother of eight, born in the rigid late-19th century. Her role in civil society marked a signifcant step towards women's independence.
*This story was first published on 13 April, 2014.