16 March marks Egyptian Women’s Day for a good reason. On this day in 1919, 300 Egyptian women led by Huda Shaarawi marched against British occupation. One woman, Hamida Khalil, was killed, making her the first female martyr that day. On that same day four years later, Shaarawi led the march to form Egypt's first feminist movement. The march progressed from then on.
This year, Ahram Online celebrates Egyptian Women's Day in collaboration with The AUC Rare Books and Special Collection Library, by sharing the stories of inspiring Egyptian women who led the march for women's rights in the country. Every Thursday, the biography of an inspiring Egyptian woman will be shared. After exploring the life of Huda Shaarawi (1879-1947), the woman behind the march, and Doria Shafik (1908-1975) the "Daughter of The Nile," Ahram Online sheds light on the life and struggle of Aziza Hussein, the "People’s Ambassador."
Aziza Hussein (1919-2015): The First woman to lead the Egyptian Delegation in the United Nations in 1954
“Do for your life on earth, as if you were to live forever, and for your next life beyond, as if you were to die tomorrow.” This quote from Islamic culture was one of the life mottos of pioneer social worker and women’s rights activist Aziza Hussein, as stated in her memoirs, A Pilgrim Soul (2013). The wisdom of the motto reflects in all aspects of her life. Hussein was the first Egyptian woman to head Egypt's delegation at the United Nations assembly in 1954, the first to launch a nursery and a whole family planning programme in the Egyptian village, and was known to the international community as the leading women’s rights advocate.
Hometown: The Republic of Zefta
Hussein was born to a renowned physician whose humanitarian values and skills were so genuine that the locals named the public hospital in Zefta after him. Hussein grew up in a big family in a town that stood up to the British occupation and declared its independence as part of the Egyptian resistance revolution in 1919.
“My father was a feminist and gave us opportunities to study and go to university,” Hussein recalled in an oral interview by AUC Rare Books and Special Collections Library. She attended the American University in Cairo, class of 1942, and her BA dissertation was on Prophet Mohamed's Role in Legal Reform. After college, she believed in the impact of civil society on human development.
Civil society and women’s rights
Soon, Hussein started to delve into the rich social work in Egypt and thought of empowering women and raising awareness in rural areas. Through the Cairo Women’s Club, she launched her first-of-a-kind village nursery in 1955 along with associated family planning programmes. The programme was such a success that it granted the club the first prize from the General Federation of Women's Club in Kansas City, Missouri in 1955, as stated in her memoirs. And that was the beginning of a leading role in empowering civil society.
The People’s Ambassador
The prize won her an international lecture tour, where she made headlines in Washington, and soon her name became associated with women’s rights and human development advocating. Being married to Ahmed Hussein, the first Egyptian ambassador to Washington post the 1952 Revolution, her impact on civil society's global movement was magnified, and she was often referred to as the People’s Ambassador, as Al-Anbaa newspaper stated in 1995.
In 1955, she became the first Egyptian woman to head Egypt’s delegation at the United Nations assembly in 1954 and was honoured by late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who gave her the Medal of Perfection in 1955.
Her advocacy for family planning and human development continued to thrive, and her name was on every notable international conference. She was the one behind Egypt’s Population Conference in Cairo in the early 1990s, which was a big step to Egyptian civil society, and it led to the establishment of the Population Council later on.
Throughout her journey, Hussein noted in the audio interview by AUC Rare Books and Special Collections Library that among the most notable people she met were renowned civil society advocate, International Corporate lawyer, and great supporter Mona Zulficar, Samir Elish, who was the head of the Central Organisation for Family Planning, and Mary Assad, a key figure of civil society.
“Life begins at 80”
In the late 1970s, Hussein was introduced to Transcendental Meditation, which she explained had such a positive effect on her mindset and well-being. It led her to be the founder of the Egyptian Society for the Development of Consciousness and Human Potential.
In her book A Pilgrim Soul: memoirs, she reflects on her life journey and all her bliss: “Who would have thought that at the age of 93 I would still be so active implementing projects, hosting receptions, and even enjoying intense love -- be it transcendental – here I am, writing my autobiography for you. Following Grandma Moses’s motto, ‘life begins at 80’ means that I must now be 13 years old. How exciting!”
*Photos courtesy of AUC Rare Books and Special Collections Library