Book Review: Heads up, wings out

Dina Ezzat , Friday 7 Apr 2023

The stories of academic, professional and artistic achievement of 38 women offer a glimpse into the changing status and role of women in Egypt throughout the 20th century.


Daughters of the Nile was originally published in English in 2016 and was put out in Arabic earlier this year by Dar AlShorouk under the title Banat El-Nil.

In this book, edited by Samia Spencer and translated into Arabic by Ali Abdelmoaty, 38 women of diverse professional disciplines – mostly from the upper-middle class – share their stories, both as public figures and individuals.

There are so many ways of looking at this 463-page book. One way is to read it as a sequence of profiles of women who were born in Egypt between the early decades and the second half of the 20th century and managed, against some or many odds, to build successful lives as established professionals, artists, scientists and civil society figures. Another way is as a compilation of testimonies documenting the changing norms of Egyptian society, economy and politics over this time period.

It is also possible to read the testimonies as the collective story of the evolution of the status and role of women in Egypt throughout the 20th century. Clearly, the accounts shared in this book reflect deeply on change in perception of families towards having a daughter, the evolution in the educational possibilities for girls and the change in perception at the workplace to the level of professional advancement that a woman could pursue.

Above all, Daughters of the Nile is an unintentional tribute to the singular capacity of women to have a dream and to pursue it with heads up and wings out.

A particularly remarkable account is of the late Marie Assaad, a leading 20th century civil society figure. Assaad was born in the early decades of the 20th century to an upper middle-class family in Upper Egypt that was not particularly interested in having yet another daughter. Especially not one that was a petite brunette, as that was not the appreciated standard of beauty at the time.

It was perhaps an early recognition of her own disadvantages in her own family, coupled with her own inherent gentleness, that prompted Assaad to move through the thick and thin of life to champion the right of girls and women to determine their own both physical and intellectual being. Assaad’s name will forever be twined with the brave and composed battle to end to the once predominant practice of female genital mutilation.

Unlike Assaad, Hannah Aboulghar, who was born in the late 1960s to an upper middle-class family, had no early self-apprehension. Actually, it was the welcoming love given to this now prominent Cairo University professor of pediatrics that inspired her to give love to abandoned girls by launching one of the most successful care-taking foundations in Egypt, Banati (“my girls”). Most of the testimony that Aboulghar shares in her testimony is dedicated to the story of Banati as a platform to give girls a chance to proceed with their lives, heads up and wings out. Another endeavor that Aboulghar dedicates a good part of her testimony to is Al-Bassma (“the smile”), a Cairo University preventive medicine centre dedicated to caring for homeless children.

In contrast to Aboulghar, who had nothing to worry about when she decided to study medicine, is the testimony of the book’s editor and professor of French at Auburn University in Alabama Samia Spencer. Born in cosmopolitan Alexandria in the late 1930s, she had to settle for studying French literature instead of medicine “because medicine was not really for girls at the time.” Moreover, a university degree for a woman was not necessarily, or maybe not at all, a prelude to a career; families not jobs were then perceived as a woman’s natural destination.

Also in Alexandria, but in the 1960s, Fawziya Achmawie was born to “a mother who wanted a son.” However, neither this unfortunate early awareness nor the unfortunate path of her marriage handicapped her academic advancement as she became a professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at University of Geneva and an avid anti-Muslim defamation activist.

Daughters of the Nile offers an insight into the lives and careers of some famous women, including renowned jewellry designer Azza Fahmi, Malak Youssef Taher, the fashionable founder and manager of a successful flower business in Cairo, Hend and Nadia Wassef, the founders of Cairo’s celebrated chain of bookstores Diwan and ministers of planning and international cooperation Hala El-Said and Rania Al-Mashshat. It also sheds light on the remarkable success stories that many of its 38 women achieved not just in Egypt but elsewhere across the world where they went to live.

Daughters of the Nile was updated in 2020, four years after the publication of the original English, at a moment where the world was living under the shocking sway of the COVID-19 pandemic, in preparation for its launch in Arabic as a reminder of the inevitable triumph of hope and perseverance.

* Correction: The book was translated into Arabic by Ali Abdelmoaty and not by Hani Saleh as initially reported

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