Nabawiyya Musa 1890-1951

Nabawiyya Musa. Picture via Wikimedia Commons [public domain]

Men claim they have superior intelligence, saying there have been more men of genius than women. They forget that only when people use their gifts do they develop. That is why poor men who have spent their lives as cooks or tailors have not excelled in the arts or sciences. How can we expect, therefore, to find women whose knowledge is confined to this sphere excelling as geniuses? – Nabawiyya Musa

Described as one of Egypt’s first feminists, Nabawiyya Musa was a pioneer of education for girls, women’s rights and women’s journalism. She understood the education and empowerment of women and girls to be an important part of feminist and nationalist aims.

Nahawiyya was born into a middle class family in a village near Zagazig in Lower Egypt. She was raised by a single mother on a military pension, her father having died in Sudan during the Mahdist War before she was born. The family moved to Cairo to allow her brother to attend school.

With little education available for girls at the time – except for girls of the upper class who would learn religion and how to read (but not write), Nabawiyya set about educating herself with the help of her brother. She learned to read Arabic and memorised the Qur’an. As a girl, she was criticised by a male neighbour who had attended Al Azhar University for her effrontery in attempting to interpret the sacred text, but she defended herself robustly. She told him if he explained a passage of the Qur’an correctly, she would write a poem praising him; when he failed to do so, she wrote a critical poem about him instead.

She gained admission to the Saniyya School, which was the first teacher training college for women in Egypt. Her family opposed her attendance but she defied them. She told her mother that if she was not granted permission to attend, she would enrol as a boarder and leave home. When her brother threatened to disown her she told him she didn’t care if he did. At 13 years of age, she sold her gold bracelets for money to pay for her education.

By 1907, she had become the first girl to sit and pass the secondary school exam, even though Egypt had no secondary schools for girls in that period. No other girl would pass the exam until after Egypt had claimed its independence from Britain. She became one of the first Egyptian women to teach in the state school system. As a woman with an equal level of education to her male peers, she was the first female teacher to be able to command the same salary as a man.

This was the start of a foundational career in women’s education, in which she delivered lectures across Egypt, arguing for the importance of women’s education. She progressed from being a teacher in a state school for girls, to becoming headteacher. She was headteacher of a the Fayyum girls’ school in 1909 (in which year she quietly abandoned the niqab); in 1910, she headed a teacher training school in Mansura, and by 1915, she was put in charge of the Wardian Women Teachers Training School in Alexandria.

In 1920, she published her book Woman and Work, a powerful and cogent argument for women’s inclusion in education and employment and two years later founded the Association for the Progress of Women in order to work towards these goals.

She was a founding member of the Egyptian Feminist Union along with Huda Sha’arawi. She attended the International Suffrage Alliance Conference in Rome in 1923, being part of the first Egyptian delegation to this event.  Here, she delivered a speech calling for educational rights for women. In 1924, she served as the first female Egyptian inspector for the Ministry of Education. Two years into her term, she was fired from this position due to her criticism of the Ministry’s curriculum for girls’ education.

She founded a journal called Majallat Al-Fattah (The Girl’s Magazine) which ran from 1937-1943. She used this publication to share her autobiography over the period 1938-1942. Called Dhikiriyyati (Memoirs) it covered her life and work in detail over 91 instalments. She later collected these articles into a book called Ta’rikhi bi-qalami (My History by my Pen) becoming one of the first Muslim women to publish an autobiography. The book was published through her own publishing house in Alexandria.  It has been described as a ‘major document in the history of Egyptian feminism’ by Margot Badran, a scholar of feminism and Islam.

She also worked at the newspapers Al-Balagh al-Usbri and Al-Mara aw al-Amal as editor of the women’s pages. She established her own private schools for girls in Cairo and Alexandra. She never married, devoting all her energies to the cause of advancing women and girls’ rights. ‘I preferred to live as master of men, not their servant,’ she said, expressing a vehement repulsion to marriage in an era when it was considered to be the only acceptable role for women.

Her career ended when she was imprisoned by the Egyptian government for criticising Egypt’s support of British policies in the war. She died after eight years of retirement, leaving the schools that she had founded to the state.

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