Thursday, May 3, 2007

Egypt's First Ladies

During its long history, Egypt has had several iconoclast consorts and several ruling God-Queens. If Nefertiti is best remembered from the first category, of the second, Queens Hatchepsut, Cleopatra and Shagaret al-Durr are excellent examples.

The article below talks about some of Egypt’s First Ladies, their origin & background and the role they played in public life. The entire article, written by Samir Raafat can be read at

Consorts of Monogamous Egyptian Heads of State
From Khedive Mohammed Tewfik To President Hosni Mubarak

The last satin-and-silk harem belonged to Khedive (Viceroy) Ismail Pasha who ruled Egypt from 1863 to 1879. Heretofore, the Walda Pasha (ruler's mother) was the most powerful woman in the realm often acting as political mentor for her potentate-son. Starting with Ismail's first-born son, Mohammed Tewfik Pasha, monogamy became the rule rather than the exception for Egypt's heads of state. The role of First Lady was thus introduced in a Middle East increasingly influenced by Western culture.

This is about 12 women who in varying degrees influenced Egypt's destiny.

Khedive Tewfik (r. 1879-92) Princess Amina Ilhami
Khedive Abbas Himi (r. 1892-1914 ) Ikbal Hanim + May von Torok
Sultan Hussein Kamel (r. 1914-17) Princess Ayn al Hayat Ibrahim + Melek Tourhan
King Fouad (r. 1917-36) Princess Shuvekar Ibrahim + Nazli Rehim Sabry
King Farouk (r. 1936-52) Safinaz "Farida" Zulfikar + Nariman Sadek
Prince-Regent Abdel Hilmi (1952-53) Neslishah Osmanoglou
President Naguib (r. 1953-54) Aicha Mohammed Labib
President Nasser (r. 1954-1970) Tahia Kazem-Boghdadi
President Sadat (r. 1970 -1981) Jehan Safwat Raouf
President Mubarak (r. 1981 - ) Suzanne Saleh Sabet


From Khediva Amina Ilhami to Sultan Melek, Egypt's consorts were educated at home, their worldly knowledge limited to what they learned from their benign nannies and stalwart European governess'. The overall curriculum was limited to languages (French, English, German, Turkish and Arabic), basic history and rudimentary arithmetic. There was also piano, painting and sewing.

Not members of the Mohammed Ali clan, Queens Nazli, Farida and Nariman attended elementary and primary schools. Nazli Abdel Rehim Sabry first went to the Mere de Dieu School in Cairo and later to the Dame de Sion in Alexandria. Farida, whose father was a High Court judge in that coastal city, went to the Dame de Sion. French nuns supervised both these boarding schools.

It was different with First Ladies Jehan al-Sadat and Suzanne Mubarak. The former grew up on the Island of Roda attending the nearby Church Missionary Society School run by an English headmistress.

And since Suzanne's family lived at No. 15 Abdel Moneim (Garnata) Street in Heliopolis, it was normal that she enroll at St. Claire's. This was a strict girls-only Heliopolis prep school operated by Mother Mary Cecilia and a band of Franciscan sisters, where neglecting to wear straw hat and pom-poms was virtually a punishable offense.

All of the above consorts were teenage brides married off between the ages of 15-18 the two exceptions being Countess May and Queen Nazli.

Except for Jehan al-Sadat and Countess May, all of the above marriages were arranged with the alleged consent of the teenage brides.


Aside from attending ladies-only state functions Khedivas Amina Ilhami and Ikbal Hanim had no official public role. On the other hand their travels within Egypt by private train were increasingly reported in the dailies as were their departures to and from Egypt by private yacht.
The third sole-consort, Countess May, appeared in public functions disguised as a man and often played hostess to the Khedive's guests. She also visited Alexandria's hospitals during WW1 bringing solace to wounded soldiers.

Sultana Melek too attended performances at the opera albeit seated in a loge separated from the rest of the audience by a musharabeya.

Confined to the palace through most of King Fouad's reign, Queen Nazli was nonetheless allowed to attend opera performances, flower shows and other ladies-only cultural events. She also accompanied the King during part of his four-month tour of Europe in 1927 and was much feted in France in view of her French origins.

Farida Zulfikar went public in the sense that she accepted the honorary chair of the Red Crescent Society as well as several noted charities and educational organizations where she appeared at fundraisers and commemorations. She was also honorary president of the Feminist Union and the New Woman Alliance, two organizations aimed at improving the status of women in Egypt.

King Farouk's second consort was similarly active despite the fact she was pregnant for the short time she was queen.

In view of the ambiguous situation as to who was in control of Egypt's destiny, the few official appearances by Princess Neslishah, in her capacity as consort of co-Prince-Regent Abdel Moneim, were strictly related to charity work. Like her immediate predecessors she was seen at sporting events including polo matches, the races and the international tennis tournament final. The Regency lasted ten months in all.

There are no records on hand evidencing public appearances of the first republican First Lady, Aziza M. Labib, the invisible wife of General Mohammed Naguib.

Tahia Kazem (Nasser’s wife), was seen now and then, always in the shadows of her larger than life husband. Her rare, self-conscious cameo appearances were either as the mother of five children or as the dutiful wife, walking five steps behind al rais. The few times she appeared at official functions she did so as the fumbling hostess to wives of foreign dignitaries.
Deciding to "reign" as First Lady, Jehan Raouf quickly broke off with the dutiful stay-at-home persona of her predecessor. She retained a full time press secretary, accepted numerous public engagements and gave willing interviews to the local and foreign media.

Aside from championing her husband's political views, Jehan al-Sadat took a pro-active stance regarding family planning and the emancipation of women in Egypt. With the arrival of satellite television her biggest statement yet for women empowerment came during a short transit in Saudi Arabia. President Sadat and his consort descended from the presidential plane and proceeded to shake hands with a dumbfounded House of Saud welcome committee, a first in an ultra-conservative Wahabi kingdom where women are relegated to the dark ages. By that unprecedented act Jehan propelled herself onto center stage as far as Gulf women were concerned.

First Lady Suzanne Mubarak took up where Jehan al-Sadat left off. Going the whole nine yards, Suzanne Mubarak is the first Egyptian First Lady during the republican era to directly address the nation via television.

Whereas Jehan Raouf confined her activities within Egypt, Suzanne Sabet, in addition to local activities, participated in international forums and UN sponsored conferences particularly those dealing with women and children.

Suzanne Sabet has been most influential on issues that concern her deeply such as the causes of terminal disease and cancer detection. There is also that lingering impression that she is the privileged advisor to the president, a task implicitly recognized in postscripts adopted by the April 1923 constitution regarding the role of the then-queen of Egypt.


From the above consorts only the sons of Amina Ilhami and Queen Nazli reigned over Egypt (Abbas Hilmi and King Farouk respectively).

Except for Suzanne Sabet's son Gamal Mubarak, none of the other consorts' male progeny pursued political careers.

Princess Ayn al-Hayat's only son from Sultan Hussein abdicated his rights to the throne preferring instead to become a Sufi mystic.

Queen Nariman's son Ahmed-Fouad dabbed briefly in sinecures before succumbing to an emotional trauma. He now leads a retired life in Switzerland.

Princess Neslishah's only son is an international banker.

Tahia Kazem's three sons reportedly went the route of fat commissions and mega contracts, occasionally bailed out by their father's Libyan disciple.

Jehan Raouf's only son Gamal al-Sadat is a part time businessman of sorts.

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