Obituary: Amina al-Said

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The Independent Online
Amina al-Said, the first woman magazine editor in the Middle East, was the last of a generation of feminists who, as suffrage campaigners, political dissidents, trade unionists and human rights campaigners, picked up the torch from their 19th-century forebears.

Born in Cairo in 1914 to a middle-class family, Amina moved with her physician father Dr Ahmed al-Said to the county of Asuit, known for its harsh traditions and ill-treatment of women, which proved an eye-opener for her on inequality.

Her childhood witnessed a turning-point in the feminist calendar when women in their thousands, led by legendary feminists like Huda Sharawi, took to the streets during the 1919 revolution. Al-Said witnessed Egyptian feminists taking their crusade out of the usual arenas of intellectual debate and newspaper columns into the streets, schools and workplace, in a far-reaching movement which went beyond Egypt into the rest of the Middle East and many Muslim nations.

At the age of 14, al-Said joined the youth section of the first explicitly feminist organisation, al-Ittihad al-Nisa'ei al-Mauri (the Egyptian Feminist Union) - she later said the term "feminist" ("Nisa'ei") rather than the term `women" ("Mara'a") appealed to her "progressive spirit".

Al-Said was among the first three women to invade the exclusivity of the all-male Faculty of Arts at King Fuad University in 1931. While a student she worked as a part-time sub-editor and researcher on Kawkab el-Shark and the weekly Akher Sa'a, and on graduation in 1935 she was snapped up by the influential Cairo journal Al-Moussawar. Although she was married to a millionaire member of the semi-feudal aristocracy, Professor Abdallah Zein el-Abedine, she insisted on giving him half her monthly salary towards running the home, since their marriage contract was based on equality.

In 1946 al-Said joined her mentor Sharawi when the latter threatened the playboy King Farouk I with a press campaign unless he changed his ways, "which women found offensive". When King Farouk divorced his popular first wife Queen Farida, the two feminists led a procession to congratulate Farida on her "liberation". This unprecedented event, in a country where the majority are Muslim, was not frowned upon and met no serious challenge, since Muslim fundamentalists were kept at bay, not by force of the state, but by the enlightened social trends contributed to by the women's movements.

This was a point al-Said brought up more recently as she scolded younger women for not advancing the cause and for being cowed by the intimidation of Islamic Fundamentalists. "Contemporary [Egyptian] women have no stomach for a fight," she said in an interview three days before her death.

In 1954 al-Said founded Egypt's first magazine for women, Hawaa-Eve, which became the model for respected women's magazines in other Arabic- speaking countries. In 1956, she was elected to the executive committee of the Press Syndicate after supporting Duriyya Shafiq's sit-in and hunger strike as an objection to censorship by Col Nasser.

When Col Nasser later forced the Feminist Union to shrink into a non- political and charitable organisation, al-Said turned her most popular column, "Isalouni" ("Ask me") from an agony-aunt column into an arena of political debate.

In 1962 al-Said used her column in Al-Moussawar to pen a savage attack on Col Nasser's government for allowing developers to tear down Huda Sharawi's house to build a luxury hotel. The attack raised some eyebrows and earned her the title "She who knew no fear" among Egyptian journalists, since many writers and journalists were thrown into desert camps and jails for daring to criticise Nasser's dictatorship. But a year later the dictator shook her hand in respect when he handed her the First State Recognition Award - his successor President Anwar al- Sadat awarded her the First Order of the Republic in 1975 and the Universal Star in 1979, and President Hosni Mubarak the National Arts Award in 1982.

Unlike her predecessors al-Said never turned into a mouthpiece for the regime. When she became the editor of Al-Moussawar in 1973, and became the chairperson of the whole Dar el-Hillel publishing group which produced it in 1976, she became even more vigorous in her defence of women's rights, as the 1970s saw the beginning of the Islamic Fundamentalist tide.

After her "official" retirement in 1985, al-Said continued to write her weekly column until stopped by illness in May. Up until the last few hours of her five-year battle with cancer, she was advising representatives of non-governmental women's organisations on the best strategy for participating in the UN World Conference on Women in Peking.

Amina al-Said, journalist, writer: born Cairo 20 January 1914; Editor, Hawaa 1954-69; Secretary-General, Pan-Arab League Women's Union 1958-69; Vice-President, Egyptian Union of Journalists 1959-70; Editor, Al-Moussawar 1973-76; Chairperson, Dar el-Hillel 1976-85; married Abdallah Zein el- Abedine (two sons, one daughter); died Cairo 13 August 1995.