So many firsts
Egypt’s first female ambassador, political activist and rights researcher, Aisha Rateb died on 4 May at the age of 85 following a sudden cardiac arrest at her Giza residence.
Rateb was Minister of Insurance and Social Affairs from 1974 to 1977. She was the first Egyptian woman to be appointed an ambassador for Egypt, serving in Denmark from 1979 to 1981 and in Germany from 1981 to 1984.
Rateb was born in Cairo, on 22 February 1928 into an educated middle-class family. Her grandmother was Austrian. After her school years she began her studies in literature at Cairo University but, only a week into her studies, she switched to the study of law. She graduated in 1949 and went to Paris for further studies before returning to Cairo where she obtained a PhD in law in 1955.
In 1949 she had filed a lawsuit against a higher judicial body, the State Council, which had rejected her application to sit as a judge. The reason given was that she was a woman, according to the then Prime Minister Hussein Serri Pasha, who rejected her appointment because it was against the traditions of Egyptian society.
“To get my rights,” Rateb once wrote, “I joined Huda Shaarawy’s association and other associations that were fighting for women’s rights. I was then only 21. But to no avail.”
Rateb’s lawsuit was an unprecedented move in the history of the Egyptian judiciary. While she lost the case, the head of the State Council at the time, Abdel-Razek al-Sanhouri, admitted in his written opinion that the reasons her application had been rejected were not legal, but “societal” and “political”.
During her post-graduate studies, Rateb was nominated to be a dean at the faculty of law, but that nomination was also rejected.
In 1971, Rateb participated in the Arab Socialist Union’s Central Committee, which had been asked to write the country’s new Constitution. She was the only one among the committee members to express her objection to the extraordinary powers that the Constitution granted to the then president Anwar al-Sadat.
Her legal training came in particularly useful when later, as Minister of Insurance and Social Affairs, she presented the first initiative to reform the status of women in the country’s family laws. Her suggested reforms restricted polygamy and required that divorce only be legal before a judge. It took some five years, however, for the reforms to be passed by a decree issued by President Sadat.
During her tenure as a minister, she worked to benefit the destitute and underprivileged. In 1975, Rateb approved Sadat’s State benefit for those who were without an income and were not included under the umbrella of social insurance. She also passed a law that imposed on governmental apparatuses the compulsory employment of people with special needs to form 5 per cent of their total workforce.
She opposed a government decision to lift subsidies on essential goods and resigned from her cabinet post in the wake of the 1977 bread riots. The measures, which hit limited-income groups the most, ignited massive protests across Egypt.
In 1979, two years after her resignation from the position of Minister of insurance and social affairs, Sadat appointed Rateb as the first Egyptian woman ambassador. She was posted to Denmark in 1979, then to Germany in 1981.
Rateb was socially active to the last and was constantly surrounded by her many friends, for whom she held an annual reception every year. She stayed intellectually sharp and never lost her concern for the public domain.
However, she chose to remain uninvolved in a political climate where cabinet ministers were, she once said, “no more than secretaries toeing the line and being assigned tasks instead of acting like ministers capable of initiating policies.”
Rateb was awarded in 1995 the Appreciation State Prize in social sciences from the Supreme Council of Culture.
She is survived by two sons and four grandchildren.
She once said of her position as an ambassador: “I was the second Arab female ambassador after King Hassan’s sister. I was also not the first Egyptian ambassador to Europe; I was preceded by Hatshepsut, Nefertari and Nefertiti, those Egyptian queens who are well known the world over.”
26 May 2013