Watani International commemorates her pioneering journalist Laila al-Hinnawy (1939 – 2015), who passed away on 18 March, by reprinting an interview conducted with her back in July 2012. At the time, Ms Hinnawy’s health had declined and she had to reduce her work load, but every time she stepped into Watani’s offices she was swiftly surrounded by every one who happened to be there, in a demonstration of mutual love and honour
“I will remember with you the good old days of my professional life, as far as my memory goes,” Mama Laila said when I asked her for an interview with Watani. Despite her deteriorating health she insisted on coming to Watani offices in Downtown Cairo for the interview; also, as she said, to see everyone. “I never miss that chance,” she laughed, “even though I no longer regularly come to the office on account of my poor health.”
Laila al-Hinnawy is an ideal example of the mother and the journalist, and she opened her heart and mind in reply to all my questions.
What did you study, and how did your journey with journalism begin?
I studied at the Faculty of Arts at Cairo University. I loved studying languages but I loved journalism more. When I was at school I used to write and I had lots of ideas to write about. So I studied journalism at university and did not stop at the Bachelors degree but went on to earn a Masters degree.
While at university I trained with al-Tahrir which was a revolutionary magazine at that time. It was the 1950s and the revolution had erupted in 1952 and deposed the monarchy in 1953. I wrote many stories and reports, but the one I remember most was about bribes paid to public servants. I titled it “Justice Minister…Will you please comment?”, but the editor thought that was too inflammatory and changed it to: “Justice Minister…Do you approve?”. Then I wrote a story about a very sensitive issue and I was blamed by the editor-in-chief because it brought on a court case against the magazine. I was troubled because of what I’d done but, when the magazine won the case, the editor-in-chief told me he was happy because “it meant that we were successful and it has given us exposure”.
When and how did you start with Watani?
After I left al-Tahrir I joined al-Qahira newspaper upon strong recommendation from one of my university professors, Dr Muhammad Sobeih. A sheikh who was working on the same paper, however, objected to my being there and said how could a Coptic woman work on an Islamic newspaper financed by Saudi Arabia? He treated me very harshly and tried to humiliate me, but Dr Sobeih continued to strongly support me so I stayed on.
Months passed but the sheikh’s treatment did not improve and I became really upset, a fact that was not lost upon Dr Sobeih. He talked to me and advised me to apply to a newspaper named Watani that was preparing to come out soon. Watani was founded by Antoun Sidhom, a prominent Copt, so there was little chance I’d face any harassment. I headed to Watani and was interviewed by the managing editor who after three days replied that I would be appointed to the archiving department in the paper. I objected, pointing to my study in journalism and my experience in that field, and was able to persuade him to employ me as a journalist even though I was yet an undergraduate. I began work in 1958, the same year Watani came out. It was also the year I got my BA in journalism.
What did you first write in Watani?
When I joined the paper I was pregnant with my first child so the managing editor thought I would do for the section in the paper concerned with children. So I started editing Our Children. It included a section that printed children’s ideas and problems. I was the one responsible for replying to the children; I signed myself ‘Mama Laila’. The name stuck and I became ‘Mama Laila’ for everyone in Watani.
But your name has always been linked to the Woman Page in Watani. How did you move there?
Antoun Sidhom, who was always an avant-garde thinker and held women in very high regard, proposed the creation of a woman’s page in Watani. At the time other Egyptian papers allocated no or little space for women; a woman’s page was unheard-of. But Watani created the Woman, later the Woman and Family, page in 1959 and I was assigned page editor.
What issues did the Woman page tackle that you consider especially significant?
It has been so many years that I have handled this task. Antoun Sidhom was always supportive and encouraged me to tackle all issues related to women, no matter how thorny. He always said that women in our community suffered much, and it was our role to highlight this suffering and bring it to light. Otherwise, he said, women’s grievances were taken for granted, as though this were their rightful lot in life.
Mr Sidhom’s attitude was very much to my liking, and I took on my role as editor of Woman’s page very eagerly, to the point that I wrote about issues that were taboo at the time, such as marital infidelity. When the page was launched, Egyptian women were taking their first steps towards being working and career women, and this created much social hostility. This was a topic I seriously tackled, especially given that I was myself a working woman, homemaker and mother and, like countless other women, had to juggle these responsibilities without falling short on any of them. I also wrote about the need for sex education, another taboo topic. The page also tackled other chronic family and social problems such as mothers-in-law who trifled with their sons’ or daughters’ lives and thus became ‘hated’ members of the family. We at Watani were among the first to talk about the need for family counselling as far back as the 1960s; today counselling is a fact of life in Egypt.
Years passed and Nadia Barsoum, whom I greatly love and admire, joined the page in 1987. Today a new generation has also joined and we have a veritable team of young journalists working on women’s issues.
When did you become a columnist?
The initiation came from Safwat Abdel-Halim, the managing director since the 1970s, who prodded us women journalists at Watani to write columns. “Why shouldn’t you?” he always said, “You’re as good as if not even better than the male journalists who write columns.” So I wrote my column under the name ‘Layaly” (plural of or pertaining to Laila). The name was chosen by my daughter, Shahira.
What are your memories of Antoun Sidhom?
Antoun Sidhom was a prominent intellectual; he was serious and dealt fairly with everyone. At the same time he loved everyone equally. He was a successful leader; very strict but loving at the same time. At Watani, the work environment was that of a warm family, which was even more important than our professional life.
We were all very sad, in September 1981 when the paper was closed. This was within the move by President Anwar al-Sadat to crack down on his political opponents among whom he listed the Coptic Church and activists. At the time there was strong opposition to Sadat, especially from the leftist and Islamist movements, because he had signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979. A month after the crackdown, Sadat was assassinated on 6 October 1981 at the hands of the Islamists. The paper reopened by court order in 1984; this was one of the best pieces of news we ever heard.
Youssef Sidhom joined the Watani family in 1988 and became a member of the Journalists Syndicate in 1993. He managed the paper very well after the death of his father and he is one of my favourite people.
I have lots of memories of Watani, especially in its early years. I did some unforgettable interviews; one was with Egypt’s first female cabinet minister Hikmat Abu-Zaid.
What wish have you not fulfilled up to now? And are you satisfied with your writings?
I never wished for more than what I have or to achieve more than I did in the field of journalism. As for my writings, I am very satisfied with them, and I have never written anything I regretted.
Tell us about your family
My husband was a writer and member of the board of directors of the Book Union. He also wrote stories, some of which were turned into films. He died in 1998. My son, Sherif, is a medical doctor and has two sons, one is a doctor and the other a teacher. My daughter, Shahira, studied mass media, also theatre and music. She has acted in a number of films and TV series. She is married and has two daughters who are today the main source of happiness in my life.
Watani honours Mama Laila
On 24 November 2008, Watani celebrated its golden jubilee. The event was attended by the late Pope Shenouda III and Mama Laila was rightfully honoured for her longtime contribution to the paper and was granted the Watani shield. Again in 2014, she was granted the Watani silver medal for the pioneers in the paper.
25 March 2015