Written Nagwa Bakr, Community Exhibition & Women Programmes Officer, Community Engagement and Cultural Development Department, Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities (Egypt, ITP 2019)
March in Egypt is called Women’s Month. It is associated with international and local celebrations for women on International Women’s Day on 8 March and Egyptian Women’s Day on 16 March, which was the first day that Egyptian women went out to participate in the 1919 Revolution. Since that date the feminist movement was launched in Egypt.
Mother’s Day in Egypt is on 21 March. The idea of the Arab Mother’s Day began with a suggestion from the two brothers, Mustafa and Ali Amin, the founders of Akhbar Al-Youm newspaper. Ali Amin received a letter from a mother complaining to him about her children’s harshness and mistreatment of her. They received many messages that encouraged the idea, and most readers agreed with the idea and participated in choosing March 21 as Mother’s Day, which is the first day of the spring season. Egypt celebrated the first “Mother’s Day” on March 21, 1956, and from Egypt the idea spread to the Arab countries.
Within these celebrations, many events are organized, especially since 2017 when the Presidency of the Republic launched “the Year of Women” and developed a strategy for the empowerment of Egyptian women in all fields. In the years prior to 2017, most of the programmes presented in museums dealt with topics that focused on very limited aspects, such as the history of women as queens or cosmetics. Recently, a different trend began in museums by shedding light on many issues related to Egyptian women, especially topical issues (such as the issue of circumcision, harassment, Detect Cancer Early: Breast Cancer Campaign, early marriage, childcare, for the working mother), as well as highlighting the contributions of ordinary women to history in different professions.
In celebration of International Women’s Day on 8 March, I participated with my colleagues in preparing a guided tour to visit Prince Muhammad Ali’s Palace for a group of elderly women from a home for the elderly whose ages ranged from 65 to 80. The museum provided good accessibility through wheelchairs and ramps to facilitate the visit, as well as cultural access. We organised a storytelling programme, which engaged the memories of these women about the history of the region and their previous visit to the Palace. They also shared their views of the development of the status of women in society and the necessity of having programmes for women in museums or reaching them in their places of residence, especially elderly women, where they feel lonely and have many stories that they wish to tell. Also that such programmes help them not to forget their stories. It allows them to integrate with groups and spend quality time.
The Baron Palace in Heliopolis also organized a day to celebrate Mother’s Day on 21 March. The programme included music and singing from Egyptian heritage about the mother as well as a guided tours for mothers. I was fortunate to receive an invitation from the palace administration to participate in the day by giving a lecture under title, House wife between raising children and museum education, through which I presented my experiences in the Manchester Art Gallery and Whitworth Gallery about family programmes in which women participate, and how museums have a major role in educating and engaging with families.
Also, online lectures have been presented through social media by the Training Administration in the museums sector that highlighted pioneers and women in positions in various sciences in Egypt. for the second time I was fortunate to participate in a lecture about Motherhood in Egyptian Folklore which focused on the concept of motherhood in the Egyptian collective consciousness and how women transmit oral heritage through the process of parenting. Likewise, the mother in folk stories, Egyptian proverbs, and customs that mothers still practiced since the goddess of the motherhood (Hathor) in ancient Egypt.
The last event of Women’s Month was a distinguished art exhibition under supervision of my department (Community Engagement and Cultural Development) only for one day on 31 March due to COVID-19 precautions under the title Women and the Pandemic in cooperation with the Al-Azhar Foundation, which is the first religious institution for Muslims in Egypt. For the first time, they participated in an art exhibition with the Ministry of Antiquities, which is considered a great step in Egyptian society, after difficult years of the spread of extremist religious currents that have banned art as something sinful and the work of women.
30 artists, (students, and teachers) from Al-Azhar institutes, participated with us in partnership with artists from the Ministry of Antiquities and freelance photographers. We were honoured by the presence of the Sheikhs of Al-Azhar at the opening of the exhibition. The artistic works expressed the status of women from different societal groups during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially widows and women who head families.
These are examples of some activities that indicate a shift in the concept of the museum’s function in Egyptian society from being for decades an institution intended for tourists, to institutions that participate in community issues and problems, and try to reach all groups. It is with pride that most of the activities offered were by museums or departments run by women. In fact, recent years in Egypt, many women have held high positions in museums and heritage sites and have proven well that they have made a change in the concept of heritage and museums and have been able to express themselves in a realistic way through art exhibitions.