Sacrifice and struggle
Zahira Abdin can lay claim with some justification to the recentiy - bestowed accolade of 'Mother of Egyptian doctors'. One of the very earliest women to study children's medicine and certainly the first to bring the plight of children with diseases to public attention, she has worked tirelessly to set up and develop the childcare institutions and the schools that constitute her major contribution to Egyptian society, Zahira herself believes proudly that her most important offering has been as an example and role - model - something all good mothers, she believes, should be
Zahira Abdin has lived her life with an austere sense of purpose. A profoundly religious woman, she has carried out her life's work as a devotion lo God and firmly under His shadow.
Her life's work has principally been paediatrics. In this field, her achievements are numerous and very visible: The Centre for Rheumatic Heart Disease in Children near the Pyramids, the Child Health Institute in Dokki and, abroad, the Dubai Medical College.
But she has been more than just a doctor. She has established a chain of schools in Egypt, she has exchanged ideas with institutions all over the world and, above all in her eyes, she has set an example both to children and to her contemporaries. Almost all of her work has been charitable, and her private life is remarkable only for its extreme modesty and piety.
Zahira was born into a wealthy family, the youngest of five children (two of whom died while still children), in 1917. Her father, a French-educated lawyer who became a member of the Senate (Egypt's then upper house of government), was at once a religious and liberal man.
"He rather doted on me as I was the smallest of the family. And after my mother died — she died when I was three years old — he pampered me a great deal. It is a gift of God that I remained very straightforward."
The death of her mother, she believes, affected her deeply. "I have always been calm. I was never naughty as a child. I can still remember her," She was, in short, a serious girl for whom study held more attraction than playing. She recalls preferring to listen to religious anecdotes and moral stories than the more usual children's fairy- tales. Religion to her was about love and compassion.
Zahira received a full education at a time when this was rare for women. She came top of her year in the baccalaureat exams (the equivalent of the Thanawiya Amma exams today- or the GCE) in 1936 — the same year that Gamal Abdel-Nasser sat them.
She continued her education at the Cairo Medical College, where she began her specialisation in children's medicine. She was one of its first women students and again, when she graduated in 1942, she was near the top of her year.
She continued studying for a Masters, and was allowed to work at the hospital of the Cairo Medical College. In 1948 she was elected a member of the Royal College of Physicians in London, and broke new ground in Egypt by becoming the first woman ever on the staff of the Cairo Medical College.
Zahira was breaking new ground in other fields as well. As a young woman, she grew up in a period of great liberation in Egypt. In the fifties, it was a rare thing indeed to see modem Cairene women wearing the hijab. What most see as the liberation of women, from the public self-unveiling of Hoda Shaarawi onwards, had made the hijab both unfashionable and undesirable for most women. Zahira defied this trend. (though she did so by the time she was turning forty following a hajj trip!)
"I have always believed that it is the duty of all girls to wear the hijab, firstly to obey God and secondly as a conspicuous outward sign of piety. I believe this to be especially true these days, when it is possible to see girls walking half-naked in the streets or on television." ( Yet she believed that this was a girl’s personal choice, not to be imposed on her! And this was reflected in giving her daughters their choice on the matter.)
This vehement belief in modesty and obedience to God has marked Zahira from her earliest days. She recalls a luxurious childhood, during which her every whim was cared for and life was easy. But something within her nature has always drawn her away from worldly pleasure and led to question her position in society. She has never been able to accept that so many of her countrymen are poor when she is not.
She translated these sentiments into action fairly shortly after she established her private clinic in 1951 in downtown Cairo.
"I found taking money from people for what I had done, whether they were poor or not, very difficult, because I felt I was adding an inconvenience to the patient beside his disease."
Thus, when she started her charitable services to the community, and when these began lo increase, she found she was ready to put an end to her private work.
Zahira pioneered the idea of community medicine in Egypt. "Someone gains knowledge for the benefit of the community and takes it there, rather than to a hospital or a specialized clinic."
She has been recognized internationally for her work in this sphere. In Britain and Europe she has received honorary degrees and won coveted prizes, such as Germany's Norgall prize for women and social services, and for several months she visited and was consulted by socio-medical institutes all over the US.
She had other aspirations as well. For some years, she had harboured a dream of establishing a hospital for children at Cairo University. It would be a hospital where social and preventative pediatrics, rather than simple treatment, would be the norm. This, it must be remembered, was at a time when child diseases were rife in much of Egypt and when the notion of social and preventive care was virtually unheard of.
Eventually, in 1956, encouraged by her brother-in-law (then first under-secretary at the Ministry of Social Affairs), she established the Centre for Rheumatic Heart Disease in Children.
"This disease was very prevalent in children when I set up the association. I used to visit schools in urban and rural areas, to look for children in the early Stages of this disease. A huge number passed through the association; and the work has paid off. The danger of serious cases in Egypt has been reduced from 48 per cent to just three per cent."
Zahira oversaw the setting up and running of the Association - and the numerous branches it spawned - like a hawk. There was almost no detail she left to chance or to others. She made sure that everything was constructed and later managed lo her own specifications of thoroughness and care.
"I now almost don't supervise it," she wryly notes. She doesn't believe in rushing things; and she doesn't believe in concentrating on more than one project at a time; "otherwise you waste time." This and her meticulousness have been guiding principles of hers in the many schemes upon which she has embarked during her life.
As in most other topics, Zahira has strong views about childcare.
"Dealing with children taught me how to love them. When you are treating children medically, they have to feel that you are willing to help and serve them. But it's no good just being sympathetic; you have to be firm as well. If you are just sympathetic the child will be hard to treat because he won't know what you're about."
Zahira always smiles when she first sees a child she is about to treat, It helps the child feel the doctor is not an enemy, she says. An obvious
ploy, one might have thought; but Zahira is amazed by the number of doctors who don't use it ….
Another trick is letting the child use and feel the medical instruments. She always, for instance, gives her stethoscope to the children patients so they can hear their own hearts beating.
Given her love for medicine, it is perhaps surprising to note how much she has had to overcome in order to accommodate some of the more complicated aspects of being a doctor.
"Although I found it hard at the beginning to dissect the human body, because it was interfering with what God had made, anatomy has always been a sign to me of the glorious creation of God the maker of man and the universe."
What she saw as an increasing lack of genuine care among doctors ("like most people these days, they seem to be seeking the shortest way lo make money, irrespective of the legality; prescribing drugs far too easily without really considering patients' needs"), led her to establish the Child's Health Institute in Dokki in the late seventies.
The institute aims to provide care for children with any ailment. Ten storeys high, it has facilities for looking after children suffering from malnutrition and disease, and it has also extended its services to provide for widows, orphans, pregnant mothers and premature babies. And the whole ethos of the foundation is one of care and encouragement. The institute, says Zahira, grew out of her sorrow for children who went into hospitals where no one cared and where doctors extorted high fees from their patients.
Perhaps, in view of her emphasis on the notion that health of mind completes full health, it was inevitable that Zahira would branch out from medical care into education. Her 'Islamic Language Schools' were established under her meticulous supervision to "combine modern science with Islamic behaviour", as she puts it. Children - …. - learn all that advances in technology and twentieth-century progress have brought, but in a moral, almost religious atmosphere.
"The schools try to instill a deep faith in the children, as well as a strong sense of morality. Morality is something that has become rare in this generation."
The schools today are popular. Some parents send their children to them because the fees are moderate; but the majority, she believes, do so because the education the schools provide is exactly what they want for their children.
She has sometimes been accused of parsimony with regard to what she pays the teachers at her schools - an unlikely charge to level at one so charitable. But it is true that her teachers don't receive high wages; it is part of her philosophy. Teaching, she believes, should be considered a mission and a struggle: "People should do it for the love of working in an Islamic school and for the love of children, not for money."
Teaching is also one of the few careers that she feels women are particularly suited to. She believes women teachers - like women doctors - can communicate better with children than men.
A regret of hers that she feels quite strongly is that she was too busy to bring up her son and three daughters (two of whom are now doctors) in the way that she feels would have been ideal. "A mother should spend a long time with her children as they grow up, quality time, particularly during their adolescence. A mother must be seen to listen, she's not just an adviser or someone giving instructions."
Does that mean she is against women working or having careers?
"I think only special, self-denying women can have both a career and children. I believe the primary role for a woman is to take care of her husband and her children.
"As a result, a woman must choose a profession that can accommodate this. And as I've said, we can't do without women teachers or doctors. But working women must be strugglers, succeeding at home and in their profession. There is an element of sacrifice."
Zahira's fame is not restricted to Egypt, where Mrs Suzanne Mubarak recently accoladed her as the 'mother of Egyptian doctors'. She has made some 20 trips to England, where she was made a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in the Seventies, and received an honorary MD from Edinburgh University in 1980. She has lectured and visited hospitals, exchanging ideas, all over the world. One of her most successful achievements was setting up the Dubai Medical College, which, true to form, she ran for a few years before she was satisfied it could run itself.
Now in her autumn years, she is clearly proud of her achievements, and particularly of the Dubai College.
"My only ambition now, before life ends, would be to establish a similar very successful school in my own country.
"1 am thankful to God for this last phase in my life. I know I have made some mistakes and for those I ask His forgiveness. And whatever happens, I am looking forward to meeting Him with contentment and hope."
Profile by Jamaluddin Musallam
Al Ahram Weekly - (October, 1992)