Nazli Qabil is an Egyptian woman pioneer of nursing, and the recipient of the Florence Nightingale Award from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. She served as the Chief Nurse of al-Marg district in Cairo. Nazli concluded her primary education, ranking at the twelfth place nationally, before attending al-Saniya Secondary School, then the Nursing School at Cairo University’s al-Qasr al-Eyni. In 1948, she earned a higher diploma in obstetric and gynecological nursing. In the interview, she shared her educational and career journey.
Nazli was born in al-Mounira district in Cairo, and grew up the youngest sibling. Her father died four months after her birth, and she was raised by her uneducated single mother. Nazli explained that neither her mother nor her siblings received any education, adding, “my mother had extraordinary ideas. If she had been educated, she would have changed the world.” Nazli’s mother was keen on her education, and was eager for her to become educated like her cousin Nageya Nada, who attended the Nursing School, then traveled with her colleagues Nabaweya Mostafa and Zainab Sharif on the first nursing mission to England. Nazli’s mother saw Nageya as the role model.
Since her uncle worked with the monarchy, Nazli received primary education at Mohamed Ali Royal School for Girls, which was a private royal school in al-Mounira, independent from the Ministry of Education. Nazli recounted that her teachers were the chosen elite, “the crème de la crème.” In addition to the academic education, the school paid attention to hygiene, discipline, and other aspects. Nazli also recalled that, at school, students chanted in praise of the king at every morning queue, and welcomed the royal princesses, including Princess Fawzia and Princess Fayqa, to their end-of-year gala. Nazli’s schoolmates were Samia and Ikhlas Sadeq, as well as Anisa, Ratiba, and Amina al-Hefni.
At school, Nazli enjoyed studying history, geography, and Arabic, but did not like mathematics. She spent her time reading, particularly the novels by Mustafa Lutfi al-Manfaluti and Taha Hussein. As a result of her academic progress, Nazli received a free tuition to study at al-Saniya Secondary School for five years, and earn her high-school diploma. Her mother wanted her to be a doctor, but she wanted to become a nurse, and she described the conflict between them as “such a long struggle. I wanted to work as a nurse in the rural countryside, and my mother wanted me to study medicine and become a doctor. In my summer vacations, I used to teach the peasants’ children the songs and dances we learned at school. My dream was to work in the countryside.”
Upon her insistence, Nazli attended the Nursing School at Cairo University’s al-Qasr al-Eyni for five years, including a training year. Her class consisted of 60 students, and they were not allowed to leave the school, or visit their families for the first six weeks, then were able to leave on the weekends. Nazli was a top student, and so was allowed to take part in surgical operations during the final training year. However, Nazli’s mother was worried about her, and requested from the lead nurse that her daughter be excluded from the operations. Nazli was transferred to Abu al-Reesh Children’s Hospital, where she was in charge of the pulmonology department. She talked about this period of her life, saying, “I spent a year there working with the children who suffered from tuberculosis. It was incurable at the time, and the children could be hospitalized for up to three or four years, seven of them in each room. The poor kids had to eat eggs only on a daily basis. So, I went to the kitchen and asked the team to use the eggs in cakes or omelets for a change. During the Feast, I collected money from the doctors to buy balloons for the kids, and each doctor paid five piasters. I decorated the hospital rooms, and asked the parents to change the children out of their hospital garments, and dress them in regular everyday outfits. There was no television then, so I would get the radio from the nursing staff room upstairs for the kids to listen to children’s podcasts, such as Baba Sadeq and stuff like that.”
Nazli specialized in obstetrics and gynecology, and once again was the top of her class. She earned a higher diploma in obstetric and gynecological nursing, then another in pediatric nursing. During that time, she got engaged, and soon after married her husband who worked in medicine, and specialized in pediatrics. Nazli stated that she had the complete freedom to choose her life partner, and that she did not experience any conflict between her accomplishments at work, and caring for her husband and children because she was determined to fulfill both duties.
Nazli was assigned to work at the Peasants Service, a social center in al-Marg, affiliated with the Ministry of Social Affairs. Although many nurses wanted to work there, Nazli was selected owing to her academic excellence and distinction among her class graduates. She worked at al-Marg social service center for 19 years, until the early 1960s when it became affiliated with the Ministry of Health. She relished the work there, and had no desire to quit or transfer. At the center, she built a nursery from tree trunks and palm branches, and covered its expenses on her own. Nazli recounted, “in the 1950s, I created a system so that every mother and child would have a file at the center. For every pregnant woman, there was a pregnancy form. After she gave birth, the form transferred to the pediatric clinic. Mothers would bring the babies to the center to be weighed twice a week, and to check up on their breastfeeding and nutrition. When babies turned three years of age, they were enrolled into the nursery at the center for another three years. At the age of six, the children entered school with the same form.”
By the 1960s, the Director of the Medical Department at the Ministry of Social Affairs requested that Nazli serve as the Head of Nursing of the Heliopolis district, but she did not want to leave al-Marg, and the people held on to her. At the end, she decided to cover the workload at both districts. She established a committee for the nursery’s superintendents, and launched a campaign for family planning and birth control. Besides, she provided lectures on health awareness, and pregnancy diet and nutrition. She was elected as the Head of al-Marg’s Committee of Ten, at the Socialist Union. Through her post, she issued voter registration cards for the women in al-Marg district. Afterwards, Nazli decided to travel to Japan to attend a training on community nursing, and after her return was elected as a nursing expert for the social service project in the rural countryside. In addition, she taught at the Nursing Schools in Egypt, as she put it, “I really loved teaching first year students because I wanted to teach them to treasure the field of nursing.” In 1983, she received a nomination letter to become a member of the Supreme Committee of the Red Crescent, under the presidency of Suzan Mubarak, the former first lady, who years later asked Nazli to take over seven homeless camps in Giza, following the 1992 earthquake. Nazli also became a member of the team responsible for coordinating the housing of earthquake survivors.
Nazli ran literacy classes, and established a women’s club. She also delivered intensive sessions on first aid and health education targeting the women she selected as leaders of the residential units. With funding from the UNICEF, these sessions expanded into a project offering courses on health awareness for the pregnant and senior citizens, and for caregivers working in childcare and eldercare. 240 women graduated from this project as healthcare community leaders. The scope of the project broadened even further, incorporating clubs for children, young adults, and the elderly, as well as sewing activities, Khayamiya handicraft workshop, and an initiative for child protection. After a while, the project included a health complex for all medical specializations and diseases. Nazli also served as a Board Member and Treasurer of the Red Crescent.
Upon her retirement in 1984, Nazli was elected by acclamation as the President of the Nurses Syndicate, succeeding her sister Aida Qabil. After Aida’s passing, Guzel Kamel assumed responsibility of the Syndicate, then endorsed Nazli for presidency. In the same year, Nazli was awarded the Medal of Sciences and Arts by former President Hosni Mubarak. In addition, she became a member of several organizations, including the New Woman, and the Integrated Care Society, besides serving as the Nursing Director of the Heliopolis Service Development Association. Nazli received the Florence Nightingale Award from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Switzerland, and the Order of Distinction from the Union of International Associations.
Nazli Qabil treasured her nursing career, and devoted her life to it. She was always proud of her job, and inspired her students and colleagues to do the same. She concluded the interview saying, “I used to attend conferences with physicians. When someone would call me a ‘doctor,’ I would always tell them that I was not a doctor; ‘I am a nurse.’ I have always been proud of the word ‘nurse,’ because nursing is the second oldest humane job, after motherhood. A mother is but a nurse. I have always told the girls that nobody would better the way society viewed nursing but the nurses themselves, through their attitude, their personality, their knowledge, and their good manners with the patients. That is the truth.”