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Atiya Al-Qouny

Atiya Al-Qouny

Social work activist

Atiya Al-Qouny is an Egyptian woman pioneer of social work, who was awarded Egypt’s Order of the Virtues. In the interview, Atiya shared her volunteer experiences and her contributions to charity and developmental activities, after her graduation from the College for Girls. Atiya was a member of several civil organizations, including Huda Shaarawi’s Organization, al-Wafaa w al-Amal Charity, and the Association for Health Improvement. She formed the Diplomatic Spouses Association, and accompanied her husband, Ambassador Mohamed Awad al-Qouny, during the inauguration of the first Egyptian Embassy in Russia (formerly the Soviet Union).

Atiya grew up with her sister and two brothers. Her father was a man of property, and her mother volunteered at the New Woman Organization, after studying at the Franciscan School in Egypt. Atiya’s mother also contributed to the national efforts, which was reinforced by her acquaintance with Huda Shaarawi and Safiya Zaghloul. Atiya attended Masr al-Gadida Primary School, which she described saying, “such a wonderful school, very refined. It was well regulated, and the teachers were exceptional. I received my kindergarten and primary education there, then moved to the high school.” The principal at that time was Ms. Iqbal al-Arabi. Atiya attended a secondary school in Giza, but found it difficult to study mathematics. As a result, she asked her father to transfer her to the College for Girls, where she continued her education, and earned her certificate in the third year, then the specialization diploma the following year. For the fifth year, Atiya took her classes at the American University before graduating school. Among her schoolmates, she recalled Qadreya al-Hakim, Aziza Maraey, and Nafisa Labib.

Atiya graduated school in the 1930s, and did not get the chance to pursue university studies because her father rejected the idea completely. He was highly conservative, and extremely protective of his daughters. He objected to women’s work, and to coeducation that allowed the interaction between boys and girls. Nevertheless, he was keen on home schooling her on culture, arts, languages, and literature. Atiya joined a number of civil organizations, among which was the Association for Health Improvement, founded by Laila Doss. The membership cost 25 piasters at the time. The Association offered accommodation to children whose parents were suffering from contagious respiratory diseases. The children were housed in a boarding school in efforts to prevent the spread of infection. Atiya took part in the Association’s activities, particularly the annual fundraising charity bazaars.

Atiya got married at the age of 19 to Ambassador Mohamed Awad al-Qouny, who served as Egypt’s Consul in India. She left Egypt with her husband in 1941, and recounted this stage of her life, saying “I was a bit scared, no doubt. Besides all else, it was wartime. We had to travel for 16 days in the sea on a ship called cargo something, Dutch Cargo, traveling all the way from the Red Sea to the Pacific Ocean, just to get from Suez to Mumbai. This was an adventure for me. Add to that how little I knew my husband before we traveled. I used to feel as if my parents simply let go of me, as if they abandoned me so easily. I wondered how they could just let me leave with him right away like that.”

During that time, she accompanied her husband to Kabul to welcome its new ambassador, and stayed for five months before returning to India. Atiya came back to Egypt, and had her son and daughter, before traveling once again with her husband, but this time to Moscow. They were the first Egyptian nationals to formally represent Egypt in the Soviet Union, where her husband inaugurated the first Egyptian Embassy. Atiya recounted, “as I told you, it was wartime. This had an impact on every young man and woman. It made us realize we were not traveling there for a tour, or to see the world. We had a national duty to fulfill. We were there to work.” Yet, she also enjoyed her stay in Moscow, especially because of the diverse arts performed there, adding, “the theatrical performances, and the Bolshoi, all of these things were sources of education and culture. It was such a joy.” Atiya learned the Russian language, and mastered it. She welcomed President Abd al-Nasser to Moscow during his first formal visit to the Soviet Union, and he awarded Atiya the Order of the Virtues.

Atiya’s social life in Moscow was limited to social house visits because there were no embassies there at that time. When she returned to Egypt, her husband had to stay in Moscow to resume his post. Throughout her marriage, Atiya traveled with her husband to many countries around the world, including the USA, the UK, and others. She also accompanied her husband for his post in the United Nations, during which he represented Egypt for 30 years, until the year 1970. Atiya recalled the difficulties of being the wife of an ambassador, explaining that diplomatic work was hard most of the time, and did not allow her any room to rest or take vacations, adding, “I lived my life as an ambassador’s wife. I was not having fun. I did not have time to go out, and enjoy myself. Not at all. Everything was about the duties I had.”

By the year 1970, Atiya settled down in Egypt, and resumed her volunteer and social work, joining Huda Shaarawi’s Organization, now known as the New Woman Organization, which encompassed a nursery, a school, and a shelter for children. Atiya noted that the Organization expanded its range of activities, and established factories to generate funds, instead of the Organization’s exclusive reliance on donations. Atiya served as a board member of al-Wafaa w al-Amal Charity organization, which encompassed a public school, and another school affiliated with the Organization, in addition to a library, a rehabilitation department for girls, and the world’s only blind women’s orchestra. Atiya also served as a member of the external public relations committee responsible for raising donations.

In the 1980s, Atiya formed the Diplomatic Spouses Association, and delivered training lectures to prepare the wives of the Egyptian diplomats for their different duties. Through the Association, she provided guidance and help for the wives during their travels abroad. Atiya accredited her professional experience, as well as most of what she learned in life, first, to her husband, then to her interaction with the ambassadors of the different countries, with their diverse nationalities and cultures. For Atiya al-Qouny, being a diplomat’s wife was a job in itself because she had to uphold the responsibility for all the social proceedings of the diplomatic representation.

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