Egyptian Women Enter the Arena: First Steps into a Male-Dominated World

Female athletes march ahead of their male counterparts at the opening ceremony in Alexandria, Egypt. Norbert Schiller Collection Phot. Sellian

Female athletes march ahead of their male counterparts at the opening ceremony in Alexandria, Egypt. Norbert Schiller Collection Phot. Sellian


In 1919, Hoda Shaarawi, one of Egypt’s most recognized feminists, was at the forefront of a movement that would lead to women’s emancipation. Feminism had been slowing growing since the late nineteenth century, but women activists made their first public appearance when they joined the male-dominated Nationalist movement in Egypt’s fight for independence against British rule.

Photographs from this period show veiled women with raised fists parading in the streets of Cairo with placards condemning the foreign occupation. In 1922, after her husband’s death, Shaarawi challenged the system yet again by removing her veil in public. This defiant act gave birth to a new era where women began to stand up for their rights, including the right to compete in sports.

This collection of photographs features a sporting competition in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, which included swimming and running events for women and men. What makes this contest unique is that it is one of the earliest events where Egyptian women athletes competed in the same venue as their male counterparts. However, many of the women captured in these photos appeared to be of European origin, particularly those participating in the swimming event.

Since the photographs were not dated, I examined several elements to determine their history. These included the photographic paper, the athletes’ and spectators’ outfits and the photographer, Sellian who was active in the 1930s. Based on these considerations, the sporting competition must have taken place between the late 1920s and the early 1930s.

Women swimmers just before the start of their race. Norbert  Schiller Collection Phot. Sellian

Women swimmers just before the start of their race. Norbert Schiller Collection Phot. Sellian

In the 1920s and 1930s men and women wore similar one-piece swimsuits, as shown in these photos. What’s more is that female competitors today have gone back to wearing full body one-piece suits similar to the ones worn by their predecessors a century ago.

An unusual photo where you see smoke from the staring pistol but the female athletes are still on the blocks. Norbert Schiller Collection Phot. Sellian

An unusual photo showing the smoke from the starting pistol while female athletes are still on the blocks. Norbert Schiller Collection Phot. Sellian


Women swimmers posing for a team photo. Norbert Schiller Collection Phot. Elias P. Sarraf

Women swimmers posing for a team photo. Norbert Schiller Collection Phot. Elias P. Sarraf


Egyptian male competitors wearing similar swimsuits  as their female counterparts. Norbert Schiller Phot. Sellian

Egyptian male competitors wearing similar swimsuits as their female counterparts. Norbert Schiller Phot. Sellian


Male swimmers before the start of their race. Both the male and female races are taking place in the Mediterranean Sea. Boats can be seen at anchor in the background. Norbert Schiller Collection Phot. Sellian

Male swimmers before the start of their race. Both the male and female races are taking place in the Mediterranean. Boats can be seen at anchor in the background. Norbert Schiller Collection Phot. Sellian


Male swimmers dive into the water at the start of their race. Norbert Schiller Collection Phot. Sellian

Male swimmers dive into the water at the start of their race. Norbert Schiller Collection Phot. Sellian


Women runners in1920s dresses line up at the starting line. Norbert Schiller Collection Phot. Sellian

Women runners in1920s dresses line up at the starting line. Norbert Schiller Collection Phot. Sellian


Male runners line up before the start of their race. The competitors look both African and Egyptian, whereas the female runners look Levantine and Egyptian. Norbert Schiller Phot. Sellian

Male runners line up before the start of their race. The competitors look both African and Egyptian, whereas the female runners look Levantine and Egyptian. Norbert Schiller Phot. Sellian

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