Marzouk, Zahia (1906–1988)

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Marzouk, Zahia (1906–1988)

One of Egypt's first trained social workers, the first Egyptian woman to study in the United States, and founder of her nation's first family planning association . Born in 1906; died in 1988; had two sisters; studied in London; studied in America at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, 1933–35; married.

Explosive population growth has long been characteristic of Egypt, the population of which is squeezed onto approximately 5% of the country's total land. Between 1922, when the land was granted (theoretical) independence from Great Britain, and 1999, population grew to 62 million from 13.5 million, and some projections have estimated a population of 105 million by the year 2025. In 1999, up to 35% of Egyptian households were believed to be living below the poverty line, and in Upper Egypt, 40% of the children were stunted because of severe malnutrition. For many decades, Zahia Marzouk sounded a cry to reduce the nation's high birth rate through family planning. To do so, she fought entrenched cultural attitudes which resisted a woman's participation in her chosen field of social work, but she succeeded in establishing a number of organizations to aid in the plight of her nation.

Zahia Marzouk was born in 1906 and lost her father when she was only three. Her illiterate mother, a woman of courage and tenacity, somehow found ways to educate all three of her daughters. After they completed their basic education, Marzouk's sisters decided they wanted to get married. Responding with "Not me; I want to study more," Marzouk was already resentful of the restrictions placed on women by Egyptian culture at that time. In 1923—the same year that Huda Shaarawi created a sensation by publicly discarding her veil at the Cairo Railway Station upon her return to Egypt from the International Feminist Conference in Rome—16-year-old Marzouk also refused to continue wearing a veil. Although this action deeply upset her family, she would not back down.

Marzouk's extended family showed little understanding for her intention to prepare herself for a teaching career, arguing that she did not need the money. Though he said little, her paternal uncle provided her with encouragement by clearly not objecting when she spoke out. At this important juncture, his tacit backing was of great psychological importance. When Marzouk, already starting her teaching career, was chosen to further her studies in London, his support continued.

Upon her return to Egypt in 1931, Marzouk received an appointment to a teachers' college where she taught psychology to classes of advanced students. Two years later, in 1933, she became the first Egyptian woman chosen to study in the United States. At the Harvard Graduate School of Education, she focused on medical social work, psychology, and children with problems. Upon completion of her courses, Marzouk did field work in Missouri and the mountains of Kentucky, becoming familiar with the lives of neglected Americans, Native Americans, and the rural poor. Returning home in 1935, she began to realize how little social work was being done in her homeland. In 1935 and 1936, she opened Egypt's first schools of social work in Alexandria and in Cairo, innovations that led in 1938 to the creation of Egypt's Ministry of Social Affairs. During this time, she worked as a psychiatric social worker at the Ministry of Education. She was the only woman there, and her presence created a considerable stir, but Marzouk held her ground and was permitted to stay at her post.

In 1937, she created a small, unofficial organization that was meant to discuss demographic issues. The nation's population explosion could only get worse, and threatened to bar the majority of Egyptians from ever achieving even a moderate level of economic security and well-being. By the end of 1937, Marzouk's energy, charm, and formidable lobbying skills had succeeded in convening a formal conference on population issues. Prestige came from the fact that the conference enjoyed the sponsorship of the Egyptian Medical Association. Muslim conservatives disapproved of her presence at the conference, and when she began her lecture she was pummeled with tomatoes and eggs. Nonetheless, when she had finished reading her paper, the ensuing applause signaled a slight shift in attitude.

During this busy time, Marzouk also founded an institution for disabled children in need of physiotherapy. In addition to seeking professional assistance for this and other projects, she also became a skilled fund raiser. Most important, she was constantly spreading word of the need to reduce Egypt's high birth rate through family planning. By the 1950s, her decades of work had resulted in the creation of several family welfare institutions, including the Happy Childhood Association, the Institute for Training and Research in Family Planning, and the Regional Federation of Social Services. Marzouk was also responsible for founding the Alexandria Family Planning Association, the first association of its kind in Egypt. Even in relatively liberal Alexandria, there was considerable skepticism and even hostility to the idea of family planning and birth control. But with Marzouk at its head, the organization flourished and was able to provide information to thousands of women who wanted to limit the size of their families and space their children's births.

Dressed in Western garb, usually trousers and a bright blouse, Marzouk was a familiar sight in clinics and social work centers for many decades. She was also a skilled administrator, painter, and sculptor. When she died in 1988, Egypt's medical and social welfare community mourned one of the nation's first trained social workers. Her legacy continued, however, with the generations of Egyptian women to whom Zahia Marzouk served as mentor.


"Egypt: Life at the Bottom," in The Economist. Vol. 350, no. 8111. March 20, 1999, Survey Egypt supplement, pp. 10–11.

Huston, Perdita. Motherhood by Choice: Pioneers in Women's Health and Family Planning. NY: Feminist Press, 1992.

"Zahia Marzouk 1906–1988," in People Weekly [London]. Vol. 19, no. 1, 1992, p. 22.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Marzouk, Zahia (1906–1988)

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