From desert oasis to Egypt’s parliament: the life of Fathia al-Senussi

Siwa, Egypt, Nov 7 (EFE).- Fathia al-Senussi’s life journey is encapsulated in the 18-hour journey to school she used to have to make from her home in the western Egyptian oasis of Siwa to the nearest town.

The tireless efforts paid off. At 62 years old, she is the first woman belonging to the Berber ethnic minority that lives in the oasis to become an Egyptian member of parliament.

Born to a Berber tribal family, she knows firsthand the hardships that people, especially women, face at the oasis, located over 300 km from the nearest city.

Fathia, who became one of the first female teachers in Siwa, has a long history of fighting for Berber girls’ right to education in a deeply conservative society.

Her life path has not only made her an example for other women to follow, but also earned her a seat in parliament during the recent elections held in late October.

“I retired a year ago, but the people know that I am still willing to work and they told me that they needed me for something big,” Fathia tells Efe as she looks back on her campaign.

When she was a child, she had to endure the arduous 18-hour trip across the desert by truck or donkey to the Mediterranean city of Marsa Matruh, where she completed her secondary and higher education, as Siwa had only primary schools.

She tells Efe that she pushed her parents to allow her to attend teachers’ school before moving on to work as a science teacher between 1978 and 1980. Later, she became one of the coordinators of the Ministry of Education throughout the province of Matruh, on the border with Libya.

“Throughout my career I have encouraged girls to complete their studies. I have been arguing with their fathers, there are mothers who even take their daughters out of school,” she says.

“Our customs are still alive within our village, so it is necessary that development follows a parallel path to the preservation of our traditions,” she adds.

She insists that in the parliament she will fight to bring “more opportunities” to the women of the Siwa oasis.

Apart from its geographic isolation, Egypt’s centralized system of government does not offer much opportunity or representation to peripheral communities.

A highway linking Siwa with Marsa Matruh, built in 1984, cut the trip to school down to five hours – but given the poor state of the road, Fathia says more is needed.

Today, Siwa’s women have access to universities on the north coast of Egypt, which they usually attend only for exams, while the rest of the process is completed remotely.

Fathia says they have “big dreams”, and she doesn’t want living in such an isolated place from the rest of Egypt to be an obstacle to her or any woman’s development and ambitions.

“They all have ambition, but they need someone to encourage them and show them the way,” she says. EFE


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