This post is also available in: Arabic
The question usually remains unanswered. Very few people come up with a name which would be recognized by the majority. Often it comes from a personal experience – of a parent or teacher for example – that is deeply felt but has no wider resonance.
When I put the question to women the result is even greater puzzlement. Maybe because it is so puzzling for women to define what their own role in society is, let alone find a role model. The role traditionally ascribed, as the most basic definition, is that of wife and mother. But that comes nowhere near describing the full complexity of a modern, educated woman in Egypt and the many identities she combines in the course of her life.
When I ask my question: who inspires you?
I am secretly hoping that someone will name an artist of some kind. Not a political leader or a war hero. Not a football star or a business tycoon. Only artists can truly inspire a nation – through poetry, art, music, dance, film. And of all the artists who have helped inspire and uplift Egypt, there is no doubt in my mind that the greatest has been Umm Kalthoum.
Could it be that the best of Egypt is represented by a woman? A woman who was nationally adored and revered for her expression of the depths of the human soul?
This idea of mine is deeply unfashionable with modern young Egyptians, who are mildly irritated to be reminded of a figure belonging to a long lost past. No modern young Egyptian woman wants to take Umm Kalthoum as a role model. But the point I am making is: measure the distance between her time and ours.
Who now expresses the depths of the human soul?
Who now gives a woman the chance to sing of such things in public and to cause the entire country, on the first Thursday of every month, to gather spellbound around the radio set in a national ritual of homage to her voice? Where did Egypt, in its national life, cease to treasure and value women, and the precious gifts they bring?
Follow @FCOHumanRights on Twitter #IWD #womensday
Map showing UK government action to empower women across the globe.