Naglaa Ali wears little makeup and dons a khimar, an Islamic veil that completely covers the hair and falls loosely to the waist. Ali wasn’t well known in Egypt. That is, until she joined her husband Mohamed Morsi for a tour of Cairo’s presidential palace.
Less than a week before Egypt’s first Islamist president officially assumes office, the nation’s attention has turned to his wife. Until recently, Egypt’s soon-to-be first lady was a mystery to those her husband would soon rule. She rarely accompanied Morsi on his nationwide campaign, and she had done virtually no interviews.
As informal exit polls hinted at Morsi’s win over Ahmed Shafiq, a stalwart of the former regime, Egyptians got a first look at Ali after a few photos went viral on social media and Egyptian news websites. The image sparked heated discussions over whether her ultraconservative appearance is suitable to represent Egypt in a diplomatic arena—a stark contrast from her predecessors, including the now-notorious Suzanne Mubarak, a Westernized elitist who reportedly used her husband’s power to amass a personal fortune of as much as $3.3 million.
Born in Cairo in 1962, Ali was 17 when she married Morsi—her first cousin, a common practice in the Arab world. The couple relocated to the United States shortly after they wed, where Morsi completed his doctorate in engineering at the University of Southern California and later worked as a professor at California State University, Northridge. Ali, who trained as a translator, gave birth to two of their five children while living in the U.S. It was there that she was first enthralled with the grassroots work of the Muslim Brotherhood and became an active member of the organization, engaging in charity work, primarily with a focus on education.
In one of the only interviews she has given to date, she reportedly said she prefers to be called “Oum Ahmed” (the Mother of Ahmed) by the Egyptian people—a traditional designation referring to her eldest son. She also said that she is opposed to living in the presidential palace formerly inhabited by the Mubaraks, and would instead prefer to buy a house in Cairo, suitable for entertaining large groups.
Comments on Twitter have ranged from the likes of “Morsi's wife is no Carla Bruni” to “I am so proud of the way Mrs. Morsi looks.” While some are concerned about the social changes that might be associated with the new Islamist leadership, the fact is that religious conservatism is increasingly the norm in the Arab world’s most populous nation, and many young women feel that Ali may be a true representation of Egyptian society. “I expect her to dress the way she sees fit—she has to represent Egypt, the culture, the people, by her actions rather than her clothes,” said Summer Gamal Eldin Nazif, 17, who is a Morsi supporter, though too young to cast a ballot. “For 30 years, we had an aristocratic first lady. The elites think the first lady should represent them.”
Suzanne Mubarak, a graduate of the American University in Cairo, was described last year in a Newsweek profile as “arrogant, deluded, out of touch.” After succeeding Anwar Sadat following his assassination, Hosni Mubarak reportedly sought to limit his wife’s exposure to public life so as not to subject her to the same scrutiny from conservatives faced by her predecessor, Jihan Sadat. That would change though, and she increasingly came under fire for monopolizing the country’s women’s-rights movement and other social activities, while her husband’s administration clamped down on social freedoms. Suzanne was rumored to have spearheaded efforts to see her son Gamal become the next president of Egypt, as many feared. After her husband’s resignation, state-run Al-Ahram newspaper described her as “ambitious to the point of being criminal, and cruel to the point of being disturbed.” She fell out of the public eye after reportedly suffering a heart attack while serving a 15-day detention for corruption allegations last year. Today, she is rarely heard from, even as her husband clings to life while serving a life sentence in prison. To this day, many cultural and educational institutions carry her name.
“Suzanne Mubarak was isolated from the real people of Egypt her entire life and doesn’t understand the issues and the challenges we face in our society,” said Mariam El-Sherif, 21, a student at Al-Azhar University, Egypt’s highest Islamic institution, and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Mrs. Morsi is one of us.”
As Ali prepares to assume her role as first lady, many in Egypt point to a dire need for fearless and genuine advocacy of women’s rights. While women make up half of all university students, they constitute less than 25 percent of the workforce. In politics, women are permitted but not often encouraged to run for office. A handful of women have served as ministers and parliamentarians, and President-Elect Morsi said this week that he would name a female and Christian vice president in an effort to appease both groups. Still, female political representation remains low, having held less than 2 percent of the seats in the recently dissolved Parliament (one of the lowest shares in the world, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union), and only seven of the 100 seats in the constituent assembly, tasked with drafting the new constitution.
“It is getting better, but for sure we need our women to become more active in political and social causes and make their voices heard,” said Azza El Garf, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and one of few female lawmakers in the defunct Parliament.
Women were at the forefront of Egypt’s revolution last year, fighting for jobs, equality, and dignity. They camped out in Tahrir Square for the 18-day protest that toppled Hosni Mubarak, engaged in brutal confrontations with state security, and mobilized medical and social-aid programs during the uprising. Concerns have arisen in recent months over their safety after assaults in Tahrir Square made headlines from this once-safe country. In March, seven of the women taken into police custody during a sit-in in Tahrir Square were subjected to virginity tests, sparking outrage from women’s groups and human-rights organizations around the world. Progress on several other social issues has remained stagnant, particularly on the delicate subject of female genital mutilation, which is still rife in parts of the country despite a 2008 ban.
Still, with Egypt’s election continuing to be heavily contested by many political powers, some are not yet ready to salute the new first lady. “Her husband doesn’t represent all of Egyptians, so why should I think about her?” said Nawal El Saadawi, a prominent author and feminist. “Women’s unity is a much greater problem here. It is a social, economic, religious problem. Very few people, men or women, are willing to pay the price of freedom.”