Cynthia Nelson (1933–2006), professor of anthropology at the American University in Cairo and founding director of its Institute for Gender and Women’s Studies, passed away on Valentine’s Day after a long, severe illness. She was in Sacramento with family.
Born in Augusta, Maine, Cynthia made Cairo her home after being hired by AUC in the early 1960s. She was indefatigable in pushing AUC to take issues of women and gender seriously, and the Institute would never have been established without her constant struggle. A brilliant scholar, Cynthia authored an article on the public/private split that is recognized as pathbreaking by feminist theorists and ethnographers of the Middle East alike. Similarly, her biography of Egyptian feminist pioneer Doria Shafik helped excavate the myriad contributions of this historical figure whose legacy had been largely ignored within Egypt. Her connection to Doria was intellectual and personal: she knew Doria’s daughters, and she saw herself — like Doria — as a person caught in a historical transition. “She would have wanted Doria Shafik to be her best friend,” as her fellow anthropologist Sondra Hale puts it. The public and the private came together for Cynthia as they did for Doria — another reason for this scholar’s close identification with her subject whom she never met.
Despite her considerable intellectual achievements, Cynthia eschewed a career in the US academy. As Hale says, “She thought of Egypt as her home, period.” As a professor and department chair, and later a dean and institute director, she mentored generations of students and innumerable visiting scholars at AUC, giving abundantly of her time and affection, while expecting critical rigor and holding everyone to a high standard. AUC sociologist Mona Abaza, for many years a colleague of Cynthia’s, was her student in 1978. She recalls Cynthia taking her class to visit a literacy program for peasants and encouraging them to volunteer. “It was one of the first grassroots efforts of an AUC professor.” Other former students remember her as “strong, sarcastic, humane and assertive,” and “an insurmountable example: firm, punctual, perfectionist, intellectually sophisticated and serious — yet kind and understanding.”
Throughout her life, Cynthia remained committed to critical inquiry, feminism and justice for the Palestinians, among other causes. “She was an exemplary debater, extremely articulate and very passionate about certain subjects,” recalls her former AUC colleague Asef Bayat. “She would defend the rights of the Palestinian people with energy and emotion quite rare among non-Arabs…. To me, Cynthia epitomized a woman of great substance.” Cynthia Nelson’s passing is a loss to all of us who share her commitments to social justice and change in the Middle East.