The female pioneer of women’s education in the Arab world is being celebrated as part of a major global event.
In the 1920s Nour Haider Saeed opened the first school for girls in the Arabian Peninsula and in the process wrote her name into the history books.
International Women’s Day focuses on female rights and achievements, and the entitlement of girls to an education is a key issue for campaigners.
Women have been at the helm of education in Arab countries since the year 859, when Fatima Al-Fihri founded the world’s first university in Morocco.
Although not widely documented, Haider’s accomplishments are just as significant.
Haider was born and raised in Aden, when South Yemen was under British occupation.
Considered a strategic location to provide Britain with a base between the Suez Canal and its occupied territories in Bombay, the southern region of Yemen was ruled by the British from 1839 until 1967. It was the first imperial acquisition of Queen Victoria’s reign.
Prior to Britain’s occupation, little is known about education in Yemen. Many children were schooled in mosques and synagogues where the emphasis was on memorizing religious text.
After Britain established its rule in South Yemen, boys’ schools began to open and in the 1870s Aden saw an expansion in school building that continued until the 1900s.
However, girls received education at home. Some families sent their daughters to unofficial female-run Islamic schools housed in mosques or homes, where the Qur’an and basic Arabic reading and writing was taught.
The first unofficial Islamic school to be established was in 1925 and was run by Haider in her home town of Sheikh Othman – a district in Aden. She operated it with the help of her sister Lula Haider Saeed.
The sisters had been educated by their father, Haider Saeed, who also taught the Qur’an and was a teacher at one of the first boys’ schools to open in Sheikh Othman.
Dr. Asmahan Al-Alas, who wrote on Haider in her published doctorate about the situation of women in British-ruled Aden, told Arab News that Haider was passionate about education, particularly for girls.
With the growing success of Haider’s Islamic school, the British authorities decided to convert it into a primary school for girls in 1934 with Haider as the principal, and she was given financial backing by the government’s education department.
Al-Alas said: “I have done extensive research into this topic while writing my doctorate and Nour Haider was the only female teacher at the time and the woman who opened the first school for girls in the Arabian Peninsula.
“There might have been informal educational centers in other areas of the Arabian Peninsula, but she was the first to teach girls in a way that was officially recognized.”
The British administration in Aden set up Haider’s school as a pilot project to measure the degree to which the Muslim community accepted the education of girls, Al-Alas added. Haider was picked to head the school because she was already a highly respected member of the community.
“She was a local girl, well known in the community and respected by parents, which made it easier for her to encourage families to enroll their daughters in school,” Al-Alas said.
Haider, she said, would visit families in their homes to persuade them to educate their girls.
The success of the school later led the British to open the first government school for girls in 1941, where Haider was also principal and teacher.
The building for the school was donated by French businessman Antonin Besse who had several factories and companies in Aden at the time.
As more families began to send their daughters to the school, Haider introduced a teacher training course for female graduates to encourage them to go into the profession as the demand for teachers grew. Haider also introduced extra-curricular activities such as sports and scouting for young women.
Haider is remembered as a leader in women’s education at a time when the British authorities had not begun opening schools for women.
She was awarded the title of Girls’ Education Leader on June 12, 1947, with a certificate of appreciation issued by Britain’s King George VI for her valuable services as principal of the government’s primary girls’ school.
She was later given the title of Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1958 by Queen Elizabeth II which was announced in supplements to the London Gazette under the title “Sitt Nur Haider Saeed, Headmistress, Sheikh Othman Girls’ Primary School.”