There are many women over the past century who have taken to the skies. Names such as Amy Johnson - the first woman to fly solo from London to Australia - and Amelia Earhart - the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic - are perhaps more instantly recognisable to those in the Western Hemisphere. However, Lotfia Elnadi stands as an icon to many Arab women; a reminder of what women are capable of when they are determined to succeed. Elnadi was not only the first Egyptian woman to qualify as a pilot; she was also the first African woman and first Arab woman to earn a pilot's licence as well. Although her name is less recognisable than that of the well-esteemed Earhart, her achievements are no less impressive.
Born in Cairo, on October 29th, 1907, Elnadi's father was a government employee working for the printing office. Her mother was a forward-thinking housewife who would play a key role in her daughter's achievements. She completed her primary education and was expected to marry, becoming a housewife and mother, therefore her father saw no point to secondary education. However, Elnadi's mother encouraged her attendance at the American college with its modern curriculum and language specialism. Whilst at school Elnadi read an article about a flight school which had opened in Cairo. Despite her father's objections, she was determined to attend.
Elnadi knew she would need help to attend the school. Following rejection from a journalist she had contacted for assistance, she went directly to Kamal Elwi - director of EgyptAir. Seeing the potential for publicity, Elwi agreed to help. However, the flight school was not free, so in order to pay for her tuition, Elnadi worked as a secretary and telephone operator for the flying school. Elnadi kept her flight lessons a secret from her father by telling him she was attending a biweekly study group.
And so, alongside 33 men, Elnadi began her flight lessons and on 27th September 1933, following just 67 days of studying, she qualified as the world's first Arab and first African woman pilot. Her father was angry that Elnadi had pursued flight school however, the press she received was favourable so he allowed her to take him on a flight over the pyramids. Around the world, headlines reported Elnadi's achievement.
Elnadi experienced further success on 19th December 1933 when she flew in the international race between Cairo and Alexandria. Her single-engine plane flew at speeds of around 100mph and reached the finish line before any other competitors. Her achievement won her £E200 and the congratulations of King Fuad. The feminist leader, Huda Sha'arawi acknowledged Elnadi as an inspiration for women and led a fundraiser to buy Elnadi her own plane. For five years, Elnadi flew, until an accident damaged her spine and forced her to stop flying. During that time she worked as the secretary general for the Egypt Aviation Club. Elnadi inspired Egyptian women to train as pilots up until the Second world war which didn't see any women train as pilots until after 1945 when Dina-Carole El Sawy became a pilot for EgyptAir.
Elnadi spent many years in Switzerland receiving treatment for the injuries sustained following the accident. In 1989, she was invited to return to Egypt to commemorate the 54th anniversary of civil aviation in Egypt. Whilst there she was awarded the Order of Merit of the Egyptian Organisation of Aerospace Education. A documentary film, Take off from the Sand, was later released in 1996 telling her story. Whilst in her 80s she moved to Toronto Canada to live with her nephew and his family before returning to Cairo where she died in 2002.
Lotfia Elnadi was undoubtedly an inspiration for many female pilots during her life and in the decades since her death. Nevertheless, she has received little recognition in mainstream media and has had limited commemoration of her achievements. She may not have flown the Atlantic but she paved the way for African and Arab women to take to the sky and break away from traditional female roles as housewives and mothers. Elnadi never married, as her father had expected, instead she carved her own path and gave permission for other women to do the same. Her name deserves to be as recognisable as Amy Johnson and Amelia Earhart.