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A HIDDEN HISTORY:
African Women and the
British Health Service

1930–2000

Zainab Abbas

Medical Administration

Zainab was born in Middlesbrough to an Egyptian family. In the '70s, she worked in medical administration. In her interview, Zainab discusses her involvement in strike action to campaign for better wages and conditions for NHS staff – auxiliary workers in particular. Zainab's mother Rohaya had a significant impact on her story. During unrest in Palestine, where she was working as a nurse, Rohaya and her family moved to Britain to ensure their safety. Zainab recounts her mother's nursing career and involvement in politics.  

Interview highlights:

"Both my parents were Egyptian of Nubian descent. My father was Muslim, my mother was Coptic but neither of them gave much a damn about religion. Although later in their life I think they did but certainly when I was growing up, they didn’t."


"Mother’s background was that she was raised in an orphanage in Egypt, and the good thing about being raised in an orphanage, probably the only good thing, was she got an education. So she was able to go to university and qualify as a nurse. Now she could have been – there is no question about it – she could have been a doctor, but in those days women didn’t get the opportunity. It was the same in England. Women, if there were one or two women who did get the opportunity, they were very few and far between."


"She was brought to the UK by a major in the British army and his family. As soon as they landed, she left the family. They were nice and just wanted to get her into Britain. She went down to London and there she met my dad. Then I know she worked in the health service as a nurse. I don’t know where. It’s funny, but mother is of that generation that doesn’t tell you what happened to her. Getting information out of my mother was like pulling teeth. It was really hard and really difficult. A lot of that, because I recognise it in myself, is to do with the sadnesses she faced, the hard life she faced. That she just didn’t want to relive it."


"I lost my father when I was very young. My mother raised five of the six of us, because my sister died, as a single parent. She was very inventive, I’ve had a great deal of respect all my life for my mother. Because she was the most amazing woman, when you consider the time. She rented a house and opened a restaurant in what was our living room. It proved an unmitigating success, so she was able to open a proper restaurant cafe, which was again successful. But then that brought out the bad part of those times and that area. She ended up having to pay protection money to the police. She didn’t need protection, but that was their way of making a quick buck. It gave us a level of notoriety because mummy wasn’t the type of woman to just lay down and just die. She got up and fought back. We went from great poverty to mummy sending three of her children to the World’s Fair in Belgium, I think it was at the time. And we were driven to school at a time when nobody had a car."

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