In celebration of the many achievements of Egyptian and Arab women over the years, Ahram Online republishes this article as part of a nine-day special series of gratitude and pride for women's achievements — from 8 March, which is International Women’s day, to 16 March, which is Egyptian Women’s Day.
The series aims to refresh the collective memory of our nation of the many, and often forgotten, women who excelled against all odds.
While Egyptian women in the 21st century are still lobbying for basic human rights, these republished stories serve as a reminder to society that Egyptian and Arab women fought for and enjoyed similar rights as men across many decades.
From the first woman doctor in the world, to the first woman to fly in Egypt and the Middle East, these women's stories are interweaved, and all deserve to be shared with a younger generation that needs to learn the truth about the accomplishments of their grandmothers and great grandmothers.At the premises of Cairo Library, the hall was crowded with ancient Egyptian women — those who reigned, those who worked, and those who became the first doctors in history.
A pioneer in Egypt's social development field, Marie Assaad has tackled contentious issues with a gentle but unyielding resolve.
In the elegantly understated reception of her home, Marie Assaad greets her visitors with her famous warm smile.
Assaad, an almost fragile-looking woman of 94, has for seven decades tackled many of Egypt's pressing communal issues with a gentle grit and unwavering resolve.
She has been a mentor to many. Trained to be an anthropologist but also holding versatile social interests, her ability to diagnose problems, scout potential and motivate teamwork makes her a driving force for many of the movers and shakers in Egypt's developmental and activism scene.
Among the many who consider Assaad to be their mentor are individuals well-known in their respective fields, including Vivian Foad, Ragia Omran, Azza Soliman, Mohamed Amin, Youssreya Loza-Sawiris, Dr Magda Iskandar and Laurence Mouftah.
Assaad gave impetus to combating the prevalent practice in Egypt of female circumcision, also known as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
Her initiative in the mid-1990s garnered community organisations, NGOs, the media and the government itself. The persistent campaign brought to national attention a topic that had hitherto been taboo. The campaign was born out of Egyptian civil society's preparation for the UN's International Conference for Population and Development (ICPD) held in Cairo in 1994.
A taskforce headed by Asaad to combat FGM was formed.
In 2008, the Egyptian government issued a law criminalising FGM, with the first case tried in 2015.
Female circumcision remains widespread in Egypt, but national statistics indicate a small but incremental decrease in the practice, as well as a growing awareness of its detrimental impact on young girls and women.
Assad's stints in communal service have been varied, characterised by an ability to initiate grassroots action and bring in a broad spectrum of partners in what she calls her “community of love.”
She has held key positions in both Egyptian and international chapters of the YWCA, and was the first woman and non-clerical figure to become deputy secretary-general of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches in 1980.
During her six-year tenure with the World Council of Churches, Assaad placed women’s issues on the council’s agenda, and presented a study on women and sexuality in the different religious traditions.
She also played a central role in establishing, as well as formulating a vision for, the Moqattam-based Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE). A landmark experiment in Egyptian social development, APE follows a comprehensive approach, empowering the zabbaleen (garbage collectors) community through education, entrepreneurial projects and instilling awareness of the importance of a sound environment.
Born Marie Bassili on 16 October 1922 in the Cairene district of Faggala, Assaad was the fourth girl in a family whose traditional preferences were for male progeny. Paradoxically, her mother, who was the driving force of the family, influenced Marie and introduced her at an early age to volunteering with the YWCA.
Assaad's maternal grandfather, Tadros El-Kharrat, was an artisan. His surname, El-Kharrat (etcher of wood), is an Arabic word denoting his profession as a craftsman of fine Arabesque woodwork.
El-Kharrat crafted the exquisite Arabesque decorations and furniture of Cairo's El-Rifaei Mosque, which was constructed over two phases in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Prior to becoming involved with the YWCA, Assaad’s voluntary social work started early.
As a schoolgirl at the Cairo American College for Girls, she volunteered to tend to disadvantaged families suffering tuberculosis, and giving literacy instruction to their children.
She became active with the Egyptian branch of the YWCA as “junior leader,” and held a 16-month stint with the World YWCA in Geneva in the early 1950s.
She became secretary-general of the Egyptian YWCA, which became more closely consolidated with the World YWCA, but resigned when she married in 1954, though continuing to volunteer for the organisation.
In 1965, Assaad joined the American University in Cairo's Social Research Center, focusing her anthropological research on population studies.
As part of her MA requirements, Assaad presented a research paper on the role of traditional and new leadership in the village of Deir Mina, an acronym for the village of Deir Mawas in Minya, Upper Egypt – her husband's homestead.
In Deir Mawas, the family of her husband Assaad Abdel-Motagali had in the 19th century been appointed by the ruler, Mohamed Ali, to levy taxes and keep the village’s financial records.
The function of multazim (tax collector) remained in the Abdel-Motagali family from father to son, with parallel social status retained by the traditional Umda, or leader of the village.
Charting the changes in social structure in Deir Mawas before and after the 1952 Revolution, Assaad dedicated the thesis to her husband, a man whom she loved and held in high regard.
In 1970, Assaad published her seminal study on FGM in Egypt and Africa, the first of its kind to cover such a wide-scale range as well as shed light on the social and cultural factors perpetuating female circumcision. It became the basis of work for the committee preparing for the 1994 ICPD Conference.
During the campaign against FGM, Assaad typically opened up boundaries, bringing both Muslim and Christian clerics to the table.
Despite her autonomy and refusal to take on formal positions, she did not hesitate to solicit the support of the government. Combating FGM consequently took centre-place in the agenda of the government-affiliated Council for Motherhood and Childhood.
Born an orthodox Copt, Assaad is a deeply spiritual woman who played a role in the establishing The Coptic Church's Bishopric for Social and Ecumenical Services.
Her concept of service is faith-based, laced with a warmth emanating from her ability to reach out and with empathy accept diverse strains of thought.
Allowing and never imposing, she listens, encouraging others to speak out, and calling the variations in opinion “collective wisdom.”
During her annual Christmas parties, which have remained an uninterrupted tradition year after year, her generous home teems with generations of friends, Muslim and Christian, the young outnumbering the old.
She calls the friends and working partners whom she has garnered and cherished over the years her “social capital”: a community of love, given and reciprocated.
*This story was first published on 27 March, 2016.