The Egyptian community this week mourned the loss of Farkhonda Hassan, a scientist, academic, parliament member and women’s advocate who passed away on Friday 30 October at the age of 90.
Hassan co-chaired the Gender Advisory Board of the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development and was secretary-general and member of the National Council for Women in Egypt between 2000 and 2011.
“Hassan was the driving force behind many amendments to personal affairs laws concerning women’s rights,” Nagwa Al-Fawal, a professor of mass communication at the National Centre for Social and Criminal Studies, said. “Under her management the council had 27 branches all over Egypt and dozens of lawsuits were filed against women’s rights violations,” Al-Fawal said.
Such cases highlighted women’s issues and helped in solving them later through legislation in parliament.
“Hassan was aware of women’s issues and was very keen to discuss how laws would affect them,” Mohamed Abdel-Salam, media consultant at the Arab Woman Organisation, said.
Hassan will always be remembered for standing by women on many issues, including the right to access their inheritance, under age marriages and Khul (allowing women to leave a marriage if they were staying against their will) as well as the right of Egyptian women to pass on their nationality to their children from foreign fathers. Laws addressing these issues were later issued by parliament thanks to efforts of the National Council for Women under her management, Abdel-Salam added.
Her affiliations with national and international organisations, non-governmental organisations and research and knowledge institutions focused on women’s empowerment. Hassan served as a short-term consultant and expert on several international and regional programmes organised by various UN organisations, including the UNDP and UNESCO.
“I was lucky to have had in my life very special people I learned a lot from and without whom life would not have been the same. Farkhonda Hassan was one of them,” Seheir Kansouh, UNDP development planning and gender adviser official, said after Hassan’s death.
“Not only was she a role model of the woman scientist but her simple demeanour and her smile that always brightened her face will remain a grace that blessed my way,” Kansouh told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Hassan was a professor of geology at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and the list of her students included Queen Rania of Jordan and Egyptian former foreign minister Nabil Fahmi.
She was also chair of the Commission on Human Development and Local Administration of the Parliament and Shura Council from 1979 to 2011. This experience was translated in one of her books, Thirty Years under the Parliament Dome.
Farkhonda means happiness and joy, as she used to say to those who asked what her unusual name meant. She was the first woman to study moon rocks and the second woman to study geology in the Science Faculty at Cairo University. She was awarded the Order of Sciences and Arts, first class, in 1980. In one of Hassan’s interviews, she said that Madame Curie, the scientist who received two Nobel prizes for pioneering research on radioactivity, was her idol.
Amina Shafik, a veteran leftist writer, said that while she and Hassan had different political leanings, she used to enjoy their chats. “One moment she would be talking about Egyptian deserts, the second she would give you info about the moon or tell you the story of the moon rock that Bill Gates gave her,” Shafik told the Weekly.
For Shafik, Hassan excelled in everything she did: she was a good cook and always bragged that she made her own dresses. She was a typical example of an Egyptian woman who exchanges recipes, took care of her grandchildren and had a great sense of humour.
Hassan is survived by her children Kareem, an engineer and Wegdan Lotfi, professor of chemistry. Wegdan spoke about her mom with pride. “Mommy prioritized family, above everything.” Lotfi remembers her mom’s advice to her and all ladies “keep yourself busy”. According to Lotfy, Hasssan wrote more than five books about her experience as a politician and as a scientist. Her last book “Technology of Ancient Egyptians,” is now in the press. Hassan has no brothers and she insisted to make her father from Sohag Governorate, proud of her. In Upper Egyptian governorates a boy’s birth makes men proud. “Hassan succeeded to change the equation. She passed away making all of us proud,” Lotfi concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.