Listening to Marie:
An Icon of the Feminist Movement in Egypt

By Hoda Elsadda

When I think of Marie a flood of words come to mind: warmth, strength, wisdom, perseverance, determination, and most importantly, a commitment to what is just and right. This is how I remember her: this is how she is remembered by many of my friends and colleagues in the feminist movement in Egypt. I had the honour to know Marie, to work with her, to see her in different situations, to attend meetings and social gatherings in her home, and also to be part of her annual Christmas party, an event I did not miss for many many years. I also had the privilege to sit down for long hours listening to her as she narrated her life story. This was part of my work in establishing an oral history archive of Egyptian women at the Women and Memory Forum. It is with much pride and gratitude that I say that Marie entrusted her story with us, in addition to a large collection of materials, and photos, some of which are being shown now behind me on the screen.

And I listened to Marie as she shared some of her life experiences, her social work, her struggles, her many activities, initiatives, hopes for better futures, and her commitment to making the world a better place. I listened to her recount how she ventured into new fields: the beginnings of the zabbaleen project, her support of feminist theology, bringing feminist principles to the World Council of Churches, her leadership of the FGM task force, her work on the environment, to give just some examples. And as I listened I also learned about life, about relationships, about activism and about how to persevere against all odds. These lessons are Marie Assaad's legacy to generations of men and women who worked with her or came to know her. More specifically, this is her legacy to generations of feminists who consider her an icon of the feminist movement in Egypt.

The one thread that ties all her work together is a commitment to justice and a firm belief in the right of people to be free. Once she identifies a path that she believes in, she is not deterred or discouraged if she is the only one following this path. Marie narrated her life as a journey of liberation, for herself and others. She meant liberation from discriminatory practices, gendered stereotypes, as well as unjust economic and political conditions.

She acknowledges some of the early influences that aided her journey towards liberation. Her sisters enrolled at the American College for Girls (ACG). She remembers:
“My mom made a huge scene and she refused to let them go and she said my children don't go to these places to become compromised ... the American College consists of liberal girls who wear stockings and admire themselves in mirrors. But, my grandma was on our side… [And because of] the extracurricular activities at the American College … we got interested in social work and that's how I got started, meaning that my sisters would lead the liberation and I would follow…”

The mother wanted to observe traditions and protect her girls, so was not enthusiastic about the ACG, nor about one of the sisters going to the School of Social Work, a co-ed institution, or later to the American University in Cairo (AUC). Marie remembers: “The move against her, the liberation process was too strong for her so she had to accept… as I analyze I found that we were too much for her and we proved that we are still decent girls and we are not misbehaving. We were succeeding at university, we had a good reputation and she could not fight because all of us were together, the collectivity with my elder sister always supporting us and her husband.” She added: “It was very much known in society that the American College produced female pioneers … they're the ones who gave back to their community through all the charity organizations as they were involved in everything. The process of liberation was very much aided by the College … we were like an oasis and there was this feeling that this liberation will be to serve others, and our movements were more inclined toward social service.”

Marie’s journey reminds us that many of the pioneers of feminism in Egypt came to feminism through a commitment to social work. They may not have identified themselves as feminists in their early careers, but many of them arrived at feminist awareness through doing and living a feminist life and upholding feminist principles.

As a young woman at the ACG and later doing social work at the YWCA, Marie did not see herself as part of the women’s movement at the time: “We grew up in the American College admiring them very much [meaning Hoda Shaarawy and women’s rights activists], that was the atmosphere we had, we all had this ambition … [but] politics was somebody else’s domain, we admired them, but we didn’t go out on demonstrations because we were not educated this way. However there was this admiration and looking up to them, but there was not this analysis of gender roles at all nor an analysis of women's liberation, it was an analysis more of serving the poor, of the community, of the deprived, the American College was of the community, of the deprived, the American College was conservative in this. It never worked on women’s liberation.”

However, social service for Marie Assaad was not limited to the provision of services but primarily meant changing concepts and restrictive traditions. This was the beginning of her feminist consciousness and commitment to women’s rights.

In 1951, Marie was offered a job at the YWCA in Geneva. She said: “I accepted without my mother’s permission. All this background tells you that it was a process of slow liberation, and that when there is a family, even if the parents are very strict, when the members of the family get together, and just proving that they are serious about it and having an objective. I think liberation is possible anywhere even in any conservative home.”

About her experience in Geneva in the early 50s she recalled: “My first experience in the global YWCA, a women’s organization, was just for sixteen months from 1952 – 1953. I was the only Egyptian working in the YWCA staff and until that point they had had Egyptians on the executive committees and the like, but there was not one person who was on the staff… It was a very intensive liberating experience, first of all from the sense of living away from the family, it was the first time, doing things for the first time alone.”

And compared to her struggle for freedom and independence at home she recalled: “my first real experience of discrimination was in my job in Geneva… I was a liberated person who possessed a free mind, and I’m not afraid to express my opinion. I always say I’m like my mother.”

Her memories of Geneva, the new experiences, the challenges she faced, include, very much in Marie's style, an analytical contemplation on what she learned and gained from her experience: “One thing I’ve learned that before we take any action, a lot of reflection should precede and we reflect from different parts, different attitudes, different age groups, and different mentalities in the world. So although it was a short period, it left its prints on me very much.”

To use today's terminology, Marie was a trail-blazer. She joined the World Council of Churches at a time when women were not quite accepted in church circles. Of her experience at the Council she said: “I was the only woman among five big men who were all versed in the World Council, and had been there for years and theologians and all. But I just decided to offer what I had. It was very tough. My problems were not with my colleagues, my problems were with the heads of the churches. The sexism was top… One great support system I had was the group of women in the house: we built this community, which was very strong. This was how I survived, I learned a lot. And I learned one thing that stayed with me all the time: reflection and analyzing the signs of the time, and listening to people and creating dialogue and listening to what people actually say, and communicating clearly.”

At the Council her feminist consciousness developed: “I became very much sensitive to sexist language, I mean whenever I read ... “save all men” when they mean men and women, I’d say “save all humanity,” I paraphrase it immediately. I’ve become very sensitive to the oppressed, to the marginalized, to sexist language, and to stereotyping women...I stayed six years there and when I think of who supported me most, it was some of my male colleagues especially the general secretary and the women. We really had a women’s movement.” In preparation for the Women's Conference in Nairobi in 1985 she coordinated a study on what the different religions say about women, their body, and their sexuality. She recalled: “It was fascinating to recruit female theologians and social scientists from different parts of the world … the impact of culture is very strong and the patriarchal culture is so embedded in the minds of men and women that it has influenced all the religious teachings and therefore we really need to reread our religions through our own eyes… I was not a feminist theologian like the rest, but I did participate. I mean that I read through feminist theology and the Bible came alive to me.” She added: “That was my continuous struggle for six years, not with my colleagues at the World Council, but with all the hierarchies of the church because officially I met the top: the Bishops, the Popes, and so on, and they were very uneasy with me.”

Reflecting on her experience she said: “you know I was thrown into the sea and you don’t know the answer, so you had to struggle all the time; you learn how to assess time, how to make decisions and to see the effect of them on everybody and how to listen and to account for different cultures and the effect that has. It was really a profound experience, but at the same time very hard, and also learning that you have to be up-to-date, knowledge is power; you have no excuse to say you’re ignorant.”

Then there was her work on FGM. She was definitely among the first generation of women to work on eradicating this harmful practice in Egypt. Her work to combat FGM started in the 50s at a time when it was still a taboo topic that did not warrant public discussion. She finally led the FGM Task Force in the 1990s which brought together feminists, social workers and state officials, to spread awareness and advocate for the elimination of the practice.

One of the great assets of Marie is that she was capable of changing her assumptions, acknowledging a mistake and revising her approach when need be. She was amongst the first group of feminists to acknowledge the problems in the medicalization of FGM and decided to shift strategies and adopt a rights approach. FGM became a key target of Marie's activism for women and girls as she came to the realization that it had to be at the centre of women rights advocacy and struggle. She said: “more and more I became clear that it's not [just about] FGM, it's all that we are saying about the status of women, their rights, recognizing them as human, and their dignity. So how can I deal with family planning, or illiteracy or the girls in Moqattam, and let these girls be cut up? I [would be] a hypocrite. So I found it [FGM] for me as a key to all my work and that's why I'm continuing.” Marie had a genuine respect for the people she worked with and served. She listened to what they had to say, learned from them and took note. About the necessity of listening to people she said: “I call it the world collective wisdom, that you really have to listen, listen to everybody, and the smallest person can give you a lot. And this is my great privilege working with women and girls, the youth of Moqattam.”

Finally, Marie's commitment to women's rights, to the marginalized and the downtrodden was a commitment to freedom and rights of all peoples in general. Social, economic and political rights were indivisible as far as she was concerned. A friend, who admires Marie and her work but did not know her personally, remembered a brief encounter with Marie that left a memorable impression. It was March 20th, 2003, the morning of the invasion of Iraq. She was heading towards Tahrir with a friend of hers to join the protests to denounce the war when she spotted an elderly and small woman arguing with a number of policemen blocking the way to Tahrir. Her companion recognized Marie Assaad and both of them went to check that all was well. They found Marie heatedly telling the policemen that they should not be preventing people from protesting because we are all against killing people and invading countries. Gradually the number of protesters increased, and the moment the road opened up, Marie joined the hundreds of protesters who stormed the square.

To conclude, Marie touched our lives in many different ways. She was a feminist at heart: in her principles, her pursuit of justice, and her everyday life. Marie practiced what she believed. And what she believed was equality and freedom for all. She pursued her goals with quiet determination and never strayed from her course. For her women's rights were human rights. For her, an integral part of feminist activism is building a movement, supporting her colleagues and younger generations. Many of us remember when the phone would ring and find Marie's voice on the other end saying “you are doing a great job” or, “I am proud of you” or “do not be discouraged, persevere and God will reward you.” Many of us remember the atmosphere of her home, the positive energy, where everyone felt safe, welcome and included. She had the ability to establish close relationships with many, and yet make each one of us feel that they occupied a special place in her life. She occupies a special place in our hearts. God bless her and her memory.