Marie Assaad: The Portrait of A Resilient Lady

By Nadia Wassef

I am a graduate of the school of Marie Assaad.  I am one of many.  We were lucky enough to cross paths with Marie, smart enough to keep her in our lives, and blessed to have had her as a role model.

My mother met Marie at a charity event and was extremely impressed with the work of the Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE) in Mokattam.  Without my knowledge, or consent, she volunteered me to Marie every Saturday.  Marie was seventy; I was seventeen and unamused.  Many Saturdays, if not years, later I count those days spent with the zabaleen amongst my most formative. This was my induction into a world that was different to everything I had known. The olfactory assault of compost and the poverty were part of an ecosystem that included hope and commitment.  But what I marvelled at the most was the energy of this short and patient lady who always smiled regardless of the hand she was dealt.  

Our paths crossed again during the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development where the winds of change were blowing.  During the conference the issue of female circumcision took centre stage.  At Marie’s invitation, I joined the Female Genital Mutilation Task Force, which she had been charged to lead. I remember endless meetings held at Marie’s house where Safwat opened the door, ushered people in, offering the kindest of smiles and the sweetest guava juice served in short glasses.

Marie’s quiet resilience, her ability to reconcile conflicting forces, and face the harshest of khamaseen winds as if they were enveloping her in gentle drops of morning dew was awe inspiring.  She continuously sought and listened to multiple points of view in her quest to garner common wisdom.  Not many people possess the skill of listening; Marie did, and she was good at it.  Her reservoirs of patience ran deeper than most: after five years of working with the FGM Taskforce, I decided to embark on a different course.  I was in my twenties and eager to change the world quickly.  I did not have the benefit of Marie’s wisdom. She constantly reminded me that the world would change when it was ready to, till then we must work diligently to ensure that the setting is ready to receive the change. It was this faith that gave her an unwavering dedication to the many causes she supported throughout her rewarding life.

Marie, like many Egyptian women over the decades, was proud to be one of history’s foot soldiers marching through challenges, chiselling away at the realities they refused to accept for themselves and for others.  I hesitate to call her a feminist because Marie was someone that you couldn’t confine to a label; she was far larger and more nuanced than any simple category. It was in homage to her and to these women that I included a gender section in Diwan Bookstores, which I had co-founded with my sister and three friends shortly after leaving the FGM Task Force.  I took pride in sourcing products from APE’s paper recycling project for the stationery section. Nicole Assaad made her deliveries in person every month.  Marie and I kept loosely in touch: when you are blessed to count Marie as one of your advocates and mentors, the cord is never fully cut, but takes on an unparalleled elasticity.  She sometimes visited Diwan and I called her every October on her birthday.

Twenty years on from the ICPD, a new Egyptian Demographic and Health Survey (EDHS) was published. Having migrated from women’s rights activist to bookseller didn’t mean that issues like FGM were any further from my heart or mind. I raced to page 185 to read the new statistics after two decades full of activists’ efforts and dedication: 92% of ever-married women had been circumcised.  There had been a decrease of only 5%. I called Marie for consolation and wisdom. I asked her how she continued with such resolve and single-mindedness in something so hopeless. She answered that nothing is hopeless, things just take the time they need to,  “Wala you want the world to change on your timetable ya sitt Nadia?”

A few years ago I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Her words reminded me of Marie: “We stand on the shoulders of the women who came before us, women who had to fight for the rights that we now take for granted.” Marie propelled so many people forward, not just through her actions, but through her faith, her faith in people, and in this world; that while it might challenge us, it will not let us down.  

Thank you Marie for being who you are, for being in my life, and for infusing so many people with your faith and demeanour.