Marie Assaad: The Social Researcher

By Hania Sholkamy

In 1969 Marie Bassili Assaad completed an MA thesis in the department of Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology and Egyptology at the American University in Cairo.  The 169 page thesis was titled Villagers’ Participation in Formal and Informal Health Services in Two Villages. Marie was part of a cohort of Egyptian women choosing a career in social research and community development and opting for the Social Research Centre of the American University in Cairo as the ideal setting to launch their careers. This group includes Samiha el Katcha, Saneya Saleh, Soheir Mehanna and Nawal al Messiri-Nadim. Marie had been a school teacher before returning to the academy as a mature student and completed her thesis under the supervision of Laila el Hamammsy, the founding director of the SRC.

Marie stayed on at the SRC as a researcher for almost five years before moving on to an international post at the World Council of Churches, based in Geneva, as ecumenical leader and deputy general secretary from 1980 to 1986. During her time at the SRC, Marie worked on a number of field-based projects mostly on reproductive health issues, although then labelled as family planning. She was part of a large SRC initiative that sought to bring family planning services and change reproductive behaviours and desires. The project entailed the creation of a long-term presence in the governorate of Monoufiya. Marie was one of the research fellows involved in this work along with Samiha el Katcha and Saneya Saleh. Each was in charge of a district and supervised a team of assistants and field workers to provide training for health workers, awareness of population issues and increase the prevalence of contraceptive utilization. Marie was in charge of the district of Shebeen. This work was one of the largest and most significant applied social research projects in Egypt and indeed in the whole Arab region. It relied on multiple methods of research and actual interventions to address Egypt’s population challenges. This project also nurtured a large cohort of experts who continued for decades to practice applied research and to bolster the reputation of the SRC. Marie was a core member of this cohort, who not only diligently and systematically did this work, but also lobbied to improve the conditions and terms of employment of field researchers.
In the mid-seventies, Marie started another research project with Samiha el Katcha.   This project examined the various types of formal and informal health care provided in one Egyptian delta village.  Villagers’ understanding of the causes of health and sickness and how health is promoted and sickness prevented were recorded and analysed and the general conditions of this village of 6,500 people were described in detail. Formal health services were described in detail including 1) the health unit, 2) maternal and child health services, 3) family planning services, 4) outpatient clinic, 5) health unit pharmacy, 6) vital statistics bureau, 7) health inspectors, 8) health education, 9) health visitor, 10) private doctors, 11) commercial pharmacy. The roles of informal health care providers (the megabaraty or bone-setter, the barber, the daya or midwife, and the zar troop) were also explored. Also explained are the custom of female circumcision, the Sebou’ celebration and the wedding night. The two researchers studied villagers’ diet, their perception of the relationship between nutrition and health, their management of sickness at home, and to whom they went if home remedies failed. Researchers found that villagers take an active role in monitoring and evaluating the care provided and do not hesitate to seek second opinions. Recommendations of this seminal study called for the formal health system to recognize and work with the traditional practitioners, and to reinstate the dayas and use them to promote family planning.

Marie’s work at the SRC was multifaceted. She looked at health to understand communities. She promoted health interventions so as to lift the drudgery of developmental burdens. She  focused on communities so as to enable and empower them. Her work bears the Janus faces of activism and academics.

Marie carried the culture of evidence based and grounded social interventions into the many subsequent phases of her professional life. She published in 1994 a monograph on her work in the Zabbaleen (rubbish collectors) area. This AUC press book titled Experiments in community development in a zabbaleen settlement and authored with Nadra Garas reflects on the applied interventions and services undertaken by this community, by civil society and by various church and international actors to bring a semblance of normality to the hard lives of these hardworking people. It shows a passion for evidence, service and for change.Marie was also one the pioneers of work on Female Genital Mutilation in Egypt. Her research, undertaken in the 1970’s established her name as an adversary to all the forces and currents that perpetuate this practice. Marie later led the anti-female genital mutilation task force and brought a ton of positive energy and an able leadership to this difficult initiative.Many will have mentioned the fierce commitment, fiery bias for the good and firm faith of Marie Assaad. Her role in enabling a tradition of field based qualitative and applied research in Egypt should be recognized as an additional achievement and added to her long list of fine qualities. Her legacy of social research is one of the many gifts she has left for her country and for the research community.