Marie Assaad’s Memorial

By Laila Iskander

If there was anything that Marie was obsessed by it was girls and women!  Their lives, preoccupations, challenges and capabilities consumed her. She plunged into working with them from the moment she met them whether it was in Upper Egypt – her birthplace and family roots – or in Mokattam garbage neighborhood and beyond.

As a sociologist and researcher she scrutinized the deepest aspects of how girls and women lived in rural and urban Egypt, strove to understand the root causes of why and how they survived and thrived in spite of, and because of, the contexts they were living in: a context of economic and social deprivation, but also one of vibrancy, ingenuity and resourcefulness.An Upper Egyptian women herself, she was close to the physical and emotional source of sa’iidi women. She did not need someone to ‘decode’ the physical and socio-cultural contexts of these women, yet she did apply herself as a scholar and researcher to do so and present it to others.  Her platform at the American University in Cairo allowed her to convey that knowledge to an audience that was not as close to that reality as she had been. Her publications allowed others to understand the realities of girls and women in Egypt.

From 1983 she conceived, designed and led more projects than an entire development agency in a single country!  She was a founding board member of the non-profit Association for the Protection of the Environment (AP.E.) in the Mokattam neighborhood where garbage collectors lived.  This provided the springboard for the sociologist/researcher to act and turn her understandings into programs that had lasting impact on the lives of the girls and women she worked so closely with.

Her style had always centered around ‘empowerment’.  That word had not always been adequately interpreted in development contexts, but Marie always placed the women she worked with at the center of the ‘joint ventures’ they embarked on.  And indeed, they were large scale investments in the lives of people although contrary to our common understanding of the term.  Marie turned that concept into one that few of us understand in today’s world.  It did not rest on huge financial outlays, business plans, verifiable returns on investment (ROIs) in the traditional sense or on a ‘expanding markets and the growth of the business’.  Rather it centered around ‘joint ventures’ that risked the comfort zones of communities through the girls and the women she worked with.  Their very lives would be transformed as a result of that investment.  They would reap the returns on that investment in the form of new socially acceptable norms in their communities as a result of what they had agreed to ‘risk’ with Marie.

Her tireless investments included a team of health care visitors who risked their social capital in the neighborhood by addressing traditional taboos such as female genital mutilation (FGM) in the late eighties and early nineties when no one dared address such practices. Subsequent investments included reproductive health aspects, women’s livelihoods and income generation, early childhood education, adult literacy and support to formal education.

Each venture involved an incubation period where the ‘start up’ venture would test assumptions, sharpen the design of interventions, line up partners, prepare the team and establish the measurement tools with which to gauge the impacts of the investment.  This translated into intense planning phases, training, financing, reporting, adapting, monitoring and re-investing.

She ventured into the complex world of waste management in the city of Cairo by testing, with the keen researcher’s eye, how to protect girls and women from having to sort mixed household waste manually. She led a team to test whether households would separate their household waste into two components and thus launched Egypt’s first venture into that practice.  Today, it is being promoted at the national level as one of the many measures required to upgrade the waste management situation in the city. But for Marie, it was all about her enduring obsession with girls and women. She could not idly stand by and watch them suffer the indignity of having to sort rotting food every day of their dear and precious lives.

The ‘joint ventures’ Marie established live on today.  They have grown and multiplied.  They are not traded on the stock market and Marie’s bank account never grew on account of these investments.  Indeed, quite the contrary.  But in the grand scheme of things, humanity’s bank account definitely saw a sizeable increase – one that cannot be measured in dollars and cents because that would reduce its worth.  And in the final analysis of ‘joint ventures’ Marie most certainly chose the most relevant ‘business model’ of our time – people, justice and human dignity.