The Loving and Indefatigable Interrogator

By Judith Bruce

Marie is a daily presence for me, as the seminal conversation began the last day of Epiphany 1974 and still reverberates 45 years on. Circumstance, friendship (which Marie would have called social capital), a shared passion for the lives of girls and women—brought us together. She founded my intellectual lineage as an adult and created another family for me in Egypt—as much a source for my life as the family into which I was born. The continuing closeness and warmth of the family is one of the few reasons I can bear Marie having physically left us.

We met through the instinctive and boundless love of Yousriya, a new friend at the time who insisted “you must meet Marie.” Tiny, fierce Marie welcomed me immediately into an intense conversation -- set in a room in which I must have visited a thousand subsequent times. Threading necklaces and sorting mummy beads, she spoke of her work in Upper Egypt—the early days of family planning, before it was called reproductive health or seen as an aspect of social development. She wanted to reform the technology-focused field to serve women with insight and compassion—hearts and eyes first, but her fearsome intelligence not far behind.

She spoke about interviewing women and “supportive supervision,” which, in practice, translated into a rigorous sequential interrogation, fuelled by such tangible caring -- that girls and women, research and service teams, would speak as freely, frankly, about problems as they would about “successes”.  Marie’s hatred of superficiality sprang from her love of “real ‘life. She sought the truth, not invented technicolor renditions and believed that humane, grounded solutions that would only flow from critical thinking. After that lively afternoon she said: “When you come back to Egypt you must stay with me.” I knew I had a friend. I didn’t know I had a friend for life.

That fall, weeks after the death of her husband, Assaad, she invited me to stay. I protested: “No, I’ll come for tea, it’s too early.” Marie was not to be turned back. I stayed for a formative several weeks, working with her from early in the day until late at night. Though actively grieving, she focused on work and present life -- the thread forward.

We traveled to Upper Egypt. On crowded trains Marie, defiant in white, rocking from side to side on the unruly night train explored how best to empower invisible rural women. We had proposed mobilizing adult women themselves (rather than the better-educated and younger health visitors). Samuel Habib Director of CEOSS, sent a telex (the fast communication of the 70s) ebulliently praising the results of the training of largely illiterate women on the house boat as one of the most remarkable and exciting learning moments of his life, to see marginalized women becoming authors of their own story.

Marie never met a difficult subject she didn’t like. Serving as the first woman undersecretary of The World Council of Churches, she commissioned a study on women’s sexuality across religions. Maries’ paper on FGM was the first article  published by the Population Council on that subject. I feel pride reflecting on those predawn writing sessions. Though she was my teacher on this subject, I hope I was a useful-if somewhat groggy -writing midwife as we worked through exactly how to say things about such a sensitive topic.

Her longest campaign, and one on which I had the privilege to assist, was the work with Adolescent Girls at the zabbaleen settlement in Mokattam. Her approach has provided a template for my own work on that subject for the last 30 years. She established a Community Crisis Committee—an open-access channel for those in deep distress. She liked opening doors, mainly because she DIDN’T know what was going to come through them. What she found was adolescent girls in despair, sometimes presenting themselves with injuries they’d inflicted to avoid or escape unwanted, child marriages. Marie looked beyond poor girls’ individual subjugation to see a larger pattern lying beneath a core “driver”: a confining marriage market.

Her solution was to design a broad program offering girls systematic information about their health and rights, carve a visible role for them in community as tetanus toxoid vaccine promoters, and offer early channels for social participation and economic inclusion.To “disrupt” the child marriage market a cash transfer (in the early 1980s!) to incentivize behavior change was offered to girls who married voluntarily after exact age 18. Proof of the “market” forces came in many forms: A lay midwife who had four daughters had married the first at 14, the second at 16, and when the Mokattam marriage program came “on-line” the third daughter married at 18 and received her transfer, the equivalent of $150 USD. She still had one more daughter. We inquired what would happen if she waited to marry that daughter until she was 20?” She gave a firm but clear answer: “I’ll be nervous for two more years.” She thus affirmed she didn’t want to miss “the market” or incur reputational risks for her child. Ragui – Maries son-- has published to deserved acclaim about the embeddedness of women’s marriage, sexual, and labor markets. Fine work, and I would assert that the first person in the family to see this deep connection was Marie.

We worked together on the anthropological documentation of the Mokattam experiment, published in Arabic and English in SEEDs series, and still in demand. At the heart of the analysis is a picture of socially-isolated 12 year old girls, with no access to or control of resources, and a lifetime of economic and caring responsibilities ahead of them. They needed social capital and bargaining power – however gently disguised .So, for example, if a family who had committed a girl to the program tried to withdraw her, a program leader would visit and negotiate for her, putting forward a practical plan. Perhaps her brother could ride on the garbage truck instead of her several days a week, so that the girl could be schooled and learn skills. Change was not a slogan. It required reshaping girls’ lives one hour at a time.

Marie observed no boundary between the personal and professional. On my over 100 visits, I awoke to her morning “call-in” clinics. In the 1970s, these commenced at around 6:30 a.m., and later, in the 1980s, when Egyptian phones were working better and she took more time for herself in the morning, they started at 8am, often extending to10 a.m. Sometimes there were as many as 20 calls, and the callers knew that they would be ruthlessly interrogated and that they should be prepared to listen. She had an insistent optimism about other capabilities. Should you go to Marie simply for sympathy (bad plan) and display the slightest desire to be pitied, she would confront you with your own strength. She would say: “You’re a phoenix, you can solve it.”

Marie was a perfect merger of heart and mind –she allowed no pocket of fear or confusion to remain darkened. Her deep and tireless faith committed her to confronting tough problems. The gifted, the bright, and the privileged—and Marie was all three—have a duty to find those dark pockets and direct their full faculties to healing and connection.

For a number of years after I first knew her I thought: “Ah, I won’t fear death now because-when I go Marie will be there.” This confidence was founded more on her belief in an afterlife than on mine, and her conviction --drummed into me– that there is always, as she was for me, a thread forward.