Tribute for Marie Assaad’s Memorial

By Heba Handoussa

Marie Assaad is one of Egypt’s earliest development gurus to promote the advancement of women as the surest means of advancing the family and the community. Throughout her life, she was able to galvanize an audience of all ages and backgrounds and instill a sense of responsibility for action on behalf of Egypt’s marginalized communities in marginalized locations.

I first knew Marie in the mid-1960s, when I was still an undergraduate student of Economics at the American University in Cairo (AUC), where she was pursuing her MA in Sociology and Anthropology as a mature student. Her practical experience in exploring the nature of gender discrimination made her the perfect candidate for appointment at AUC’s Social Research Center. She had studied with the noble purpose of helping others, and in today’s jargon, to identify the elements of a strategy for society’s behavioral change. In retrospect, it is clear that Marie’s mission in life was to advocate for social reform policies and civil society interventions to end age-long gender biases that affected women across urban and rural regions and especially Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Although FGM is unfortunately still practiced by large numbers of Muslim and Christian communities, a significant number of villages have or are in the process of abandoning what is now officially recognized as a criminal aggression.

Marie Assaad is also recognized as one of the icons from among the founding members of the internationally applauded Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE) and for contributing much of her time and effort in building its Best Practice Model for community cohesion, good governance, and entrepreneurial methods.

Marie taught us all a very important distinction we need to make in promoting women’s empowerment: tools and mechanisms that are used by political activists and those that should be used by development activists. Marie showed us how not to alienate the woman’s father, brother or husband, and convinced us that societal change will only happen when men are equally convinced as are women of the merits of women’s empowerment.

Marie was also a top notch manager and organizer. Her relentless efforts for positive change were matched by her inherent talent and democratic approach in reaching all classes of society. She was consistently elected to chair committees by peers, elders, and community leaders. Unafraid of dealing with taboo subjects, her presence and impetus gave whatever cause a sense of urgency and justice across different social and religious divides.

As early as 1980, Marie Assaad was given an internationally prominent position as the first individual from outside the entire clergy of the World Council of Churches (WCC), to be appointed as Deputy Secretary General of WCC. For six years in Geneva, she was able to advocate at the global level the cause of women’s empowerment by sharing with the council the seminal works being produced internationally on the topic of women and gender in development.

Her research on FGM was the basis for the fight against it as well as the preparation for the UN’s International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) that took place in Cairo in 1994. The conference was also the main source of information on how to battle overpopulation, in addition to the importance of motherhood and childhood in development, which I believe has contributed to the Millennial and Sustainable Development Goals that we know of today. Thanks to Marie, the conference revived the spirit of NGOs in Egypt, and spurred the youth to start their own initiatives in development.  

I was lucky to be one of those who attended her “Community of Love” regular group meetings, where she happily gathered a broad spectrum of friends and prominent partners in development, with the purpose of initiating efficient interventions at the grassroots level in Egypt based on Best Practice Models.

In Egypt, Marie Assaad’s legacy lives on and guides all those of us who consider her a role model, all of us who share the same past and long for a better future. On behalf of Egypt’s Muslims and Christians, on behalf of those Marie touched in squatter areas and garbage clusters, may God bless her soul and may her achievements strengthen our resolve to leave no one behind.