By Ragia Omran
Some people are considered lucky if they witness their grandparents and have vivid memories of them.
I am blessed and eternally grateful to have had my both my grandmothers throughout the bigger part of my life. Maternal grandmother Gawdat passed away in February 2011. Paternal grandmother Aisha (1924) passed away in January 2019.
Other than my two biological grandmothers, I had three surrogate/ adopted grandmothers since my early twenties upon my return to Cairo from Bryn Mawr College in 1994.
Aziza Hussein (1919-2015), Aida Guindy (1920-2003), Marie Assaad (1923-2018).
The five grandmothers shaped me and taught me lessons in life and public engagement that I am eternally grateful for.
Life works in mysterious ways. When I chose to come back to Cairo following graduation, I never knew I would meet these pioneering Egyptian women who would shape my experiences and contribute to my knowledge and commitment to civil society and voluntary work.
Aziza, Aida and Marie went to school with my maternal grandmother Gawdat. Marie always liked to tell me: " I was your grandmother's blue triangle leader in school!". What a small world that I ended up working with Marie through the FGM Task Force that she established in 1994 and that was the beginning of a friendship and mentorship that lasted till her death in August 2018.
My first encounter with Marie was through my work as Aziza Hussein's assistant at the NGO Committee for Population and Development, which continued its work to follow up on the ICPD Platform of Action after the ICPD was held in Cairo in September 1994.
As many may recall, the CNN segment on FGM in Cairo that was broadcast during the ICPD, was a shock to the majority of Egyptians, who prior to the video were not aware of the prevalence of FGM in Egypt at such high rates. Marie had been known since the seventies for her advocacy work on FGM . As always, she took matters in her own hands and established the FGM Task Force, which was an informal group of civil society members from all backgrounds who wanted to work on eradicating FGM.
Marie opened her home for the FGM Task Force to meet on a regular basis. I remember the long meetings that were interspersed with delicious snacks prepared by the loyal assistant Safwat, where I tasted for the first time the upper Egyptian speciality bread "betawa". The initiative was successful in gathering doctors, lawyers, community workers and others to work together on a common goal. Marie's talent for attracting people from different backgrounds, her patience in listening to various opinions and the ability to bridge the gaps between the various ideas and approaches; all led to a fruitful collaboration for the FGM Task Force. Through the Taskforce's advocacy and lobbying work with decision makers and community leaders important legislation was passed almost a decade later to criminalize the procedure of FGM carried out by medical practitioners. This was a landmark moment for Marie Assaad and the FGM Task Force. The rest, as they say is history ,as more groups and national institutions adopted the FGM issue on their agenda and continue to work on it until today.
To a young college graduate like myself, it was an honour and privilege to meet Marie, to learn from her the principles of volunteering, working collectively as a team and to make the most out of any opportunity,; despite the obstacles and difficulties that may arise along way. I learned from her that patience, perseverance and resilience would eventually lead to the achievement of any goal. The array of people I met at Marie's warm, cheerful and welcoming Garden City home was like getting an introduction to a variety of Egyptians from all walks of life who believed in volunteering and giving back to the community. The trials and tribulations that were shared at Marie's home during the existence of the FGM Task Force will always stay with me to inspire and guide me through the challenging and difficult times that I encounter in my daily life.
Following my work with Aziza Hussein and as I progressed in my career, I continued to be in touch with Marie and I was lucky enough to be invited every year to her annual open house for Christmas Carols on December 25. So many happy memories with Marie and her lovely family and friends that will stay with me forever.
Marie's legacy was her unique ability to gather people from different backgrounds, to inspire them and lead them to collectively achieving their goals. Marie sincerely practiced what she preached, the three C's : community of love, collective wisdom and communication. Although her passing away is a terrible loss for all of us whose lives she touched, we must be grateful that she went away peacefully, that she achieved great things and that she inspired several generations.
Marie Assaad's legacy of selfless giving and community volunteering will live on through her family, her students, her colleagues, her friends and her extended community of love that she created.
Rest in Peace & Power our dearest Marie.