Tribute to Marie Assaad

By Jocelyn DeJong

The memory of Marie, whom I did not see now for at least a decade, stays with me always. I will never forget those intelligent, penetrating eyes and that determination to move forward and towards the truth, despite the odds. She, and her close friend Aziza Hussein, who was opposite to her in every respect (one Christian, one Muslim; one petite the other tall, and the list goes on…) were my mentors and inspiration during my 7 year stay in Egypt during a turbulent time in the 1990s.  Then already in her 70s, Marie was as active as ever and at the forefront of social movements on multiple causes.  

The one I am most familiar with is her work on female genital mutilation.  In 1994, Egypt hosted the International Conference on Population and Development – a major UN affair that used to happen only every 10 years.  Female genital mutilation was not on the agenda, but CNN brought it to media attention with a horrendous (and it turns out staged) scene of a young child being circumcised in a barber shop.  Egypt reacted with horror and denial, but soon the first national survey on the topic was allowed to be conducted and it found that over 95% of Egyptian girls had been subjected to the practice.  

Marie did not challenge, like many, the figures but instead pointed out that the only reason she, unlike her siblings, had been ‘saved’ is that she had been out of the country at the target age.  She knew that the only way the practice could ever be challenged was to foster wide-scale social debate, interrogating the practice and exploring its deep roots in Egyptian norms.  Her focus was always on the undertrodden – the girl with no say in the matter.   She gathered at her house a diversity of individuals - young and old, Christian and Muslim - who cared about the implications of the practice for the well-being of young girls, women and their families.  Inspiring but never dictating, she would stress the importance of gathering the ‘collective wisdom’ on the strategies of this developing FGM task force.  This same group drafted position statements that were widely circulated, convened meetings throughout the country and lobbied whenever possible responsible governmental figures.

Her and the group’s efforts were not to bear fruit at the national level until over 10 years later, when the practice was outlawed and the Egyptian government took up efforts to eliminate the practice on a large scale.  She sowed the seeds, however, building on the work of Aziza Hussein at the Cairo Family Planning Association.  

Overwhelmingly kind and hospitable, Marie’s house was always a welcome refuge for me.  Together over a bowl of moulokhia, we would ponder the world and the state of Egypt.  Marie being Marie, however, these conversations never ended up pessimistically, because she had an unflappable optimism in the resilience of the human spirit and above all, in the younger generation.  

May her soul rest in peace.