|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
4 - 10 October 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Making it work
If children won't go to school -- well, the schools will just have to go to them. Meet the woman who believes in revolution, and then helps bring it about
Profile by Pascale Ghazaleh
It is difficult, in Malak Zaalouk's flat overlooking the 6 October Panorama, to picture her sitting cross- legged on the ground in some rural but hardly idyllic setting, getting her boots muddy and discussing education and empowerment with the villagers. From the balcony, the Salah Salem median lawn shimmers hotly in the lush light. The traffic is deafening, filling the air with a hostile buzz that is more physically sensed vibration than aurally perceived noise. Inside, the small space is quiet and filled with a luminous pale yellow glow. It is decorated in shades of white and blue. There are knickknacks everywhere: candles, vases, framed photos, glass ashtrays, silver dishes piled with pot-pourri... And Malak Zaalouk, while protesting demurely, is preparing coffee, apologising for the inadequacy of the milk, finding space on the crowded table for bowls of roast almonds and pistachios, delicate biscuits, tiny puff pastries and sugar-dusted cakes. She has only just arrived herself, but with a wave of her wand she has magicked a tea party out of thin air.
The living area, divided into two, features a Maghrebi-style seating arrangement: cushions upholstered in rich brocade and arranged on the floor around a low table. And that, one feels, is as close to the ground as Malak Zaalouk is going to get. She is small and slim, lightly tanned, perfectly made up; her hair is thick and shot through with copper highlights. She is wearing cropped linen trousers and a long, silky twin-set in subtle shades of cream and tan, with wedge-heeled mules. She says, with her traffic-stopping smile, that she "loves entertaining." She would not be out of place at a ladies' luncheon; then again, talk of Stokely Carmichael could well elicit blank stares over the canapés, and so it is very possible that she would not feel utterly comfortable at one of the more ritualised ceremonies of the class into which she was born.
There are other hints that Zaalouk is not only what she appears to be. First, of course, is the fact that she designed the Community Schools Project in Upper Egypt, the successful programme that has "reached the unreached" and brought educational services to those with no access to schooling. More clues: while the walls of the living room, lined with books, include those favoured by the ladies who lounge (Be Your Own Best Friend, The Meaning of Life, Linda Goodman is nowhere to be seen -- a dead giveaway. Nor are the other tomes exactly suggestive of frivolity: Men's Work, Women's Work. Spectres of Capitalism. Gamal Hamdan's magnum opus, The Character of Egypt. There are also books in Spanish, a language she actually went out and studied for three and a half years so that she could read "the really good dependency theory literature, which had not been translated into English." So much for first impressions. Equally intriguing is Malak Zaalouk's sincere reluctance -- fine, let's be honest: refusal -- to talk about herself. Passing mention of her family is consigned to the dustbin of "off the record -- please." The story is interesting, but Zaalouk is not the kind of person even a journalist with the ethics of Wile E. Coyote would feel comfortable betraying. So she says only that principles of equity and a belief in social justice run in her family. Her father devoted his life to the national cause, fighting the British occupation and later serving in the government.
She has made it clear that she will speak for one reason alone: "It was the fact that you are interested in the project. I wanted to keep it under wraps at first, so that we could actually get the work done. Now I feel it should be known and disseminated." It is while she was working on "the project" that she received additional motivation to learn Spanish: invited to Colombia to visit the Escuela Nueva, a twin project and "one of the best in the world," she wanted to avoid the tourist scene and really talk to people. Which she did. She even gave a speech in Spanish. She laughs her nice throaty laugh: "It wasn't very long, but they understood me."
Now the things people have said about Zaalouk are beginning to make sense. She is a workaholic (although she is on leave when we meet, she will return to her office at UNICEF in the course of the week and fit in a 13-hour day without blinking). She does not like speaking to the press. She is well known in development circles, not for a flamboyant sense of dress or a propensity for incendiary statements but because she gets things done, slowly, tenaciously, effectively. More importantly, she is also well known in the villages where she has worked, villages whose names 99 per cent of Egyptians will not recognise, because they are in Upper Egypt, cut off not only from the luxuries of urban civilisation but from the most basic amenities, trappings we have come to regard as inseparable parts of life, a little like breathing. Transport. Education. Medical care. For Zaalouk to be known there is not exactly natural, for in the world of development one would expect someone like her to be involved in organising workshops, coordinating programmes and engaging in other important activities from the comfort of her air-conditioned office. Well, wrong again.
(photo: Randa Shaath)
When Zaalouk talks about the villages that now have access to schooling thanks to Education for All: Making It Work, the programme launched in 1992 by UNICEF and the Ministry of Education, she lights up from within, sparkles like a quartz. Zaalouk completed her own formal education in 1983, with a PhD from Hull University. She had gone to England in 1978, armed with a master's degree in sociology from AUC. She describes her years away from home as "among the most difficult but the best, most formative" of her life: a time of personal transformation and reflection, and a time during which the ideas that had begun to plague her at 19, when she first became engrossed in her intellectual development -- a little, one senses, as an object outside herself, for which she was responsible but that did not fully belong to her -- reached maturity.
The American University in Cairo, paradoxically ("because when you go to AUC, people automatically view you as bourgeois"), is where she encountered radical thought first. She had been a fairly happy-go-lucky teen; this was a turning point. Close friendships with African American exchange students led her to question ideas she had taken for granted. She became passionately devoted to the cause of Palestine, and developed an abiding interest in the question of Egypt's national development. The cosmopolitan mix of students she frequented at AUC in the 1970s reinforced her sense of identity; together, they explored history, discussed feminism and organised independent research groups.
She also undertook her first major piece of research, a sociological examination of court processes, focused on divorce litigation and the class structure of adjudication. Much of her work consisted of interviews with working-class women, many from Shubra, whose husbands had abandoned them and who were often slipping into destitution.
Zaalouk's strong sense of injustice was not inspired by her home life, where "gender equitable relations" prevailed. Nor did she encounter adversity in the earliest years of her academic life; still a student, driven by the urge "to be part of the national context," she presented herself at the National Centre for Social and Criminological Research (NCSCR) and volunteered her services as a trainee. She found herself, aged 21, engaged in fieldwork on land reform, as part of a team made up of "the best intellectuals" working in Egypt at the time. Feeling more was necessary, she decided to apply for a scholarship, and received "what was probably one of the last" offered by the British government before the Thatcher years slashed expenditure on education, and particularly spending on foreign students, so drastically. Still, her parents were less than thrilled when she announced her intention to leave home and study in England. For her mother the letdown was mainly emotional; as for her father, gender equity notwithstanding, he felt it was not the right thing for Zaalouk to leave her family and live abroad on her own. She went ahead anyway, spurred by the fact that, at the time, AUC had not received equivalency standing. To pursue her education, in other words, it was necessary to leave, and so Zaalouk embarked on what seems to have been a journey into the heart of depression. Totally isolated and totally permeable, she was unprepared for the shock of solitude and the poverty of a graduate student's life. It was her first experience of total independence and, while exhilarating in some respects, it must also have been grindingly hard: she remembers having owned only two pairs of jeans, which she washed and wore in strict alternation, and not being able to afford books.
It was also a humbling experience: "At AUC, with a 4.0 grade point average, you think you own the world. In England, I realised I had no tools of analysis." She signed up for courses she did not have to take, and lifted her nose from the grindstone only when it was time to leave. Zaalouk rushed back home, drawn by her sense of commitment and, more immediately, the knowledge that her father was ageing. She managed to spend a year with him before he passed away, in 1984.
Returning to the NCSCR, she found a somewhat different atmosphere, and a transformed work ethic. Still, she produced a book on the social history of an Egyptian village; meanwhile, Hull had recommended her PhD dissertation for publication, an honour that took her by surprise: "After all, I was a Third World student, very interested in dependency theory. My dissertation was an analysis of how a former colonial power -- England -- had damaged Egypt." Power, Class and Foreign Capital in Egypt: The Rise of the New Bourgeoisie was published by Zed Books in 1989.
Almost from the moment of her return, Zaalouk plunged into voluntary work, serving on committees to defend a plethora of rights, creating a women's committee within the Arab Lawyers' Union, and producing unprecedented research on violence against women (her study of battered wives, carried out in 1986, was the first of its kind in Egypt).
In the late 1980s, she began working with the International Labour Organisation, as consultant on group formation and participation for a project in Aswan designed to bring about economic development and empowerment for women. Her work consisted of engaging women, forming management groups, and creating leaders. It was at this point that Zaalouk discovered one of her main strengths: her talent for mobilising people. The women's cooperatives she helped form are still active today; the women were successful in their bid to set up an independent bank account and escape the domination of the men's cooperatives, which had sought to establish sole control over the available financial resources. During the last month of the project, Zaalouk recounts, "one of the most conservative women, who had barely ever spoken even in her family's midst, stood up at a public meeting in Kom Ombo, grabbed the mike and announced, in front of officials including the governor, that the women's co-ops would remain independent."
How, though, does such a transformation come about? The terms Zaalouk uses to describe her work (acting as "a mentor," "confidence-building," "treating women with respect," "becoming part of their problems") could be part of the huggy-bear terminology of development: long on fuzzy appeal, short on substance. But Zaalouk's shining face, the steely resolve in her tone and, especially, results that speak for themselves: these suggest that such projects have been about helping women achieve goals they set themselves, not imposing models divorced from real life, which their intended recipients will side-step with courteous smiles before going on with a good-natured sigh, a shake of the head and their household chores.
The Aswan project ended in 1991, and UNICEF approached Zaalouk to design the educational component of their Egypt programme. She accepted only in April of the following year, and even then was seconded to the fund, remaining at the NCSCR, wrapped in qualms: "I knew UNICEF's mission was good, but I am fundamentally a people's person; I wanted to get a sense of what the work environment would be like, and especially of the human relations in that work environment." With a team of experts and colleagues, she designed the programme, which was intended to bring education to hard-to-reach areas. Her interest, and main contribution, was "how to mobilise and make this a community movement." Typically, Zaalouk downplays her own role: if she was ultimately able to mobilise people, she explains, that is because they harboured latent management skills. She firmly believes in "feminist leadership, a feminine paradigm," cautioning that these labels do not imply gender categories: "Many women in top positions use masculine attributes in their work" (although fewer men, one suspects, draw on feminine qualities). Among the traits she propounds are "profound modesty, respect for others, emotional relations; the core of work," she asserts, "must be love and passion. You must have an affair with your work. That is the only way to get professionalism and quality."
Well, it can't be easy to have an affair with what seemed, at first sight, a hopeless case. The initial phase, which lasted from January to April 1992, was devoted to conceptualisation, and brought the rapid realisation, on Zaalouk's part, that conditions she would never have dreamt existed in Egypt actually prevailed throughout large swathes of the Upper Egyptian countryside. This phase also included the signing of a partnership with the Ministry of Education (which in 1993 launched a project of its own, the One-Classroom Schools, since linked up with the Community Schools), and the implementation of the first pedagogical training plan. After only three years, 34 per cent of the girls in areas with community schools were attending them, as against the 23 per cent attending government schools. This may not seem like much; but, as Zaalouk says, considering that those 34 per cent were not enrolled before, the schools were already making a significant contribution.
What, then, made the difference to families that were reluctant to let their daughters walk long distances and obtain an education that could well make them recalcitrant wives and headstrong mothers? First, Zaalouk believes, "they were happy that people had come all the way from Cairo to sit and talk with them about their problems." The team's willingness to listen must have had something to do with it, as did the inhabitants' involvement in every element of the project, from offering land ("their most precious possession") to donating the schoolrooms and contributing the "facilitators" -- women from the hamlets who already have diplomas, are trained as paraprofessional educators, and whose task is to organise activities and enable learning, but not to provide knowledge per se.
Committees made up of the villagers manage the schools and ensure regular attendance; they have even tailored school days to individual local needs so that class times do not conflict with the chores most rural children must carry out, from household work and some farm-related tasks for girls to part- time or seasonal agricultural work for boys ("we don't support child labour," Zaalouk cautions, "but helping out at home is OK; and now the communities are relieving children of their work, taking over tasks like animal husbandry, creating space for the children at home and encouraging them to study."). The schools close in peak agricultural seasons, when all hands are needed, and on market days. The committees, Zaalouk explains, have developed skills that transcend by far their education-related tasks: collective problem-solving and decision-making on matters ranging from sanitation and water supplies to road building and maintenance. The women, she adds, have been especially transformed: "They are now involved in public life," while the men are now "staunch supporters of women's education to the highest levels." The schools, too, draw up social contracts observed by facilitators and children alike; one, from Khalifa School in the village of Rifaa, stipulates that the parties "treat each other with care and gentleness; sit quietly and observe; solve problems by coming to an agreement; express rejection in words, not in action."
By the end of this year, the Community Schools Project will have reached a total of 6,500 children in hamlets throughout Assiut, Sohag and Qena. Nor are they receiving a second-class education that will not allow them to integrate into the government-run system: in 1994-95, all the students of the first four Community Schools did well on the standard third- year exam.
As accomplishments accrue to the project, more and more help has appeared: cooperation develops, funding is whipped up, NGOs and the government increase their involvement. International organisations, too, have pitched in; the Canadian International Development Agency has been a principal partner. The Sawiris Foundation has already expressed interest in supporting projects like this one; its creator has made a personal donation this year. Provincial universities have also participated, with professors volunteering on the training teams. Doctors donate free visits. Zaalouk foresees "sustainable development beyond international support."
Ironically, then, could not the principal danger be the project's very success? It is traditionally the prerogative of insensitive urban intellectuals to decry rural-urban migration and demand that peasants stay in the countryside, where they belong; will the creation of a new, literate generation not fulfil their wildest fears? "The children are proud of their origin," Zaalouk explains, imperceptibly wrinkling her delicate nose in polite ridicule at the implied fear that the urban monopoly on the comforts of civilisation will be overturned by invading hordes of rustics. According to indicators of the children's aspirations, 70 per cent want to be doctors or lawyers in rural areas, or agricultural engineers. The first groups of graduates stop at their old schools every day to see if they can help out. "There is a strong sense of belonging, of pride; faith in their mastery of technology and the benefits of scientific agriculture."
It is easier, by this point, to imagine Malak Zaalouk sitting in some village forgotten by the promises of modernity -- for she seems to have made it her business to fulfil these promises, or to help others see how they can formulate their own. Only by ceasing to speak, after all, can one begin to listen.
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