Sunday,24 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)
Sunday,24 February, 2019
Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A life committed to others

Obituary Aziza Hussein:

Aziza Hussein was a stalwart of civil society. During seven decades of campaigning for others she remained resolutely out of the limelight, to the extent that many of those whose lives were affected by her work will not even recognise her name.

More than nine decades ago, Hussein was born to a wealthy family in the Delta. Her mother suffered ill health — the story is related in her memoir, published by AUC Press in 2013 — leaving Aziza, the eldest of five brothers and sisters, to care for her siblings.

Aziza later moved to Cairo where she was enrolled at foreign schools and then the American University in Cairo.

Early in her life, she made the point in many interviews, she realised that women, and especially poorer women, bore the brunt of the hardships in Egypt’s patriarchal society.

She devoted her life to improving their lives. Observing the toll exacted by unplanned pregnancies, by physical violations such as genital mutilation, and social restrictions, such as the denial of divorce to women trapped in impossible marriages, she focussed her energies on promoting family planning and, to a lesser degree, reforming family status laws.

She worked with whoever she thought might be of use in the battle to help women take control of their own lives, an uphill struggle in a society that viewed the ideas she was promoting — securing the education and physical well-being of girls and women’s access to basic rights — as alien.

Hussein refused the offers of official posts that came her way. She preferred, she repeatedly said, to work under the umbrella of civil society — the charities of her younger days, before they developed into more organised and elaborate forums.

Hussein never bothered much with the state, though she realised it had a role to play in improving people’s lives. Instead, she placed her faith in people’s ability to reach out to one another and in grassroots work. She did not believe the state could get people to change the way they do things simply by issuing orders.

In 1994 Egypt hosted the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). Hussein recognised that it was a golden opportunity for the kind of advocacy to which she was committed. The state wanted a successful conference and Hussein made the best of it, pushing women’s reproductive rights to the top of the agenda.

Throughout her life Hussein was convinced that helping people to communicate better was key to securing a better future. In her last published interviews, which appeared as Egypt was descending into political turmoil in early 2013, Hussein issued appeal after appeal for people to avoid violent confrontations.

The 25 January Revolution, she said, was in essence an expression of the people’s hopes for a better future which could only be secured against a backdrop of civil peace, whatever the political disagreements that raged.

Married to Ahmed Hussein, who served as a diplomat and minister before and after the 1952 revolution, she had no children.

She remained busy until the end, though she would break each day with a period of meditation, which helped to east the physical pain that marred her final years.

Hussein’s funeral took place on Tuesday 20 January, with funeral prayers held at the Mosque of Al-Sayeda Nafissa.

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