Aziza Hussein: A visionary for women’s rights

by

Many young women living in Egypt and worldwide today do not know that the rights they enjoy are legally theirs because of the great women who fought for them, like Aziza Hussein.

Aziza Hussein (1919-2015) was a pioneer of women’s rights and development in Egypt and the Arab world. She was the first Egyptian female member of the UN delegation to address the General Assembly.

Aziza Hussein in her autobiography

She succeeded in placing family planning on the agenda of the United Nations. Speaking about family planning at the Commission for the Status of Women in 1963 was considered both groundbreaking and courageous.

She also participated in drafting the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) – finalised in 1979 – which is considered the main reference for women’s rights the world over. She incorporated articles in the CEDAW which directly used the term “family planning”, breaking taboos at the time.

She received the prestigious CERES medal by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), together with a group of imminent and legendary women such as Indira Ghandi, Mother Theresa, and Gloria Steinem.

Ahmed Hussein and Aziza Hussein in Washington

Aziza Hussein was married to Ahmed Pasha Hussein, Minister of Social Affairs under Mostafa Nahas Pasha, and Egypt’s first ambassador to Washington after the 1952 Revolution. Ahmed Hussein was a legend in his own right, and together they formed a power house couple in Washington. They were so great, in fact, that it is said the late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser expressed his desires that his daughters grow up to be like Aziza Hussein.

Her husband had a huge influence on her, and encouraged her to pursue work in the public domain, unconditionally supporting her efforts and travels. She writes in her autobiography “My father and my husband were the two great men in my life. Therefore I could never join a feminist movement that proposed to consider men as adversaries.”

Ahmed Hussein and Gamal Abdel-Nasser

In 1977, while busy with establishing a pioneer project in the form of an integrated services family planning clinic and training centre, she was offered the post of Minister of Social Affairs by prime minister Mahmoud Salem. She declined the post, even after hearing that president Anwar Al-Sadat himself had been the one to nominate her. Refusing a ministerial post was unthinkable at the time, but Aziza Hussein found herself in voluntary work and had no interest in being a part of the government.

From 1977 to 1983, she served as president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), and in 2000 received the IPPF award for her pioneering work in advocating family planning and supporting the marketing of contraceptives in Egypt and internationally. Among her other achievements are the establishing of the first rural nursery in Egypt, and the founding of the Cairo Family Planning Association, for which she served as president.

At the age of 57 she was introduced to Transcendental Meditation (TM), a technique introduced by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of India, which she says “helps release stress in a natural, spontaneous and effortless manner, and enables one to unfold to his full potential”. Since 1976, she became in charge of the TM movement in Egypt. Upon their meeting in 1985, Maharishi called her “Mother of Egypt”, a title which hundreds of men and women who were introduced to TM in Egypt through her still call her 20 years later.

Aziza Hussein ( left) and her father (Dr. Sayed Shoukry) (right)
Aziza Hussein (left) and her father Dr. Sayed Shoukry (right)

Aziza Hussein was as remarkable on the personal level as she was in the public sphere. A gracious, gentle woman, she touched the hearts of all those who met her. Her generosity knew no bounds, and she was known to give, both emotionally and materially, without expecting anything in return. She was so down to earth that she only spoke of her achievements when thoroughly probed, and through her autobiography “A Pilgrim Soul”, which she single-handedly typed on her laptop at the age of 93.

Aziza Hussein (right) and her sister Esmat Shoukry (left)

In the prologue to her autobiography she writes: “To be able to overcome physical discomfort, disease, major operations, a double mastectomy, a major cataract, and an elaborate teeth operation – let alone chronic diseases like diabetes and lack of balance suspected to be sclerotic Parkinsonism to boot – is more than anyone could bargain for during their lifetime! While all this could have brought me to my knees, to crawl by a wall, or to leech on younger people, I did not allow it. In addition to these things, I was deprived of the children whom I always yearned to have…
Thank God I was brought up to believe that women, as humans, have an important role to play in life in their own right, irrespective of their biological function.”

Aziza Hussein (photo: elbashayeronline)

Aziza Hussein was adored and adulated by many people who knew her all over the world, and her loss is a heavy one to bear. An inspirational woman who paved the way for civil society and women’s rights today has left our world, her pilgrim soul free to continue its journey unobstructed by physical boundaries.