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The woman beyond the machinery
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 08 - 03 - 2007

tells Beyond's Seheir Kansouh-Habib that education, in all aspects, is the key to empowering women
Academic, politician and development specialist, has dedicated herself to serving the causes of women in public policy, social work, education and culture, and science. Professor of geology at the American University in Cairo and chair of the Commission on Human Development and Local Administration of the Shura Council, Hassan is also co-chair of the Gender Advisory Board of the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development and secretary- general of the National Council for Women (NCW) in Egypt. In an interview with Beyond, Hassan reveals aspects of her life.
Before taking up the position of secretary-general of NCW, you were known for your rich and productive life as a scientist, professor, politician, successful housewife, a caring mother, and even an accomplished cook.
I am happy to say that I am privileged to be all these things. These roles are interrelated and they enrich my life. Being a scientist taught me how to be a politician. My training in chemistry helped me to be a good cook. I would add that I am also a devoted grandmother.
How are you able to reconcile the diverse demands on your time and energy?
The answer is very simple. I strongly believe in and love what I am doing. I am sure that eventually we can and will make a difference in our lives as women in wanting what is best for Egypt.
Can you tell us about your upbringing and whether there were special persons who motivated you?
My mother was a strong believer in education and when I was a child, my father would show me fossils and explain how they were formed. Since then, science had a special fascination for me. Perhaps this is why I chose geology as my focus, a field that not many women have entered. The study of the history of the earth, its richness and its mysteries, still captivates me. Scientific discoveries thrill me and scientists past and present have been an inspiration and role models. I cannot forget the contributions of Muslim scientists to civilisation and how we, Arabs, represented a lighthouse for knowledge seekers; how people like Al-Khawarismi, Ibn Sina, Al-Razi, and many others, influenced science and paved the way for the incredible progress the world experiences today.
What role did science play in your life?
Science gave me everything. It gave me a disciplined approach to any subject I tackle, a sense of objectivity, the avoidance of exaggerations and the rule and patience of testing everything through experimentation. Any issue under study is seen within a holistic context. Any plan and any proposal has to be verifiable and its results measurable. No statement should be taken for granted.
In return, I am giving science my whole life. Both my children have been exposed, since early childhood, to a scientific environment, and both now are scientists. It is still too early to speak of my grandchildren. I try to give my students the perspective of scientific thinking and the love of knowledge. In all aspects of my work as a development practitioner, the scientific approach has been adopted. In all the programmes of the NCW, strategic planning, results-based management, with established performance measurement mechanisms, are applied.
As a politician, my scientific background helped me push for important issues such as environment protection (the creation of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency), Egypt's rich earth preservation in parliament, the 1985 Land Use Plan of Egypt, the 1986 Nuclear Programme of Egypt, and recently the suggestion of including an item relating to the protection of the environment in the constitution.
Today, through various national, regional and international affiliations with scientific, research and technology institutions, we scientists, try to place scientific research within the agenda of policymakers, because this is the only path to survival.
After many years of teaching, do you see changes in the behaviour of youth you have mentored?
Teaching youth is a very challenging task and at the same time very rewarding. Most of the young students, both boys and girls, show varying degrees of interest in geology and astronomy -- the subjects I teach. But they truly become enthused when I take them on field trips to Sinai, where the history of the earth is revealed in its mountains and valleys and fjords, and they start relating to the academic curricula in a new way.
It is true that most of my students come from well-to-do families, but as an NGO member in a scientific association that brings simple technologies to grassroots communities, both young and older people from poorer families are no less interested in what science and technology can bring to their lives.
I would like to add also that one of the things I most enjoyed doing in my life, but unfortunately no longer have time for now, was a weekly television programme that introduced science and technology to a lay audience. The programme was very successful. I used to receive inquiries and comments from many viewers.
What are the problems you faced as a woman parliamentarian? What support did you receive? Have attitudes changed?
What comes to my mind are the words of Soufi Abou Taleb during a recent NCW meeting in the context of the Women Parliamentarians' Programme. He recalled that when I joined parliament, he had misgivings about working with women. He added that very soon he changed his perception of women as parliamentarians when he witnessed the seriousness and dedication of his women colleagues, their eagerness to serve and their respect of and adherence to the rules.
Nowadays, despite the progress achieved, the rights that we women have gained and the political will that supports our participation in public life, there is a tendency to diminish the importance and contribution of women in parliament. I would like to add that women are to blame for this as much as men. There is evident apathy on both sides. Only a few women go out to the people and serve their communities, which is the pathway to parliament. They may talk in conferences and meetings, but few practice.
I sincerely hope we can change that attitude. To that end, we established in the NCW a centre for the political empowerment of women to help them find their way.
What is your recipe for balancing the different public and private roles you must play in life?
My recipe, in a nutshell, is that you have to identify your priorities. In the early years of my marriage, and being blessed with my two children, my priority was my children: no research, part-time work only, etc. I put my ambition on the shelf. Later, when they went to school, I started my postgraduate studies: we all used to sit and study together. When time passed and they were about to graduate from university, I started my political career. I was elected to the People's Assembly one week before their graduation from university. I am very lucky to have a supportive husband. I think if you have enough determination and a supportive family that believes in the worth of women you will always achieve what you want to do.
What do you see yourself as having brought to the National Council for Women, and what did it bring to you?
I think I was able to bring to the NCW sincere dedication and scientific insight. The support, collaboration and dedication of my colleagues, both in the NCW board and its secretariat, brought me a very strong sense of purpose and the conviction that everyone can and will make a difference.
With regard to the work of the NCW, before embarking on or planning any activity, studies and research are conducted to arrive at a realistic analysis of the situation. Documents such as the Human Development Reports, the World Bank Country Assessment Strategy, the Country Gender Assessment, and other national statistical dossiers, are thoroughly studied. Following that, we develop our strategic orientation, based on the mandate of the council.
The first and second articles of the mandate of the NCW defines our responsibilities: "To propose public policy matters for society and its constitutional institutions on development and empowerment of women to enable them to play their economic role; and to integrate their efforts in comprehensive development programmes and to draft a National Plan for the advancement of women and to solve their problems."
From these two articles, five major programmes were developed: gender mainstreaming in national socio- economic development plans; economic empowerment; social empowerment; solving women's problems; and human and institutional capacity building.
In gender mainstreaming, by working closely with our ministry partners, and by introducing concepts such as strategic planning, gender budgeting, gender auditing, results-based management, we were able to double the allocations for women specific programmes and activities in the National Development Plan 2002-2007, and we are monitoring and evaluating their implementation. The UNDP has cited this exercise as an example of best practice.
In the 2007-2012 plan, and based on the results of the monitoring exercise, a bottom- up and decentralised approach was adopted, involving women at the markaz and hai levels (lower administrative entities in local government) in the process. Women were asked to express their needs through specially designed sample surveys with the help of NGOs. I feel that the plan truly reflects the needs that women, particularly those at the grassroots, have expressed, and that local planning was truly a participatory process.
I am happy to say that the plan has been accepted, with its proposed budgets and detailed programmes and projects, and it is now being integrated into the new National Development Plan. I would emphasise here that we are not an executive body, so our executing agencies are more than a hundred NGOs in rural governorates.
With regard to economic empowerment, several programmes have been put into place: economic empowerment as a key to poverty reduction, women in the labour market, and rural women. The same scientific approach to each of these issues is applied and we hope the difference will be felt. We still have a long way to go, but we will get there.
During our 7th Annual Conference, it is our intention to launch our vision on how we implemented the third goal of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), "Promote Gender Equality and Women Empowerment," through our strategic framework for gendering the National Development Plan 2007-2012. It is difficult for any decision maker to delay or refuse a policy that is backed by scientific argument and has the support of the stakeholders.
I have to emphasise here the importance of strong and supportive political will at the highest level, as manifested in President's Mubarak's directives. Having Egypt's First Lady as a working chair, and not an honorary one, has made many of our achievements possible. First Lady Suzanne Mubarak follows up on our progress almost on a daily basis.
If asked to single-out one activity that would serve Egyptian women, which would you choose and why?
I would say educate women, educate women, educate women. To paraphrase what Hafez Ibrahim ,poet of the Nile, said so beautifully: A mother is a school. If well prepared, you are building a well-founded nation.


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