Aziza Hussein is an Egyptian woman pioneer of social work, who was the first Arab woman to be nominated for the UN Women’s Committee, and the first to include family planning to the UN’s agenda. She was also the first to discuss the issue of women’s reproductive health in Egypt, and was among the early figures who wrote about women’s legal rights. Aziza founded the Planned Parenthood Association, and was elected several times to head the International Planned Parenthood Federation. She fought against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) for seven decades. In the interview, Aziza shared her career journey.
Aziza was raised by her father, Dr. Sayed Shukri, a highly patriotic Egyptian man, who worked as a gynecologist. Aziza described his religious and political progressiveness, saying, “he was enlightened in every sense of the word. He befriended all our friends. They loved him as a friend, not a father. They always remember him. His library was full of great things, and we read all the important Arabic and English books. It was exceptional. That was my father. He had two clinics, one in Mit Ghamr and another in Zefta, and half of his patients received medical attention and treatments for free. He even paid for their medications. He was generous, and a great person.” As for the mother, Aziza recalled that her mother grew up under difficult family circumstances, which had a negative impact on her later.
Aziza attended the French School of La Mère De Dieu for five years, then moved to the American College, where she studied for one year in the boarding division, before transferring to the day-school division at the age of nine. She graduated the American College at the age of 16.
Aziza recalled her various travels as the wife of Ambassador Ahmed Hussein, as well as the trips she took on her personal capacity. Prior to the 1952 July Revolution, and before her husband commenced his post, Aziza was invited by a group called “Friends of the Middle East” to deliver a series of lectures in the USA about Egypt, and about women’s issues in particular. After her husband became Egypt’s ambassador to the United States, Aziza continued her lecturers, covering various topics, such as the Egyptian woman, the Palestinian question, and Ahmed Hussein’s projects in Egypt, including the popular housing, social centers, and social security. She recalled her fear at the beginning because she did not have much experience at that time, explaining, “at first, I was terrified giving these lectures. I never spoke as a lecturer before, but I learned. It was very difficult to speak and answer questions without being properly qualified. I realized that I could talk, and that I enunciated very well. Then, the following day, I would see the newspaper covering the event, saying I did well, although I was shaken with horror. But, I did well responding to the audience’s questions.” Following the revolution, Aziza dedicated her lectures to addressing the revolution and the national reform taking place in Egypt.”
Aziza, later, went to the Caribbean Islands with her husband at the invitation of the UN, and with the aim of conducting studies and research in the region’s social centers. This invitation came as a result of her husband’s establishment of a number of social centers in Egypt. On her part, Aziza activated a dialogue for cultural exchange in the USA, and in recognition of her efforts, President Gamal Abd al-Nasser awarded her the Order of the Virtues in 1955.
Upon their return from the United States, Aziza and her husband worked with a number of NGOs on the family planning and anti-FGM projects. She described these NGOs saying they had commitment and ideas. From 1962 to 1977, Aziza represented Egypt at the UN at the request of the Egyptian government. During that time, she traveled to attend a conference in Singapore, under the auspices of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, in order to gain insight into the process of family planning in different parts of the world. As she put it, “it was the Federation through its conferences that opened the door for me to know the international framework of family planning.” Her cooperation with this International Federation led to the establishment of “the Joint Family Planning Committee,” which encompassed several organizations, and aimed at launching collaborative work between them. This in turn resulted in the establishment of the Egyptian Family Planning Association.
Aziza was selected by the International Federation to represent Egypt, then was appointed as the Vice President of the Federation, and in 1977, she was elected President of the Federation. In the same year, Aziza was offered a position as Egypt’s Minister of Social Affairs, but she turned the offer down in fear of the responsibility, and the bureaucracy that came with the position, saying, “I knew what life is, and I knew bureaucracy was a waste of that life.” Afterwards, Aziza developed an integrated family planning project, in addition to a “future family project,” and a project for a personal status code, as well as a project in cooperation with Ain Shams University. She recounted that Nagiba Abd al-Hamid took over the management of the personal status project, and formed working groups with clerics and jurists, in addition to members of the Parliament and al-Azhar with the aim of amending the personal status laws that had been unfair to women. Aziza also recalled that the Egyptian Family Planning Association sent a telegraph to Prime Minister Mustafa Khalil, protesting against the new law that denied women the right to claim divorce on the basis of harm.
Aziza was enrolled into the Committee for Working Women’s Affairs at the Ministry of Social Affairs, along with Nawal al-Saadawi and Yahya Darwish. She also worked for the National Population Committee, but encountered many difficulties at that time. She also represented a number of NGOs in a population conference held in Oman. Mr. Maher Mahran authorized her to form a committee to follow up on the issues raised at the conference, but she had to leave the committee due to the problems she faced.
In 1979, Aziza Hussein established the “Practices Harmful to Women’s Health Association” in partnership with Ms. Aziza Kamel, as part of the efforts to combat FGM. She recounted, “we were worked with Cairo’s Ladies Club since 1979, and when we held the first conference, it launched a big movement. People began to see that this was an important issue. We continued to work under the umbrella of the Family Planning Association until the year 1992 when we founded an independent association, in order not to merge into the Association that was a chapter of the International Federation.” The activities of the new Association expanded to include other governorates, and Aziza recalled that the Governor of al-Minya established a special committee to combat FGM in al-Minya.