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People first got to know Anissa Hassouna, the executive director of the Magdi Yacoub Foundation (MYF) based in Aswan, Egypt, when she appeared on television calling on them to donate to relieve the suffering of children with heart defects. Hassouna joined the foundation in 2009, and today people know her as one of the most influential Arab women and member of the Egyptian parliament.
In February 2016, after about seven years of hard work, Hassouna announced she had to leave her position at MYF, because as a member of parliament she is prohibited from representing any organization.
Hassouna holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from Cairo University. She began her career as a diplomat with the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, followed by 14 years in the Council of Arab Economic unity, of the League of Arab States.
A passion to serve her country through civil society encouraged Hassouna to start many initiatives for human rights and citizenship. She is the founder and chairperson of the Enlightened Egypt foundation, which promotes and raises awareness about the values of citizenship and gender equality. She is also a founding member of the Forum for Arab Citizenship in Transition Democracies and the Front for Protecting the Freedom of Creativity and Expression.
She was appointed by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to the newly formed Egyptian parliament. As a parliament member, Hassouna hopes she will be able to debate laws that secure basic rights for all Egyptian citizens, such as the right to a proper education and an adequate healthcare system, human rights, and freedom of speech. Yet because she was appointed by al-Sisi, it will be very difficult for her to raise those subjects of human rights and freedom of speech. Repression is severe in present-day Egypt. Tens of thousands of (alleged) critics have been imprisoned, often after unfair trials, and reports of torture in prison and police stations have been accumulating.
“I do not know a lot about her background and past experiences, except for her work with Sir Magdi,” said Aala Abdelfadeel, an editor, “I expect her to focus on the issues of women empowerment and parity, as well as healthcare-related issues,” she added. Sir Magdi Yacoub is a professor at Imperial College and the chairman of the Magdi Yacoub Heart Foundation.
“She was working with Sir Magdi, so I expect her to be a respectable figure, in the midst of all the irresponsible and disrespectful actions of the some other figures in parliament,” Mohamed Salem, a customer service assistant, told Fanack.
She is also trying to debate and review laws regarding contempt of religion in Egypt, as well as supporting the modernization of religious speech and sermons, and is calling for educational and cultural reforms.
Hassouna, who is also a founding member of the Arab International Women’s Forum in London and a founding member of the Think Tank for Arab Women, is particularly keen to support women rights.
“I want to make sure that all the legislation passed by the parliament treats women and men equally,” says Hassouna. One of the main issues she is focusing on as a member of parliament is women who are the breadwinners of their families, which make up 30 per cent of Egyptian families, according to a report published by the Egyptian Central Administration for Population and Social Studies and Research in March 2014. She wants to pass legislation that supports them by providing funding and proper training to help them start their own small businesses and ensure they can earn a living that guarantees them and their families a decent life.
“The key word for everything I have achieved throughout my life is family,” says Hassouna. She was raised in the home of a renowned former minister of justice, Essam Eldin Hassouna, during the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser. He was behind the abolition of a law that forced women to live with their husbands and created the Gaza Strip constitution in the 1950s. Growing up in a house with such a role model, the principles of human rights in general and respect for women rights in particular, were instilled in Hassouna early on.
“A home that encourages you to read and believes in the importance of freedom of choice is an enlightened home that helps you be creative and influential,” says Hassouna. “My husband and I have done the same with our beloved daughters.”
Hassouna is married to well-to-do Egyptian businessman Sherif Nagy and stresses that the key to a successful marriage is to have a partner with similar points of view and principles in life. “Many people think that a strong woman is one who makes her own decisions alone, but that is not the case with me,” says Hassouna, as she explains how she confers with her husband in all her decisions because she trusts his judgment. “My family is the source of my pride and power,” Hassouna adds.
Hassouna faced many challenges in life, but they are no different from those faced by other women in Egypt and elsewhere around the world, she told Cairo West Magazine in an interview. She has had to continuously prove herself in the workplace in a way not required of men and has not always been treated on equal footing with her male colleagues.
In 2014, she was named one of the “World’s 100 Most Powerful Arab Women” by the Arabian Business and CEO Middle East magazine. “I was honoured by this selection for years of hard work, but we should not forget the team behind this effort, my colleagues on the professional level, and my beloved family on the personal level,” said Hassouna.
Although Hassouna was named one of the 100 most powerful Arab women, she confessed that she is softens when she sees her three grandchildren. “I consider them my retirement gratuity; they are the true source of happiness in my life,” said Hassouna.