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The Heart and Soul of Multigenerational Organizing: Dialoguing through Archives

MaissanHassan-PicIn February 2011, the Coalition of Feminist Organizations; a coalition of more than 15 Egyptian women NGOs and groups, was formed. It included established NGOS, emerging women’s groups, and young feminists eager to engage with human rights issues and older feminists who have been working towards social change for decades.

These were difficult times for multigenerational organizing. Young people were idolized in mainstream media and older generations were blamed for all the mistakes of the tumbling regime. On the other hand, skeptical attitudes towards the recent rise of a younger generation of human rights advocates were arising. Despite the difficulties, many feminists and women’s rights advocates were committed to multigenerational dialogue; creating spaces to listen, reflect and learn from each other.

Thanks to good luck and hard work, I joined one of these spaces. In April 2011, I participated in the first meeting of the Women and Constitution Working Group, which aimed at integrating gender issues and feminist demands in the new Egyptian constitution. The Working Group was hosted by the Women and Memory Forum under the umbrella of the Coalition of Feminist Organizations.  For more than two years, I have witnessed and participated in a collaborative process that was not only multigenerational but also inclusive to the diverse knowledge of human rights activists, gender advocates, feminist researchers and academics. We spent long study sessions discussing older Egyptian constitutions, learning from the constitutions of South Africa, Brazil, Germany, Tunisia and Malaysia. Despite the variation in age, political ground and expertise, these were discussions among peers.

When the time came for press conferences and formal hearing sessions before the constitution committee, most younger members were hesitant to take the lead. Although most of us – “the younger members”- have been already assuming leading roles in international spaces; I was skeptical on whether the Egyptian context would welcome us – the new kids in town. Members of the Working Group; both younger and older, proved me wrong. Through the Working Group, many younger activists; including myself, were contesting spaces in the Coalition, the Egyptian feminist movement and media. It was a political decision that the Working Group included and was represented by individuals from different generations.

Being part of the discussion on women and the constitution led me to explore another dimension of multigenerational dialogues; the dialogue through women’s archives.  I had, since the early days of the Working Group, been developing an obsession with the life and work of Doria Shafik; a pioneer feminist who founded the Daughter of the Nile Union in the late 1940s. Doria Shafik fought the battle for including women’s voices in the constitution in 1954. On the shelves of the Women and Memory Library; which was established in 1995 by a group of feminist academics, I was presented with a golden opportunity of multigenerational dialogue. I was fortunate to be part of a women’s group whose archive has significant and rare works on gender and women in Egypt such as copies of the Daughter of the Nile Magazine and a rich oral history archive of narratives told by pioneering women.

During the political upheaval of the last three years in Egypt, I developed a habit of befriending the archives. Women’s archives could open up new horizons for contemporary feminists; both young and old. Women’s archives do not only speak of success stories. Most importantly, they also teach us how older feminists resisted.

A multigenerational dialogue is not confined to meeting rooms, international forums, community based activities and online discussions. Being a member of a women’s archive and library for almost 8 years taught me how documenting women’s personal archives, collecting their oral histories and preserving writings of other feminists are the heart and soul of multigenerational dialogue.

Maissan Hassan is a feminist researcher and women’s rights advocate. Based in Cairo-Egypt, she is currently the Programs Manager of the Women and Memory Forum. She is the MENA advisor for FRIDA: The Young Feminist Fund and a co-founder of Nazra for Feminist Studies. She is the co-author of Reclaiming & Redefining Rights. ICPD+20: Status of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in the Middle East and North Africa. Cairo: EIPR, 2013. Maissan’s main interests include research, documentation and writing on gender, sexuality, women’s history and memory. She holds a B.A. in Sociology and Film from the American University in Cairo. Currently, she is a student at the Cultural Heritage Studies M.A. Program at Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and the French University in Egypt.

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