Tribute to late Mary Nura Bassiouni: Celebrating a South Sudan's woman of steel

Category: Profiles
Published on Thursday, 18 March 2010 05:19
Written by The New Sudan Vision (NSV), www.newsudanvision.com
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The New Sudan Vision is pleased to present an inspiring story of late Mary Nura Bassiouni, a prominent Southern Sudanese politician and tireless advocate of women’s issues around the world.

This past International Women’s Day (March 8), a global day which celebrates the economic, political and social achievements of women, was dedicated to her memory by South Sudan Institute for Women's Education and Leadership for her contributions to Sudan and various women causes.

This installment is part of our long-running theme of digging up stories of unsung south Sudanese heroes. The story was reprinted with the permission of the Bassiouni family and South Sudan Institute for Women's Education and Leadership.

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Mary Nura Bassiouni when she was giving a speech at Advocate International Conference in San Antonio in 1999

Mary Nura Bassiouni was an icon of women’s leadership, a pioneering politician and a passionate humanitarian. She devoted a lifetime to a distinguished selfless public service career. The second-eldest daughter of Elizabeth Soro Sangwa Luwo and Philip Soro, Mary was born in Juba, Sudan, on June 12, 1946. She was educated at Kator Elementary School in Juba. She then attended Loa Intermediate School, before proceeding to St. Teresa’s Teachers Training College, Kator, where she trained as a primary school teacher. She obtained a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc) in Business Administration from Pacific Western University. In her packed public service life Mary Bassiouni devoted time to study French with passion. She achieved an exceptionally high proficiency in the French Language. She used it extensively to widen her extraordinary network of professional associates and friends. Throughout her school years, Mary exhibited remarkable natural leadership skills, the key trait that would later define her trail blazing Public Service career – fearless leadership, passionate advocacy, progressive values and strong, community-centered principles. Above all she championed the cause of women at a time when discrimination and inequity was accepted as their normal station in life.
 
On August 12th, 2008, Mary Nura Bassiouni lost her life at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, USA, after bravely battling cancer. As in life, she remained calm, resolute and defiant to the end and when the end came, she departed on her own terms in dignity and in the arms of her beloved husband and children. That dark day deprived the Sudan, the African continent and women at large of one of the most extraordinary women of our time. Although fate has silenced a powerful voice for the disadvantaged and dispossessed, her legacy lives on to inspire the younger generations especially women to aspire to greater heights.
 
Activist and banker 
 
Growing up in a politically-conscious family with deep roots in Public Service, Mary Bassiouni became a passionate supporter of the Southern Sudanese cause. She joined the Southern Front, then the leading political movement, and became a strong party activist as the South struggled for self-determination. Following her graduation, she found her first career calling in the financial sector in the Barclays Bank in Juba, Southern Sudan. The Ministry of Education and Barclay’s Bank conducted an extensive search for highly qualified Southern Sudanese women, and Mary was selected, becoming the first Southern Sudanese woman to join the Bank.


Rising star in exile
 
Mary met her soul mate, David S. Bassiouni, in 1965 when both were active student leaders at the frontlines of the Southern cause. It was the beginning of a special enduring union that would last forty years – she pursued the path of a rising political phenomenon while he attended Khartoum University’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Following death threats and harassment, Mary and many members of the Southern Front went into exile in Uganda. During her exile, Mary was appointed as an official at the Nigerian High Commission in Kampala but she continued to champion the cause and supported Southern Sudanese refugees in Uganda.
 
Wife, mother and political leader 

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Mary Nura Bassiouni and her family (Family photo)

Following her return from exile in 1965, Mary resumed work for Barclays Bank in Khartoum and continued to advocate for the Southern Sudanese. Within five years, she would fulfill multiple roles as a loving wife, fiercely devoted mother, successful banker and emerging politician. In 1967, she married Dr. David Bassiouni as he started his veterinary career and then gave birth to Emile in Kassala two years later. Aida would follow in 1972 and David, Jr. would join the family in 1976. Balancing the duties of a fiercely loving mother with her career, Mary continued to work for Barclays Bank while continuing to advocate for the Southern Sudanese cause, particularly the unity of the South. She lived by her favourite quote from Napoleon: “Give me a good mother and I will give you a nation.”
 
David and Mary returned to Juba in 1972 following the signing of the Addis Ababa Agreement in 1972 and played leading roles in the establishment and running of the Regional Government in South Sudan. Once there, Mary left the banking world, became a full-time politician and continued her meteoric rise up the political ladder. She became the President of the Sudanese Women’s Union, the first women’s organization in Southern Sudan, and devoted her time to promoting women’s rights and issues in the Region. Mary was then elected into office to represent the women of Equatoria in the newly established Regional Assembly, another validation of her fierce commitment to women’s issues and Southern Sudanese concerns and aspirations. She was subsequently re-elected twice to the Southern Regional Parliament where she served at the ministerial level as the Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Social Affairs.  She also designed and built the Multi-Purpose Sudanese Women Center in Juba, which continues to offer a variety of vocational training and facilities to the women of Southern Sudan. Today, it stands out as a milestone of her legacy of distinguished contribution to Public Service.
 
Political pioneer and national figure 
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As a three-term Member of Parliament, Mary Bassiouni became a member of the Sudanese Socialist Union (SSU) and rose to the membership of its Politburo, then the highest political organ in the country. Soon afterwards, she became the first Southern Sudanese woman to serve as Minister of Internal Affairs in the cabinet of President Jaafar Nimery. While representing her Southern Sudanese constituency, she also championed a variety of national and international causes ranging from contributing to the pioneering OAU initiatives in addressing gender issues, to helping to implement the Convention of Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
 
In her capacity as a leader and a female icon, she represented and championed Sudanese interests in conferences throughout the African continent, the Middle East and Europe. She lent her voice and expertise to hundreds of seminars, conferences and workshops. Throughout this time, she continued to make difficult and courageous decisions based on deeply-held values and principles. In 1983, she took a principled stand against the proposed imposition of Sharia Law in the Sudan because of her commitment to national harmony. This historic stand ended up costing her the ministerial position, which she happily relinquished for the greater interest. She subsequently left the government in protest, preferring to live in exile instead of compromising her principles.
 
Advocate and humanitarian 
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In the photo is former secretary of state Madeline Albright (third from left) and late Mary Nura Bassiouni (far right corner) at Advocate International Conference in San Antonio in 1999 (Bassiouni family photo)

After leaving the Sudan in the early eighties, Mary lent her unique expertise and powerful voice to dozens of women’s organizations and NGOs, advocating on behalf of women around the world. Whether it was fighting for refugees at the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, lobbying for human rights through Advocates International or advocating for economic and social development programmes within the UN and regional organizations, she continued to eloquently argue the case for stopping discrimination against women and giving them equal opportunities worldwide. She earned a series of leadership awards from the Women’s Commission, the New York Association for New Immigrants and other organizations. She also accompanied Dr. Bassiouni in his various country assignments in UNICEF and the UN. Throughout this time, Mary gave David and the family immeasurable support as a devoted wife and a highly gregarious and popular socialite within the international community.
 
A lasting legacy and an unfinished mission

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  Undated photo of late Mary Nura Bassiouni on a camel in Jordan at the ancient site of Petra (Family photo)


To the end, Mary Nura Bassiouni remained a fearless leader, a champion for the voiceless and an iconic role model for the Southern Sudanese community, the Sudanese people and thousands more far beyond the country’s borders. She believed in and struggled for the unity of the South because to her, the South is and should always remain indivisible. She will be missed by all for so many reasons but all will agree that she cared deeply and toiled selflessly for the disadvantaged members of her society, especially women. Her legacy of selfless public service, uncompromised principles, progressive values and her drive for the empowerment and advancement of women will continue to inspire and embolden future generations and women leaders to continue her unfinished mission. This noble mission is enshrined in the vision and agenda of The Mary N. Bassiouni Foundation, which is dedicated to the empowerment and advancement of women in the Sudan and throughout the world.