Cassandra Balchin, A Fierce And Passionate Advocate And A Force To Be Reckoned With…
Before Cass and I met in person, we worked together virtually for two years on the “Warning Signs of Fundamentalisms” website resource. She served as the WLUML liaison for the web resource shortly after her return to London, England, and I was managing the website on behalf of AWID. She struck me as brilliant and efficient, but abrupt, in a crusty British type of way… all qualities I would eventually come to value tremendously.
When I finally had the opportunity to meet Cass in person at the AWID Forum in Bangkok, Thailand in 2005, I was struck by her warmth, her lovely smile and her generosity.
Over the next seven years, Cass and I worked closely together on AWID’s “Resisting and Challenging Religious Fundamentalisms” initiative—myself as the AWID Manager and Cass as Senior Research Consultant. It was at an AWID meeting in Queretaro, Mexico at the end of 2006, that we first began scheming and plotting about the initiative (which at the time was a simple two-page proposal put together by myself and Joanna Kerr, AWID’s former executive director), and became more and more excited about all the possibilities that lay ahead.
Together, we got through the initiative’s intensive research phase, drafting many iterations of a huge online survey on religious fundamentalisms and women’s rights, which went out to over 20,000 women’s rights activists around the world (Martin Redfern, our survey consultant, joked that it would go down in history as the survey with the most drafts ever done!). We had heated discussions within the research team, though these often deteriorated into sexual innuendo or jokes, thanks mainly to Juan Marco Vaggione (our second research consultant). As the initiative moved forward, other CF and AWID team members joined our often long and complex discussions (or more accurately perhaps, marathons)—Ghadeer Malik, Deepa Shankaran and Saira Zuberi). We facilitated AWID Stakeholder Meetings, a Young Feminist Activist Institute, and numerous workshops and presentations. Through all of this, Cass never seemed to lose that upbeat energy. She was always looking into future possibilities, and at the way that things could be, rather than the way they were.
I came to know Cass as an uncompromising and passionate advocate, with a strength of character that was a force to be reckoned with. I also came to truly value and respect her depth of knowledge and experience on religious fundamentalisms and women’s rights, as did all my colleagues. I listened hard when she spoke, and I chose my battles carefully. I also learned that despite her strong convictions about most things, Cass’ sense of humour and ability to make fun of practically anything, especially herself, was never far behind. She had a tenderness that belied the tough exterior, and sometimes it made you just want to give her a big hug and tell her to let it all go…
Cass gave so much to AWID and to the Challenging Fundamentalisms initiative, even taking up the reigns in terms of content and strategic direction, when I went on a year long maternity leave. She devoted countless hours to researching, writing and brainstorming, and conducted hundreds of interviews and presentations. She met pretty much every impossible deadline right until the very end. I have yet to meet another person who can write with as much speed and clarity as Cass, without losing the fine nuances of a subject as complex as religious fundamentalisms and women’s rights.
Cass gave so much to me as well. She mentored me, challenged me and strengthened my knowledge to a point where I felt comfortable challenging her in return.
I will remember the ‘big’ things of course, like Cass’ immense contribution to AWID’s groundbreaking report on religious fundamentalisms and women’s rights, Towards a Future without Fundamentalisms(a title so reflective of her positive outlook!), and all the other publications that so much carries her voice and analysis. But also the ‘smaller’ things, like the fact that my son rode around on a bike covered with Spiderman stickers that she had mailed to him, or the damned Christmas ornaments she gave me that are still sitting around in my cupboard—one of the many quirky presents that I received from her over the years, which also included fruitcake and pate. And I will remember the times we spent in hotel rooms together, usually after intense days of AWID meetings, quietly reading ourselves to sleep.
We talked about our kids and our loves, about impossible mothers and about the beauty, frustration and heartbreak of it all. We also talked a lot about what we could do to really change this crazy world, about how to push boundaries and make a difference. I know that she remains passionate about this still, even in our last conversation, and even as her voice is breaking. I hope that she knows the difference that she has made to countless people, including myself, and the entire AWID-CF team, and that she has sent out not ripples but enormous waves that continue to gather strength.
The legacy that Cassandra leaves AWID and the field of women’s rights and religious fundamentalisms is tremendous and immense, and is only partially reflected by what she published during her time with AWID.
Just a few highlights include:
- The publication, Exposed!: Ten Myths about Religious Fundamentalisms, which sought to creatively and accessibly recount some of the misconceptions about religious fundamentalisms that came out of the survey and interview research.
- The publication, “Religious Fundamentalisms On The Rise: A Case For Action” which presents the survey responses of more than 1,600 women’s rights activists and their allies, providing a deeper understanding of the way fundamentalist projects work to undermine women’s rights, human rights and development.
- The groundbreaking report Towards A Future Without Fundamentalisms: Analyzing Religious Fundamentalist Strategies and Feminist Responses, which explores the causes of fundamentalisms as recounted by women rights activists, the strategies various fundamentalist movements use to influence society and politics, and feminist strategies to resist and challenge them.
- The publication, Feminists On The Frontline: Case Studies Of Resisting And Challenging Fundamentalisms which contain key learnings from feminist activists challenging religious fundamentalisms across a range of religious and geographical contexts..
Still to come are publications in draft form that Cass and I are working on together, including “Saints, sinners and water pumps: Furthering understandings on development, social justice, religion and women’s rights” (the title is all Cass, of course!). In fact, I silently cursed, as I had to try to fill her big shoes and present this paper to a feminist development audience at the AWID Forum in Istanbul in April 2012 alongside Shaista Gohir (who was presenting based on another paper written by Cass on the subject for Oxfam-GB! “Avoiding Some Deadly Sins). She and I are also working on an advocacy toolkit, to make the AWID research results more accessible, something that Cass remains very passionate about.
I want to cry at the tragedy of it, but if there is a legacy I know Cass will leave, it is one of courage, strength, conviction, love and laughter. In my mind’s eye, I will always carry the (perhaps a little mythical) image of a younger Cassandra riding her motorbike through the streets of Lahore, fearless, her hair flowing. I will remember our first somewhat surprising face-to-face encounter, way back in Bangkok, which was the beginning of such a rich and special journey.
To Cassandra, my deepest love and gratitude always, and to Dani and Raul, who I feel I have gotten to know and love through Cass, my deepest appreciation for the person who shared and touched all of our lives. May her love carry you through the pain.
With all my love, respect, and admiration.
Shareen Gokal is a Senior Program Manager at Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID) and has since 2007 been manager of the Resisting & Challenging Religious Fundamentalismsinitiative. Before joining the initiative she managed the Women Human Rights Net web resource for AWID, the 2002 AWID Forum and has also worked with the Canadian Refugee Sponsorship and Training Program and the Afghan Women’s Organization, Canada.