Cassandra Balchin was born in England in 1962 to Yovanka (née Tomich), a Yugoslav refugee and former journalist, and Nigel Balchin, a psychologist and author. During her childhood, she spent time with family in Yugoslavia, which greatly shaped her worldview. She pursued undergraduate studies in Russian Government and History at the London School of Economics, from which she received a Bachelor’s of Science in Government in 1983. Following graduation, she moved to Lahore, Pakistan, where she worked as a journalist for publications including Viewpoint and The Frontier Post before she joined Shirkat Gah and the regional office of Women Living under Muslim laws. On Thursday, 12 July 2012, Cassandra passed away peacefully. She will continue to live through her many writings and contributions to the realization of women’s human rights.
Cassandra joined Shirkat Gah: Women’s Resource Center, Lahore (SG), which also housed WLUML’s Asia Regional Coordination Office in 1991. WLUML had just launched its ambitious international research project, the Women And Law Program in Muslim Contexts (1991-2001). During her time at SG, she coordinated many of the Women and Law meetings and outreach workshops. She also authored and edited or contributed many important works that examined women’s rights in the Pakistani context, including Women, law and society: An action manual for NGOs and A handbook on Muslim family law in Pakistan. As she described in an interview later in life, her time at Shirkat Gah was “the beginning of a love affair with the topic of Muslim family laws”, which remained with her to the end of her life.
In 2000, Cassandra returned to England, to help with the move of WLUML’s International Coordination Office from a small village in south of France to London. She acted as Deputy International Coordinator, and later as International Co-ordinator, until 2007. During her time at WLUML, Cassandra wrote extensively and prolifically on the issues of religion, law, and women’s rights. Cassandra made major contributions to and oversaw the publication of the international handbook Knowing Our Rights: Women, Family, Laws And Customs In The Muslim World, which brought together the result of the WLUML Women and the Law Program, and featured research from twenty-eight counties and communities. This publication was one of the first major scholarly works to examine family law across the Muslim contexts and ultimately led to subsequent research and publications on the subject.
She was also involved in the organization Women Against Fundamentalism, which addresses the negative impacts of the various forms of religious fundamentalism on women and gender equality while she was at WLUML and later working with Other women’s organizations. Cassandra served as Senior Research Consultant for the Association of Women in Development (AWID) Program “Resisting and Challenging Religious Fundamentalisms”. In fact her intellectual interest was the question of religious fundamentalism. Indeed we at WLUML often said we could always find Cassandra front and centre whenever and wherever there was a debate on the perils of fundamentalism on women and society.
Cassandra never gave up on learning and expanding her knowledge, either formally or informally. Despite her very busy professional life, and mothering two sons, she balanced her professional and activist work while completing a Master’s degree in Gender and Ethnic Studies under Nira Yuval-Davis.
In her later years, Cassandra helped to establish and served as Chair of the British Muslim Women’s Network, a national NGO that works to promote equality and social justice for Muslim women and girls living in the UK. Muslim women had long been critical of British government policymakers that, in the name of inclusivity, had always referred to the men and religious leaders, who were not elected and many of whom had not been British educated and had little knowledge of the diverse United Kingdom Muslim communities, rather than talk to active civil society and women’s organizations. Cassandra saw this initiative as a platform for fostering solidarity among Muslim women together, and to bring the voices and demands of British Muslim women to the attention of public-policy makers.
She and Zainah Anwar of Sisters in Islam played a major role in bringing the scholars and activists of Islamic studies, human rights and gender studies together to create Musawah, an organization committed to creating knowledge and discourses for advocates of justice and equality in the Muslim family law context, and to support the Muslim family as an institution. Musawah was formally launched in February 2009 at a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, attended by over 250 activists, scholars, legal practitioners including human rights advocates and theologians, policymakers, and grassroots women and men from around the 47 countries.
Cassandra also authored the following publications: Exposed! Ten Myths About Religious Fundamentalism, a publication by AWID which aims to examine how religious fundamentalism impacts women’s rights and women’s rights activism; “Muslim Women’ and ‘Moderate Muslims’: British Policy and the Strengthening of Religious Absolutist Control over Gender Development” in The Power of Labelling: How and Why People’s Categories Matter (edited by Joy Moncrieff and Rosalind Eyben); and many articles to the Open Democracy.net. She also contributed to When Legal Worlds Overlap: Human Rights, State, and Non-State Law, a publication by the International Council on Human Rights Policy.
Knowing Cass was not only loving Cass and laughing with Cassandra but arguing with Cass, hatching plans and strategies with Cass, deliberating execution with Cass, standing ground with Cass. Cass’ passion, her sharp mind, her articulate arguments, her deep dedication and commitment, defined the Cass we know.
Cass, you touched our lives and shaped our struggle in so many ways. Farewell my friend. We will miss you. May your soul be blessed and rest in peace and may your sons be comforted by the love that so many have for you.
Zarizana Abdoul-Aziz, chair
and WLUML sisters
with WLUML Board, Council members, and network