Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Great Contemporary Arab Women

A friend expressed the opinion that the Arabs need more women leaders. I don’t agree that having women in charge automatically makes things better. Thatcher, Indira Ghandi, Golda Meir, Madeleine Albright, Condoleeza Rice all prove that women can be every bit as power-crazed, militaristic and ruthless as men. And I think that the Arabs need leaders full stop, men or women. But the general point, yes, of course I agree with. There aren’t enough women leaders in the Arab world. My friend’s comment set me thinking though, about prominent and admirable Arab women. So here’s a quick list of some contemporary Arabat who I think have made a difference.

Atwar Bahjat

The reporter first for al-Jazeera and then for al-Arabiya who became a household name for her bravery and compassion in covering the Iraqi tragedy from the frontline. No hotel journalism for her. She was a Sunni Muslim with a Shia mother, who always wore an Iraq-shaped golden necklace on air to symbolise the country’s unity and the brotherhood of its different communities. She was murdered on the 22nd February 2006 after reporting on the bombing of the Askari shrine, sacred to the Shia. Who killed her? Probably nihilistic Zarqawi-type militia, but possibly US or Iranian backed militia who had penetrated the interior ministry.

Nadia Yassine

Of the Moroccan ‘Islamist’ Justice and Charity Group, which was founded by her father Abdessalam. Nadia is on trial for saying that a republic would be preferable to a monarchy. Those who place all Islamists in the same category will be surprised by her perspectives. Some quotes: “Muslims have inflicted a terrible injustice on women in the name of Islam.” And: “Freedom of speech is a positive thing, not only for the Moroccans, but for all Muslim peoples who for fourteen centuries have been living the tragedy of silence, criminal silence.”
Read more at www.nadiayassine.net


After Um Kulsoom, who isn’t contemporary enough to be included here, Fairuz is generally regarded as the greatest Arabic singer. She introduced the Arabs to jazz, starred in numerous ‘musicals’, and became a national icon with her patriotic songs like “Jerusalem in our Hearts.” She remained in Beirut throughout the civil war, but refused to sing until her brothers and sisters stopped killing each other.
Read more at www.fairouz.com and www.fairuzonline.com

Fadwa Barghouti

A lawyer, human rights activist and Palestinian national figure in her own right, she has also campaigned on behalf of her husband Marwan, the imprisoned leader of Fatah in the West Bank. Fadwa’s eldest son Qassam also languishes inside an Israeli prison. Her indefatigability symbolises all Palestinian working women, mothers and wives as they not only survive in the most appalling of conditions, but also fight.

Buthaina Shaaban

Writer, professor, translator (of Chinua Achebe amongst others), advisor at the Syrian Foreign Ministry, and today, Syrian Minister of Expatriates. Whatever your views on the Syrian regime, you have to admire Buthaina for her articulate advocacy of Arab causes in the international media. If only a few kings or presidents could occasionally speak like her. And her translation work, her belief in positive cultural interchange, is something we need much more of.

Hanan Ashrawi

Poet, academic and activist. Hanan established the Department of English at Bir Zeit University on the West Bank. She was one of the most able negotiators at the Madrid conference, but was sadly overruled by Arafat when he signed the doomed Oslo accords. She is an independent member of the Palestinian parliament and a tireless advocate for Palestinian rights.

Nancy Ajram

I jest not! We need more gloriously sexy Arab women like Nancy, confident in their beauty and talent. She isn’t vulgar like Haifa or others, and she can actually sing!

Who else? There’s the Arab-Israeli actress Hiam Abbas (Paradise Now, the Syrian Bride), researcher and writer Mai Yamani, the writers Ahdaf Soueif, Hanan Ash-Shaikh and Ghada Samaan, and….. Please add your suggestions.

But before I finish, let me cheat by adding a couple of Iranians. Nobel peace prize winner and human rights lawyer Shireen Ebadi, and film director (Blackboards, The Apple, Five o Clock in the Afternoon) Samira Makhmalbaf.


Maya said...

I was very interested to read your list of great Arab women. Granted, women can be as ruthless as men, and there's a time and a place for that trait. The balance of gender skills to help emulsify, evaluate on an ongoing basis, and help the everyday, real and 'human issues' is lacking throughout the world. With such a complex, ongoing situation in the Middle East we need to make use of all 'resources' in striving for solutions, and seeking a male or female leader who believes in 'positive cultural (and gender) interchange' has to be a given. We still haven't found the right recipe and there are dead people wailing at our doors to do so.

Sexy = always a good leadership quality! And I personally find the concept of 'mana' extremely appealing.

It's good to read your thoughts - I'll be back!

Abu Kareem said...


Let me add Fatema Mernissi, the Moroccan professor of sociology and Islamic feminist.

June said...

A somewhat trivial response to your comment on Nancy Ajram I expect, but a sad reflection on her place in the current world of talent also. I saw Nancy in a live performance in Bahrain a few years ago. Great show and great talent. The start of the evening was marred by protests in the vicinity of the Exhibition Centre and the wonder is that she was allowed to perform at all! Sad to say a lot of municipalty property was burnt and roads were blocked by burning tyres in which made it a real hazard to actually get to the performance on time. It was worth the hassle nevertheless and the show did go on! Nancy was very decorously dressed in jeans and a white long sleeved shirt! The aisles were packed with a huge mixture of local people including whole families with young children.They danced, sang along or just clapped and everyone had a fun evening and forgot about the horrors outside.Little kids were welcomed on stage and danced with Nancy.They had a night to remember all of their lives. Such a simple pleasure. Is there really some inherent evil in all of this?

Thalita said...

I am actually convinced that the tragedies that we are currently witnessing in the Middle East could have been impeded if Arab women were allowed to be participants in the political struggle. Perhaps this might sound arrogant, but Arab women tend to care less about their ego than their male counterparts and more about humanity. If Arab leaders/populists/intellectuals were to fully endorse human principles, a lot of tragedies would have been prevented. Vying over bits and pieces of land instead of worrying about civilian deaths is the primary example of the Arab ego. Free Shebaa Farms and then continue to destination next Eskanderuna(occupied Syrian land by Turkey)Why are they so reluctant to acknowledge even the Israel borders of 1967? Let us live, let our children grow in peace and not amongst fear and bloodshed even if it means that we have to endorse the 1967 UN Resolution 242. Us, Arab women, have to talk sense to them, but we are denied of our rights! I cry for the Arab woman, since her male counterpart who is celebrating the proclaimed victory by Hezbollah and claims that justice will prevail, is her main oppressor, the bringer of injustice to all of us Arab women. There is no peace without justice, how can they, the Arab male oppressors, claim peace if they are abusing Islam to keep us oppressed and justify Zarqawi-like atrocities? We have to intervene, ladies, perhaps we are the only ones that can save the Middle East from returning to the Juhala period.

qunfuz said...


Thank you for your comment. I agree that Islam is often used to keep Arab women oppressed, but I think some of your other views are too simplistic, and that you mix up a lot of different issues. Nobody is talking about fighting for Wilayat Iskanderun. The Syrian government has long realised that the way forward is to build good relations with Turkey so that the border is open. Most of the inhabitants of Iskanderoon, unlike the inhabitants of the Golan, are happy where they are. When I visited Iskanderoon I also found it full of Syrian citizens on holiday or doing business.

All the Arab states have recognised the 1967 borders and have repeatedly called on Israel to do so too. It's true that Hamas has recognised the Green Line only implicitly. this is because they believe that Arafat weakened his bargaining position by recognising Israel before Israel recognised Palestine. I must say i agree with Hamas here.

I know lots of Arab women, including a woman from Aita Ash-Shaab who lost tens of family members in the recent war. Women don't seem to be any less supportive of Hizbullah than men. In this respect, I don't think there's a gender difference. In border villages like Aita Ash-Shaab people understand that the conflict is not just about 'bits and pieces of land' but about sovereignty, security, not being buzzed by Israeli warplanes when you go to the fields, the return of detainees, etc.

You lose me when you talk about Arab men justifying Zarqawi-like atrocities. I certainly don't justify the acts of this murderer, and I don't personally know anybody
who does.Hizbullah certainly doesn't, because Hizb is Shia, and because they hate sectarianism. I know there are some people who support Zarqawi, a crazed minority, but these are women as much as men. The woman who tried to blow herself up in the hotel attack in Jordan is a case in point.
And then you jump to

Thalita said...

Dear qunfuz,

I fully understand where you're coming from, and my ideas are perhaps not clear after a first read but these days the Arab moderates like us are shrinking. If Arab leaders are being moderate, acknowledging Israel etc., it certainly does not mean that the Arab masses share that view. If I am talking about freeing Wilayat Iskanderun, I have heard this sentiment from a number of Arab nationalist intellectuals, because in their eyes the Arabic oemma needs to be free from occupation and Israel should be wiped off the map. Even if the people of Iskanderun are happy or even if the Palestinians in the West bank prefer two-state solution, many Arabs still believe that their dignity is at stake if Israel were to be recognized, and Hezballah has great support because it proclaims to be fair, and moderates are marketed as traitors. And in villages such as Aita as-Shaab Nasrallah has done a great job in convincing that the only solution to counter Israel is by violence. Bypassing the efforts of the Lebanese government to regain Shebaa farms and prisoners by diplomatic efforts. Chances are high that the villagers would prefer a diplomatic settlement rather than 1200 dead bodies and 700,000 refugees if they were aware that diplomatic settlement was and remains a realistic option.

And sorry to mention that Arab women nowadays are hardly able to side politically without being brainwashed by their male counterparts, so I am not surprised that they happen to share the views like you correctly mentioned.
I want to see Arab intellectual women, independent thinkers for once in the Middle East and I am convinced that would pronounce a much more humanist view than what many Arab populists are currently propagating.

qunfuz said...


Unfortunately I don't believe a diplomatic settlement is a realistic possibility at the moment. In recent weeks we have heard lots of reports that Israel has turned down Syrian peace overtures because of American pressure. Diplomacy is not part of the US plan. Look at the Oslo process for another example. Of course the Arabs must bear some of the blame. If Arafat had allowed his more intelligent and able negotiators like Hanan Ashrawi to continue working for a settlement based on UN resolutions we may have got somewhere. In any case, Israel saw Oslo as a means of establishing further 'facts on the ground' while the Palestinians policed the resistance. There was not one day of the Oslo process when more land in the West Bank was not confiscated. The US was not an honest broker. It adopted all Israeli positions, and on occasion was more extreme than the Israelis. I don't believe the recent war in Lebanon was started by Hizbullah or that it was about a couple of kidnapped soldiers. It was a much bigger scale operation than that. Condi Rice made it clear what it was about when she talked about the birth pangs of a new middle east. The war aimed to end Hizbullah's deterrent capabilities and the possibility of resistance to US imperial dictates in the region. Thank God, Israel and the US were unable to win their aims. The only way of disarming Hizbullah now, it is clear, is by an internal Lebanese debate, which will have to be held after Israel returns Lebanese rights, and after the Shia poor have been assured of representation within the Lebanese system. (IF you read my Hizbullah posting, Thalita, you'll realise I'm a supporter. I think it's possible to support Hizbullah and also be a 'moderate' - don't like the word - who opposes fundamentalism and dictatorial regimes).

As for the Arab masses not accepting Israel: if Arabs did not see pictures of atrocities against the Palestinians and Lebanese on the TV on a daily basis, if there was a just peace established, I'm sure they would be happy to get on with their lives without wanting to fight anybody.

I also disagree that women are brainwashed by men. This seems to be more insulting to women than to men, and is certainly simplistic. Women are often even fiercer 'guardians of tradition' than men.

Where we can agree, I expect,, is in the belief that greater participation of women in Arab societies, and greater rights and freedoms for all, better, more critical education systems, will improve life in every way for the Arabs, including the Arab ability to resist imperial plans for the region.

Thalita said...

I see it as a sad reality the current political landscape in the Middle East. Many moderates are supporting Hezbollah, and thereby the alliance with Syria-Iran because previous diplomacy efforts have indeed failed.

In such dark times the options are very limited, but still I will never ever support an organisation such as Hezballah, because it is conservatively religious and its ideology is fundamentalist. It has done great perhaps on grass roots level, and was brilliant in attacking IDF soldiers, but that will not convince me that Nasrallah has the right vision to save the Middle East. Nasrallah is great in indoctrinating people and has proved to me that he is able to use inhuman means to reach his ends, such as sending katyusha rockets to Israeli towns. If Israel had not invested heavily in those bomb shelters and other defence mechanisms, the number of dead casualties could have been similar to Lebanon's.

The bottom line for me, and this is why I disagree with so many Arabs, is that I refuse using reckless violence in solving conflicts, I don't believe in fighting evil with evil. If Hezb Allah fights soldiers only, it would have been a different story, but following the footsteps of a terrorist state like Israel and treating civilian homes as a battlefield, certainly does not earn my respect. Arafat, also a courageous and brilliant mind, has fought also many years of resistance and in the end admitted that diplomacy should be the way forward.

We will probably always disagree on this, and I would like to add that the cause of Arab women is currently my highest priority. Arab women lack education compared to Arab men,and are heavily underrepresented in the political arena. We are oppressed because we lack the means to develop our own political opinion, let alone influence of power. Nasrallah will certainly not help us improve this, looking at how conservatively their women are dressed, Al-manar presentors are an example, and how underrepresented their women are in decision-making.

Perhaps I am young and idealistic, turned 23 just 10 minutes ago, but I will remain selective in this dark period, I will neither endorse Bush nor Iran-Syria-Hezb and I want our society to look more inwards, eliminate Arab-Juhala practices, only then can we be ready for true democracy.

qunfuz said...

Dear Thalita

First of all, happy birthday! And there is nothing wrong with youth and idealism.

I don't think that it's a disaster that we disagree on Hizbullah. So long as we can be tolerant enough to listen to each other's point of view with respect, so long as we both aim for greater freedom, then we are allies, despite our disagreements. I admire your commitment and your passion. That's what we need! And perhaps you are right about violence. I've already changed my mind several times, perhaps I will again. Perhaps I contradict myself on this blog. And now back to our disagreements:

It's of course true that Hizbullah women wear hijab, and cover their necks and throats. I'm not a defender of hijab (see my coming post on hijab), but what I think is much more important is that the presenters on alManar are intelligent and articulate, and hold their own in discussions and interviews with male politicians. I think Hizbullah would do itself a favour if they involved women more at top military and political levels, but I also admire the way they work against the idea of the Muslim woman being housebound. Hizbullah women are prominent in media and social work. I see it as inevitable that politics in the Muslim world in the next period is going to be Islamist in some shape or form, because very amny of the people are Islamist. I don't feel very comfortable about that, but if we are going to have Islamists, I'd rather have intelligent, tolerant Islamists like Hizbullah who don't impose their ideas on others.

Hizbullah uses violence, but not recklessly. When they took the two israelis hostage Nasrallah went on TV to say he didn’t want confrontation but a prisoner exchange. It was only after the Israelis began their onslaught on the Lebanese infrastructure that katyushas were fired into Israel. It isn't true that the deaths in israel would have been similar to those in Lebanon were it not for shelters. A katyusha is capable of punching a hole in a building and spraying shrapnel. The Israelis used tens of thousands of cluster bombs (still causing 3 casualties a day as they continue to explode), the same Depleted Uranium-tipped missiles used by the Americans (these will still be killing people through cancer and congenital deformities in 10,000 years time), and destroyed the roads, power stations and so on. There are villges in the South in which 75% of houses have been destroyed. There really is no comparison. Hizbullah is trying to introduce a deterrent into the equation. For decades Israel has bombed Arab civilians with no fear of response. I'm glad those days have ended. I expect a lot more trouble, and probably a disastrous war between states quite soon, but in the long term I think the Hizbullah victory will help to reduce violence.

I support pacifism if I think there is a chance of it working. Ghandi was able to use passive resistance to liberate India, but these were very different circumstances. I don't think pacifist methods can work with Israel and America. I have seen too much footage of the first intifada, the unarmed intifada, in which Israeli soldiers held down children and broke their bones with rocks. And I remember the first weeks of the second intifada, before it was militarised, when demonstrating youths were shot down in their dozens every day.

Hizbullah have negotiated with israel before and they will again. They are logical people. Nasrallah is not the kind of leader who needs to do anything as sinister as 'indoctrination.' He's a rational and persuasive speaker.

To finish (because I talk too much) on a positive note, I agree with your points about women needing better access to education and representation. If we had a situation in which the people of this region were better able to explain themselves, if they were freer and more prosperous, then there would be a much better chance of solving problems without violence.

A good article, it seems by a Jewish American, on Hizbullah:

qunfuz said...

sorry. here it is again:


qunfuz said...

why won't it work?
After report/ it is item/200601003_hiz_ballah_party_of_god/

Thalita said...

Thank you qunfuz! And i agree that the most important thing is that we should be tolerant of our different opinions, another thing that I observed to be very difficult among some Arabs.

I do want to stress that resistance against agressors is legitimate, as long as it concerns only soldiers. Hezbollah had the right to defend themselves in the South.

I enjoyed reading the article you sent me, only I have my reserves on the comment that the Christian people are allies of Hezballah. One thing is to have Aoun and Lahoud supporting Hezballah, and another thing is the Christian people. Especially if many Lebanese are now dividing along ideological lines. And we should not forget that many Syrians and Palestinians residing in Lebanon are backing Nasrallah, and are a big bulk of the demonstrators.

I am also not forgetting that Israel caused the deaths and damage and not Hezb Allah, and Fouad Siniora was right in thanking Hezbollah for defending and right in becoming angry for not seeking consensus from other parties before capturing soldiers. I find it counterintuitive that Nasrallah is truly respecting Lebanese unity. Did he miscalculate? Or did he just not care about the consequences for all Lebanese people?

Once I heard Nasrallah saying during a speech, that they were experts on Israel, and unlike fellow Lebanese followed what Israel press and officials were saying. First of all, this was a sign to me how persuasive and misleading he can sound. Second, his rationality has proved to be bounded because his plan of prisoner exchange failed completely.

I cannot trust him, the way he promotes martyrdom for example shows how engraved Iranian influence is, an entity that was also rational when it came to power, but has proven to be a murderous regime against intellectuals, leftists etc. Perhaps the Iranians have made me cynical.

I fear Islamism, because a right interpretation of Islam in contemporary setting is non-existent, and Arab politics is already worrisome, and mixing it with Islamic dogmas can set the clock another 100 years back, especially if Iran does the mentoring.

God forbid that a disastrous war breaks out, let Nasrallah prove how logical he is, and let him prevent more death and destruction.

I admire the strong case you're making for Hezb Allah, and I will certainly take your viewpoints along with me, and yes I also admit that I have weighed the arguments after witnessing the steadfastness of the Lebanese people but my suspicion remains.

Again, I am being cynical because in the past poor souls have sacrificed their lives so much following strong rhetoric, and in the end were humiliated behind the scenes because deals were being struck.

I am looking forward at the prospect of reading your hijaab article:)