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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.