Front and center these days is the infuriating news about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the atrocities it is committing against minorities, in particular Christians and Yazidis. The news coming from this barbaric group of people makes me want to do many things: a) convince the leaders of the world that ISIS is as evil as Hitler; b) advocate for the need to strategically plan and defeat ISIS for basic human rights reasons; c) convince moderate Muslim leaders to denounce and actively work against ISIS; and d) work to prevent ISIS from creating an image in the minds of different populations that the majority of the Arabs or Muslims are backward and violent populations. I decided to attempt to protect the image of the Arabs by highlighting here some facts about Arab women that most of the world does not know.
I am afraid we know more about some cartoon characters than we know about Arab women. Somehow I feel there is no national conversation about the accomplishments and contributions of Arab women.
These are seven facts to consider:
1- Lebanese women had the right to vote before several European countries gave that right to their women. The women in Monaco, for example, were given that right in 1962 and Swiss women in 1971, while the Lebanese women were given the right to vote and stand for a seat in parliament in 1953. The Lebanese women’s rights movement can be traced to the late 19th century, when a growing number of women began voicing demands for greater rights. At the end of the century, many influential women migrated with their families to Egypt for either political or economic reasons. Once there, they started their own magazines, focusing on women’s issues and featuring articles in support of education for women and their rights to work and earn a living. In Lebanon, a dynamic women’s movement emerged in the early decades of the 20th century. This movement brought an unprecedented increase in the number of female philanthropists, writers, educators, owners of women’s journals, and political activists. Organizations founded and led by women offered access to education and health services. Women also worked alongside men to liberate Lebanon from the Ottoman Empire. These efforts paved the way for women to start making demands for greater civil and political rights.
2- Women make up the majority of university populations in two-thirds of the Arab countries. Based on the latest UN statistics division university attendance in the UAE is 60% women and 40% men. In Lebanon, it is 54% women and 46% men; and in Saudi Arabia, it is 52% women and 48% men.
3- The largest women’s university in the world is in Saudi Arabia. Princess Noura University is a public women’s university located in the capital city of the of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh. It is the largest university for women in the world and one of the 10 largest universities in the world. The university offers bachelor and postgraduate degrees. It has over 42,000 students in 15 colleges, a preparatory year program for all first-year undergraduate students, a Deanship of Community Service.
4- One of the most internationally known architects in the world is Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi woman architect. In 2004, Hadid became the first woman recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. In 2006, she was honored with a retrospective exhibit spanning her life work at the Guggenheim Museum in New York; that year she also received an honorary degree from the American University of Beirut. In 2008, she was ranked 69th on Forbes list of “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.” In 2010, she was named by Time as an influential thinker in the 2010 TIME 100 issue.
5- One of the first colleges for women in Asia and the Arab World is the Beirut College for Women. In 1914, the American Mission in Lebanon discussed developing a more demanding curriculum for its American School for Girls, founded in 1860, and drafted a plan for the American Junior Women’s College. In 1924 the American Mission received authorization to develop the junior college, and the Presbyterian Church of America in New York supplied the faculty and administration. The college became known as the Beirut College for Women. Over the years it grew and became much larger, it changed its name and presently it is the Lebanese American University.
6- A Saudi young woman invented a nanorobot to reduce medical errors. A Saudi student studying neurosurgery in the Netherlands has won the top prize at an international invention contest held in Australia. Siham Abu Zahira invented a nanorobot to help reduce medical errors by 70% during open brain surgeries. Her invention can also be used to evaluate the brain and the effect of nerve cells. The invention was described as revolutionary and could help reduce the number of fatalities from brain conditions. The nanorobot can help diagnose many brain conditions as early as they appear. Siham Abu Zahira said she hopes this invention and the ones she is working on now would help neurosurgeons restore brain and nerve functions for patients. It took her three years to come up with the nanorobot. This is not Abu Zahira’s first invention. She has already invented 15 medical devices and technologies.
7- The emergence of Arab women filmmakers. One recent trend in world cinema that has become hard to ignore is the rapid emergence of Arab women filmmakers. Directors such as Saudi Arabian Haifaa Al-Mansour, Palestinian-American Cherien Dabis, and Lebanese Nadine Labaki have been praised at festivals around the world. Acknowledging this new wave, many film festivals are celebrating female Arab filmmakers.
These facts about Arab women are pretty impressive, right?