TUE 18 - 6 - 2019
Date: Mar 19, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Arab women pioneers: Daring to break stereotypes
May Rihani
The need to break the stereotypes about women in the Arab world remains important. One of the ways to do that is to recognize the role that Arab women pioneers have played and Arab women leaders continue to play. The achievements of these women were the cornerstones of the change movement that took place in the 20th century and continues to forge ahead in the 21st century. We, at the Gibran Chair for Values and Peace at the University of Maryland, decided to build a knowledge center that acknowledges the achievements of these pioneering women and the advancement of Arab women’s progress. This center aims to break stereotypes and support the empowerment of women and their allies. It is designed for knowledge seekers: women, men, policymakers, NGOs, research institutes, businesspeople, international development agencies, students and the media.

In the Arab World, as in all the regions of the world, women face social obstacles in their journey toward accomplishment and success. However, where there are obstacles, restrictions and discrimination, there is a will to overcome them. From among those women who have a strong will to overcome impediments and who act on this will, many leaders emerge.

This online knowledge center features 55 women pioneers and 97 women leaders. The Arab women pioneers profiled might already be household names and some might be less known, however, they all deserve our attention. These pioneering figures changed their countries thanks to their enormous contributions to women’s rights, education, academia, health, science, politics, literature, art, architecture, media, aviation and many other fields. They worked toward a future of equity, equality and justice as basic values.

All of these agents of change are strong voices, tireless advocates and major activists for reform in their countries with a common goal of advancing gender equality and women’s rights. Many of them persisted despite numerous social, cultural and political obstacles.

The writers, thinkers and journalists among them helped ignite, through their articles and public speeches, the will of others to advocate for women’s rights.

The political activists led the way and traced a path where women could play new roles outside traditional roles and thereby helped guide their societies and countries in new directions.

The pioneer women scientists called on other scientists to protect against nuclear hazards or worked with them on preventing diseases and expanding access to health services.

These pioneers founded civil society organizations, presided over universities, increased access to educational systems, reformed health systems, helped launch new movements, organized women’s marches, challenged traditional norms and worked with leading national figures to improve the status of women and girls in their countries. Each one of the pioneers accomplished a first in her field. In the late 19th century and in most of the 20th century, it was highly unusual to find a woman in many of the positions that these pioneers occupied.

Each of these women dared to be the first. Each of these women challenged convention and stepped outside of expected roles, and thus created new opportunities for her sisters. Many of these pathfinders believed that the status quo was not an option.

These extraordinary women pushed society to think bigger, change some unfair norms and regulations, overcome barriers, break glass ceilings and move forward. The women featured in the knowledge center are excellent examples of women with powerful visions, boundless courage, strong will and inspiring determination to create a more equitable world. They changed the Arab world by transcending boundaries in their fields and by opening new paths for women and future generations. Thanks to each of them, women and girls are able to live with fewer restraints and greater dreams.

These pioneers are Arab history’s greatest female role models.

May Rihani is director of the Gibran Chair for Values and Peace, University of Maryland. See www.pioneersandleaders.org.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 16, 2019, on page 6.

The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy
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