The first time I celebrated International Women’s Day was when I was a student in high school. My teacher asked the class to list women we looked up to and prepare a school presentation to honor them to mark the occasion.
By the end of the period, we had come up with tens of names. But, in a classroom filled with Arab women, shockingly, none of the females listed were Arab. As accomplished and deserving as the women listed were, the plethora of people noted felt incomplete. So I went back home, did some research, and came back the next day with a list of Arab women to add to the original list.
With the return of International Women’s Day, this memory lasts, and with it, the women that I had listed and spoke about that day. Their legacies continue to shape me.
Over the centuries, the Arab world has given birth to powerful women in their own right and who left indelible marks on the planet. As many of us look elsewhere (especially westward) for inspiration in an increasingly globalized world, we sometimes forget how many inspirational women we have had in the history of our region. We forget how ahead of their time they were and how much we could still learn from their stories many years later.
As we celebrate women on this day, we need to remember and highlight these remarkable women. If not for their valuable contributions, we would be living in a very different world.
On International Women’s Day, I remember Sayyida Khadija bint Khuwaylid, Prophet Mohammed (PBUH)’s first wife, who was a pillar of strength for him and Islam in its beginnings. When some of the closest people in his life were calling him crazy and a liar, she stood by him, believed in his prophet-hood and holy message, and supported him.
She became the first woman to embrace Islam in the religion’s history. Her moral and financial support (she was a successful businesswoman) was a significant factor contributing to the rise of Islam. Sayyida Khadija reminds me to be an unrelenting source of strength for others that they can rely on in the most challenging times to uplift them, to be an ummah (nation) for them.
I remember Zubaidah bint Ja’far ibn al-Mansour, the Abbasid Era princess and the wife of Caliph Harun al-Rashid. She used her wealth, power, and position to have intricate wells, artificial pools, and reservoirs constructed for pilgrims to drink from on the long road to Makkah.
Through channels, the water sources extended from Baghdad to Makkah to Medina, and travelers drank from them for centuries. Remnants of the wells, pools, and reservoirs exist and still carry her name and are inspiring examples of the Islamic concept of wuquf (charitable endowments). The legacy of Princess Zubaidah reminds me to use my privilege to support others and always think of ways of helping others in innovative ways that would benefit them for years to come, even long after I am gone.
I remember Fatima al-Fihri, the Arab woman credited with establishing the world’s oldest university, the University of al-Qarawiyyin, located in Fez, Morocco, in the 9th century, and how ahead of her time she indeed was. When the buildings I was walking in and out of as a student at the University of Oxford were essentially still dust, the University of al-Qarawiyyin was running, providing an education for those who would become some of the world’s leading jurists, astronomers, historians, and sociologists. Fatima reminds me to think ahead and dare to have a vision.
I remember Yamina al-Shayib, more popularly known by her alias ‘Zulikha Oudai,’ an Algerian revolutionary who resisted French colonialism in the 20th century. Like other numerous notable Algerian women who played an essential role in the liberation of Algeria, she bravely fought against French rule, even if it meant sacrificing and losing all that was dear to her.
The French eventually caught the elusive Yamina and dragged her through the streets tied to a car as a lesson to others. She was tortured for ten days and then executed by being thrown out of a moving helicopter in 1957. Despite the horrors she endured, Yamina remained steadfast in her position and courageously resisted colonialism and called on others to do so, even as she took her last breath. Yamina reminds me to maintain bravery in the face of adversities and stay true to oneself, principles, and nation.
With every passing year, my list of inspirational Arab women gets longer. It now encompasses women from our glorious history and present, the young women making their marks in various sectors, including art, film, literature, media, diplomacy, science, business, and sports. I have had the privilege of meeting and knowing many remarkable women through my work at Sekka and the Khaleeji Art Museum. I consider it my duty and honor to highlight our women every day through my work, who are an inspiration not only to other Arab women but the women of the world so that they are never overlooked.