Here’s an impressive list: Maryam Al-Ijliya Al Astrulabi, astronomer and master maker of astrolabes in 10thcentury Syria. Huda Shaarawy (1879-1947), Egyptian revolutionary feminist; the Palestinian Karimeh Abbud, (1893-1940) one of the first women photographers in the Arab world who stamped her work “lady photographer” in Arabic and English; Sameera Moussa (1917–1952), a brilliant physicist who was nicknamed “mother of atomic energy” and was the first woman lecturer at Cairo University.
And then there’s Sayyida Al Hurra (1485-1561), whose very name means “noble lady who is free and independent.” Born Lalla Aicha bint Ali ibn Rashid Al Alami, she ruled the Moroccan city of Tétouan in her own right and was also – to my great delight! – a pirate queen.
These are just a very few of the many Arab women whose names should be known to every woman – and man – in the Middle East and North Africa. Each one played a part in paving the way for all the Arab women of today. Many women pioneers through the ages have fought for women’s rights and equality, risking their reputation, their livelihood and their lives. Yet their stories are rarely told, even on the internet.
A quick test in a gathering of successful women from across the Arab world proved illuminating – and rather depressing. When I asked who had heard of the names on the list, only one hand went up in recognition of just two of them. This strikes at the very heart of the matter: we women today may appreciate our rights, our opportunities and privileges but we don’t know how it all came about, how we are all standing on the shoulders of giants whose names we don’t even know.
From inventors to athletes to warriors to writers to dozens of rulers and queens, some of their names have survived only because they appeared on coins or because men saw fit to include them in the poems and stories they composed. Others have survived in photographs, such as Princess Fatima Al Zamil who ruled the Saudi province of Ha’il from 1911 to 1914. Elected by the elders of the two most powerful tribes of the central Arabian peninsula, she governed with absolute authority and received guests including the British writer and politician, Gertrude Bell, whose own fame and accomplishments have been overshadowed by her association with T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia).
A few books here and there and some media articles have highlighted the great contribution by Arab women through the ages but it is not enough. Women’s role in history needs to be taught in schools and at home. At the same time, we need to record and document all the new women who are breaking barriers and making history today.
On June 9, Yasmeen Al Maimani, 29, became the first female first officer in Saudi Arabia to fly a mainstream commercial aircraft when she piloted Nesma Airlines flight ATR72 from Hail to Al Qasim. Before her there was Captain Rola Hoteit from Lebanon, who made her debut flight in 2010 from Beirut to Amman (with a future prime minister, Tammam Salam, on board). In a widely-seen video, she told of how some passengers insisted on disembarking when they heard her voice over the telecom welcoming them aboard. But as of this year, Lebanon’s state carrier, Middle East Airlines, has six female pilots.
In 2014, Major Mariam Al Mansouri, 35, the UAE’s first female fighter pilot, led the UAE air force into action against ISIS targets in Syria as part of a US-led coalition. She has become the poster girl for the entire region, breaking stereotypes about Arab women and inspiring both women and men with her courage and dedication to national military service.
It is not just Arab women from this part of the Middle East who have made history. The world’s first female fighter pilot (as recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records) was Sabiha Gökçen (1913–2001), a Turkish-Armenian aviator and one of the eight adopted children of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey. In 1937, Gökçen took part in the military operation against the Kurdish uprising at Dersim and later became chief instructor of the Turkish Aeronautical Association and trained four women aviators. In 1996 she was the only female featured on a United States Air Force poster of “The 20 Greatest Aviators in History.” One of the international airports in Istanbul is named after her, but how many people know the story behind the name?
Such sexism and gender bias is by no means limited to the Middle East. It is estimated that only around 11 to 12 percent of stories in US history textbooks are about women. This prompted the publication of a series of books – and particularly books for children – on forgotten women in American history and even a “Lessons in Herstory” app that uses augmented reality to bring to life the stories of these forgotten heroines.
Research continues to prove that behind many great men there was indeed a woman, if not several women, whose names were never mentioned. Clara Schumann was a celebrated pianist and child prodigy (like Mozart). But her composing career was subsumed by her marriage to the composer Robert Schumann. Although she worked closely with her husband, it is only now, more than a century after her death, that her music is getting the recognition it always deserved.
Mercedes-Benz, one of the most respected brands in car manufacturing, owes its very name to two women.The world’s first long-distance car journey was made by Bertha Benz, wife and business partner of the German automobile pioneer, Karl Benz. She tested his Motorwagen over 105 kilometers in August 1888, highlighting and solving several engineering problems. From 1901, Daimler cars were named after Mercedes Jellinek, the daughter of an Austrian automobile entrepreneur. When Daimler and Benz merged in 1926, they kept the Mercedes-Benz name for their cars.
Across the world, new books are putting women’s voices back into pages previously dedicated only to men’s accomplishments.
“The men are the wool of the tribe, but the women are the ones who weave the pattern,” says an old Arabic proverb. It is about time we showed just how much all of what we have today – and perhaps what we do not have, too – is thanks to the patterns woven by the women who came before.
Rym Tina Ghazal is an award-winning journalist. In 2003, she became one of the first women of Arab heritage to cover war zones in the Middle East.