Time to celebrate the everyday women of the Arab world

Time to celebrate the everyday women of the Arab world

Atiqa is a 57-year-old mother-of-five. She has four beautiful grandchildren that have just begun to mouth their first words. They run havoc around her classically designed living room, marking her exquisite Persian carpets with indents from their toy cars’ tires. She never thought she would give up the desire to scold children for dropping chocolate crumbs, but they are her most cherished beings. 
Atiqa was married at 15 and she had her first child at 16. Despite her very best attempts, she dropped out of night school. She came to the realization that she had to sacrifice her life and education to focus on her children. Only after years of perseverance, endless late-night Arabic tutoring and copious heartwarming conversations with her children about never giving up did Atiqa herself go back to school. She spent her evenings studying in fluorescent-lit classrooms, trying to grasp the difference between complex and compound sentences. Though it seemed like a far-fetched dream when she was 16, Atiqa managed to complete her education and graduate. She was 55 years old.
On International Women’s Day, we have grown accustomed to celebrating the new breakthroughs, the historic political appointments, the significant legislative changes and the business ventures by and for women in the Arab world. We applaud the courageous writers, the women who interrupted the patriarchy and those that sat behind the driving wheel after a long fight. Our joint article in December was titled: “After successes of 2018, women set to stay in the driving seat.” With the recent appointment of Princess Reema bint Bandar as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US (the first Saudi female to hold such a strategic post), it is evident that women are indeed set for even greater things in 2019.
While we acknowledge the positive impact of having female public figures and success stories, we believe that, this year, we must celebrate the everyday woman in the Arab world: Women who may not have a framed degree certificate or make executive decisions, but aspire and inspire just as well; women who succeed on all fronts.
Women like 37-year-old Ruqqaya, who defies all social hurdles and stereotypes that define the position of a woman in a Middle Eastern family and society. Not only is Ruqqaya a devoted working mother-of-two and a supportive wife who still holds her ground, she is also pursuing a degree in diplomacy from Harvard University. A woman who is self-driven and self-made, she owes her success to herself alone. She is not afraid to dream bigger every day, and is adamant about instilling even bigger dreams in her seven-year-old daughter. “You too will grow up to get into Harvard,” she tells her every morning. On a normal day, she drops her kids off at school and makes her way to a very demanding job. She wakes up at 2 or 3 in the morning to attend online classes to fulfill her degree requirements, and still gets up a few hours later to start her daily routine again. Through it all, she maintains her elegance, humility and grace. 

Despite the havoc wreaked by war, instability, poverty and oppression in the region today, Arab women continue to exemplify unwavering strength.

Asma I. Abdulmalik & Maria Hanif Al-Qassim

Women whose strength cuts through war, trauma and oceans, like Raghda Hassan, who fled Syria as a refugee and settled with her family in Vancouver two years ago. There, she landed her very first job at a catering company along with her friend Umm Omar. The two women, who never thought they would be anything other than homemakers, are now employees with salaries of their own, helping their families build new lives.
This International Women’s Day, we think of the woman who wakes up at the crack of dawn to prepare lunch for her family before going to work; the girl in a village who subtly demands to go to university just like her brother and succeeds; and the nurse who does double shifts to help her patients. We also think of all the women who choose not to wallow in pain or self-pity, but to stand up and do what it takes to make sure the world is worthy of their loved ones. 
Our recent rhetoric of celebrating women assumes that women have been falling short in their fights and strides, when they have in fact been the backbone of every family, society and economy. Their strength and tenacity against day-to-day struggles, which we take for granted, is the epitome of achievement. She may not sit on a business board, ministerial Cabinet meeting or negotiations table; instead she is the woman next door, whose name we do not necessarily know, referring to her as “Umm Ahmed” or “Umm Saeed” instead. 
The truth is, admirable women like Atiqa, Ruqqaya and Raghda are all around us, and yet we seldom stop to notice just how much effort, resilience and patience it takes for them to power through each day and achieve so much without blowing their own horns. We can go on for days talking about how far Arab women have come and support that with data from multiple reports, but real life provides better and more heartwarming stories. 
The Arab world, past and present, is overflowing with inspirational stories about women. From our great grandmothers who single-handedly raised their children while their husbands were at sea for months on end, to those defending communities against armies. Despite the havoc wreaked by war, instability, poverty and oppression in the region today, Arab women continue to exemplify unwavering strength, and the amazing ability to break rocks and ride waves to make a life for their families, if that is what it takes. 
It is thus even more impressive that the Arab woman, born in a patriarchal and religious society, who still has to be mindful of, and live according to the conservatism of most, has decided to march to the beat of her own drum. 
And so, on this International Women’s Day, we pay homage to her: The Arab woman who has defined triumph unknowingly, who saw her house torn down by conflict and yet managed to build a home in a new foreign land, who raised the doctor, the minister and the entrepreneur. We also celebrate the working woman who took hold of the reins to prove that, not only can she balance work with raising or caring for a family, but she can excel at both with so much grace and humility it almost goes unnoticed. 
You truly hold this whole world together. 

  • Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues. Twitter: @Asmaimalik
  • Maria Hanif Al-Qassim is an Emirati from Dubai who writes on development, gender and social issues. Twitter: @maria_hanif


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