Now, however, a growing chorus of Arab women is offering an alternative to the typically male, often autocratic voice that dominates within their own societies (and in Western portrayals of the region). Through a variety of media, from journalism to television to literature, they are undermining the long-held narrative of Arab women as docile and submissive.
This is what emerges clearly from the recently published anthology Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting From the Arab World, a book edited by the Lebanese journalist and writer Zahra Hankir that brings together 19 essays by women journalists, all of them Arab or Arab American.
The essays are at turns searing, poignant, and funny, but what shines through in all of them is the sheer strength of the women writing. Whether it’s Hannah Allam covering Iraq for McClatchy newspapers in the days after the 2003 invasion, hunkering down in a shrine being bombed by American military jets; Nour Malas reporting for The Wall Street Journal on the descent of Syria, her homeland; or Hwaida Saad, a Lebanese reporter for The New York Times in Beirut who maintained open channels to contacts inside Syria with empathy and social-media ingenuity, their work has greatly enriched Western audiences’ understanding of what is unfolding in the region—hence, they are “our” women on the ground, all of us reading their articles.
In the essays, Hankir says, “none of them were striving to dispel stereotypes about who they are. Instead, they were focused on the task at hand, their jobs, and oftentimes survival. There is no one Arab woman; there is no one way to be an Arab woman; and there is no one Arab female experience. By telling their stories, these women, without intending to do so, and without a Western audience in mind, have punctured prevalent narratives rooted in flawed post-colonial discourse.”
Some of the authors report for local media, such as Shamael Elnoor, who traveled into the war-ridden province of Darfur in 2015 to interview the feared chief of the Janjaweed militia; or Asmaa al-Ghoul, who stood up to militants from Hamas in Gaza with her pen and her gaze while writing for the Palestinian paper Al-Ayyam. Some have to deal with families who disapprove of their dangerous careers; others can count on fathers to remonstrate militants who dare question the women’s choices.
Through the essays, the reader meets yet more women from Libya to Yemen whose resilience and power are humbling, and who can “be devilishly funny” through the worst circumstances, as Allam writes in her essay. These women are journalists, activists, or teachers, yet they are never reduced to the sole status of women or asked to speak specifically about gender.
The notion that Arab women have much more to say than just commenting on their lives as women and on gender issues should be an obvious one, and it’s what drove the veteran Lebanese journalist Nada Abdelsamad to conceive her weekly talk show, Dunyana—Arabic for Our World—airing on BBC Arabic TV. (The program has been on air since 2014, when the British broadcaster began a push to give more airtime to women to achieve gender parity across all its output.)