How Civil Protests in the Middle East Sparked a Movement among Disabled Arab Women Like Me
BY: RAYA AL-JADIR
I could go on and on about the number of activists and initiatives that have sprung up since 2011, which isn’t something I thought I could confidently say just a few years ago
The status of women varies from one society to another, but disability poses additional challenges for women anywhere – and if you happen to live in the Middle East and North Africa, those obstacles double.
Having lived the first decade of my life in Iraq, I know first hand that to have a disabled child is regarded as a “disaster”. To have a disabled daughter in addition to that renders most families “doomed”, with the expectation to bow your head in shame. I was born in Mosul, Iraq, and as soon as I reached an age where I could understand social stigma, I realised what my mother had to endure for not being able to “bear a normal child”, due, apparently, to my disability. She withstood comments and looks of disapproval; she was made to feel like a failure.
I grew up seeing few, if any, disabled people, let alone disabled women or girls. Back then, I assumed it was because I was “special”; there was only one person I knew who was born with her arm missing – a distant cousin. It took me a while to realise that she was disabled in the first place. Back then, I thought disability only described people like me: unable to walk. Anything else just did not seem like one. Once the penny dropped, I noticed she’d go to great lengths to hide it, but underneath those insecurities, I saw enormous strength in her.
She went to university, drove a car and did everything that many would not envisage can be done with one arm. I wanted to be like her. And so from the age of six-years-old, I learned that I had to fight for everything that came naturally to others.
Traditionally, Arab parents pride themselves in having sons, while daughters – typically regarded as the weaker, defenceless sex – tend to be considered sources of worry until they are married, the idea being that passing responsibility on to another man brings the family relief. Therefore, if you are a disabled Arab woman, your chance of getting married is much lower than non-disabled women, as well as an added source of pressure for parents.
In addition to the challenges posed by their gender, Arab women with disabilities have less access to employment opportunities than their peers without disabilities. This is partly due to the broader issue of limited access to education, employment, medical facilities, social connections and marriage opportunities in conservative factions of society where the status of women is relatively low, leaving them isolated and vulnerable.
When the Arab Spring started to sweep the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, a change occurred in the region, and not just politically.
The popular movement gave hope to many marginalised communities, especially the disabled community and particularly disabled Arab women.
The protests introduced the concept of challenging traditionally accepted customs and beliefs and disabled women were the big winners in the equation. They started to fight back, reclaim their right to exist and even lead their own initiatives.
Arab women across the region are entering different fields that have previously been exclusive to non-disabled people. There are countless examples of trailblazers across the region.
Zainab Al-Eqabi is an Iraqi social media celebrity who “wanted to be a source of change that shakes the inner core of Arab society, and not just the Iraqi one” after she lost her leg in a bomb blast near her home during her early childhood.
Shahd Al Shammari, a writer English literature professor in Kuwait who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) when she was 18, wrote Notes on the Flesh (a collection of short stories unravelling the complexities of identity, love and disability in the Middle East) when she was unable to find role models for women like her in literature.
Aya Aghabi became a leading disability campaigner in Jordan, her home country, by the time she died in August this year from a rare lung infection at the young age of 29-years-old. She launched her own project, Accessible Jordan, which aims to make the nation fully accessible for people living with disabilities.
The list continues, from Ola Ammar, an actor from Egypt with mobility impairment, who became one of the first disabled women to star in a film entitled Coloured Dress in 2017; to projects like The Four Biscuits, a baking business founded by four young women with Down syndrome in Egypt after they were shunned by the employment industry. There’s also Rasha Ernest’s iHelp in Egypt, an online forum that offers services such as buying and maintaining medical devices at affordable prices for the elderly and people with disabilities. I could go on and on, which isn’t something I thought I could confidently say just a few years ago.
Before coming across these women, I wanted to create something that could be a voice for us. I did not want other young disabled girls to experience what I lived through, and so I co-founded a disability lifestyle magazine in Arabic. It wasn’t long before I started receiving messages from disabled girls and women who felt lost and desperate to fit into society the only way they knew how: getting married. Clearly, while there are disabled Arab women setting the bar higher, there is still a long way to go.
Representation is important and the visibility of disabled Arab women is vital. Without it, society won’t ever accept that we are equal members of our communities and can contribute culturally, professionally and economically to society.
Raya Al-Jadir is a freelance journalist and co-founder of the first Arabic lifestyle e-magazine of its kind, Disability Horizons Arabic