Recognizing Under-Known Arab Americans this Women’s History Month
By: Heba Mohammad/Arab America Contributing Writer
Photos, poems, artwork, words of encouragement, stories, and more flooded the internet as observers of International Women’s Day celebrated the occasion last Friday. The theme of this year’s #IWD was “Balance for Better,” advocating for an equitable society that gives women equal access and opportunity.
This beautiful commemoration of women falls annually at the beginning of Women’s History Month, serving as a reminder of the instrumental role women play in the development of both our collective society and our individual selves. The following are some of the Arab American women that have had an outsized impact on American history and life. We all do honor for their work in various fields.
Science & Technology
Arab American women in science have contributed immensely to life-saving developments in medicine, a greater understanding of the world, and modern technology. Huda Akil has studied neurobiology for decades, building a more nuanced understanding of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and emotions more broadly. Her research yielded the “first physiological evidence for the existence…[of] endorphins,” forever changing our understanding of the body’s response to stressors.
In the digital technologies world, we have Dina Katabi to thank for improved WiFi networks and advances in medical technology capabilities. Her work has sometimes been likened to X-ray vision because of its ability to sense movement through walls, and the possibilities for enhanced medical tracking—without compromising privacy protections (see Katabi’s tech background)—are incredible.
Shifting focus from cyberspace to outer space, Shadia Habbal is a professor and leading researcher of a solar phenomenon, and her work is informing NASA’s Parker Solar Probe as it orbits the sun. When successful, the probe will return with valuable information regarding the sun’s influence on space weather occurrences.
The Arab American community has long been led by strong educators who go the extra mile to care for students and provide a well-rounded education. One of those educators is Brittney Miller, a native of Detroit who now teaches in Nevada while also serving as a state assemblywoman. Miller’s experience working with the Departments of Education, Labor, Justice, and Health & Human Services, and then in the private sector before becoming a teacher in her district, has given her an important perspective to bring into the classroom for the benefit of her students.
In Virginia, students are on the receiving end of advocacy work led by the Educational Outreach Committee of the National Arab American Women’s Association. At a recent Fairfax County School Board meeting, committee members addressed the misrepresentation of the Middle East, its history, and Arab Americans in current textbooks. Their proposals to update textbooks and use supplementary materials was well received, and the committee hopes to carry this program into other communities.
Journalists play an indispensable role in shaping how stories are told and what audiences take away from them. The diversity of experience and thought are what make media outlets thrive, and many Arab American women have taken up the mantle of representing their community’s stories.
Wall Street Journal reporter Vivian Salama has a long resume of experiences that includes serving as the Baghdad Bureau Chief for the Associated Press during an especially volatile period in the fight against the Islamic State. Salama’s reporting on Middle East affairs and on domestic issues affecting Arab Americans, i.e. national security, is thoughtful and robust.
The Middle East affairs and domestic policy beat are shared by CGTN journalist Yasmeen Alamiri. Alamiri has been covering the White House for years and always ensures fair, nuanced, and thoughtful reporting. In addition, Alamiri covers stories about the Arab American community that may not otherwise be published, giving voice to a needed perspective.
These journalists, along with a host of other Arab American journalists, including Dena Takruri, Rima Abdelkader, Sara Yasin, and Leila Fadel, are on the frontlines of ensuring the Arab American voice is represented in news media.
Creativity has long been a strong suit of Arab American women, and the result is a plethora of moving & inspiring art from experienced creators.
In the photography world, Kholood Eid is finding a home for her work on the pages of influential publications. Her skills are varied, and her subject interests range from politics to mental health. In her spare time, Eid teaches photography to kids, empowering the next generation of photographers.
Shereen Lani Younes is an artist working in several mediums to share her work, including film making, poetry, and podcasting. Younes’ popular co-hosted podcast, Ethnically Ambiguous, is self-described as “giving a voice to minorities and shedding light on Middle-Eastern issues.” Their new episode, We Stand with Ilhan, demonstrates the importance of Arab American & Middle Eastern voices in contemporary discussions.
Another rising poet (who was featured on Ethnically Ambiguous!) is student Summer Farah. Farah often writes about Palestine and was recently published in Mizna’s Journal, The Palestine Issue. Farah is adding her voice to a growing contingent of young Arab Americans who are expressing their memories and identities through spoken and written word art.
The story of two Palestinians is led by Arab Americans actors, including actress Dina Soltan, and partially presented in Arabic. The play brings to life the difficult decision many Palestinians in the diaspora had to make, and the outcomes of those options.
The direct representation of Arab American stories and experiences in art leaves a lasting impact on audiences and on the way allied communities understand Arab Americans.
Fortunately for the community and the country, there is a growing number of elected Arab American women in elected office. The representatives are bringing a sorely needed perspective to their respective decision-making bodies, and the outcome has been more inclusive effective policymaking.
In Hamtramck, Michigan, Jihan Aiyash ran a last-minute write-in campaign for school board and won handily. The educator’s message of providing educational programming to suit the various needs of the student population resonated with voters. Aiyash hopes her example will help others considering a run for office makes that commitment.
Aisha Gomez of Minnesota is another recently elected official whose message of inclusivity and understanding led her to the State House of Representatives. Gomez’s proposals to repair penetrating issues like incarceration, environmental justice, and affordable housing spoke to every voter and modeled a successful campaign built on the needs of her district.
Iowa City, Iowa elected community advocate Mazahir Salih to its city council in 2017. Salih, a community organizer, ran for office while simultaneously managing a minimum wage campaign to secure commitments from local businesses to offer living wages. This staunch commitment to local issues and uplifting vulnerable communities make Salih a powerful community leader with a bright future.
Progress in, and recognition of, the Arab American community has continually been fought for by determined advocates. This generation of advocates has a host of challenges to confront, and they’re more than willing to confront them.
After the Muslim & Refugee Ban was announced, Widad Hassan helped organize the New York City Bodega Strikes to voice the Yemeni community’s opposition. This event would be the catalyst for more engagements for the Arab American and Yemeni communities that would put the economic and political power of the constituency on full display. The ripple effect of this renewed civic engagement will reverberate within the American political structure for years to come.
In another part of New York, political influence is being wielded by a group of Arab American women, led by Somia El-Rowmeim, who refuse to let the community sit out of the electoral process. In the 2018 election cycle, El-Rowmeim trained groups of women to run an effective outreach program that resulted in increased participation. That organizing power continues to be channeled into local efforts through the Arab American Association of New York and the Union of Arab Women, which El-Rowmeim founded.
Arab American women—as journalists, fashion designers, athletes, authors, community members, business owners, family members, and more—are making a difference every day, and we are proud to share a glimpse into some of their lives for Women’s History Month. You are invited to add to this ever-growing list of women by commenting below.
*The women mentioned here are a handful of trailblazers who are diligently making a mark on their field. Learn about additional Arab American women here and here, and by reading the Sixth Edition of the Arab American Almanac.
Heba Mohammad is a National Field Coordinator for the Arab American Institute.