Nine inspirational women from the Middle East

Nine inspirational women from the Middle East
As the new year begins, we take a look at nine inspirational women from the Middle East that you might not have heard of before.
5 min read
01 Jan, 2016
Women in the Middle East continue to provide inspiration in the face of adversity [Getty]
Zaina Erhaim 

Zaina Erhaim is a Syrian journalist who was living in London before she returned to Aleppo to risk her life under barrel bombs to cover the Syrian conflict. This year she won the Reporters Without Borders freedom prize. 

The Paris-based media rights group singled out Erhaim for her "determination and courage" in covering the conflict in Syria, deemed to be the most dangerous country in the world for journalists.

"After living in horror for all these years, it is normal to feel abandoned and forget there is someone listening or reading our stories who actually cares," Erhaim told RSF in August.

"Such initiatives make me feel that my Syrian colleagues and I do matter, and that our hard work is appreciated. It gives me power to go on in my daily surviving battle," she added.

 The Palestinian women who defended al-Aqsa Mosque

After Israeli settlers and the army stormed the al-Aqsa site in October a group of Palestinian women took it upon themselves to defend al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

The group of women, commonly referred to as Murabitat ["steadfast fighters"] were banned by Israel from Islam's third holiest site.

"Many Muslims abandoned it, so the women decided to defend it," Halawani, one of the women, told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

"Women became the primary defence line at al-Aqsa, which disturbed and intimidated the Israeli police," she added.

"We are subjected to violence on a daily basis, be it verbal or physical. But suffering is nothing new to Palestinian women. We have always been wives, daughters, sisters or mothers of prisoners or martyrs. We suffer all the time."

Mahienour al Massry 

Mahienour al-Massry is an Egyptian human rights activist and lawyer and one of 51,000 political detainees imprisoned in Egypt.    

"Not a single struggle was off limits to Mahienour: human rights, student rights, women's rights, labour strikes, legal aid, anti-police brutality, housing for the poor, corruption, anti-military trials, heritage preservation, right to public space, state-led land reclamation from the poor, climate change, street children's rights, Syrian refugees; the list goes on," wrote Egyptian academic Amro Ali.

"Mahienour would rush to defend victim's rights—regardless of their affiliation—and she attended the funerals of people she had never met. Her presence sent a message that an issue really mattered and raised protestors' morale."

Other prominent female activists released from Egyptian prisons this year include Sanaa Seif, Esraa al-Taweel and Yara Salam.


Nudem Durak

Nudem Durak is Kurdish folk singer and teacher who was imprisoned for ten years in Turkey for singing in her native language.

She was charged with promoting Kurdish propaganda.

"Singing in our mother tongue and passing the music down through the generations honours us," she said in an interview to al-Jazeera plus, shortly before she was detained.

"I am in trouble for following my dreams," she said.

Durak is from the town of Cizre near the Syria border where clashes between Kurds and Turkish security forces have escalated this year.

"You either go to the mountains and join the guerillas, or you go to prison," she said. "I don't think I will do either of them."


Radhiya al-Mutwakkol

Radiya is a Yemeni human rights activist documenting atrocities on both sides of the Yemeni conflict that has claimed thousands of lives.

Her father, a politician and academic, was assassinated by unknown gunmen last year.  However, that has not deterred her from continuing to advocate for human rights in Yemen.

She is married to another human rights activist and founded Muwatana Organization for Human Rights.

Amidst the conflict, she also emphasizes the particular oppression that women have faced from the warring parties.


Zeina Daccache

Daccache is a Lebanese woman who sought to give a voice to those who have been excluded, marginalised and silenced in a divided society through drama therapy.

Working alongside female prisoners, they produced the play Scheherazade's diary, and Daccache created a second documentary depicting daily life in prison and women's place in Lebanese society. 

This followed her successful documentary "12 Angry Lebanese", concentrating on male prisoners. 

"Nobody understood what I wanted to do… I think they thought I'd give up trying to get permission, and in the end, they were the ones who gave in," Dannache said, commenting on the difficulties of gaining access to the prison.

She focused on issues such as rape, forced marriage, drugs, adultery, and murder. Her documentary looked at those things never spoken about by those who have experienced them.

Daccache later continued her initiative in Iraq.


Meherzia Labidi

Labidi is an Ennahdha MP and the first woman to hold the position of deputy speaker of parliament in Tunisia.  She has become known for running parliamentary sessions with a firm hand. Before the revolution, Labidi lived in France and worked as a translator.

"I'm indebted to the revolution, the youth and the martyrs who scarified their lives for me to be able to return to Tunisia, after living in exile for many years," Labidi said. 

Since her return and involvement in political life, Labidi has taken time to speak to the people. Her conclusion is that they have found "a degree of freedom to voice their concerns, as the former regime had denied them the right to express themselves". 

"You cannot imagine the injustices they try to convey to me," she said.

Last year she helped introduce a clause to protect women's rights into the new Tunisian constitution and in 2015 lead the government's committee for women, children and the elderly. 

Labadi was one of many Tunisian women, of differing political and ideological backgrounds, who are prominent in the political life of the country.


Sara al-Drees

Sara al-Drees is a lauded Kuwaiti novelist and teacher who isn’t afraid to speak her mind.

This year she was issued with an arrest warrant for tweets insulting the prophet Mohammad.

Drees, commented in a tweet saying that she was returning to Kuwait and that she had done nothing wrong.

In 2013, a Kuwaiti appeal court upheld a 20-month prison sentence on Drees for posting political comments on Twitter.

She was described as Kuwait's "first political detainee".


Niloufar Ardalan

Ardalan, the captain of the Iranian national football team, missed the Asian Cup because her husband refused to let travel, which is allowed under Islamic laws enforced in Iran.

Later the same year her husband also refused her to go to the world championships in Guatamala.

Ardalan fought her case court, and the judge allowed her to go to the world championships.