Many in the Arab world say we are living in “evil times or dark days.” If fear of ISIS, wars, and refugee crises is amounting in the Western world, that fear is multiplied 1000-fold in the Arab world. At such times, every individual needs to show up in whatever way possible — each in his or her own way — to shed light on positive stories, and on the hope that individuals carry in their hearts. The Arab world may be burdened by worry these days, but for every story of terror and fear from the region, there are 10 beautiful stories of people who are trying their best to bring positive change in all sectors of the society, and are doing so with love.
For me, showing up entailed launching the Nida’a show in 22 countries, in the Middle East and North Africa, with TLC Arabia. Nida’a, which means “the calling” in Arabic, is a one-hour current affairs discussion on the full spectrum of social and cultural issues impacting the lives of Arab women. My aim is to acknowledge Arab women — to show the possibilities for change within the culture itself, and to promote dialogue and bridge building among women in the region. The chance to learn from people within the region is far more powerful than leering from outside the region — from the perspective of other cultures and traditions.
The show launched with a blockbuster first interview: with Oprah Winfrey herself, who shared her new series, Believe, which honors spiritual traditions and seeking all over the world — including among Muslims. Believe reflects on different spiritual traditions as a way to foster unity and see our commonality across the world, regardless of what religion we carry in our hearts.
Nida’a covers women from all walks of life in the region, shedding light on the mystery of who they are. One of my first interviews was Amy Roko, a Saudi comedian with half a million followers on vine and Instagram. The audience saw only her eyes, as she wore the niqab, a black face covering often worn by Saudi women. (She had adopted the name Amy Roko to hide her real identy).
Until I interviewed her and had a glimpse of her engaging personality, every time I saw a woman wearing the niqab I got upset –worried that she was oppressed or forced to cover her face. I wouldn’t doubt that many women and men throughout the world, including in the Middle East itself, share that concern. But Amy, who is studying medicine and expresses her sense of humor in her social commentary on life in Saudi Arabia, relieved that fear. When I asked about her niqab, she said “Oh this… Oh I have been wearing it for five years. It’s no big deal”. There was no doubt in my mind that Amy is a woman who makes her own decisions in life. She is independent, articulate, funny, and smart. And she changed my view of Saudi women.
The process of shedding assumptions and fear is a central theme of the show, exemplified by Rafea, an illiterate Bedouin Jordanian woman who has learned to build solar panels and brought light to 80 houses in her community. Her husband opposed her leaving their home to go to Barefoot College in India to learn about solar panels, but her father stood by her and enabled her to pursue her dreams. If people think of Arab men as oppressive to women, this story and many others I have done have defied that stereotype.
I have encountered loving fathers who have supported their daughters to pursue their aspirations — from the first female climber from Saudi Arabia to take on Everest, to the most famous actress in Egypt. All of the women I have interviewed who have pursued their goals have shared a consistent common denominator: the support of their fathers.
The process of producing the show exposed a different way of viewing human rights and decision-making. Female genital cutting, for example, has always been discussed in a women’s rights and human rights framework among women activist throughout the world. But Mona, a mother of two daughters in a poor neighborhood in Cairo did not think of women’s rights when she decided to go against all odds and social norms in her community and opt not to circumcise her daughter. Her thinking was driven by her own experience with her husband. She had undergone FGC and experienced how it impacted her intimate relationship with him, and eventually jeopardized her marriage. “I was cut when I was a child of 10 and I was taken out of school when I was about 12,” Mona told me. “When I got married and my husband started accusing me of being ‘cold’, it devastated me, shattered my self-confidence, and I almost lost my marriage. I then had to educate myself about what was going on, find a way through books that can help our intimate relationship, and talked to my husband about it.”
Mona and her husband eventually found a way to improve and enjoy their intimate married life. And, when it came time for her daughters to go through the practice, as is the tradition, she was not about to let that happen. Her logic was simple: she wanted her daughters to have good marriages, and she knew the importance of intimate life in marital relationships. And with that, she fought against everyone in her community, against her family and friends. And she got what she wanted. Her daughters are now the only girls in their school who have not been put through FGC. Mona is not even aware of any women’s rights and human rights discussion on the issue. But she is aware of the meaning of marital happiness and that basic fact drove her to change the tradition in her family.
Every single woman I interviewed opened my eyes to the hope for positive change and of the energy of women in the Arab world. Even survivors of ISIS rape bravely broke their silence, describing the details of ISIS sexual assault in Arabic for an Arab audience. It is much easier speaking to foreigners, for foreign TV programs, than to your own people. But when I asked Nourhan, a 21-year-old Yazidi woman what was driving her to speak out to an Arab audience about the details of what ISIS captors did to her, she said, “My conscience does not allow me to be silent. Not one man, not three, nor five raped me but 13 of them. I cannot be silent about what they did.”
On some level, this courageous young woman represents all of the other women in the region. Women in the Arab world are speaking out, working on positive change, and breaking their silence. They are showing up in whatever ways they know how. The challenge for the region and the world is to truly see them and truly hear them. Their voices can promote healing and inspiration for a better future in the region.
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.
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