Message from the Director
Women Pioneers Who Changed the Arab World
The 57 Arab women pioneers profiled in the directory below might already be household names and some might be less known, however, they all deserve our attention. These pioneering figures changed their countries thanks to their enormous contributions to women’s rights, education, academia, health, science, politics, literature, art, architecture, media, aviation, and many other fields. They worked towards a future of equity, equality, and justice as basic values.
All of these agents of change are strong voices, tireless advocates, and major activists for reform in their countries with a common goal of advancing gender equality and women’s rights. Many of them persisted despite numerous social, cultural and political obstacles.
The writers, thinkers, and journalists among them helped ignite, through their articles and public speeches, the will of others to advocate for women’s rights.
The political activists led the way and traced a path where women could play new roles outside traditional roles and thereby helped guide their societies and countries in new directions.
The pioneer women scientists called on other scientists to protect against nuclear hazards, or worked with them on preventing diseases and expanding access to health services.
These pioneers founded civil society organizations, presided over universities, increased access to educational systems, reformed health systems, helped launch new movements, organized women’s marches, challenged traditional norms, and worked with leading national figures to improve the status of women and girls in their countries.
Each one of the 57 pioneers accomplished a first in her field. In the late 19th century and in most of the 20th century, it was highly unusual to find a female in many of the positions that these pioneers occupied.
Each of these women dared to be the first. Each of these women challenged convention, and stepped outside of expected roles, and thus created new opportunities for her sisters. Many of these pathfinders believed that the status quo was not an option.
These extraordinary women pushed society to think bigger, change some unfair norms and regulations, overcome barriers, break glass ceilings, and move forward. The 57 women in the directory are excellent examples of women with powerful visions, boundless courage, strong will, and inspiring determination to create a more equitable world. They changed the Arab world by transcending boundaries in their fields and by opening new paths for women and future generations. Thanks to each of them, women and girls are able to live with fewer restraints and greater dreams.
These pioneers are Arab history's greatest female role models.
Marguerite Taos Amrouche
Marguerite Taos Amrouche was the first Algerian woman to become a published author. Through her mother’s influence she became interested in the rich oral traditions of the Kabyle Berber people. In 1934 she finished her initial schooling in Tunisia, and in the following year…
Dr. Assia Djebar
Dr. Assia Djebar, born Fatma-Zohra Imalhayène, was an Algerian writer and filmmaker whose novels, written in French, most often focus on women and their role in Algerian society. Djebar received her PhD in 1999 at the Paul Valéry University of Montpellier III. Her career as a…
Salwa al-Omran was a graduate of 'Dar al Mualimin wa al Mualimat' in Beirut in 1942 where she studied English, Arabic, and French. Her career in education began in Bahrain in 1942, where she was a teacher until 1944. From 1945 to 1948, she was the headmistress at…
Safiya Zaghloul was an Egyptian political activist among the first leaders of the Wafd Party. Zaghloul participated in women demonstrations during the 1919 revolution to claim independence from the British Empire. She also contributed directly and effectively in the…
Huda Sha'rawi was an Egyptian feminist and nationalist who is considered the founder of the women’s movement in Egypt and established numerous organizations dedicated to women’s rights. As an upper-class female, Huda Sharawi grew up in the harem system, in which women…
Nabawiyya Mohamed Musa Badawia
Nabawiyya Mohamed Musa Badawia was a pioneer of women's education in Egypt. She was the first Egyptian girl to have a high-school education in 1907 and maintained this record for 21 years later.
For nearly forty years, from 1904-1946, women's education was…
Malak Hifni Nasif
Malak Hifni Nasif (pseudonym: Bahithat al-Badiya) publicly advocated for women's advancement in the early twentieth century during the al-nahda al-nisa'iyya (women's awakening). This was a period in which women were increasingly able to publish essays, stories…
Ihsan Ahmed El-Kousy
Ihsan Ahmed El-Kousy was the first Muslim woman to graduate from the American University of Beirut (AUB) with a degree in higher education. Encouraged by her progressive parents, El-Kousy felt the desire to pursue higher education early on in life. Both her parents and her…
Lotfia Elnadi was the first Arab woman pilot, and Egypt's first female aviator. When she was just a young girl, she came across an article about aviation saying that a new flying school had opened in Cairo. Immediately, she knew she wanted to one day fly her own plane.…
Doria Shafik was an Egyptian feminist, poet and editor, and one of the principal leaders of the women's liberation movement in Egypt in the mid-1940s. As a direct result of her efforts, Egyptian women were granted the right to vote by the Egyptian constitution. In…