Five Powerful Women in the Middle East

Women are a powerful force for change. They can create revolutions and form life, they can incite uprisings and promote peace, they can overcome oppression and fight for their rights. Women are the fiercest force to be unleashed upon this world.

Unfortunately, when the topic of women’s rights enters the conversation, many people gravitate toward talking about the empowerment of the white woman. This inevitably leads to a sympathetic conversation about women oppressed in the Middle East and what western society needs to do to help them break free of their bonds. Not only does this dialogue happen within feminist circles, it also happens as an accusatory jab from white men whenever they feel their privilege is threatened. I mean, we’ve all heard phrases like “You ‘feminists” complain about unequal wages, yet women in the middle east are being stoned every day!”

While yes, there is oppression in the Middle East, there are also many women rising to the forefront of science, politics, and social movements that are making incredible changes in their society. Instead of falling back to the regressive, orientalist thinking of the oppression and seclusion of the Middle East, take the time to celebrate the women who are actively changing not only the Middle East, but the whole world, too. 

Tawakkol Karman

The Yemeni journalist and activist was the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her efforts in promoting woman’s rights and peacebuilding in Yemen. On many occasions, she has been imprisoned for her progressive views. In 2005, she established Women Journalists Without Chains that advocated for the media freedom of female writers. She has also taken many political roles in Middle Eastern revolutions, such as the Yemeni opposition movement and the Arab Spring.

She is known as the “Mother of the Revolution” and “The Iron Woman.”


Dr. Nawal El Saadawi

Dr. Nawal El Saadawi is one of the most prominent Egyptian activists. She is also a writer, physician, and physiatrist. She is famously known for her controversial feminist writings such as her book Women and Sex that discusses female genital mutilation which was banned by the Egyptian government and for which she lost her job as Director of Public Health. She was imprisoned in 1981 for creating a feminist magazine.   

She is still writing today.


Dr. Hayat Sindi

Dr. Sindi was born in the heart of Islam but left Saudi Arabia to go to the UK in order to continue her scientific education. She was the first Arab women to complete a doctorate in biotechnology, which she received from Cambridge University. While attending Cambridge, she was pressured to remove her headscarf and abandon her religion in order to get her degree, but she refused, based on the belief “that a person's religion, color or gender has no bearing on scientific contributions.”

She is best known for her advancements in medical testing and biotechnology.


Joumana Haddad

This Lebanese writer and women’s rights activist is one of the most influential women in the Arab world in regard to her cultural and social activism. In fact, she has made the list of 100 most powerful Arab women four times in a row. As well as speaking seven languages, her books and essays are renowned in the literary world and have been praised by literary geniuses. She addresses issues of women’s rights and Arab society in her writings.

Some of her writings are I Killed Scheherazade, Superman is an Arab, and The Third Sex.


Haifaa Al Mansour

Al Mansour is a Saudi film director who has won numerous awards for her films. While not originally her intention, Al Mansour focuses on women’s issues in her films and creates discussions about problems that are not publicly addressed in the Saudi society. For this, she receives accusations of straying from Islam, although she considers herself a Muslim. According to Stepfeed, she is often harassed on her sets and is required to direct the scenes from off-set.


This is but an incomplete list of some of the most influential women in the Middle East. There are hundreds more women like the ones listed above who have overcome unspeakable obstacles in order to achieve their dreams. Some women are known to the public such as Malala Yousafzai, Amal Clooney, and Ameera al-Taweel, but many are not recognized within the Western world.

Next time you find yourselves in a conversation drifting towards the predictable oppressive argument of Islam, remember the difference these women are making - and glorify them. 


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