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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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Category Archives: Interviews

Originally Published by CNN, May 3, 2011

Answering today’s five OFF-SET questions is Maria Ebrahimji, who along with Zahra Suratwala, edited the new book, “I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim.”

The book features essays by 40 women—doctors, engineers, journalists, mothers, students, politicians, and academics–who explore what it means to be a Muslim woman in America.

Ebrahimji is CNN’s Executive Editorial Producer and manages a team that is responsible for guest coverage and story planning for all of the network’s special events and breaking news programming. She is a member of the Asian American Journalists Association and serves on the board of the Atlanta Press Club.

In the book’s first essay, journalist and blogger Yusra Tekbali is a staff assistant in the office of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona. A constituent phones and asks the origin of her name. Tekbali answers: Arabic. There is a grunt and a dial tone. Tekbali writes, “Sometimes, it feels like I am racing against a clock that always reads 9:11.”  

How common is that experience—and what is the affect of that kind of suspicion, if not prejudice?

For many American Muslims, including those born here, 9/11 was an awakening to our identity and to the idea that Muslims were now the new “other.”  Yusra’s experience is not uncommon and many of us have felt some sort of prejudice against us at some time in our lives.

In some cases, these experiences have more to do with lack of understanding and education about what Islam means and how we practice it, rather than pure intellectual and emotional hate.

Fortunately, in the ten years since 9/11, there are many more American Muslims who are working in civil society and government. Hopefully their presence alone will help to dispel what I call an “otherness” epidemic that seems to be our country’s natural reaction to fear and the unknown.

Why do many American Muslim women choose to wear “hijab”—the traditional modest dress, include a headscarf—and what are the challenges in doing so?

Some women choose to wear the hijab because of their interpretation of Islamic guidelines.  Some women wear it in order to be closer to God. Others wear it purely because they view it as the utmost form of modesty as prescribed by God in the Quran.

Many of the women in this book see the debates other countries are having around the niqab and wonder how something so fundamentally basic can be so politicized. I think the benefit of living in America is that we are all afforded the right to choose how we dress and present ourselves in public.  This is why you see so many different interpretations of modest dress within American Islam.

Several of the women in the book discuss their view of hijab and several, like me choose to not wear it at all. I think given the heightened security in this country after 9/11, there is an obvious scrutiny surrounding anyone that covers fully, but the women in this book understand this and are aware of their responsibilities to cooperate and to practice their faith.

Hebah Ahmed (whom you have had on your program) wears the niqab, has a Master’s degree in engineering, and participates fully in public life, though she has chosen to work from home and home-school her children. Hebah is an example of someone who is acutely aware of the (mis)perceptions her choice of dress might cause but continues to positively advocate for her choice and the respect of those around her.

Mariam Sobh is a blogger and radio commentator in Chicago whose dream it is to be the first hijabi television news anchor in America. She hasn’t gotten there yet, but continues to advocate through her HijabTrendz blog and through her writing and acting, that her talent should be judged before her scarf.

Both of these women have their own challenges but neither is unwilling to face them.  And both are facing them as American-born women who truly understand how to interact with society and bring about change from within. They refuse to be the “other” in their own country and that is what makes their contribution so great.

In your essay in the book, a world-savvy Sheikh in Yemen advised you to consider staying home more, letting go some of your career and finding “a good Muslim husband.” It led you to ponder the question, “Am I Muslim enough?” Have you followed any of the Sheikh’s advice? How far along are on the journey to answering your own question?

You know, the Sheikh was right, but only about one aspect of what he said.  I did need to pare back/slow down the pace of my life, but only to preserve my own sanity, not to find a good husband!

I think since that trip to Yemen, I’ve come a long way in becoming more comfortable with my identity as an American Muslim woman. I don’t believe that compromising any aspect of my talent, my passion, or my career is necessary in order to fully fit into my faith. Today, I sit very comfortably in my Islam and no longer ask myself if  “Am I Muslim enough?” but rather, “How can I be a better person?”

When you think about the assumptions that you have heard from people once you explained that you are Muslim, what is the one thing you want to explain to non-Muslims?

For some women in this book, their identity as a Muslim is very visible, in that their hijab evokes their faith connection.

For others, like myself, our faith is not so apparent, and we prefer it this way. In my essay, I talk about the concept of “taqwa,” which is mentioned in the Quran over 200 times. Taqwa by its simplest definition, is “God consciousness,” and I would say this concept can be applied across any religion.

So the first thing I would say to non-Muslims is “let me show you what we have in common, rather than what it is that divides us.”

TIME Magazine poll issued last year revealed that 62% of Americans don’t even know a Muslim. I’d say to non-Muslims, take time to get to know one, and in turn, to my fellow Muslims, I’d say take the time to get to know someone outside our faith as well. It is in these interactions that a new “normal” is created.

So many people from different countries and backgrounds, with different beliefs and customs, come to America and change who we are as Americans. From your point of view, what impact are Muslim-American women having on the country?

American Muslim women, especially those of my generation, are really coming into our own and impacting the conversations, the debates, and the dialogues happening across our country.

We are no longer in grade school, too young to engage, and/or still under the guidance and care of our parents. We have emerged into the public sphere as professionals and citizens, and are contributing more to our communities than previous generations have.

The women in this book represent a true kaleidoscope of backgrounds, ethnicities, upbringing, and interpretation of Islam that you see across the United States- a diversity within Islam that I venture to say you will not find anywhere else in the world.

The women of I Speak for Myself represent the fields of engineering, medicine, politics, literature, anthropology, media, fashion, entertainment, law, science, and business.  We are defining for ourselves what faith, feminism, fashion, and national identity mean to us. We are not allowing others to define our individual and collective narrative.

As cliché as it sounds, we are truly “speaking for ourselves” and I believe this is the greatest impact we can have in building bridges and not allowing ourselves to fall prey to the “otherness” I referred to earlier.


AIC Executive Director Zainab al-Suwaij interviewed with Yalla Shabab during her trip to Cairo last week.

Check it out! The interview is in two parts.

Part 1

Part 2


Although the success of the Tunisian protestors in toppling their own government undoubtedly influenced the Egyptians, Ziada emphasized that the revolution was not spontaneous, countering the media narrative of an impulsive uprising; “long years of work by civil society actors, university students, and activists” nurtured the growth a vibrant dissident movement. “We have been fighting for ten years,” stressed Ziada, “not just on the internet but in on-the-ground activities.”

Enthusiasm for civil society in Egypt strengthened throughout the 2000s, despite crackdowns – often violence – by state security against the work of NGOs and dissidents.  Grassroots organizing, promoting, above all, non-violent resistance, laid the groundwork for protest mobilizing in Winter 2011.  Egyptians, notes Ziada, were impressed by the successes of other non-violent revolution, from Eastern Europe to the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.  Many young activists were for the first time introduced to the story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a result of Ziada’s Arabic translation and distribution of The Montgomery Story, a comic book illustrating Dr. King’s non-violent protest methods during the Civil Rights Movement.

What made 2011 such a pivotal year for these activists?

In Tunisia, Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation brought what were, for many, latent issues of repression, lack of economic mobility, and humiliation, to the forefront of Tunisian consciousness.  For Egyptians, the movement towards protest began in the summer of 2010, with the death of Khaled Said, a young man in Alexandria.  Dragged out from a cyber café by state security and beaten to death at a nearby police station, Said’s murder rapidly turned into a wake up call for the Egyptians: the government perceived its own citizens as an internal enemy.  Online activists, says Ziada, quickly turned up to memorialize Said.  Wael Ghonim, a Google executive in Egypt who had never before been involved in politics and had never met Said, began his own Facebook group, titled “We are all Khaled Said,” as a tribute to the young man and to draw attention to the oppressive and often violent conditions that every Egyptian faces.

In Ziada’s opinion, the fact that activists were finally “able to combine the success of the online world with outreach to people on the ground” contributed to the massive outpouring against the Mubarak regime and  the call for democratization.  Despite heavy internet promotion of January 25th – Egypt’s official police holiday – as a day of national protest, the activists, Ziada explains, “never thought it would turn into something this big.  We were just going to spend the day in the streets and go home.”  But something was different this time: “usually the poor are very apathetic, especially in protests where there is the possibility for police violence,” says Ziada.  But they were there, marching into Tahrir Square, demonstrating their opposition to the Mubarak regime.  Unlike previous protest movements, which remained limited to particular segments of society, the protestors assembled in January and February represented a wide swath of Egyptian society – poor, rich, urban, Coptic, Muslim, male, female.

Although accounts of brutality in Tahrir Square by the state police and NDP thugs have been widely documented—the image of camels charging protestors circulated headlines across the globes—Ziada noted that observers should not conflate police forces with their counterparts in the military.  The military, says Ziada, belonged to the Egyptian people: “Even though they had the green light to kill people and end the protests as quickly as possible, we were not scared of them, we welcomed them.”  Camaraderie between the young army officers and the young protestors grew throughout the protests: “people kept chanting for them, and cheering for them.  This moved the young officers of the lower ranks, the same average age of the youth participating in the protests.”  With younger officers siding with the protestors, older officers began to rethink their orders.  “They felt like they belonged to these people,” explains Ziada.

Though the fall of the Mubarak regime on February 12th was, for Ziada, “the happiest day of my life,” she stresses that Egypt still has to accept extensive social and political changes before democracy can truly reach its people.  Ziada remains concerned about the push for elections: “rushing to democracy without establishing liberalism” will present a difficult challenge for those aspiring to see a truly free, truly democratic Egypt.  She called on lawmakers and civil society leaders in the United States to help educate Egyptians “about their civil rights and about liberalism” so that Egypt can avoid falling into theocracy, as in Saudi Arabia or Iran.


As a regular activist and blogger for women’s issues in Egypt and across the Middle East, Ziada also expressed her disenchantment with the reconstruction process with regards to women’s participation in Egypt’s new government.  Despite women’s tireless participation in the democracy protests of January and February, not one woman has been invited to sit on the constitutional amendment committee.  “It’s very sad that women are going to be marginalized in the next phase,” Ziada laments.  On March 8th, a planned “Million Women March” for Egyptian women only drew out a few hundred supporters.  These women were, unfortunately, met with opposition and even violence from male opponents. “Male protestors who had previously been standing with women shoulder to shoulder in Tahrir square, they came out and told the women, ‘go back home, it’s not your time now.’  But how can democracy be achieved without women’s rights?”  To respond to this persistent disenfranchisement of women, Ziada called for greater efficiency among Egypt’s many women’s rights NGOs, and guidance from foreign organizations to “help us pressure and educate people about liberal democracy, and economic and constitutional liberalism,” which will undoubtedly lead to greater gender equality in Egypt.

The uncertainty clouding the reconstruction of the Egyptian government has led to concerns of the revival of Islamism or Mubarak’s NDP, a rise in sectarian violence, and the persistence of gender inequality; however, Ziada remains optimistic about Egypt’s future.  She maintains her faith in the transformative potential of Egypt’s youth: “they know that their leaders are radical, hypocritical, and abusive,” Ziada explains, and “they will not tolerate fraudulent elections.”  Young activists and students will not “sacrifice their liberal ideals,” but guard them closely now that democracy is within their grasp.


By Chloe Boudjalis, February 5, 2011

Originally published by Northwestern Michigan College White Pine Press

Middle Eastern women’s rights activist to speak at NMC

Zainab Al-SuwaijZainab Al-Suwaij is the Executive Director of the American Islamic Congress (AIC). Her goal with AIC is to establish interfaith understanding and to promote civil rights in the Muslim world. Al-Suwaij has been working in Iraq to promote women’s rights and the Iraqi educational system. The Student Life office has arranged for Al-Suwaij to speak at NMC on Feb. 16.

WPP: How have conditions changed recently for women in the Middle East?

Al-Suwaij: The conditions for women are very different between one country and another. Some counties are advanced as far as women gaining their rights and some countries are really not. Unfortunately [women] are still asking for basic rights: things like being able to drive and being able to leave their house without the permission of a male guardian. In some other countries, we see that it is very advanced. We see women being able to participate in the political field, being able to work outside of the house, being able to vote, and being able to ask for her rights, and protect her rights. So it really varies between different places. In general, we see, if we’re talking about equality, they are still working hard on changing things.

WPP: In your mind, what are the biggest challenge facing women in Islam currently?

Al-Suwaij: The biggest challenge I see is women not being able to gain her full rights. There are always rules and regulations, and these rules and regulations can minimize women’s rights.  And these boundaries are not only religious but also tribal and cultural boundaries that minimize women’s rights and women’s roles in the society in these countries. But at the same time, there are a lot of woman initiatives and woman activists, who are working very hard on gaining these rights back.

WPP: Are there many risks for the women who choose to protest?

Al-Suwaij: Definitely. There are a lot of risks. These women are being subjected to violence, being subjected to discrimination in the work place or in other things. So you see these kind of things in this type of country.  There are many women in them who have been subject to violence and suspension from work.  For example, I have a colleague and a friend in Saudi Arabia who has been suspended from her work, simply because she participated in driving. Some women in Saudi Arabia decided to drive their cars and she was one of women who decided she wanted to be part of the group. In a very peaceful way, a group of women decided to drive their cars, and then she was suspended from her work for two years.  So she was staying home and unable to work simply because she asked for a simple right of hers.  This is just one example. In other places, women have been targeted. They have been killed or injured in one way or another, simply for asking for these rights.  So they are subject to violence, but yet they are determined to gain these rights. Also there are certain political parties and political movements, some are religious and some are not, who are trying to minimize women’s rights and roles, especially in the political arena.

WPP: What challenges have you run into in your efforts to promote women’s rights in Iraq?

Al-Suwaij: In Iraq, after 2003, things have changed. Women in Iraq now have the right to participate in the election by voting and being politically active. They are very outgoing and highly educated. They had many years of sanction and stuff like that.  In the past, for many women, their level of education went down because they could not afford to send their daughters to school. But at the same time, right after the fall of Saddam’s regime, we saw so many women activists going in the streets, working on women’s rights and asking for their rights.

There is a very remarkable group of women in 2003 that gained the quota of women in the government, which called for not less than 25 percent of women participation in the government. At the same time, there was a movement from one of the Islamic political parties; they wanted to change the family status law to an Islamic status law. So thousands, hundreds of thousands of women went to the streets and we organized and protested in front of every city council throughout the country at the same time every day to not have this law pass. And we succeeded at that. And we are still working with women in the capacity of building on democracy education, women’s rights, and many other things.

WPP: What do you think is the next step for Iraq now?

Al-Suwaij: Women being more involved and gaining more rights: participating. I would like to see the participation of women be not just a quarter, but go to 50 percent, because they represent more than 50 percent of the population. And I would like to see happening is having these women more involved in all aspects of life, and they have opportunities to do that.  At the same time, 25 percent participation is the highest percent in the whole region. In the first election in 2004, women were 32 percent [of voters].

The minimum was 25 percent, then the quota went up, because women participation in that election was really high. What I would like to see is more participation, more full rights and women involved in fields that they have not been involved with before.  For example, we now have women in the army, women in the police, and in the beginning, they were harassed because of that, but now I think it has become normal to see a policewoman. Women are highly educated there, so they need this kind of a push to open other doors.

WPP: How can students and Northern Michigan locals get involved?

Al-Suwaij: We have initiatives on many different college campuses, and this project is called Project Nur, and we always encourage students to be involved in support of these initiatives, not only in Iraq, but in other areas in the region, and helping women and youth activists in gaining their rights. We encourage students to do events related to what is really happening, so people over there can see the support, not only in their homeland, but also on an international level. There are a lot of violations of human rights, specifically on women’s rights, and I think people need to know that there are efforts happening to make that change on the ground, but also these initiatives need the support of people who have the freedom to do things, are able to be out there and speaking about these issues. So they need the support, not only from inside, but from outside as well.


By Brooke Anderson

Originally published in the Wall Street Journal, February 1 2011.

In Lebanon, as elsewhere, the higher up in management one looks, the fewer women there are. But the country’s recent history of conflict has hindered its development, meaning women face even higher hurdles to success in business. Joumana Bassil Chelala, head of the consumer banking division at Byblos Bank, tells Brooke Anderson why Lebanese companies need more women in senior management positions, and the obstacles that remain.

WSJ:What advice do you give young Lebanese women who want to go into banking or management?

Ms. Chelala:First, they must have in mind a kind of vision. Where do they want to go in their life? Do they want to continue and make a career? A lot of women go to university, get married, have kids and stop working.

In Lebanese culture, it’s good to get married. I encourage everyone I know to have a career. It’s good for a couple, for a man to have a wife who works. It gives them something to talk about, so they can understand each other. It’s important when a woman chooses a husband to find someone who accepts that she works. My husband and father always encouraged me. Women need to be in an environment of positive attitudes.

They need to understand how a work environment works. They need to accept criticism, and they must understand that not everything is beautiful in the beginning. They need to show willingness to go the extra mile. This is for both men and women.

WSJ: What gave you the confidence to pursue an executive position in a bank?

Ms. Chelala:I like what I do, not just for the money. What we do has a lot to do with the development of the country. We’re present in rural areas in Lebanon.

When I started in 1991, I’d come from abroad. I left Lebanon with my family in 1975 [the year Lebanon’s 15-year civil war began], when I was 8 years old. I saw the problems and the killings on TV. I always wanted to come back and help improve the lives of people.

When I started as a teller at a branch in 1991, there was no retail banking in Lebanon. Banks worked as commercial banks only. Byblos started retail banking in 1991. In 1992, I took the responsibility of the marketing department to see if we could create retail products. Today I’m handling the consumer division of all branches.

WSJ:Why do you think so few Lebanese women reach top management positions, despite having attained similar levels of education to men?

Ms. Chelala: Either they don’t want to or they’re not encouraged to work. It’s not easy, especially if you have a family. I got my master’s in marketing while working and having kids. I have a husband that encourages me.

WSJ: Who are your role models?

Ms. Chelala: My father—because he’s a successful businessman [François S. Bassil is chairman of the bank’s board]. I have a challenging and demanding father, and I had to give a lot of my time. I had to prove myself and give results. A lot of people take the easy way, but I love challenges. The more I’m challenged, the more I can give.

WSJ: Did you study abroad? What did that do for you?

Ms. Chelala: I studied business marketing at Northeastern University in Boston, and I did a second undergraduate degree in international business management at the American University of Paris. I did a masters in marketing at ESA [Ecole Superieur des Affairs in Beirut] while working and having kids.

When I lived abroad I saw many cultures. I have an open mind and I’m more inclined to accept differences in others.

WSJ: Why is it important for women to break into male-dominated professions? What can women in top positions bring to Lebanese business, and Lebanese society as a whole?

Ms. Chelala: It’s always good to have a mix in world of both men and women. Women might be a little more emotional or intuitive, and that’s good.

In 2008, Byblos began having women on the management committee of the bank—me and the head of HR. I’m happy to keep on going and show that, if you want, you can make things happen. We put things on the table that men don’t think of.

WSJ: How optimistic are you about women achieving equality in the work force?

Ms. Chelala: Of course it will happen, but it will take time. Women don’t like to advance until they’ve finished what they’ve started. First they make sure it’s well done.

Women have to be willing to sacrifice. Are they willing to give up what they used to have, [like] more time at home? They have to have lived in different situations, not always nested. If you’ve been over-protected, then you’re not ready to face the challenges of life.

You need to have stability in the country and the economy in order for women to feel like they are in a safe environment. Instability affects women, because they feel like they need to be at home taking care of their kids. Instability affects women’s professional progress.

I see a difference between Lebanon and other countries. I don’t think it’s a question of culture. Every five years something happens here. In other countries, the economy affects politics. Here, politics affects the economy.

Write to Brooke Anderson at


Thanks to the Bahrain Women Association for this article summarizing one of their discussion panels on women’s issues in Islam affecting women not only in Bahrain, but across the region.

Bahrain Women Association – for Human Development (BWA) conducted the fourth and final open discussion series titled: “Towards a Successful Family Partnership” which ends the “Women … New Paradigm” project it launched on the 21st of March 2009.

BWA President Eng. Saba Alasfoor delivered a speech at the closing ceremony, marking the end of the discussion series that also happen to be on the BWA’s ninth anniversary. She said: “It’s been fifteen months since we launched the BWA’s project ‘Women … New Paradigm’ with a long-term vision aiming to correct the false beliefs rooted in the culture that have downgraded women in the community with unjustified reasons, as neither human nature nor the Quran validates that women differ from men in rights and duties”.

She continued: “Unfortunately, more than 50% of the survey respondents still want to forbid women’s guardianship, and 54% believe that the testimony of a woman carries only half the weight of a man’s. Moreover, 7% were against women’s testimony in general. We continue to hear that some are skeptical about the benefits behind discussing women’s rights, and wonder and why researchers attempt to introduce innovative ideas.”

In the first session of the open discussion, Mr. Isa AlSharqi, a researcher from Al Tajdeed Cultural & Social Society, emphasized that polygamy is not a rule that Islam has enforced, but that it is an existing Arab social custom that Islam has appropriated and regulated. He noted that “there is a big difference between when a religion establishes a certain rule and when a rule exists and requires trimming and reorganizing. Establishing a rule to be introduced to people should be generated from the essence and spirit of the religion, whereas in the second case, the right thing to do may be to stop the rule if society has reached a certain stage of development in which the problem and causes of the existing rule have vanished. In fact, it is necessary to work towards getting the community to that stage, as it did in the case with slavery.”

Mr. AlSharqi clarified: “The verse of upon which scholars legitimize man to marry more than one wife, ‘if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, then marry women of your choice two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not be able to deal justly with them then only one or what your right hands possess; That is nearer to prevent you from doing injustice’ (Qu’an 4:3) is unrelated to multiple wives. It was and still is a dilemma for all who tried to explain it; some interpreters invented different word pronunciation types that bear a load to the words it was not meant to carry.” He stressed that “the opinion is that the verse is about the marriage of male and female orphans.”

The second session had number of speakers discussing underage marriage issues. Mrs. Huda AlMahmood, vice president of the Bahraini Sociologists Society, said that “by authorizing underage marriage we are legitimizing social irresponsibility.” She wondered about the justice behind this practice, and refused to have these practices validated in the name of religion. Mrs. AlMahmood called for researches to seek solutions exploring the root of the problem, and asked for social responsibility towards marriage issues.

Dr. Fawzia Al-Hani, a human rights activist from Saudi Arabia, said “our communities instill in girls’ minds that waiting for marriage is among the most important duties towards self-awareness and a sense of self.” She added: “family formation is not limited to the physiological reproduction but also requires intellectual, emotional, cognitive and social maturity to achieve the social objectives of a family. Unless girls are mature and educated they will not be able perform this role.”

Mr. Isa Sharqi mentioned: “Young girls have been included in marriage issues, even though Quranic verses which addressed marriage issues focused on women only. All marriage verses use the term ‘women,’ usually reserved for adult females. Small girls are excluded from marriage topics, and their parents’ guardianship during their immaturity should not impose on them what to be applied on matures, this applies to males as well”.

Lawyer Hassan Ismail called for women’s associations to study the medical and health damages caused by underage marriage for those under 15 years of age.

At the end of the open discussion forum, the President Bahrain Women Association expressed her thanks to all those who contributed significantly to the success of the project from their various positions and responsibilities, and extended her appreciation to the Al Tajdeed Cultural & Social Society for their contributions to presenting this innovative, enlightening research. She added: “This is the fourth and last open discussion forum of ‘Women … New Paradigm’ series, which ends the culture establishment phase to correct the perception of women in society, but initiates a new phase for setting practical steps for making sustainable change towards restoring rights and dignity for women.”

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