'From Women to the World': powerful letters by female Arab activists among new anthology

Philanthropist and journalist Elizabeth Filippouli brought together a number of leading figures to pen messages to women who inspired them

“Your letter should be written from the heart, and with candour.”

Those were the only guidelines Elizabeth Filippouli gave to the contributors of her new literary anthology, From Women to the World: Letters for a New Century, published by Bloomsbury's imprint, IB Tauris, on Thursday, July 1.

In it, trailblazing female politicians, royals, actors and writers from around the world write letters to historical figures, famous women, family members and mentors, sharing their heartfelt personal experiences while drawing attention to the pressing social issues that fuel their activism.

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<span>A letter is a confession in a way that is more intimate, profound and lasting</span>

Filippouli, a Greek philanthropist and journalist, is the founder of the Global Thinkers Forum and Athena40, a UN platform that promotes female role models.

"GTF and Athena40 have become 'meeting points' for such women from all around the world and the book was a natural progression for us to be able to share their inspirational stories beyond just the organisation and to all women," she tells The National.

"I envisaged the book as an open dialogue between women, who are keen to listen to each other's stories. The book is the vessel through which they have embarked on a journey to revisit their relationships with mothers, daughters, friends, mentors, role models and, ultimately, with themselves.

"The wisdom that these women have acquired through the years makes them very intuitive towards major social issues, including the gender gap, mental health stigma, unemployment and racism, but also personal challenges such as self-doubt and obstacles that prevent women from achieving their full potential.”

Filippouli recruited several influential Middle Eastern change-makers to contribute to the project.

Beirut-born Palestinian-Egyptian actress Yasmine Al Massri, who stars in the TV series Quantico, writes a poem to her mother, and Basma Al Said, the clinical psychotherapist and hypnotherapist who founded Whispers of Serenity, Oman's first well-being clinic, writes to her younger self.

Through their letters, the writers reflect on their lives, careers, relationships, successes and challenges, and although many highlight the various trials and tribulations this generation of Arab women has had to endure and overcome, the overall message is one of activism and optimism for the future.

Sumaya bint El Hassan of Jordan, Unesco Special Envoy for Science for Peace, writes to her grandmothers: “Twenty years into what we all hoped would be a peaceful and hopeful century, it seems like every one of us is constantly at the centre of traumatic and chaotic events ... Divisions that you thought were all but healed have resurged and been magnified, made monstrous through the optics of social media and resurgent nationalist cant.

"This is not the world you would have wished to pass on to me or my own children. But we have the tools to repair and rebuild – to get back on a course that you both so wisely and determinedly set all those decades ago.”

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<span>I wanted to bring to the fore the rich narratives from the women of the region, whose societies have suffered war, division, poverty and challenging transitions from the colonising powers</span>

Iraqi refugee activist Basma Alawee, meanwhile, pens a letter to the famed Hollywood actress whose philanthropic work with the UNHCR ignited her own ambitions at the age of 15.

“I wanted to be another Angelina Jolie. What I didn’t realise was that soon I too would be one of those millions of refugees you were advocating for, and that your leadership, empathy and advocacy would inspire my own,” writes Alawee, who has worked with the UNHCR Congress and World Relief and is the Florida Refugee organiser for the We Are All America national campaign.

Filippouli says that it was crucial to incorporate the voices of these Arab women, who have inspired fellow women within and outside of their communities, to take a stand for societal change.

“I wanted to bring to the fore the rich narratives from the women of the region, whose societies have suffered war, division, poverty and challenging transitions from the colonising powers,” she says. “All of us can learn so much from their perseverance, resilience and fearlessness.”

The letter-writing methodology, explains Filippouli, was ideal for this project. “The process, both for the writer and the reader, is profoundly cathartic and generates a strong drive towards new beginnings,” she says.

Writing letters also stands out as one of the memorable pastimes of her own childhood: as a teenager, she had international pen-pals and hopes to invoke this spirit of nostalgia, support and community through her book.

“Today we communicate in acronyms and emojis – nothing against it, but I feel that we are missing out on receiving an envelope that is more than just a bill. A letter is a confession in a way that is more intimate, profound and lasting,” says Filippouli.

"Letter-writing is a lost art – a relic of a bygone era. Pressing a key can never rival the graceful flow of the pen etching out feelings and narratives, but there we go, we live in a new world. With From Women to the World, I hope to somehow revive that connection with letters within the hearts of people of my generation, and to introduce the intimacy and impact of a letter to younger generations, who may consider it an 'ancient' way of communication."

Attuned to this timelessness of letter-writing, Saudi activist and UNDP Goodwill Ambassador Muna AbuSulayman selected a historical figure to write to. Her letter is addressed to Margaret Garner, the African-American woman who, in 1856, escaped slavery and killed her own child to save her from being enslaved.

Garner's story had a deep impact on AbuSulayman's understanding of love and human dignity, and her essay to the fellow mother discusses faith, ethics, privilege, sacrifice and raising daughters.

“The power of the word and art is of increasing importance in an increasingly isolated world, whether that isolation is through technology or by an airborne virus,” she writes at the end of her message.

Palestinian actress and director Iman Aoun also touches on the pandemic in her letter to her daughter, who she advises to “practise life as if it is a play that you are writing, not just performing in”.

She draws parallels between lockdowns during the pandemic and the Ramallah curfews she lived through in 2002 when Israeli forces re-invaded the West Bank.

“It is certainly difficult to live with the feelings of fear and isolation which we are experiencing during the pandemic,” she writes. “Those feelings are capable of consuming our soul, preventing us from discovering ways of resilience. Yet again, art has proven itself to be a medium that helps people in times of crises … to become action-oriented we need to keep our critical thinking stimulated, our consciousness alive and become vectors of change.”

From Women to the World: Letters for a New Century is out from Thursday, July 1