The pioneering Arab women we have forgotten

Arab women post enthusiastically on social media, Rym Ghazal writes, in part because their achievements have been ignored for so long

Ghada Shouaa of Syria displays her Olympic gold medal. Thomas Kienzle / AP
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‘If it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen,” is one of those cliché quotes that could be tweaked today to say: “ It is not photographed and posted somewhere, no one will know about it.”

We are in an age where everything we do is recorded in one form or another, when even where and what we eat and with whom is broadcast on some social media outlet. Yet there was a time when most things were not recorded, especially if you were not a VIP, and that is a shame because often these moments were of great significance.

For the past few years, I have been researching stories of amazing Arab women, whose only reference sometimes is a single photo or newspaper clipping or stories passed down through oral history.

For example, I found a black-and-white photo of Arab women wearing Scout uniforms and they appeared to be reconstructing something that looks like a damaged building or some structure. Who were they? What were they doing? And when and where was it?

Women have always broken barriers and made records, but so many of their stories have never been recorded, or if they have, they have been lost with time.

Take the example of Karimeh Abbud, also known as the “Lady Photographer”. She was a Palestinian professional photographer in the first half of the 20th century, who is believed to be the first female photographer in the Arab world.

One of the reasons we even know about her is that she signed her name on photographic postcards, and someone took the trouble of documenting and archiving her beautiful photographs that capture a faded era.

Most of the time, there were no national interests to preserve or encourage or even publicise the achievements of the country’s women, leaving them to often work hard and diligently in the background without support.

I have met Arab female doctors, teachers, researchers, engineers, scientists, artists, journalists, humanitarians, and even fighters and so many others who have been doing great things for decades, and no one knows about them or their work.

One of the times these amazing Arab women get recognition is when they compete in international events at which their achievements are recorded and watched by the world.

There are heroes such as Nawal El Moutawakel, from Morocco, who was the first Muslim Arab woman to win a gold medal at the Olympics Games in 1984, and Syria’s Ghada Shouaa, a heptathlete who won her country’s only gold medal at the 1996 Olympics. These are just two examples as there are many amazing Arab women who have competed and new athletes who are taking part in international tournaments inspiring waves of hope and pride wherever they go.

I find it odd that sometimes while the women get ignored or even shunned in their own countries, the rest of the world rallies behind them and acknowledges them as heroes.

Just look around and you will see Arab women taking up the toughest jobs – like war correspondents. Back in 2003, when I first went to Iraq to cover the unfolding events, there were just a handful of women journalists out in the field. Now, there are more female than male journalists going under the fire and covering the most difficult news stories.

One of the latest groups of women pioneers is coming out of the Gulf region. Their achievements are being acknowledged to inspire other women to take up the reins and continue the road of self-assertion and hard work.

As Raha Moharrak, who made history as the youngest Arab woman and first Saudi woman to climb Mount Everest, in 2013, said: “I really don’t care about being the first, so long as it inspires someone else to be second.” There is no reason today for any woman to be restricted to a single role or position, and while we may not know the names of all those who came before us and broke barriers, we just have to remember that they did it, so we can too.

On Twitter: @Arabianmau