Five Arab Women That Have Changed The World

Known primarily as the founder of the world’s first university in 859, the University of Qarawiyyin, Morocco, is still in use today. Fatima and her sister used their father’s vast fortune which they inherited to support and develop the construction of mosques and educational institutions.

Strategically placed, the institution attracted scholars from around the world and is still regarded as one of the key intellectual centres of the Mediterranean. Amongst theological and Islamic jurisprudence; medicine, grammar, astronomy, physics, history, chemistry, geography, mathematics, natural sciences, foreign language and music were taught. The university also provided a medium to support and improve both cultural and academic relations between Europe and the Islamic world.


The writer, translator, activist, author and feminist, made a noted contribution to the emancipation of Arab women in her time. Encouraged and supported by her influential and forward thinking father, Anbara enjoyed the fruits of a modern education and travelled around the world. She translated the first version of Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid into Arabic.

Her memoirs were initially published in Arabic in 1978 and only republished last year into English under the title of Memoirs of an Early Arab Feminist. After her years of study abroad, Anbara returned to Beirut in 1947 and connected with leaders of the women’s movement. Early on she realised the level of impact women of her privilege could make on conservative Arab society and the sooner this impact was made, the closer to independence Arabs would be.

Abara turned to journalism to share her desires for the rights of women and through this, was invited to speak publicly on the subject. Aside from her academic exploits, she became involved in high profile political meetings and organised groups of female representation for Palestine and Lebanon.


Daughter of a prominent politician, Rawya began cementing her future in obtaining her masters in journalism and Islamic studies. As the first female officer in the Liberation Army, she played a huge role in the Suez War of 1956 where she helped train 4,000 women in first aid and nursing. She gained great recognition and was promoted to captain of the women’s commando unit. Rawya obtained several military awards from the Egyptian state, most notably the badge of the Third Army, the Medallion of 6 October and the medal of the armed forces.

Under Nasser, voting rights and eligibility for elected office were finally extended to the female population. Out of only 16 other female candidates among 2000 males, she became the first woman in parliament in the Arab world, using religious arguments for equality and her military background to strengthen support.

Two years later, she lost her post to another candidate. After serving on the board of the Red Crescent for 25 years, she was reinstated to the People’s Assembly as a social democrat in 1984.


From her beginnings as a medical scientist, Hayat became one of the first female members of the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia. Through her research, she has made significant contributions to the development of point-of-care medical testing and biotechnology.

As recipient of a number of awards and achievements, Sindi now works in the US to promote scientific education for young people and speaks on issues of science and the brain drain. Hayat also works as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, promoting science education for girls in the Middle East.


Author of three books; Between Two Worlds Escape from Tyranny: Growing up in the Shadow of Saddam, The Other Side of War: Women’s Stories of Survival and Hope, and If You Knew Me You Would Care – a photographic collaboration of women in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Bosnia and Herzegovina – Salbi is also a human rights activist, filmmaker, humanitarian and founder of Women for Women International.

Her humanitarian work began with the organisation ‘Sister to Sister’ which focussed on the plight of women war survivors in Bosnia and Herzegovina. With a tiny budget, she set up Women for Women International, which since 1993, has supported more than 300,000 women in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda, Kosovo, Nigeria, Colombia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.

Who would you add to this list of inspirational women?


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