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Tawwakol Karman, co-recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize | © Ministério das Relações Exteriores/Flickr
Tawwakol Karman, co-recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize | © Ministério das Relações Exteriores/Flickr

11 Inspirational Arab Women You Need to Know About

Picture of Jessica Harn
Updated: 18 November 2017

The world is finally coming up to speed on the power of women in all aspects and sectors of public life, and Arab women are no different from the rest of the world’s most inspiring females. From journalism to politics to medicine, from science to literature to film, here are some of the women from the Arab world that everyone, regardless of where you come from, should know about.

Manal Al Sharif – Activist

A Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist who helped kickstart the protest movement for the right for women to drive in the country in 2011, Manal Al Sharif was first detained after filming herself and other activists driving in Saudi Arabia. In a country where it is against the law for women to drive, Al Sharif was both controversial and ground-breakingly powerful in her fight for equality. After her release she continued to fight for the rights of women in her country, and is still one of the most powerful women in the Arab world.

Tawwakkol Karman – Journalist & Activist

Karman is a Yemeni politician, journalist, and human rights activist; and was one of the most prominent activists in the 2011 Yemeni uprising that was considered part of the “Arab Spring” movement that swept the region. She is the co-founder of “Women Journalists Without Chains”, and was a co-recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first Yemeni and Arab women to do so. Karman is affectionately known as the “Mother of the Revolution” for her tireless work on human rights in her country and around the region.

Haifaa Al Mansour – Filmmaker

Another ground-breaking female filmmaker, Al Mansour continues to be an inspiring figure because of her controversy in a country that does not even allow movie theaters. Al Mansour’s first break-through documentary was Women Without Shadows, which documented the hidden lives of women in the Arabian Peninsula. This documentary was shown at 17 different international festivals and won the Golden Dagger for Best Documentary at the Muscat Film Festival, and Al Mansour is still continuing to fight for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and around the world through her thought-provoking filmmaking.

Dr. Hayat Sindi – Medical Scientist

One of the most inspirational women in both the Arab region and the world as a whole, Dr. Hayat Sindi is a Saudi Arabian medical scientist, and was the first Saudi woman to be accepted into Cambridge University for her PhD degree in biotechnology. Dr. Sindi is also one of the first women in the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia, and has continued to make major contributions in the field of medical testing and biotechnology. She was recently ranked by Arabian Business as the 19th most influential Arab in the world.

Ahlam Mosteghanemi – Novelist

Dubbed the “world’s best-known Arabic woman novelist”, Ahlem Mosteghanemi’s works of both novels and poetry are loved because of her use of the Arabic language instead of English or French. Her background of Algerian resistance in the fight for independence has made her a symbol of pride for not only Algerians but Arabs around the world, and her lyrical writings on love and loss, on women’s rights and pain has made her a household name. “The most beautiful love,” she famously wrote, “is the one who found it during our search for something else”.

Nayla Al Khaja – Director & Producer

Born and raised in Dubai, Khaja is the very first female film director and producer in the United Arab Emirates. In addition to this, she is the CEO and founder of Nayla Al Khaja Films and Dubai’s first film club, The Scene Club. Winning over 10 different awards ranging from “The Best Short Film” at the Middle East Now Festival in Italy to the “Best Female Filmmaker” at the Dubai International Film Festival, Khaja continues to be an inspiration not only for those in the film industry but for women in all sectors of the public workforce.

HE Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi – Minister of Economic & Planning

A member of the ruling family of Sharjah in the UAE, HE Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi first became an inspiration in the Arab world for being the first woman to hold a ministerial position in the country as the Minister of Economic and Planning. She later became the Minister of State for International Cooperation, and is currently the Minister of State for Tolerance in the UAE. Al Qasimi was also appointed as President of Zayed University, and as of last year was named the 43rd most powerful woman in the world by Forbes.

Dr. Nawal Al Saadawi – Psychiatrist & Writer

One of the oldest women still active in public life, Dr. Nawal Al Saadawi was born in 1931 and is one of Egypt’s most-loved feminists, writers, activists, and psychiatrists. Her books focus largely on women in Islam, feminism, and sex; and Saadawi has been awarded three Honorary Degrees from Vrije Universiteit Bruseel, Universite libre de Bruxelles, and the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Most famously however, she is an active protestor against female genital mutilation in Egypt, and is the founder of both the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and the Arab Association for Human Rights.

Loujain Al Hathloul – Activist & Social Media Figure

Arguably the most controversial, or inspiring, whichever way you view it, figure in the Arab world, Loujain Al Hathloul is a Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist and social media figure. She was first arrested by Saudi authorities in 2014 for attempting to drive from the UAE into Saudi, where it is forbidden for women to drive, and was detained for 73 days without charges. After her release, she continued to fight for women’s rights and even attempted to run for election in 2015 (although she was denied a chance to have her name on the ballot). She was arrested again this year in June, again without any charges, although she was released a few days later without any explanation.

Reem Al Hashimy – Minister of State

Managing Director at the International Affairs Office of the UAE Prime Minister and Chair of the charity Dubai Cares, Reem Al Hashimy made even more headlines after securing the UAE as host for the Global Expo 2020. During her now-famous speech in Paris, which helped the UAE in its bid for host, Hashimy stated: “I stand before you not only as a civil servant, a daughter, a mother, but also as a citizen of humanity committed and determined to make a difference and inspire change.” Fluent in both English and French, in addition to her native Arabic, Reem Al Hashimy continues to be a vital force of change and dedication to the UAE’s international relations with the rest of the world.

Joumana Haddad – Author & Journalist

Joumana is a Lebanese author, journalist, and women’s rights activist, and is the founder of Jasad, a quarterly Arabic magazine, as well as being the cultural editor of An Nahar newspaper. Winning dozens of awards for her numerous best-selling novels, she also speaks seven different languages and has published several works of translation. Haddad continues to play an active role in writing, speaking, and empowering other women to get their voices heard.