Rafeef Ziadah on EMPWR activism women poet
Photo Courtesy: Palestinian Poet, Rafeef Ziadah

Growing up, activism –– to me –– was attending protests for Palestine. Protests were demanding awareness of the occupation of Palestine. It was like some Muslim-kept secret; like we were the only ones championing this cause because nobody else knew.

As time went by, I learned that activism takes shape and manifests in many different forms. Activism is not just protesting; it is raising awareness, actively unlearning, re-educating yourself, and educating others. Activism is a method of empowerment through education and advocacy.

By consciously seeking to educate myself about various political issues, I was able to expand my understanding of what activism can be by immersing myself in the teachings of known activists. Unlearning and re-educating yourself is a lifelong process where having figures to look up to definitely helps.

Loujain al-Hathloul

Loujain, a prominent women’s rights activist from Saudi Arabia, long campaigned against the oppressive laws that the Saudi government has in place for women. Using her social media platforms, al-Hathloul would publicly comment on current issues.

In 2013, al-Hathloul posted a video of herself driving in defiance of the female driving ban. The following year, she was detained for 73 days after being caught trying to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates.

In November of 2015, al-Hathloul ran for Saudi state elections during the first year in which women were both allowed to vote and stand in elections. However, al-Hathloul’s name never appeared on the ballot.

On May 15, 2018, Saudi officials detained Loujain al-Hathloul. For the first three months of her imprisonment, al-Hathloul was not allowed communication with family nor lawyers. On her first trial nearly a year later on March 13, 2019, al-Hathloul was charged with the following: promoting women’s rights; calling for the end of the guardianship system; contacting international organizations, foreign media, and activists. Her last court appearance was on April 3, 2019 and she remains imprisoned.

Sarah Hegazi

Sarah Hegazi was a queer Egyptian activist who made waves for the LGBTQ+ Arab community. In 2017, while in attendance at a Mashrou’ Leila concert in Cairo, Hegazi raised a pride flag. The lead singer of the band, Hamed Sinno, is openly gay and being that homosexuality is criminalized in Egypt, raising the flag was both an act of solidarity and political defiance.

Following this, Hegazi was arrested and imprisoned for three months on claims of “promoting sexual deviancy & debauchery”. During her imprisonment, Hegazi was tortured by Egyptian authorities. After her release, Hegazi sought asylum in Canada where she resided in Toronto for a few years.

Sarah Hegazi was long suffering from PTSD following her imprisonment and overall ostracization from Arab society.

On June 14th, 2020, Sarah Hegazi took her life but she leaves behind a legacy for queer Arabs everywhere.

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sarah hegazi is an egyptian queer activist. in 2017, she raised a pride flag at a mashrou’ leila concert in cairo. this resulted in her arrest on claims of “promoting sexual deviancy & debauchery”. after being imprisoned and tortured for three months, hegazi was released & then sought asylum in canada. suffering from ptsd from her imprisonment, hegazi still continued her activism. after only a few years in canada, on june 14th, 2020, sarah hegazi took her life. no one deserves the horrific experience that hegazi had. speaking openly on “controversial” issues is a privilege not many have, so exercise your voice for those who can’t. sarah hegazi left a legacy that will not go unnoticed. #sarahhegazi #سارة_حجازي

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Rafeef Ziadah

Rafeef Ziadah is a Palestinian poet and human rights activist. Using her voice and strong rhetoric, Ziadah addresses war, exile, gender, and racism in her poetry. Her piece We Teach Life, Sir has become globally-recognized for its powerful tone in conveying the weight of the Israeli occupation and the exhaustion faced by Palestinians in the diaspora.

In addition to her spoken word merit, Ziadah has also written a series of scholarly articles and publications on topics ranging from power structures and the military to local anti-apartheid movements. Many other analyses of apartheid, militarism, and Palestinian solidarity frequent Ziadah’s CV.

In 2014, Ziadah received her PhD in Politics from York University in Toronto, Canada. Currently, Ziadah resides in London, UK where she is a lecturer in Comparative Politics of the Middle East at SOAS University of London. She is also a member of the university’s Centre for Palestine Studies (CPS), London Middle East Institute (LMEI), Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies, and a member of the Centre for Gender Studies.

Alaa Salah

During the 2019 Sudanese uprisings against corrupt leader Omar al-Bashir, many Sudanese women were at the forefront of the protests. The acts of civil disobedience were ongoing since December 2018. Of the women leading the protests was Alaa Salah, a 22 year-old architecture student and anti-government activist in Khartoum, Sudan.

A video depicting Salah leading hundreds in chants of protest while standing atop a car went viral shortly after being posted. Many described Salah as a Nubian queen as her image is striking; she is dressed in all white, wearing large gold earrings all while commanding a crowd.

Following the protests, Salah became a feminist and anti-government icon for her powerful presence during the Sudanese uprisings.

Blair Imani

Long before having come out as bisexual in 2017, Blair Imani had been advocating for Black, queer, and Muslim voices, highlighting the trauma and negative impacts of denying or suppressing certain components of one’s identity.

Imani attended Louisiana State University where she began to center her activism around the LGBTQ+ and Muslim community. In 2014, she founded Equality for HER, a non-profit that provides resources and an outlet for women and nonbinary people to feel empowered.

Being an advocate for Black lives, Imani attended Baton Rouge protests following the murder of Alton Sterling in 2016. At the protest, despite their peaceful nature, Imani was arrested alongside her partner, whereby police forced her to remove her hijab upon detainment. 

Today, Imani travels the world speaking at and hosting workshops surrounding identity and its various intersections. Her TedTalk, Queer and Muslim: Nothing to Reconcile, recently went viral, addressing living at the intersections of Black, queer, and Muslim.

Tawakkol Karman

Tawakkol Karman is a Yemeni journalist and human rights activist. Having received a graduate degree in political science from Sana’a University in Yemen and an Honorary Doctorate in International Law from the University of Alberta in Canada, Karman has an extensive background in politics.

Her activism and involvement with political demonstrations and protests has made her a target of many. In 2010, a woman attempted to stab Karman at a protest but was unsuccessful. In 2011, a Yemeni official threatened Karman’s life if she continued publicly protesting.

Despite her persecution for her political views, her advocacy has brought many positives as well. Tawakkol Karman was the joint recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize alongside Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee for their continued non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights.

Maryam Abu Khaled

An Afro-Palestinian filmmaker and comedian, Maryam Abu Khaled, uses her platforms to speak out about racial injustices and the oppression of minorities. Recounting on her experiences of anti-Blackness in Arab settings growing up has caused many other Black Arabs facing the same discrimination to feel seen.

A video posted by Abu Khaled on June 5 now has over 1.3 million views. In her video, Abu Khaled takes a break from the lighthearted daily posts and she gets a bit more serious. Maryam addresses anti-Blackness amongst Arabs and likens the Middle East to the United States in that there is a lot of historical anti-Black racism that still manifests today.

Alaa Massri

Massri, an 18 year-old youth activist and student at the University of South Florida, gained attention in the public eye after her arrest on June 10, 2020, during a Miami Black Lives Matter protest.

At the BLM protest, Massri was her team’s medic. Upon witnessing a police vehicle hit a protester, Massri rushed to provide aid but was stopped by 6-8 officers in riot gear. Massri repeatedly asked the officers not to touch her and explained that she was just trying to help. Attempting to walk away, the officers surrounded and arrested her.

Charged with battery, violent resisting of an officer, and disorderly conduct, Massri was taken into a correctional facility. At the facility, her hijab was unlawfully removed and officers made her take her mugshot without her head covering. Her uncovered photo was then broadcasted on national television and numerous media outlets, sparking outrage for the mistreatment of a Muslim woman.

This instance gained global media coverage and within days, a petition to seek justice against Massri’s unlawful arrest and the compromisation of her right to practice religion gained nearly two hundred thousand signatures.

Su’ad Abdul Khabeer

Abdul Khabeer is an artist and activist who uses anthropology and performance to explore the intersections of race and popular culture. In a recent publication of hers, Abdul Khabeer explores Islam and hip hop and how intersecting ideas of Muslimness and Blackness challenge the meaning of race in America.

Amongst her extensive educational background, Abdul Khabeer received her PhD in cultural anthropology from Princeton University and is currently an associate professor of American Culture and Arab and Muslim American Studies at the University of Michigan.

In addition to writing for major publications like The Washington Post, the Atlantic, and Al Jazeera, Abdul Khabeer has also created her own media platform, Sapelo Square, a comprehensive analysis of the Black and American Muslim experience.

I hope that these women will inspire you like they’ve inspired me and that this article amplifies their causes in ways that they would have wanted.

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