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10 Powerful Pictures That Give You An Insight Into The Changed Lives Of Arab Women

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By Laura Boushnak:

Fayza, from Yemen, got married at the age of eight and was forced to drop out of school. Despite her poverty, social status as a divorced woman in a conservative society, and the opposition of her parents to her going back to school, Fayza, who is now 26, managed to receive a grant from an NGO to fund for her business studies at the university.

My encounter with Fayza became part of “I Read I Write”, a broad, continuing project about the importance of literacy in improving Arab women’s lives, and the barriers these women face in gaining access to education. From illiterate Sanaa in Egypt, who decided to learn how to read and write because she would get lost using public transportation, to Tunisian university student Shams, who is politically active and a key player in mobilizing her fellow students.

What prompted me to launch this on-going project is the fact that Arab countries collectively have one of the highest rates of female illiteracy in the world. As an Arab woman myself, who was raised, educated and worked in several Arab countries, I often wondered how we could make a difference in the area, especially in light of the protests and demonstrations sweeping the region. How do we affect change when fifty percent of the region’s human potential is often neglected? I saw this project as a way to focus attention on the importance of literacy as a means to enrich women’s lives. I began my research back in 2008 by focusing on illiteracy in Egypt, where nearly half of the female population is illiterate, but soon realized that I needed to broaden my topic to cover as many places as possible in the region, keeping in mind the difference among Arab countries due to economical and social factors.

In Jordan, despite high rates of elementary school attendance, many girls drop out in their early teens. I also visited Yemen, where I followed women who were the first in their families to get higher education. In Tunisia, I photographed politically active university students, and in Kuwait, I explored educational reform.

My idea was for the women I photographed to become active participants in the final photograph. Their hand-written words, which complement the images they are portrayed in, are a tribute to their success. They wrote ostensibly about their achievements and dreams. But their words served a purpose of bringing attention to the major barriers which stood in their way, most notably poverty and cultural constraints where many still believe that women are destined for marriage in order to protect their chastity. And that their role is solely in the home.

The Arab states are going through tremendous change, and my project aims to show that education benefits not only women, but also the entire society.

I see Fayza, and many women I worked with, as models of hope to anybody struggling to improve and control their fate.

Five Yemeni students sit on one bench at an elementary school in Sanaa, December 2012. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says access to education is one of the biggest challenges facing children in Yemen today, especially girls. Nearly half of primary school age girls do not go to school.

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A teacher helps a student to get the right answer at a class in Sanaa, Yemen. More women are now being trained as teachers, because many parents, especially deeply religious ones, will only allow their daughters to be taught by women.

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Wejdan, from Yemen, hopes that one day she will become a teacher.

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Two Yemeni women decorate their classroom with colourful dresses they sewed at a centre, which provides women with literacy classes in Sanaa, Yemen, in December 2012. The majority of women in Yemen are fully covered with black

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Shams from Tunisia wrote on her image: I learn to teach. I learn to arm myself. To instigate change in people and things that have created boundaries of thought. I resist, and resistance is female. I revolt, and the revolution is female. I write and send my words out from place to place. I close my eyes and leave the barbed wire behind me, and dream that I meet you standing next to me, resisting.

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RashaBadr el-Din, 20 – I wanted to become a butcher, because people would have respected me with such a profession. The word ignorant hurts a lot but education has helped me to improve my life and gain more confidence. Each girl should have the right to education and if it’s difficult to achieve she should fight for it.

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Rouba Hisham from Jordan, 16, wrote on her image: I left school and stayed home for one year. I would like to specialize in the hotel sector, but my father won’t let me, so I will study to become beautician and open a salon with my sister.

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Khouloud, an engineering student, shouts slogans during the weekly demonstration in front of the Ministry of Interior asking for progress in the investigation of the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid. Tunisian women have enjoyed better legal and political position compared to their female counterpart in the region. Many secular freedoms were instituted such as access to higher education, the right to file for divorce, polygamy abolishment and legalizing abortion. Today their concern is to retain their rights under the leadership of the newly-elected Islamist party Ennahda, and how to deal with the vast changes their country, where the ‘Arab Spring’ first emerged, is going through.

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Asma, a biological engineering student in Tunis and activist, reads a book at her favourite spot in her bedroom which is full of street-style graffiti. It reads, ‘The people want the fall of the regime’. Asma believes that revolution starts only when one rebels against the corrupt educational systems, which kills intellect, body and soul

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Fayza, 25, is a university student from Yemen. Married at the age of eight, she was forced to drop out of school. She divorced after one year. At 14, she became the third wife of a 60-year-old man. After bearing three children, she divorced again at the age of 18. Her older sister convinced her to finish her education knowing that this would be her only way to improve her life. Despite her poverty, social status as a divorced woman in a conservative society, and the opposition of her parents to go back to school, Fayza managed to receive a grant from YERO NGO and she’s in her first year of business at the university. Her dream is to get a decent job and have financial stability to give her children a better life.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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