Connecther was founded on a few major principles:
Women and girls suffer disproportionately from poverty, conflict, oppression and war.
By working to advance women and girls globally, communities will be elevated since women give back significantly to their families & communities.
We need to highlight & invest in women leaders from developing world communities to help scale their efforts. For every woman leader we invest in, multiple more are created.
Encouraging women's access to space and voice is crucial. Connecther provides a platform for women & girls to tell their own stories.
Growing up as a minority in America (Lebanese -- Muslim -- Woman), there were so many shining examples of authentic, strong and powerful Muslim women around (both local and global), yet often times the pundits who were telling my story and talking about my identity were neither Muslim nor women.
In our work at Connecther and in particular with our focus areas being Southeast Asia and the MENA region, I have the privilege of working with some amazing Muslim women -- women who run highly effective grassroots organizations or speak out against injustice. Yet despite their achievements, the media seems to always portray Muslim women as victims.
So I was excited last year when Marvel Comics introduced its latest female superhero: Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old Pakistani-American girl with amazing shape-shifting powers. This inspiring character got me thinking: How many real-life Muslim women superheroes do I know? I asked Connecther communications specialist Elaine Robbins to profile a few of my superheroes.
These women are very aligned with our goals at Connecther and are achieving great things -- often against huge odds. Yet they rarely get media attention. While I refer to these women as "superheroes" and sure, they are one of a kind, but there are countless Muslim women out there doing remarkable work to advance their communities. Do you know any Muslim women superheroes in your community?
Dr. Hawa Abdi
When Somalia became ravaged by civil war, Dr. Hawa Abdi did what her culture's hospitality calls for: She opened her family land near Mogadishu to refugees fleeing the violence. In the decades that followed, her makeshift village grew to provide a safe refuge to 90,000 people. Alongside her two daughters, also doctors, Dr. Abdi cares for the sick at their 400-bed hospital and runs agricultural and livelihood training. When a militant militia seized her village in 2010, Dr. Abdi fearlessly faced down the soldiers. They kidnapped her, and when she was finally released, she demanded -- and received -- a written apology. Where does such determination come from? As she told Vital Voices, "My mother always told me" that no matter what happens to you, "you need to get up and help your people."
What could Saudi media personality Muna AbuSulayman and Microsoft founder Bill Gates possibly have in common? Plenty, as it turns out. Like Gates at his Gates Foundation, AbuSulayman is bringing tough-minded business sense to the feel-good world of philanthropy. As former secretary general of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation and now as head of her own Directions Consultancy, she applies strategic thinking to some of the world's toughest problems. "I've had to educate myself," she has said. "I'm constantly asking what could be done differently or more effectively to maximize impact." Whether she's working toward female empowerment, coaching aspiring entrepreneurs, or fostering East-West relations by creating Islamic studies programs at places like Harvard and Cambridge, the TV host turned philanthropist is making a lasting impact.
Edna Adan could have enjoyed the comfortable life of a retired World Health Organization official. But when she returned to her native Somaliland after a high-powered career, she found the newly independent country in disarray, its health care system destroyed by the civil war with Somalia. So she sold her beloved Mercedes and her washing machine and built the Edna Adan Hospital. There, Adan and her staff are saving lives in a country with one of the highest rates of maternal and infant mortality in the world. Her latest dream? To train 1,000 midwives to work in villages across the country. Adan has delivered countless babies, but she's also given birth to something else: a new notion of what it actually means to live "a comfortable life."
At age 16, Khalida Brohi witnessed the death of a good friend in an "honor killing." That tragic event led her to found Sughar, a nonprofit that brings women to village centers across Pakistan. There women learn to make traditional embroidery that is sold to the fashion industry. In addition to learning a marketable skill, they gain literacy and learn to speak out against oppression and violence. Brohi's work has attracted international recognition, and in 2013 she sat on a panel with Bono and Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg at the Clinton Global Initiative. She told the audience what inspired her to accomplish so much -- all before the age of 18: "My father always told me, 'My dear, don't cry, strategize.' "
Fewer than 5 percent of Hollywood directors are women, so it is cause for celebration whenever a female director wins an Oscar. But award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has gone even further to advance women -- by shining a light on the challenges facing females in the Muslim world. She won an Academy Award in 2012 for her documentary Saving Face, which chronicled the struggle for justice of victims of acid attacks in her native Pakistan. "It takes one second to ruin a woman's life," she told Glamour magazine. "You may need a license to buy a gun, but in many places a man can buy acid from the corner store, throw it on a woman's face and from then on she is the living dead." The film helped win harsher punishment for the crime in parts of Pakistan. And like all of Obaid-Chinoy's films, it gives a voice to people whose voices are rarely heard.
Shirin Ebadi is an Iranian lawyer, judge and professor who has devoted her career to defending human rights. Ebadi held the position of chief justice of a court in Tehran when the Islamic Revolution took power in 1979. Demoted to a clerk in her own court, she quit to practice law -- and has spent her career fearlessly defending political dissidents and fighting for women's and children's rights. Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2003. "My aim," she has said, "is to show that those governments that violate the rights of people by invoking the name of Islam have been misusing Islam."
Trained as a physician and health chair of the Palestinian Red Crescent, Mona El-Farra has spent decades attending to the sick and injured in Gaza. Years of living under occupation has taught her that some of the wounds of conflict are invisible. That's why one of her missions is to bring to the world's attention the devastating and sometimes lasting effects on children of witnessing death and destruction. As director of Gaza Projects at the Middle Eastern Children's Alliance, El-Farra oversees programs that build playgrounds, install water purification systems in Gaza kindergartens, train mothers to help their children with trauma and encourage youth to express their feelings through participation in art, dance and performance.
Although the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia received more attention, Yemen had its own revolution. Journalist and human rights activist Tawakkol Karman helped lead the protests that called for an end to the dictatorship of Ali Abdulla Saleh. In 2011 she won the Nobel Prize for her role, sharing the prize with Liberians Leymah Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who helped bring an end to their country's 14-year civil war. While the final effects of Yemen's Arab Spring are still dangerously uncertain, one thing is clear: Karman and her fellow laureates have shown that women have a critical role to play in justice- and peace-building efforts.
Samar Minallah Khan
Award winning filmmaker and activist Samar Minallah Khan has been making social documentaries for over a decade. Khan has produced several documentaries on various aspects of compensation marriages, known as swara, a custom whereby girls, often minors, are given in marriage to end disputes. As an anthropologist, her work focuses on a culturally sensitive approach to development. What is unique about her films is that most are made in regional languages, and Khan has used them to reach out to rural audiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan to teach women their rights under Islamic law. Her films have also been disseminated to policymakers, religious scholars and tribal elders. In 2004, partly in response to her efforts, swara was officially outlawed in Pakistan. It's no surprise that Minallah was one of the 2015 DVF (Diane von Furstenberg) award recipients.
At the young age of 11, Malala Yousafzai wrote a blog about her experience living in the Swat region of Pakistan under the Taliban. She also wrote about her desire to go to school. In retaliation, in 2012 a Taliban gunman boarded her schoolbus and shot her in the head. She survived the attack and has courageously continued to speak out for children's rights, especially the right to an education. In 2014 Malala became the youngest Nobel Prize recipient in history. Last year, on her 16th birthday -- dubbed Malala Day -- she addressed the United Nations Assembly with these words: "The terrorists thought that they would change my aims...But nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born."
From 1998 to 2012, Ingrid Mattson was Professor of Islamic Studies at Hartford Seminary in CT where she served as Director of the Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations. Prior to this, Mattson served as vice-president, then as president of the Islamic Society of North America (USA), the first woman to serve in either position. Dr. Mattson is an interfaith ambassador and from 2009-2010, she was a member of the Interfaith Taskforce of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie was quoted as saying, "My work with Dr. Mattson has been among the most rewarding of my time as President of the Union for Reform Judaism...her invitation to me to address the 2007 Islamic Society of North America convention was brave, and it, together with her remarkable address to our convention later that year, opened a new chapter in Jewish-Muslim relations in North America."
Sheikha Mozah has said that her work in education has convinced her that there are ways to overcome barriers to access education. That is why she launched the Educate A Child initiative in November 2012. She is a staunch advocate for women, children, education and the disabled. She was a driving force behind Education City and Al Jazeera Children's Channel. She has been a supporter of Qatar Foundation (QF) for Education, Science and Community Development, established in 1996 as a private independent organization, chaired by H.H. Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser. Among the most prominent achievements of QF was the establishment of Qatar Academy, Social Development Centre and Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU)-Qatar College of Design Arts. Additionally, she has been named as one of Forbes' 100 Most Powerful Women at #75.
When millions of viewers tune in to the Olympic Games next year, they may be treated to an uncommon sight: that of a woman fencing in a hijab for Team USA. New Jersey native Ibtihaj Muhammad is accustomed to being a sports ambassador for Muslim women. After all, it's not every day that people see an African American Muslim woman compete in a male-dominated sport. "I'm hoping that through my efforts and my journey as a minority athlete and as a Muslim athlete, I'm changing the face of sports," she told Zainab Salbi at the 2014 Women in the World summit. "I think that's what's so awesome about sports -- that it is able to bridge cultures." With a whoosh of her saber, Muhammad will continue to slashing stereotypes wherever she goes.
It's no surprise that Alaa Murabit received a standing ovation for her compelling talk at TedxWomen earlier this year. Murabit was on the front lines of the Libyan revolution. As in many revolutions, women were encouraged to help lead the rebellion, but when the time came to have a seat at the table, they were asked to kindly retreat. This was not an option for Murabit, who founded The Voice of Libyan Women to ensure that women's voices continue to be heard. Her method? To use Islamic literature to teach both men and women that women are equal to men. Murabit is an advisor to many international think tanks and organizations, including the U.N. Women Global Civil Society Advisory Group and Harvard's Everywoman Everywhere Coalition. An Ashoka Fellow, Murabit was a Trust Women Hero Award Winner in 2013.
Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi
The United Arab Emirates conjures contradictory images of shimmering modern skyscrapers and women living in the shadows of a male-dominated society. It might be a surprise for some, then, to learn that the UAE has a powerful female cabinet minister: Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi. As the minister for International Cooperation and Development, Sheikha Lubna directs the oil-rich nation's international aid efforts -- which amounted to a whopping $6 billion in 2013. She also speaks about gender equality issues and serves on countless boards. No wonder Arabian Business magazine just named Sheikha Lubna the #1 most powerful Arab woman in the world (human rights lawyer, Amal Clooney, was #2).
Unlike many royals, Queen Rania has no qualms about sharing her political opinions. When speaking to Huffington Post Editor-In-Chief, Arianna Huffington, she recently stated that "there is nothing Islamic about the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS." She went on to say, "They have nothing to do with faith and everything to do with fanaticism." Queen Rania is a progressive female voice in the Arab world. Whether pointing out her efforts to provide technology opportunities for Jordan's youth, her international voice of cross-cultural dialogue, or being UNICEF's first Eminent Advocate for Children and Honorary Chair of the UN Girls' Education Initiative (UNGEI), her accomplishments are too many to list. Queen Rania launched Madrasati, a public-private partnership to renovate 500 public schools and enrich student curricula in Jordan and in 2010, expanded Madrasati to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Ask any fellow Jordanian about Queen Rania and you will commonly hear, "She is such a good woman at heart. She cares tremendously about uplifting the voices of women and girls. I've met her at a few gatherings and have never seen a royal figure who behaves with such compassion and humility." Queen Rania has said, "I just wake up and feel like a regular person...at the end of the day you are living your life for the people that you represent. It's an honor and a privilege to have that chance to make a difference - a qualitative difference in people's lives - and it's my responsibility to make the most out of that opportunity."
Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud
As CEO of Alfa International, Princess Reema made a bold move: She hired an equal number of women as men to work at sales clerks at the Harvey Nichols department store in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. "You cannot have half of your population not working," she told Fast Company, which last year named her its Creative Person of the Year. This year she launched Alf Khair, the social responsibility initiative of Alfa and the World Economic Forum named her one of its 2015 Young Global Leaders. Although Saudi Arabia still has a long way to go -- it was ranked 130 out of 142 countries in the 2014 Global Gender Gap report -- women in the workplace are on the rise thanks to powerful women like Princess Reema.
Zainab Salbi is an expert on war. Not on troop movements or casualty figures, but on the side of war that isn't normally reported on the evening news: the stories of women living in a conflict zone. After growing up in war-torn Iraq, she co-founded Women for Women International, a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to helping women survivors of war. The organization has served more than 370,000 women in such places as Bosnia, Congo and Sudan. In her speaking engagements and in her 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 -- Salbi puts a human face on conflict by telling the stories of individual women who keep life going despite the horrors of war.
Dr. Sakena Yacoobi
Since 1995 Sakena Yacoobi has achieved the near-impossible in her native Afghanistan: She has brought quality education, health care and literacy and life skills training to 11 million people. In the process, the organization she founded, the Afghan Institute of Learning, has become one of the largest employers of women in Afghanistan. How did one woman -- or any of these Muslim women superheroes, for that matter -- achieve so much? Ironically, by starting small. After appealing to a local mullah, she was given permission to open one school. Within a year, she had started 27 schools teaching 50,000 children. "When you have a passion for something," she has said, "you keep going."