I am backwards. I am oppressed. I have no agency. I need rescuing. This is how a significant portion of the world often sees Arab (and Muslim) women such as myself, thanks in large part to the media. This recurrent misrepresentation often comes as a result of not giving the women of the Arab world the space to speak for themselves, or by using cherry-picked stories that feed certain narratives and serve agendas and then perpetuating them as the norm. Aware and frustrated, numerous women have been creatively fighting these depictions every day in their own ways, from literature to sports to fashion, for years. After I graduated from SOAS, I wanted to do my part too.
In 2017, Manar Alhinai and I founded Sekka, an independent magazine and integrated creative platform that is dedicated to art, culture, opinions and literature of the Arab Gulf States and larger Arab world. We established it because we wanted to create a space for the women and men of the region to tell their own stories, and the region’s, themselves and reclaim their narratives after they had been hijacked for too long a time. We placed open calls for them to join us on our mission. So many of them, especially women, came forward and contributed articles, short stories, poetry and artworks over the years that often turned these stereotypes on their heads and presented more authentic and truthful depictions of reality. In fact, the majority of contributors to Sekka over the years have been women.
Last month, to mark International Women’s Day and to continue representing the women of the region, we published our Womanhood Issue. Over the issue’s nearly 200 pages women from various Arab nationalities and professional backgrounds speak, in their own voices, about what it means to a woman in the Arab world in 2022. They reflect on the challenges they have faced and the successes they have enjoyed and highlight the issues and causes of importance to them. In the Womanhood Issue, for example, Tima Shomali, the Jordanian director behind Netflix’s hit Arabic series AlRawabi School for Girls, reflects on her journey as a female filmmaker and discusses why we need more Arab women in film. Haifa Beseisso, one of the Arab world’s most popular content creators who is known for her travel vlogs, discusses how she smashes stereotypes and builds cultural bridges through her journeys around the globe and through social media. Internationally acclaimed Kuwaiti author Layla Alammar writes a powerful article that discusses what it means to be an Arab in and of itself. Saudi-American journalist Hasnaa Mokhtar dissects Khaleeji Feminism in her opinion column. Also featured in the issue are star artists Maha Al Asaker, Shurooq Amin and Tagreed Albagshi, alongside their male counterparts Mous Lamrabat and Waleed Shah, who discuss capturing the experiences of Arab women through their camera lens.
In addition to making the issue available to all to read digitally, we shipped print copies to retailers across the world in the UK, the Netherlands and the US. As I write this article, copies of the Womanhood Issue decorate the window displays of popular Manhattan magazine shops Casa Magazines and Iconic Magazines and sit aside widely read magazines such as Vogue and National Geographic, the point behind that being putting the women of the Arab world at the forefront and making them equal parts of the conversation.
And we didn’t stop there.
Earlier this month we collaborated with Etihad Airways, one of the world’s largest and leading airlines, to make the latest issue of Sekka available to readers onboard Etihad. It will soon be available for passengers of other airlines, literally taking the voices of the women and men of the region to great heights through that and making them heard by millions of readers from around the world annually.
And we won’t stop there.
If my experience working for over five years at Sekka, and the feedback we have gotten as a media company, has taught me one thing, it is the incredible power that even a single story has in changing conceptions, altering perspectives and building bridges. Change is possible. Our voices have an impact. We do not, and should not, surrender to narratives that are untruthful or unjust. It is time for us to unleash them more loudly and more widely, and be the change we want to see in the world.
Sharifah Alhinai is the founder of Sekka and the Khaleeji Art Museum. She is a graduate of SOAS and the University of Oxford, and the recipient of the Arab Woman Award 2020. She tweets at @sharifahalhinai.