United States Agency for International Development
United States Agency for International Development
Leadership in the Middle East: The Story of Women in Lebanon

Leila Saad and Emily Nasrallah are Lebanese women whose impact on women has been remarkable and yet not well-known. Leila has established schools on six continents while Emily is the most frequently included female author in Lebanese textbooks. In most regions, leaders in politics, business, education, and literature arise from among those who have the educational qualifications for entry positions. From there, outstanding people demonstrate the ambition, character, and knowledge to move into leadership positions. In the Middle East, leaders were previously selected based upon the strength of the tribe or community to which the male leader belonged. While these customs still exist, the past 30 years have decimated Lebanese male leadership as a result of civil wars, Syrian occupation, and conflicts with Israel. Many young women and men emigrate to countries where there are educational opportunities, jobs, and marriage partners. The women who remain in Lebanon have become the invisible leaders of the country.

This essay draws upon the results of survey and other research data. A questionnaire was e-mailed to 15 prominent Lebanese females in academia: seven Christians, six Muslims, and one Armenian. As the leadership of Lebanon is determined by religious affiliation, the selection of subjects was appropriate for Lebanon. The women surveyed were vetted by Lebanese feminists living outside the country to determine their international recognition. These feminists suggested two additional women, both Christian, to be profiled as international leaders.

History of Female Role Models of Lebanese Women

Especially since World War I, Middle Eastern women have had female role models who were political, social, and economic leaders. Women have directed social clubs and charities that became political forces. They spoke and worked for independence from France in both Syria and Lebanon. Some female leaders demanded that females receive education equivalent to that of the male students, delivered in Arabic, and provided instruction about their country’s history, culture, and religions. This would be a radical change from the separate education system that had developed for girls, which provided by French, American, and British organizations. Girls learned French history and the Catholic religion but were not required to learn the history of Lebanon/Syria or study their own Protestant, Maronite, Islamic, or Eastern Orthodox religions.

In 1924, the Women’s Union in Syria and Lebanon was formed. This was an informal educational program whose leaders encouraged women to demonstrate against injustices and to become involved in political issues. Predominant issues were rights involving inheritance, divorce, child custody, voting, and access to education. The Women’s Union was multi-sectarian in religion and grounded in Arab nationalism. By the 1930s many women’s groups campaigned for public government positions and legal changes. Though some males supported some of the women’s goals, many other males argued that girls’ schools were a French weapon against Islam. These men thought that women should not be educated. Syrian and Lebanese conservatives, whether pro-French or anti-French, disrupted campaigns for woman’s suffrage and equal rights. Even nationalists who appreciated women’s organizations and their work and supported their marches often resisted the idea of equal education for women.

Women had had a leading role in nationalist demonstrations, including the 1934 protest in Damascus and the 1936 mass protests in Syria and Lebanon. In 1938–1939, Damascene women organized four nationalist protests against unfair treatment. But political movements were male-dominated, and with growing violence, the message was that the streets were too dangerous for women.

Both Syria and Lebanon became independent of France in 1943. Three years later, their parliaments, under popular pressure, adopted labor codes that provided protection for working women and children, and paid maternity leave. Code enforcement, however, was weak. The codes segregated male and female workers into separate unions and then limited strikes of specific unions, mostly those that contained females. Obviously, the women’s movement had no reliable allies. Communists, who were mostly males, supported female workers but did not call for reforms in women’s legal status. Elite male nationalists did not support women’s rights and thereby appeased religious interests.

The first Arab Women’s Conference was held in Cairo in December 1944 under the leadership of Egyptian Huda Sha’rawi. The Conference produced several resolutions aimed at all Arab governments, headed by the demand for women’s political equality, especially the right to vote and hold government offices. The Lebanese and Syrian women leaders, however, demanded suffrage only for educated women like themselves. The women’s resolutions did not include the poor, uneducated women, or children. Even nationalists who appreciated women’s organizations and their work and supported their marches often compromised on equal education for women.

Today, most parents teach Lebanese history and the Arabic language to their girls each day after they come home from French language schools. In addition, school curricula — whether French, Arabic, or religious — do not often teach the accomplishments of female leaders such as Huda Sha’rawi, Mai Ghosoub, Elmaz Abinadu, Strida Gaugae, Emily Nasrallah, Leila Saad, or Gilbert Zwein. British, Scottish, and American English language schools continue to teach Syrian and Lebanese geography in Arabic.[1]Currently, wealthy and middle class girls attend private language/religious schools while the poor attend Arabic language, government schools, or the few religious schools that provide scholarships, when and if they can enroll. The poor do not see the accomplishments or share the same language of the strong women who are the invisible, educated leaders of Lebanon.

For the past 30 years, many leaders in Syria and Lebanon have been and continue to be women. However, based upon past history, women leaders in politics, education, and literature have not been supported by the males and remain relatively unknown. Who are these women and to what do they attribute their invisibility?

Leila Saad

Ms. Leila Saad and Mr. Ralph Bistany continue the educational heritage begun by Irish ex-patriot Ms. Louisa Proctor and Mr. Tanios Saad. In 1886 Mr. Saad and Ms. Proctor founded an English language school for girls in the village of Choueifat, Lebanon. In 1943, Charles Saad became the Principal of the Choueifat and recruited a new team of educators. In 1975, another school opened: Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Under the direction of Leila Saad, the wife of Charles Saad, and Ralph Bistany, the school was relocated because of the Civil War in Lebanon. During this 15-year period, they opened Choueifat schools in Bath, England (1983) and Minneapolis, Minnesota (1985). In 2001, the International School of Choueifat-Damascus started as a co-educational day school. By the 2006/2007 academic year, it had grown to over 1,000 students. As she travels to Kurdistan and other new schools, Leila Saad is encouraging education that follows a scripted curriculum. These schools are evidence of her business acumen, even though Leila Saad is largely unrecognized in Lebanon and elsewhere.

Emily Nasrallah

Emily Nasrallah benefitted from the presence of the high school for girls at Choueifat begun by Ms. Saad’s father in-law. When she graduated from this school, she was one of the first women in Lebanon to attend college. She received her bachelor’s degree in education in 1958. Born in 1931 to a Christian family in southern Lebanon, Ms. Nasrallah writes her books in Arabic rather than English. She is also a writer of children’s books, short stories, and novels. She has won the LIBBY Children’s Book Prize as well as the IBBY Honor list for Children’s Novels.

Her most famous novel, Tyour Ayloul (Birds of September), has won three Arabic literature awards since being written in 1962, including the Poet Said Aki Prize. Nasrallah’s work is read by many young Lebanese women. Her stories are concerned with the experiences of women who strive for equality but are limited by the constraints and expectations of their families, religion, and communities. Her characters often live in Lebanese villages and leave their rural homes to get a higher education in the city. Often, the endings are bittersweet as the women are unhappy away from their roots. Her female characters may not have managed to reach ultimate self-determination, but they never seem to give up.

Despite her recognition as a Lebanese author and intellectual, she is not included in most of the anthologies of Arab women.[2]

Failure to Recognize Female Leaders

The question to be resolved today in Lebanon is why women of achievement are so little known in their own country? The answer, according to the women themselves, is found in the social and developmental constraints placed upon women of intelligence and ambition. Emily Nasrallah writes of women’s social obstacles and yet offers no solution through women who escape and get an education. Eight women surveyed in this study who obtained doctorates and positions at the prestigious Lebanese American University are recognized among other women as leaders but have had limited celebration of their accomplishments. These are women with advanced degrees in math, physics, educational psychology, English, business, and teaching English as a second language (TESOL). They also provide leadership at Lebanese American University but are not known beyond its walls.

According to their experience, these women have the answers as to why they are not recognized. First, the laws and norms are created by males for the welfare of males. Secondly, where there is a shortage of openings, there is a preference for hiring male candidates. Regardless of the opportunities for females that occurred when males emigrated or were in military service, families continue to give priority to sons for higher education and employment opportunities. Advanced education so far has not altered the female image to include political, educational, and social leadership. And yet, as two surveyed women stated, “Education is empowerment on the personal and social levels. Educated women have more self-confidence and higher self-esteem. Also, educated women get better jobs and have a higher chance of becoming financially independent, which increases their ability to make the best decisions for their lives, such as leaving a bad marriage or seeking higher degrees.” “At different levels and in different ways women have family and social empowerment, as to their role and status and more chances of financial independence and chances in the labor market.” And finally, working women still face discrimination and stereotyping. Women often accept jobs in education that are part-time and untenured so that they may live close to their extended families. A shortage of adequate daycare creates more need for proximity to family.

The women of Lebanon have strong, successful leaders in education, literature, science, and business. They have obtained their positions as a result of earning higher education degrees in major universities in England, the United States, and France. Their family support has enabled them to develop their potential and actualize it in Lebanon. These female leaders we have described are invisible role models to the children and women who need them to direct their development and the country’s future. They are the secret leaders of Lebanon who have yet to be recognized in their country for their expertise and accomplishments.

This is a brief overview of the status of educated Lebanese females in the past century. It raises questions about education’s impact on their lives today. Research, profiles, and interviews demonstrate their efforts toward creating decent lives for themselves in a country where laws are dictated, implemented, and interpreted by males. Lebanon is a country where women are often secondary in careers and human rights. Many educated women have come to realize that higher education and the economic independence that can come with it is their only hope for life improvement in the absence of social services and equal rights with males. Lebanese women have come a long way in education and careers. Despite the absence of men in the country, women are still far from leadership in high official posts and civil rights. The second half of the 20th century is significant for females worldwide as it has highlighted social injustices that women encounter. One decade into the 21st century, females still constitute the majority of the poor and the illiterate in Lebanon and the world.


[1]. Rewa Zeinati, personal conversation.

[2]. Elizabeth Fernea and Basima Bezirgan, Middle Eastern Women Speak (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1977); Barbara J. Nelson and Najma Chowdhury, eds., Women and Politics Worldwide (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994); Nawar Golley, Arab Women’s Lives Retold (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2007); and Nikki Keddie, Women in the Middle East (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007).

Women have directed social clubs and charities that became political forces