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Phenomenal Women

Acclaimed poet Maya Angelo knew the qualities that make for a dynamic woman when she penned her famous ode to women, Phenomenal Woman. She described someone who had found personal power and lived an authentic life as a result. There are some of us who live life in one manner and after experiencing an epiphany moment, we feel compelled to change its entire course. Then there are others however, who are born with an instinct that intensifies over the years leading them to a self-actualisation moment.

This month, AW brings you four unique women from four different realities who have each found their calling in life and unleashed their personal power as they journey towards realising their life's purpose.

Fitness guru
Strength is something inherent in Zena Habi's disposition. Not only is she very physically strong, she also exudes a unique strength of character, which has allowed her to realise a life long dream to open a fitness centre with business partner Ziggy Gargash.

Since Fitness 02 launched in 2007, there's been a steady stream of clientele ready to improve both their mental and physical well-being after moving to Dubai's booming metropolis. When many would have opted to evade the responsibility of launching and then running a taxing business venture, Habi relished the possibility of being in control of her own destiny. After a traumatic divorce, she found herself having to revaluate her future prospects and as result found the catalyst to help her crystallise her business proposal for Fitness 02. The success garnered by her Dubai-based company, Fitness 02 has been nothing short of phenomenal. Like many women who venture into unfamiliar territory, in order to meet their true purpose, Habi seemed to always know that she would eventually end up working in the fitness industry.

“I was a keen gymnast as a child, but had to stop due to the fact that my father didn't really approve of the skin-tight outfits and felt this wasn't an appropriate sport for a young girl. I have always respected my father so I stopped gymnastics. I didn't stop sports altogether though.”

Her brother was taking Tae Kwon Do classes so she found a new interest to pursue. “When people began saying that it was too masculine for me, it made me even more determined to participate. I couldn't understand why a man could do something and a woman couldn't, and I'm still like that now. Funnily enough, my brother stopped learning Tae Kwon Do after achieving the brown belt, I on the other hand, continued until I had a black belt,” she shares. This ‘can-do' anything attitude eventually earned her the Jordanian gold medal title twice in kickboxing and with a solid professional sports background gave her the credibility to launch Fitness 02.

Looking back on her career, Habi shares the fact that although the path which eventually led to her managing her own company seemed random, today she realizes that every little step she made became a major contributor to her current success. Many readers will remember her from her presenting stint on the US-franchised show, The Biggest Loser, a reality TV series aimed at obese people who wanted to lose weight.

This TV break was another profile boost, as she was able to help contestants, all severely overweight, exercise and live a healthy lifestyle. This experience was the incentive which helped her focus on setting up her own fitness centre. Encouraged by the determination of the participants of the show, she decided through her centre, to also help other people trapped in a sedentary Dubai lifestyle to resist junk food and get healthy.

Habi's involvement in the show also increased her profile as a fitness trainer in the Middle East and with her accomplishments as a martial artist already well known, she had all the elements to launch Fitness 02. “Since we opened Fitness 02 in April 2007, we already have 1500 recruits. I didn't want to leave all these behind and although my parents initially wanted me to come back to Jordan, my father could see that my career was too successful to just abandon.”

Shrewd, determined and vibrant, Habi demonstrates that despite adversities, women are made of strong stuff and can endure a lot– both physically and emotionally. From a young age she was able to recognise what she enjoyed and although she explored other ventures, she came back to her passion and fought to be allowed to develop it. Now, 24 years after she first stepped foot on a gym mat, she not only has a host of accolades under her (black) belt, but she has her own business and most importantly, she has inner strength that far surpasses her physical strength.

For more information on Fitness 02, visit

The Advocator of justice
Saudi-based writer and educator Mody Al Khalaf is a vigilant social advocate for equality and human rights in the kingdom. Unjustly criticised at times, she's one of a few voices in the nation who is willing to highlight the reality of contradictions, which sometimes exist in a society in evolution. Modernity for the country has come at a cost as tradition, religion and Western influences in regards to civil liberties clash in a very public forum.

As a regular contributor to the Arab News newspaper, Al Khalaf has dared to write about what many in KSA consider taboo subjects, but themes, which she feels reflect the mood of the society in general. Her features have addressed everything from women's rights in regards to divorce laws, as well as the daily struggles, gender equality and standards of living.

A Professor of Linguistics at Riyadh University and head of the female department of the Ministry of Higher Education, one of Al Khalaf's most distinctive article addressed unemployment in Saudi. Speaking about the reality she shared, “In general, unemployment is a big problem for both sexes in our society. I think it is worse for women, (who make up) 51 percent of the population but barely 7 percent of the work force.”

The article also touched on some of the concerns which she encountered at her university. Many of her students were naturally concerned about their future after completing their studies and not one to just sit and wait for a solution, Al Khalaf decided to start a dialogue going in the media addressing the employment disparities.

After receiving positive feedback about her story, Al Khalaf realised that her future responsibility was to continue to tackle with her words other problems plaguing Saudi society and make a real contribution to changing things. Today, there has been a marked improvement for women in the labour market, however, always modest she prefers not to be attributed for her advocacy efforts.

Unfortunately, along with the positive results that her articles yield, there has been some backlash. However, Al Khalaf is happy to say that the negative comments have been minimal, “Which is probably because I write in English,” she laughs. “The mindsets of the people who read my articles are different from those who are not bilingual. Had I written controversial things in Arabic, the response may have been different.”

However, all is not easy for Al Khalaf as there are obviously some who read her articles and feel that she is providing the West with more reasons to taunt them, thus prompting her rebuttal piece, Am I Not Saudi? She begins another haunting published piece with, “As a Saudi woman who has often tried to push the wheels of change forward, I have been labeled many things ranging from ‘feminist' to ‘secularist'.

What bothers me the most, however, is the charge that I am disloyal to my country. Because I criticise the state of current affairs regarding women in Saudi Arabia, I have often been accused of giving our enemies free ammunition to use against us.” The article then goes on to cite how women are treated as secondary citizens, despite being Saudi nationals who should warrant the same rights as their male counterparts.

Her articles do more than merely criticize the flaws in her society. They provoke thought, stimulate debate and offer practical solutions to the problems that exist. They're not all critical though, as one extremely powerful piece that demonstrates her love for her country says, Strong Family Ties Thread our Social Fabric, is clearly layered with love. “We have strong family ties that rarely leave individuals, homeless or neglected in nursing homes,” she writes passionately. “Family ties also make the concept of ‘single father' or ‘single mother' hardly that. So strong is the social fabric of our Saudi societies that most neighbors are considered family.” Since Al Khalaf has been campaigning for women's rights, there has been a rise of women in the workforce as well as an increase of females in leadership positions, which now accounts to 30 percent, similar to that of the UK.

Things have not always been easy for the 34 year-old mother of two. Having recently divorced from her husband in a society that frowns upon it, it is sheer determination that has allowed her to carve a good life for herself and her children. However, although her situation has further intensified her need to talk about issues that face many women who are either separated or divorced, her vocation did not stem from this.

“Some of my article ideas stem from personal experiences but all of them are inspired by real-life situations. There are so many women in KSA who are suffering greatly because of red tape, and I've always been a person who can never just sit back and not say anything. I have a voice, I have the ability to write and I want to use my skills to benefit those that can.”

In a Kingdom where many accept their fate and keep quiet, Al Khalaf is a shrewd, intelligent advocator of justice – not just for women, but her land as a whole. Without being rude or violent, she has found a way to communicate her ideals with an intelligent articulacy that has already born fruit and will continue to do so.

The Peaceful Scribe
You don't often meet a Palestinian who is not so outraged by the turmoil taking place in their homeland. Despite the pain, the despair and the rage that lingers, Poet, playwright and writer Nathalie Handal has found a more peaceful and effective way to not only channel her own emotions, but to also get the world talking about the horror in that region. Through her mass audience she also been able to advocate the senseless killing to stop and for the ‘war' to come to and end.

Realising that even when one feels powerless, it is important to find whatever outlet open to you to make a difference, no matter how small to affect change. Today, she feels that she's made a positive contribution by educating the world about the real life experiences of the Palestinian people. Many people have unfortunately been desensitised to the horrors of living in Gaza, for example, as news networks blast images of fighting on a daily basis, with no real solution in the reports. Through the emotion of her poetry she has found another medium to tell the stories of the countless residents of Palestine, who find their stories distorted on a Western media platform. Unlike those who advocate revenge, Handal talks peace and hopes that through her work she can get people talking to work towards this end.

Having been enthralled by the art of story telling since she was a child, especially as it had always been such an integral part of her upbringing, Handal has been writing ever since she could grasp a pen. A chatty child and always telling stories, she soon realised that in her diasporic life, amidst the constant change of landscape and people, the page remained faithful to her and that words were here home, a place she could return to, to find out who she was.

Born in the Caribbean with her family hailing from Bethlehem and Beirut, Handal has had a nomadic existence and spent her childhood in Europe, South America, North America and Asia and learnt to be open to other people and cultures. She now lives in the vibrant city of New York, and it is partly due to her colourful and varied experiences that have prevented her perspective on life to be tainted by the Palestinian conflict.

Having spent most of her life outside Palestine, she has been back several times in order to truly understand the reality of life for her people in order to tell their authentic story. “Although I didn't grow up in Bethlehem, I've always lived there. I have a deep connection with it and when I finally got to visit, I understood where I was from. I've lost the words to describe what I feel when I see my homeland. I see the wall, the ghetto, the poverty, the feeling has gone beyond grief, beyond anger.”

Handal's epiphany moment came to her at a young age, when she realised that the pen provided her with a field of infinite possibilities, that a blank page was limitless and she could write to benefit those around her. Thus, she began a journey woven with words that not only sought to plant even the smallest seed of consciousness in sleeping minds, but also to inspire.

“There is a lot to be done [regarding the Palestinian situation] and I don't know what the solution is,” she says. “I think that each person should use their own talents to do what they can. The position I am in today allows me to use my skills to encourage dialogue, to spark debate, to provoke thoughts.”

Humbled by living a comfortable life outside of Palestine and then seeing the reality of what goes on within, Handal is anxious to shed light on her peoples' plight. That, along with the need to defend the Arab culture in a land that holds less than favourable views of it, inspires her to write whatever flows out of her heart– regardless of whether it ruffles feathers or not.

“Sometimes I pick up a pen and I can't control what I'm writing, it pours out of me. Other times it's has a solid purpose; for instance it can be a conscious effort to highlight the richness of my culture that is abundant with beauty. Yes, sometimes being an Arab in America is hard. There is the constant battle of challenging misconceptions, which I hope through my writing I can play my part in changing this.” She is quick to point out that she is, by no means, representative of the Arab world. “I am true to myself and my world, I write what I know.”

Having just finished working on ‘Language for a New Century,' a contemporary book of poetry that celebrates different cultures, a novel set in Mexico, a script for a theatre in NYC as well as being part of the production team for a movie on Khalil Gibran, Handal certainly has her work cut out for her.

Influenced by her history, her culture and the need for tolerance and acceptance in today's society, Handal has found her calling in life. Rejecting the sword for the pen that is deemed far mightier and having the courage use her talent to educate and empower, she is an inspiration on many levels.

Spiritual Awakening
We all remember when the British journalist Yvonne Ridley was kidnapped in Afghanistan several years ago. Her image was routinely broadcast on all the news networks and her family pleaded for her safe return. What many of us don't know is the fact that her time in captivity, resulted in a change of faith for Ridley. Soon after her negotiated release, she started to investigate Islam, prompted by the ‘kindness' of her Muslim capturer, she discovered that she connected with the religion and decided to convert to Islam. She admits that she'd always been sympathetic towards the Palestinian conflict (the father of her child is Palestinian) and therefore wanted to better understand the belief system of the people she often reported about.

When her conversion became public many associate this decision with Stockholm Syndrome, Ridley however shares that this was not the case. Out of what was a negative experience, she found enlightenment and discovered her true calling as a Muslim and this led her to a road of advocacy for Muslim causes often ignored by the international media.

Recently one such story is the reality the Muslims kept at Guantanamo Bay, the controversial Cuban detention camp where she visited and was given unprecedented access for four days to shoot a documentary with director David Miller. Ridley says that she has never experienced anything quite so chilling and realised that she had to really share with the public the stories that many Western media outlets are prevented from reporting on or are just fearful or exposing.

“Camp Delta is clinical and permanent, its sole purpose to destroy the very essence of human spirit. It was like something out of Orwell's 1984 with the bright lights and no natural daylight. The expressions on the prisoners' faces can only be described as wild. They are being dehumanised and this is turning them into wild animals or feral creatures – they are like a ghastly experiment gone wrong.”

She explains that although she's a new convert she too has struggled with coming to terms with some of the character changes her new faith requires of her. Acknowledging that it's not easy to disconnect herself completely from what she's reporting on to remain objective– especially when human injustice is involved, she struggled to do so.

“Before I became a Muslim, I used to drink to forget about the horrors I had witnessed and most of my colleagues were the same. We had to find an outlet to deal with what we were seeing. As a Muslim however, I have a more holistic approach to maintaining my sanity. I speak to others about my worries and I find that a good friends circle definitely helps. Some things you can never forget though. They constantly plague you. When you've seen suffering like I have, it's impossible to sit back and not do anything. It's been a few weeks since I returned from Guantanamo now but I can still see it, hear it, smell it. These images will stay with me forever.”

Ridley's journey to Islam was more of a gradual process rather than a defining moment. Having always been exposed to Islam, especially with her keen interest in the Palestinian cause, it is surprising that she was never drawn to it before. Her first husband and father of her 15 year-old daughter Daisy, Daoud Zaroura, was a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, whom she met in Cyprus whilst researching a story.

“Whenever Daoud would talk about Islam, I'd immediately shut down,” says Ridley with a laugh. “I just wasn't interested in hearing about a religion whose women were oppressed objects in black drapes.”

In 2001, directly after 9/11, Ridley decided to go to Afghanistan to write a story on how the Afghans were being affected. Having been refused a visa three times, she illegally entered the country and under an inconspicuous burka began her investigation. However, her cover was soon blown when her camera slipped out of her clothes right in front of the Taliban who consequently captured her and imprisoned her for her illegal status in the country.

For 10 days Ridley was a prisoner– first in Jalalabad for six days and then in Kabul. She was convinced that her captors were going to kill her and therefore saw no need to co-operate with them. After all, regardless of what she did or how she behaved, the same fate awaited her. In an attempt to speed up the process, she spat at them, taunted them and went on a hunger strike.

During her time in prison, a religious mentor came to her with the copy of the Qur'an and asked her if she wanted to convert to Islam, to which she replied a person couldn't convert in this situation and should they let her go, she promised to read the Qur'an with an open mind. This, perhaps, was the beginning of her change– for the first time in her life she was willing to research into a religion she shamelessly knew little about despite her career. Upon her release, Ridley decided to honour her promise and began reading a translation of the Qur'an.

“Contrary to my perceptions of Islam, when I first read it, I found that the Qur'an wasn't gender specific and was female friendly, unlike certain aspects of the bible which made me uncomfortable, such as the book of Genesis and the way Eve was portrayed as a seductress. Other things like ‘Let your women keep silent in the churches' used to discomfort me. I always had certain questions which I would pose to the vicar who told me not to ask questions, which was so unlike Islam which encouraged men and women to seek knowledge.” A pivotal moment for Ridley was when she read the Prophet's (Peace be upon him) last sermon.

“It was truly breathtaking and I was deeply moved by it– the way he advocated equality and justice– no one had superiority over anyone else, and could only gain a higher rank in the eyes of God through piety and good conduct. It is as relevant today as it was 1400 years ago.”

During her research process, Ridley found that her life was naturally beginning to change. She stopped partying and drinking and found that she suddenly had a clearer purpose to her life.

“I had always been an activist, even before I was a journalist and long before my conversion to Islam, but after I became a Muslim, my activism took on a different meaning. Now, the people suffering in Palestine, whose cause I had supported for a long time, were not just any victims; they were my Muslim brothers and sisters. As a Muslim you really do feel part of a global community regardless of where you're from, the colour of your skin. The Islamic sisterhood makes Western feminism pale in significance.”

Despite her passion for her beliefs, Ridley is a firm believer of the Prophet's saying that there is no force in religion. Her daughter, Daisy, was baptised at the age of nine and Ridley wants her to find her own path in life. This summer, along with approximately 30 others who are part of the International Bridge of Peace Activists, Ridley plans on sailing into Gaza and breaking the siege.

“If I see an injustice taking place, I can't remain silent,” she says. “I'm not being a fatalist but at the same time, I'm not scared. If my time is up, it's up, I leave it in God's hands.”

Unrelenting and passionate, Ridley has dedicated not just her career, but her life to giving a voice to those who no longer have words; to helping those who are helpless and standing firm beside justice. Upon her conversion and subsequent donning of the hijab, many career doors were closed in her face but instead of letting it faze her, she has carved a new career for herself– one that encompasses who she is now. Inspiring and inspired, empowering and empowered, she is a woman who cannot get any further away from the Muslim woman stereotype.

Up close & personal
“I was one of the first journalists to get into the [Jenin] camp in Palestine after the siege had lifted and to this day it still has a profound affect on me….

…The first thing that hit me was the stench of death which rose from the rubble of where 300 homes had once stood... it was the same smell which permeated the air of the tiny Scottish border town of Lockerbie where I was one of the first journalists to reach the scene after a Pan Am jumbo was blown out of the skies.

…In Jenin we were told that the UN had assembled a team of people to investigate allegations of war crimes by Israeli soldiers against the people of Jenin. Israel's leader Ariel Sharon told the UN to ‘get lost' and the team never set foot in Palestine. I then checked out Israel's UN record and discovered it had violated or ignored more than a staggering 70 UN resolutions. It was clear then, as it is clear today, that those in favour with Washington can get away with murder.”

Excerpts from a speech by Yvonne Ridley, 2005

Source: Arabian Woman
Posted: 07/07/2008

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