Historians give far too little credit to Anbar Salam Khalidi, a Lebanese feminist activist and writer who took inspiration from her Arab and Western contemporaries and revolutionized the role of women in the Middle East.
Thanks to the ongoing conversations inspired by Women’s History Month, the names of many feminists have become familiar. They include Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the United Kingdom’s most prominent suffragettes, and Eleanor Roosevelt, the United States’ longest-serving first lady and a tireless proponent of women’s rights and human rights in general.
Khalidi managed to reshape understandings of feminism around the world.
Unfortunately, feminists from outside the Western world receive far less attention, even if historical figures such as Khalidi managed to reshape understandings of feminism not only in their homelands but also around the world.
in Beirut on August 4, 1897, Khalidi benefited from her well-heeled family, which helped her secure an influential role among the Middle East’s intelligentsia early on. Her father, Salim Ali Salam — better known as “Abu Ali” — served as a local Sunni leader and held a post in the Ottoman Parliament, and her mother, Kulthum al-Barbir, had many relatives who specialized in the prestigious academic field of Islamic studies.
Khalidi was one of nine siblings, most of whom also made a mark on the Lebanese social and political stage. Her brother Saeb, for instance, would to the position of Lebanese Prime Minister. Even so, Khalidi needed little time to distinguish herself as one of the leading feminist figures in Lebanon and the Arab world.
Abu Ali took a significant interest in his daughter’s education. He her in top schools, among them the Syrian Protestant College, the predecessor to the American University of Beirut. She also attended the Maqasid School for Girls, where the educational institution’s leader, Julia Tuma Dimashqiyya, encouraged Khalidi to read a range of Arab and non-Arab literary works and to familiarize herself with the beginning iterations of the feminist movement. At the time, Khalidi was learning Arabic and French, which enabled her to access a variety of contemporary viewpoints.
The ideals of Khalidi’s family members informed her own worldview. She came from a line of literate women; her grandmother had read religious texts and her mother had gone even further with her education. Abu Ali, for his part, broke with the traditions of his conservative Sunni roots by seeking opportunities for Khalidi to engage with other religious denominations in Lebanon. For example, he sent her to a Christian school at one point and hired a priest as her French tutor at another.
This upbringing laid the groundwork for Khalidi to become a globe-trotting activist and feminist. At 15, she started writing op-eds for the newspaper Al-Mufid on the importance of Lebanese women’s contributions to their nation’s culture and civil society. She also participated in the establishment of two notable associations: the Young Arab Woman’s Awakening in the years preceding World War I and the Society for Women’s Renaissance in Beirut in 1924. From 1925 to 1927, Khalidi joined her father in England, where she gained yet more exposure to the feminist movement.
The two years spent in England left an enormous impression on Khalidi. During her youth in Lebanon, she, like most Muslim Lebanese women of the era, wore a veil. But when she to the United Kingdom, she decided to stop wearing the veil there.
Khalidi shed her veil during her address, becoming the first woman in Lebanon to do so in public.
Upon Khalidi’s return to her homeland, she gave a speech entitled “An Oriental Woman in England” at the American University of Beirut, her alma mater in a sense. During the address, she discussed her time overseas and, in a rebellious gesture, shed her veil, becoming the first woman in Lebanon to do so in public. The move had little precedent even within Khalidi’s own family: her mother, though liberal, to take off her veil at the dentist.
Khalidi’s symbolic protest at the American University of Beirut sparked a wave of anti-feminist violence in the city. In a memoir published decades later, Khalidi recalled that militants incensed by her speech attacked Lebanese women with razors and flung acid at them, whether those women wore the veil or not. Khalidi herself hid at home for half a year. Still, she remained undeterred from her wider mission of gender equality, despite the threat to her safety.
After the uproar subsided, Khalidi married a Palestinian educator and relocated to Jerusalem, where she spent much of the 1930s sharing literature by well-known Arab feminists on a radio show. However, the outbreak of the First Arab-Israeli War in 1948, and the ensuing expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes, forced her and her family to go back to Beirut. Khalidi’s husband passed away two years later, so she alone had to care for the couple’s three living children — Randa, Tarif, and Usama — their fourth child having passed away earlier.
The episode at the American University of Beirut represented the high-water mark of Khalidi’s prominence
The episode at the American University of Beirut represented the high-water mark of Khalidi’s prominence as a champion of women’s rights in the Middle East and the world over. The death of her husband and the resulting demands of single motherhood impacted her ability to participate in the feminist movement. Nonetheless, she turned the library of her Beirut home into a meeting place for the city’s intellectuals, such as the historians Albert Hourani and Kamal Salibi, ensuring her continued influence in Lebanon’s elite social circles.
Khalidi died in Beirut in May 1986. While she achieved fame as a feminist, she engaged in several other pursuits in her life, including politics. At age 16, she co-authored a telegram to an Arab conference in Paris that called for the independence of Arab nations from the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Lebanon prior to World War I. In 1919, she met with the King-Crane Commission, the body that assisted with the partition of Ottoman territories after the Great War.
Khalidi often advocated for Palestinian nationalism.
In Khalidi’s later years in Jerusalem and Beirut, she often advocated for Palestinian nationalism, a cause close to her heart. She said of her family’s forced departure from Palestine, “Our hearts were very heavy and our nerves near breaking point.”
In addition to developing a reputation as a feminist and political activist, Khalidi nurtured a passion for writing. Her memoir, published in Arabic in 1978 and translated into English as Memoirs of an Early Arab Feminist: The Life and Activism of Anbara Salam Khalidi in 2013, solidified her legacy in the Middle East and the West as a pioneering feminist.
Khalidi penned a number of articles in Lebanese and other Arab journals and translated into Arabic works by Virgil and Homer, among them the Iliad and the Odyssey. “I’ve loved legends since I was a kid,” she on a radio show in 1970, noting that the Lebanese scholar Butrus al-Bustani’s own translation of the Iliad contributed to her interest in the subject.
Khalidi’s feminist and literary credentials earned her great cachet among Lebanon’s intelligentsia, but her lesser-known work to assist the women of the Middle East merits praise as well. Through the Young Arab Woman’s Awakening, she pushed for the education of Arab girls, and Khalidi worked with other Lebanese women to support orphans from World War I.
In a significant break with most understandings of Islamic law, Khalidi even demanded that female survivors receive the same amount of inheritance as their male counterparts, proving that she saw feminism as an integral component of her identity to the very end.
Khalidi demanded that female survivors receive the same amount of inheritance as their male counterparts.
Khalidi found a role model in the Egyptian activist Huda Sha’arawi, who, similar to Khalidi during her lecture at the American University of Beirut, caused a stir in Cairo by removing her veil in public in 1923. Today, Khalidi has become an icon for other feminists in her own right. In the ultimate confirmation of contemporary relevance to popular culture, Google Khalidi’s 121st birthday and her “activism, translations, and writing” with a Google Doodle in 2018.
Though Khalidi’s death continues to reverberate across the Middle East over three decades later, her example will encourage the next generation of iconoclastic Arab feminists. Khalidi dedicated her life to the feminist movement, defying social norms, erasing taboos, and facing critics who threatened the women of Lebanon with violence. Generations will look to her for inspiration, but she has few peers.