The Arab Institute for Women

AiW 50th Anniversary

Message from the Director – Myriam Sfeir

It is with great pleasure that I bring you a brief about The Arab Institute for Women, its history and its recent progress of which we are ever so proud.

LAU grew from a girls’ school established in 1835 by Presbyterian missionaries. In the early 20th century, as post-secondary women’s education began to take hold, our esteemed institution was at the forefront. Under the leadership of founding President Frances Irwin, the college started a two-year junior college curriculum in 1924 that was then mandatory for young women wishing to pursue their bachelor’s degrees. Female students flocked from all over the Arab region to join the program.

If we are to be true to our history, we cannot but pay tribute to the pioneer women who worked relentlessly at the College and were at its helm. LAU has had seven female presidents – including acting presidents – long before other leading educational institutions in Europe and North America. In 1973, when the institution started accepting men, The Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World (IWSAW) – now The Arab Institute for Women (AiW) – was founded to honor the college’s unique heritage as the first educational institution for women in the Arab region. At the time, it was one of the world’s first university-affiliated institutes to work exclusively on women’s rights and gender equality.

Over the past five decades, the AiW has capitalized on LAU’s legacy of education, empowerment, and equality by acting as a bridge, a hub, and a voice for women in the region. I have had the privilege of working with all the visionary and inspirational women who built up the institute, starting with AiW’s founder Dr. Julinda Abul Nasr, a woman who valued education and equality above everything else. Her work has been honored at the Riyad Nassar Library here at LAU through the Julinda Abul Nasr Women and Gender collection, a special collection of books dedicated to women’s and gender studies. In doing so we not only honor her legacy but also ensure that every future generation will know her name, her contributions to the Institute and LAU, and to the women’s movement in general.

In 1976, as a result of the Institute’s work and influence, LAU was the first university in the region to offer courses in women’s studies. In the same year, the AiW launched its flagship feminist bi-annual journal, Al-Raida, whose issues are all available online, searchable by article, author, title, theme, country and keywords – free of charge and accessible to all.

Al-Raida, which has been in publication for more than 40 years, galvanizes research on gender and women in the Arab region by academics, activists, and students  Over time, the Institute’s work expanded from collecting basic statistical data to analysis and exploration of gender as a social factor affecting employment, war, economy, and citizenship. Accordingly, AiW’s staff were prompted to become involved in the lives of many women by providing crucial services, training, and counseling to the ever-increasing number of displaced women and their families. Thus was born our signature education program, “The Basic Living Skills Program,” through which the AiW educates and trains women in survival skills to enhance their lives and that of their families, empower them economically, socially, and politically, to become active members in their communities. 

In 2014, the AiW lobbied and succeeded in developing an undergraduate minor in Gender Studies and an MA in Interdisciplinary Gender Studies, which are housed in the Department of Social Sciences at the School of Arts and Sciences. But our goal to educate the community about gender equality and women’s rights extends beyond academic courses. To cater to professionals with careers in development, the Institute created a Certificate in Gender in Development and Humanitarian Assistance, which has been delivered by LAU’s Academy of Continuing Education since 2018.

Since its inception, AiW has been at the forefront of bridging academia and activism through research, policy, education, publications, and advocacy, bringing together scholars, researchers, policymakers, and students to take part in vital debates concerning gender equality and women’s rights. This collaborative model generates research and work that has the power to break social taboos and encourage creative thinking.

In addition to the academic support we provide to the LAU community, we collaborate with all entities and departments at LAU to mainstream gender and ensure that our students are up to date on all the developments related to gender equality and women’s rights across the Arab region. Our LAU Gender Equality Plan to support LAU’s quest for regional gender excellence was recently implemented, as will our commitment to Title IX compliance. We engage with and inspire students and youth through various competitions and events, such as our annual art competition to end violence against women and the Mary Turner Lane Award.

We also support students’ critical writing on issues of gender equality and women’s rights; several special issues of Al-Raida are dedicated to the work of our students and showcase their powerful writing. Through our student-focused speaker series Food 4 Thought, offered on both Beirut and Byblos campuses, we bring gender equality and women’s rights experts from around the region and the world to engage with our students in a discussion-based format about current events. Relatedly, we support student clubs and activities to cultivate a university culture committed to gender equality and women’s rights.

Our work also extends beyond the LAU student body; this portfolio has grown exponentially since the early 2000s. Alongside our flagship program, the Basic Living Skills Program, we continue to train development practitioners on issues related to women’s rights, such as women’s political participation and women’s labor rights. Most recently, and in collaboration with several key faculty here at LAU, we developed a policy proposal for extending parental leave at the national level and worked with LAU to extend the length of parental leave offered to university staff and faculty.

We have worked closely with UN organizations, including UNFPA and UN Women, to develop various curricula on issues such as gender and the media, and gender and violence against women. These two syllabi in particular have had great success and have been included in university course offerings across schools.

In a nutshell, AiW’s work focuses on incorporating community activists, women change makers, and human rights defenders from all walks of life to ensure local and regional communities are invested and engaged in the fight for gender equality and women’s rights over the long term. As an independent convenor, the AiW is a vibrant space open to new ideas and people, transcending sect, age, and race. In this way, we can effect change to promote gender equality and women’s rights.

Drawing on more than 49 years of experience and high-quality research, the Institute has been at the frontline of the feminist movement. Today, the AiW continues to join forces with local feminist organizations to work for a feminist future. In particular, and in the shadow of the pandemic and the compounded crises facing Lebanon, we know that the youth are the key to our future, especially if we hope to build a feminist and egalitarian society where all people can live with dignity. To quote from an animated song that we created called Bi’Ideh, or “In my hands,” the future is, quite literally, in the hands of our feminist youth. We must encourage and support them to claim it and put their visions for equality and dignity into practice. Through our work with students and youth members of the larger community here in Lebanon, we aim to do just that.

As we approach the Institute’s 50th anniversary in 2023, we will continue to be a fueling station for those engaged in the fight for gender equality and women’s rights. We are and will continue to be a center of power for women and girls, gender minorities, single mothers, women migrants and refugees, and anyone else faced with gender discrimination. We see ourselves as a source of information, a hub for inspiration, a leader, and a galvanizer. A small academic institute can play a huge role and the Institute is proof of that. But let me reiterate that, without the support and commitment of our administration, our faculty, our donors, and our students, we would not be where we are today.

As a last word, I invite you to find ways to support the Institute as we celebrate our 50th anniversary, so that we may expand our reach and continue to secure funding to build the region’s foremost center of gender excellence. We hope that you will join forces with us in 2023 and help us to reach our ambitious goals, amidst these challenging times.

Heartfelt thanks for being allies and advocates of AiW!

Myriam Sfeir