The Forgotten Pioneer of Lebanese Feminism

The story of Anbara Salam Khalidi echoes loud today as Lebanese women remain front and center of the Lebanese revolution. Activists take part in a demonstration against sexual harassment, rape and domestic violence in Beirut on Dec. 7, 2019.
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The Forgotten Pioneer of Lebanese Feminism

By Mat Nashed


Because she was an earlier pioneer of Arab feminism.

By Mat Nashed

Anbara Salam Khalidi, just 20 years old, wasn’t afraid to stand up on a podium and make history. After spending two years abroad in England, the daughter of a prominent Sunni Lebanese family was asked to give a talk at the American University of Beirut in 1927.

In England, she’d been most impressed by the relative freedom enjoyed by women. In Lebanon at the time, Muslim women were socially obligated to cover their hair and face by the age of 10. But in England, Khalidi had gone without one, and when she returned she told her father she was thinking of ditching it at home too.

With her father’s moral support, she stepped onto the podium to give her lecture … and removed her veil. The symbolic gesture shocked people in the audience, but most stayed to listen to her speak about her experiences abroad.

The backlash was far bigger outside the university. In Memoirs of an Early Arab Feminist — published in 1978 but first translated into English in 2013 — Khalidi writes that conservative hardliners accused her of threatening public morality. Others attacked women on the streets for not covering their hair and faces modestly enough.

“Criminal acts were committed in the streets such as throwing acid at ladies or tearing veils off with razors,” wrote Khalidi. “The attacks were generally directed at women, even those who were veiled.”


Anbara Salam Khalidi made history at 20 years old when she removed her veil during a university talk.

“After she removed her veil, Anbara remained housebound for six months,” says her son, 82-year-old Tarif Khalidi, a scholar of Islamic and Arabic studies at the American University of Beirut.

Despite the chaos, she had no regrets. Her powerful gesture appeared to have encouraged other women to remove their veils. It wasn’t all Khalidi’s doing — her son Tarif admits that French colonization likely played a bigger role than her one lecture in influencing gender norms of the day.

Still, Khalidi had paved the way for women long before removing her veil. As a teenager growing up in a relatively wealthy family, she devoted her time to improving women’s access to education and building connections with Arab feminists in Egypt. Khalidi was particularly inspired by Egyptian feminist Huda Sha’arawi, who was the first Arab woman to remove her veil once she stepped off a train in Cairo in 1923. Khalidi never knew Sha’arawi personally, yet she believed Arab feminists owed her a debt for paving the way forward.

Born in 1897 under Ottoman rule, Khalidi was also a passionate supporter of Lebanese independence. As a young teen, she sometimes wrote anonymous articles for the Arab press. At 16, she and two other women penned a telegram, read aloud at an Arab conference in Paris, that supported Arab independence from Ottoman rule. But rather than criticize or praise the letter, men at the conference concluded that a man must have helped the women write it.

“As God is my witness, nobody ever saw the message before we sent it and no one knew what we were planning,” wrote Khalidi in her memoir.

In 1929, Khalidi moved to Jerusalem with her new husband, a Palestinian. And in the years that followed, tensions simmered as an increasing number of Jewish refugees, fleeing the Nazi regime, were rescued from Europe and smuggled into the British Mandate of Palestine.

In the 1930s, as Europe prepared for war, Khalidi hosted a radio show where she read out articles on liberal Arab women revolutionizing their societies. At the same time, an Arab revolt against British rule exploded in the region. Palestinian nationalists — Khalidi among them — feared above all that they might lose their land.

Their fears were validated when Khalidi and her family were expelled from Jerusalem during the Arab/Israeli war in 1948. Like all 700,000 Palestinians uprooted that year, Khalidi’s husband and family were barred from ever returning.

“My mother had two loves in her life: Beirut and Jerusalem,” explains Tarif. “The loss of Jerusalem left a deep mark on her.”

The trauma of the Nakba — or catastrophe, which is how Palestinians refer to the exodus — deeply affected Khalidi. She and her husband resettled in Beirut, but just two years later she was left a widow and single mother, still struggling to pick up the pieces of her life. She no longer had the time or the motivation to fully commit herself to the feminist movement in Lebanon.

But Khalidi never abandoned her principles. Before she died in 1986, she insisted that all her belongings be equally distributed to her male and female children, a violation of Islamic law. Although her family wasn’t deeply religious, they had previously followed traditional inheritance laws.

Thirty years later, Khalidi’s granddaughter Aliya Khalidi wrote and directed a play about her grandmother. Anbara had a short run, with just 24 performances. But one day in that same year, Aliya recalls picking up her son from school and noticing that his teacher was no longer veiled.

“She told me that she saw my play,” Aliya said smiling. “She told me that if Anbara could take off her veil a hundred years ago, then she could take it off today.”