Honoring our founding feminist foremothers (aka Thank you, Mona Khalaf)
Today I went to the funeral of Mona Khalaf, one of the former directors of the Institute where I now work. I am fifth in a line of dynamic women who have each brought their particular passion and vision into building what is now the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World – a 45-year old Institute whose origins date back to the 1830s. What began as a school for girls evolved into a junior college for women and eventually a co-ed university – the Lebanese American University – where we now sit.
The Institute was established in 1973 to honor that legacy and preserve our commitment to equality, empowerment, and education for women and girls. It was the first of its kind in the region – and among the first in the world!
Mona Khalaf served the Institute from 1997 until 2005 , building on her work as champion and advocate for the empowerment of women. She was a pioneer in her own right, being the first woman to obtain a master’s degrees in economics at the American University of Beirut. She went on to teach economics – and to champion gender and development issues in the region through her research and activism. Mona Khalaf served on the Lebanese NGO Commission for the Preparation of the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women, the National Commission for Lebanese Women (NCLW), and the Board of Trustees of the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women.
Mona Khalaf taught, wrote, led – and lived every day true to her mission. She impacted and inspired many. And her story is a fundamental chapter in the herstory of this small but special Institute.
Even my own history with this place dates back before my time.
In 1938, my Palestinian grandmother graduated from what was then the American Junior College for Women, and is now the Lebanese American University. She went on to work at the university from 1964 until 1982. Her eldest daughter, my aunt, also worked at the university as the head librarian from 1968 to 1978. At that time, she worked closely with then-director of the Institute, Julinda Abu Nasr to develop a library documentation center on Arab women, which then evolved into the book The Bibliography on the Status of Arab Women in 1980. This collection that my aunt helped build is now known as the Julinda Abu Nasr Women and Gender Collection, in a ceremony we held exactly one year ago. That ceremony was the victory of nearly two years of advocacy and pestering – to ensure that we honor our founder and first director in her presence.
And of course, Mona Khalaf was there. In fact it was an event in honor of all those who served the Institute – every single director and every single staff member, present or gone – but never forgotten.
Today is also the 10-year anniversary of my PhD. As any who’ve been through this academic ritual well know, every piece of research, while a unique contribution to the body of knowledge, must first pay homage to those upon whom their work is built. None of us exist in a vacuum.
Professional accomplishments and a life of passion and purpose should be no different. Posthumous recognitions and appreciations are valuable – but more valuable are those done while the object of our appreciation still lives. The feminist movement is also no different. Every day, we build on the accomplishments of our founding foremothers – and every step we take towards equality is a silent tribute to the lives and labors of those before us.
Take time today to honor those on whose shoulders we now stand – before we are no longer able to do so.