Dalal Al-Waheidi, left, and Malala Yousafzai, girls’ education advocate, are pictured here at WE Day UK in London in March of 2014 Image by: Image courtesy of Dalal Al-Waheidi
I remember the stories my mother told me as a child. Potent mixes of history and fable were shared over dinner, at bedtime or during the regular blackouts in the Gaza Strip, my teenage home. Behind each story was a strong woman, as if my mother was filling me with the resolve of feminists, political dissidents, community leaders and first presidents. These stories—these women—have been a well of strength and inspiration that I've turned to throughout my life.
I returned to them again following the American election. In Hillary Clinton's concession speech she spoke directly to women: "I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling, but someday someone will."
Hillary made history. As the first female nominee for a major American party, I feel a swell of pride for the crack she added to the ceiling that millions of women have relentlessly chipped away at. Even as she reminded us of the work yet to be done, I drew strength from the stories I learned as a child about the accomplishments of other female leaders.
I went to school in Gaza and in my old Egyptian textbooks I remember learning about Huda Sha'awrai, a pioneering Egyptian feminist in the early twentieth century. At a time when Egyptian women were largely confined to their homes, Huda refused to shrink down. She organized salons and opened one of the first academic schools for girls, teaching subjects apart from homemaking.
There was Lotfia El Nadi who defied her strict father to become Egypt's first female pilot, proving that women can fly, even in the face of tradition. Her 1933 flight from Cairo to Alexandria launched the dreams of thousands of Egyptian girls.
And I remember Sameera Moussa, a world-renowned nuclear scientist and peace activist. In the 1940s she became the first woman in Egypt to teach at a university, dedicating her career to medical research and organizing the Atomic Energy for Peace Conference.
These are trailblazers I remember, who staked new ground and who, alongside my mother, shaped my idea of what it means to be a strong person. Now, when I tell my twenty-month-old daughter bedtime stories, I pass on these lessons. Beyond fairy tales and princesses, there are women and girls who defied the odds, resiliently pursued their dreams—big or small—and accomplished something great. When we celebrate one another's successes—not just in the houses of power but in the halls of academia, in business, culture and in the home—we set up the next generation of girls for success. That is what my mother did for me and what I'm sure Dorothy Howell Rodham did for Hillary.
Through my role with WE Day, many of these stories have come alive in humbling encounters. I'll never forget President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, the first elected female head of state in all of Africa, who told me that if your dreams don't scare you they are not big enough. And Malala Yousafzai, whose courage has resounded around the world, issuing a clarion call for young girls to stand up for what they believe in. Then there are the women without titles or Peace Prizes, everyday mothers who inspire me with their dedication to raising socially conscious children. Or the mamas I met in Kenya, whose passion for sharing their culture through craft is making a global impact at ME to WE.
There is an Arabic saying: ummahat tajeal alddual. It means mothers make nations. With or without titles, women have long been leaders. I tell my daughter their stories with the hope that she draws inspiration from them and grows up empowered, with innovation as part of her DNA and unbounded possibility just over the horizon. If enough girls do, someday soon we will finally shatter that glass ceiling.