On Wednesday, April 20, a new campus student publication group titled Women of MENA celebrated its launch at the Johnson Museum of Art. The event took place in the Taking Shape: Abstraction in the Arab World exhibit.
Women of MENA is a digital publication at the intersection of culture and gender studies. Their platform serves as a space to unpack the gender dynamics of the Middle East and North Africa region and share women’s stories. You can learn more about their goals on their website and Instagram.
The Leadership Team of Women of MENA, including Founder and President Ainav Rabinowitz, Vice President Shanzai Ikhlas, Managing Editor Siobhan Downey, and Design Lead Presley Church, gave a speech to their audience on the day of the launch. When asked how and why the group started, Vice President Shanzai Ikhlas explained, "our publication group started because we noticed something missing on campus: a community dedicated to women from the Middle East and North Africa region. Instead, we saw a constant discussion about MENA politics and conflict. We saw one narrative forming: a story seeping with assumptions and stereotypes. We saw a lack of focus on the actual people of the region. But more than that, a lack of focus on culture, livelihood, and humanity. We asked ourselves a series of questions: Can we imagine a world where journalism about the MENA region transformed? Where journalism was rooted in understanding the people, and not conflict? Where representation matters?”
The publication is centered on creating an interactive digital platform rather than just publishing printed magazines, says Presley Church. “Women of MENA is not just about words on a page, it is about creating conversation, curiosity, and community. We create opportunities for engagement via our website, our Instagram, speaker series, and collaborative events like this one. You may notice our Instagram and magazine are colorful and have a scrapbook feel. This allows us to engage our readers, tell our stories, and change narratives. Ultimately, our articles are meant to be read by everyone, whether or not you are directly connected to the MENA region. By creating the best possible digital engagement, we aim to break barriers often held between academia about the Middle East and the wider public.”
The priority of the publication, according to Ainav Rabinowitz, is to create an ethical form of journalism when it comes to discussing the MENA region in the West. “A key component of our publication is providing writers and designers with an opportunity to expand their journalism skills by confronting the difficult questions: How can you write about another culture, another region of the world, and avoid stereotypes, assumptions, and the orientalist framework? How can you ensure you are providing agency and centering the voices of those you are interviewing? How can you center diversity and inclusion practices and actively implement the values of our organization through each article? We know answering these questions is essential to change the common way the Western media covers the MENA region.”
Laila Rahbari, a writer for the publication, said, “on arriving at Cornell and meeting Ainav I realized that Women of MENA was a publication that many of us MENA women were missing in our lives. Even living in America, my 12-year-old self needed to hear the stories of my sisters and the experiences they felt. Rather than reading news articles about the 2017 Muslim Ban, let’s say, I needed to know that there is a community of women with me that face the same experiences as I do. Women of MENA is a community of strong, intelligent, and outspoken women that I didn’t know I needed until I found myself in the middle of it and I could never be more grateful for it.”
Read their first issue, which includes all their articles from this semester. The cover features the work of Egyptian-American Fashion Designer and Cornell Alumni Gizelle Begler, who the group interviewed earlier this semester.