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Women activists remember life and legacy of Emily Bisharat

By Dana Al Emam - May 02,2017 - Last updated at May 02,2017

Emily Bisharat

AMMAN — The contemporary feminist movement in Jordan owes a lot to Emily Bisharat, a pioneering philanthropist, political activist and the Kingdom's first female lawyer, according to women activists.

At a time when women activism was unfamiliar, Bisharat "carved in stone" her plight to achieve gender equity and women's suffrage rights, Suhair Tal, a writer and researcher who documented Bisharat's life, recently said.

Speaking at a session on Bisharat's life, held by the Sisterhood Is Global Institute (SIGI), Tal said Bisharat belonged to a family of three girls. Her father was the eldest of the extended family, originating from Salt in Balqa Governorate, 35km northwest of Amman. 

She wanted to become a lawyer, but her father refused. Yet, she studied at Ramallah Friends School, and later went to the Syrian-Lebanese College to receive her education in the English language, which entitled her to work as a teacher in the 1930s. 

"Girls at the time were not allowed to become anything more than teachers," Tal said, noting that girls then were also not allowed to inherit money or property, which meant that her father's fortune went to his male nephews, not his daughters.

After her father's death, Bisharat saved up money and obtained a law degree from London Metropolitan University. She practised law at home, and became a member of the Jordan Bar Association's (JBA) council twice.

Bisharat's thought and political awareness expanded with her life experiences, said Tal, who highlighted that the pioneering woman carried a democratic nationalistic communist ideology.  

"She was smart and knew that the society will not accept political activism from a woman, therefore she transformed her ideas into philanthropic programmes as a window for social acceptance and an opportunity to network with other women," Tal noted.

In 1945 Bisharat established the Arab Women's Union, which called for "equal rights and responsibilities, and pan-Arab unity". But the union was closed down in 1957. 

The activist also delivered several lectures in the United States on the rights of the Palestinian people upon the 1948 Nakbah.

"The Palestinian issue was at the heart of her political activism," said Tal, noting that Bisharat believed in the equal mental capabilities of men and women and women's need to work for self-realisation and income generation.

She often wrote about these issues in Alraed magazine, and she sometimes published articles under the pseudonym Bin Al Urdon "Daughter of Jordan".

Bisharat was also a philanthropist, as she established an orphanage for Palestinian children in 1948, and opened the first nursing school in 1953.

Nonetheless, she experienced despair due to the rejection she faced from some people, as well as the repeated closure of unions. She expressed that by staying at her home most of the time, not participating in public life.  

Bisharat, who passed away in 2004, donated her fortune, valued at almost JD500,000, to charities and the church, said Tal.

SIGI Executive Director Asma Khader said Bisharat donated her library, sewing machine, printing machine and spectacles to SIGI.

She added that Bisharat was keen on attending the JBA's general assembly's meeting and participating in the association's elections until a late period of her life.

 

Haifa Bashir, another women rights activist, said Bisharat's history is so refined and that other Jordanian women learn a lot from her.

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