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The Lebanese writer Zaynab Fawwaz (c1850-1914), the first woman to publish a novel in Arabic and author of the first play by a woman in Arabic, is among Arab World names to appear in the 500-strong #WomanInHistory list put together by British novelist Kate Mosse to mark International Women’s Day (8 March).

The list arose from a call by Mosse in January for people to ‘nominate incredible women from any period of history, anywhere in the world, so that collectively we may celebrate and honour their legacies’.

Interestingly, Fawwaz herself was also the author of a similar project to Mosse’s.  In the 1890s her biographical dictionary of famous women was published.  According to the Accessing Muslim Lives project at Northwestern University in Illinois and the UK’s University of Sheffield, in this work she offered ‘brief lives of famous women across the world, and centrally, Arab and Turkish and Muslim women.  Al-Durr al-manthur fi tabaqat rabbat al-khudur (Scattered Pearls Among the Classes of Cloistered Ladies) came out in 1894 and seems to have inspired early editors of women’s magazines to publish “famous woman biography” as encouragement to young (and older) female readers, and as evidence for doubters that women could combine—and had long combined—stellar public careers, intellectual production, and the domestic and child-rearing tasks that they were called upon to assume.’

Mosse says: “At the heart of my fiction are underheard and unheard women’s voices, the heroic ordinary women – who are, of course, anything but ordinary – whose day-to-day lives are too often left out of the official histories. Over the years, I’ve become more and more aware of how easily and how quickly many women, even those who were lauded in their day, can disappear from the official record.

The idea with #WomanInHistory is simple: to acknowledge women from every race, every age, every country of origin or adoption, working in every field and to applaud their achievements.  To put their names back into the history books.”

The list includes the Tunisia-born Berber Fatima al-Fahri, who is responsible for al-Qarawiyyin Mosque in Fez, Morocco, and from the third century, Septimia Zenobia, Queen of the Palmyrene Empire in Syria.

From the twentieth century, the novelist Elif Shafak nominated ‘the inspirational’ Iranian poet and filmmaker Forough Farrozhzad (1934-1967), while among those who are still with us Mosse hailed Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul.

Mosse concludes: “Our ‘First 500’ is varied and fabulous, it sings with admiration for so many inspiring women throughout the ages and those who are making history today. It’s all about putting all the women back into history, not just a select few. Because only by learning about the whole past, in all its technicolour glory, can we really know where we stand now.”