Showcasing the New Arab Woman Abroad: Syrian Women’s Speaking Tours in the United States in the 1940s

By Nova Robinson
Submitted to Session P4763 (Gendered Transformations: "New Women" of the Mandate Period, 2017 Annual Meeting
Gender/Women's Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper explores the exchange of knowledge about women’s rights between Syria and the United States as Syria exited the French Mandate (1920-1946). On the eve of complete Syrian independence, several Syrian women toured the Eastern United States speaking about the status of women in the Arab world. Some were sent by the Syrian government, others traveled on grants from the US-based Institute for International Education (IIE). From Meredith College in North Carolina to Southern Illinois University and many colleges, churches, and civic centers in between, these representatives of the “new Arab women,” most of whom had been educated in the United States, delivered speeches to American audiences. The speeches were designed to counter the limited view Americans had of women in the Arab world and to provide a primer on the rights awarded to women by religious law and national governments. To this end, the speeches focused primarily on women’s access to education, employment opportunities, and marital rights afforded by Islam. These orchestrated tours in the United States demonstrate that women’s rights became a medium through which independent Syria was able to demonstrate its progressive politics and manifest its readiness to be incorporated into the UN system. While it seems the women were invited to speak on women’s rights or status, the speakers often also addressed larger political questions, such as national independence and the “Palestine issue.”

Women from Syria were ready to step up to the lectern and challenge the stereotypes that circulated about their limited rights as women and as Arabs. In doing so, they claimed a position for women in independent Syria and Lebanon. Alice Kandaleft Cosma was one of the women on tour. A cornerstone of Cosma’s speeches was her emphasis on the fact that “[i]t is the duty of both the Arabians and the Americans to know each other better.” Upon returning from her tour in the United States, Cosma spoke at universities in Syria about her tour, including the Teachers College in Damascus, where she was a professor. The American speaking tours offer a window into the confidence some Arab women had in the ability of independent Arab states to provide women with the rights they had been denied by the legal system in force under the mandate system. Furthermore, the speeches illustrate that the rights claimed by the “new Syrian woman” fused international women’s rights protections, indigenous traditions, and Islamic law.