For as long as Dahlia Eissa can remember, she has been a feminist. Growing up in Australia with Egyptian immigrant parents, she was never afraid to ruffle feathers. She began her activism leading Know Your Rights workshops for Muslim women with the Islamic Women’s Association of Queensland. Early on, Eissa knew she wanted to work with women in immigrant communities, and she saw law as the natural career choice for her passions. Following 9/11, she established the Arab American Justice Project, a network of pro bono attorneys who advocate for Arab Americans facing discrimination, harassment, and deportation.
After finishing her undergraduate degree in Australia, Eissa wanted to pursue postgraduate studies in Islamic law and women’s rights. Finding the right program was a challenge. She wanted to study law as a feminist first and as a lawyer second. Her AAUW International Fellowship was the kick-start that made it possible for her to attend Harvard Law School. Without the award, she says, she would not have been able to come to the United States.
Today, Eissa uses her knowledge of law, women’s rights, and Islam to encourage women to broaden their perspectives of what is possible in their lives and identities. She insists that women do not need to be restricted to the binary of Western or Muslim worlds, but rather that women can be true to their Muslim identities and principles while embracing and being embraced by American society.
Eissa has been inspired by the women of the Arab Spring and the women of Egypt in particular. Her academic research has primarily focused on Islamic law and women in Egypt. So when the revolution began last year, Eissa strongly felt that she had to somehow support Egyptian women. She asked herself, How will this new wave of activism play out for women?
When we spoke last week, the first draft of the new Egyptian constitution was being voted on by the country’s Constituent Assembly. Sadly, the new constitution completely leaves out any provisions that guarantee the rights of women and girls. Eissa described the draft as absurd but predictable. As the world watches the women of Egypt, Eissa is focusing on how she can support them from the United States. Working with women activists on the ground, her strategy lies in mobilizing other women to minimize the negative impact of the legislation. The rejection of protections for women and girls could open the door to other dangerous allowances in the law, such as lowering the marriageable age for girls or blocking the recent U.N. resolution that calls for the end of female genital mutilation practices.
Eissa is deeply passionate about women’s rights and gender equality. Even as a teenager, she recognized inequalities between men and women that were supposedly justified on the basis of “biology.” Eissa rejected socially constructed distinctions based on sex and spoke her mind, even when fearful of the backlash that she could face. Being an outsider, she says, is worth the risk in order to pursue what you believe in because, in the end, you’ll find that you aren’t that much of an outsider after all. In a culture that “banks on women being submissive,” Eissa wants women to “be fearless.” Let’s follow Eissa’s powerful example and go out there and ruffle a few feathers.
Eissa’s International Fellowship was sponsored by the Margaret Bigelow Miller International Fellowship, established in 1986, and the Helen B. Taussig International Fellowship, established in 1974.
This post was written by AAUW Fellowships and Grants Intern Emily McGranachan.