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Arab Institute for Women was the first of its kind in the Arab world

A Presbyterian missionary founded the Beirut School for Girls, which became Lebanese American University

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

Sage Hall, the first building on the Beirut campus, built in 1933 (left); at right, the School of Engineering’s laboratories building was completed in 2017. (Photo used with permission from the Arab Institute for Women)

LOUISVILLE — The Arab Institute for Women (AiW) in Beirut, Lebanon, describes itself as an organization at the intersection of academia and activism.

Previously known as the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World (IWSAW), it was created in 1973, building upon the Lebanese American University’s (LAU) history as a school for women. At its founding, it was the first institute of its kind in the Arab world.

The Lebanese American University has Presbyterian roots and maintains its relationship with both the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (the local Presbyterian presence) through inviting members of each denomination to sit on the Board of Trustees.

The book “Sarah and her Sisters” pays tribute to missionary Sarah Smith and the women who followed her to teach in Lebanon. (Photo by Kathy Melvin)

Robert Stoddard, author of the book “Sarah and her Sisters,” describes the school’s beginnings:

“When newly married Sarah Smith arrived in Beirut in 1834, she was appalled by the ignorance and ill treatment of Arab women and girls. Well educated for her times, she was not content just to keep house for her missionary husband. Rather, having taught Mohegan Indians in Connecticut, she, in her two remaining years, opened a small school for girls that began the transformation of education for Arab females. Sarah’s pioneering venture inspired a series of Protestant ‘sisters,’ married and single, to follow in her wake as missionary teachers.”

With a handful of students, she started what became known as the American School for Girls.

According to its website, the institute “advances women’s empowerment and gender equality nationally, regionally and globally through research, education, development programs and outreach.”

Myriam Sfeir, the institute’s director, detailed the AIW’s work in a recent email conversation.

“At the Arab Institute for Women, Lebanese American University, we promote interdisciplinary education and research with a view to social change and policy change.

  • We create and share knowledge on women and gender issues.
  • We build partnerships and form strategic collaborations to address violence against women in all its forms.
  • We provide capacity building and continuing education programming that focuses on women and gender issues.
  • We connect academics and practitioners working to create space for women at the table.
  • We engage in global dialogues on women and gender issues to raise awareness and rally action.
  • We bring together stakeholders to advance these issues through shared discussions — and shared agendas.”

Sfeir joined AiW in 1996. She has more than 25 years’ experience in women’s rights issues and gender equality. She has worked on several groundbreaking projects that dealt with various subjects considered taboo in the Arab world, including sexuality, honor killings, incarcerated women and homosexuality. She has organized several international and regional conferences, film festivals and lectures at LAU.

Myriam Sfeir is director of the Arab Institute for Women. (Photo used with permission from AiW)

The institute recently premiered two 20-minute documentaries about the unsung female heroes who changed Lebanon’s history during the civil war and the 17 October revolution. Before that time, women were considered to be only matriarchs, but during these times of conflict they became health care providers and protestors against human rights violations.

Plans are currently in development for a longer documentary on important female figures who have emerged in Lebanon’s history since 1975 but have never received the recognition they deserve for their contributions.

A tribute to Presbyterian missionary Sarah Smith at the university. (Photo used with permission from Arab Institute for Women)

Presbyterian missionary Sarah Smith’s School for Girls, which became the Lebanese American University, now has more than 46,000 alumni worldwide. Today’s student body numbers 8,500 students from 78 nationalities. There are 990 full-time faculty and staff. The university also oversees two teaching hospitals for students of its medical, nursing and pharmacy schools. Despite facing immense challenges, the LAU medical centers have continued to offer much-needed medical care throughout the unprecedented crises that have enveloped Lebanon over the past 2½ years.

“LAU is an extraordinary higher education institution in Lebanon, and the Arab Institute for Women represents its heart, history and future through its mission to bring about societal-level transformation in the areas of gender equity and justice,” said mission co-worker the Rev. Elmarie Parker. The AiW’s work intersects with and is relevant to every other program and department of LAU.


“AiW is unique when it comes to women’s institutes in having both an academic and activist focus. They excel at working for practical outcomes from scholarly learnings,” Parker said. “Their Basic Living Skills program is a profound example of this. Since its inception in 1985, this program, which builds capacity across 11 skill areas, has strengthened the capacities of more than 60,000 women (in rural, urban and incarcerated settings) to improve the quality of their and their families’ lives and has trained more than 10,000 social workers to implement its tools. It is a privilege for PC(USA) to partner with the AiW in their work.”

Stoddard’s book, “Sarah and her Sisters,” is available here and here. A brief video about AiW can be viewed here.

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