Yara Mashour has made it her business to break taboos.As editor in chief of Lilac, an Arab magazine based in Israel, she has set out to challenge customs and tradition…and her latest milestone is perhaps her biggest triumph to date.
This month’s Lilac, for the first time ever, sees an Arab magazine featuring a model in a bikini on its front cover. And, to double the cause for celebration, that stunning, strong and empowering woman is an Arab Israeli.
The model in question is 22-year-old Huda Naccache, from Haifa, who poses wearing a black sequinned bikini, her fixed stare cementing the magazine’s determination to make a difference.
In a region that is synonymous with gender discrimination, women’s rights violations and spousal domination, Lilac is daring to tread where no other publisher in the Middle East has ventured.
Yara said: ‘Since I established Lilac in Nazareth, Israel 10 years ago, I set out to break taboos regarding women in society…I worked on empowering and liberating women.’
She continued: ‘Huda is the first Arab model to appear on the cover of an Arabic magazine in a bikini. Lilac is the first Arabic magazine to show a cover with a bikini!
‘I don’t recall this being done elsewhere in the Arab world,’ she added. ‘I have been working for a decade on changing society so Arab women can have more rights and freedom in the Middle East.’
Huda herself is honoured to be part of the gradual – and often stymied – move for change in the region.
‘I am very proud to be the first to wear a bikini on the Lilac’s cover,’ she said. ‘I am a professional model and this should be normal.’
Still, while the magazine is reacting to cultural shifts, Yara admits, ‘authorities might censor it and refuse to allow it to be distributed. Some Arab countries like Lebanon shouldn’t ban it, they are very liberal. The only barrier there is the political one…’
And Huda’s views have not always been so forthright. ‘At the beginning, I was reluctant to appear on the cover in a bikini, because of concern to our society’s norms,’ she explained.
‘Later I realised that if I want to be successful, I can’t choose what I want, and I talked to my parents, who became convinced by my view. I would never do something without their blessing. I consider myself to be bold and full of self confidence. I am not afraid to be the girl who takes the first step and opens the doors of opportunity to the other Arab models, to represent the liberal and independent young Arab woman.‘
Both Huda and Yara are well aware that the sensational cover will raise eyebrows – and possibly worse – in the region that normally sees heavy media censorship.
Even in largely-Westernised UAE, home to Dubai, according to Islamic custom, newspapers are unable to publish bikini shots, or to show bare shoulders, knees, backs and décolletage.
But Yara sees the ‘Huda revolution’ as embodying two values: ‘First, allowing for an Israeli Arab model to represent both Jewish and Arab women of the country. Second, starting a new concept of Arab women who are willing to break social taboos and dare to boast and share their physical beauty in public. I am definitely not worried about the reactions, because I set the standards of my magazine, and the Arab woman is a fan of the magazine. She wants what I give her in the magazine. I expect the cover to raise discussions, but I don’t expect an earthquake.’
Huda, who dreams of making it big in the U.S. or Europe, is currently focusing on her career and ‘experiencing life’ before marriage, which she says many Arab girls fall into at a young age. ‘We should rebel against that and not be afraid.’
And in yet another milestone, she has just been chosen to represent Israel at the Miss Earth beauty contest in Thailand in December.
While the model admits she does not share the ‘doll-like’ looks of her world-famous countrywoman, model Bar Refaeli, readers have clearly lapped up her chiselled features and gazelle-like body.
Indeed, the latest issue has been on sale for more than a week and reactions have, so far, been ‘great’ according to Yara, who returned to the region after completing her studies at London’s LSE in 1998.
Lilac…which adopts a secular stance…was already the most popular Arab magazine in Israel and is read across the region. Written in Arabic, with some English inserts ‘because the new and young generation prefer reading English,’ the magazine targets Arabs in Israel, as well as Palestinians in the West Bank. The title is also on sale in neighbouring Jordan.
Yara said: ‘The issues are being sold quicker than usual, and people are amazed that Huda is an Arab model, in a very positive way, saying things like “we have a model like that in our society?”
‘Many of the other models are looking at her with admiration, and some of them have come up to me requesting to be on the cover in a swimsuit. I was surprised…our society is changing, especially the young generation – in the liberal direction. Today, unlike 10 years ago, Arab girls are allowed to travel the world before going to college, to work and provide for themselves.’
Indeed, Huda says that while she ‘has heard various remarks’, her self-confidence, boosted by social networking, ‘rises above all reactions’.
‘I have been getting tens of Facebook requests from people who loved the cover,’ she added. ‘It’s about time someone did this.’
Yara agrees: ‘If there is red line which hasn’t been crossed, I will cross it if I think it is the right thing to do.’
And with that, the indomitable editor heads off ‘to liberate, empower an educate’ yet more Arab women.
by Milo Johnson