When these women lost their legs, they gained a new perspective on the endurance of the human spirit – but how do they shop for their bodies?
“There’s a big change in the region,” says Dareen Barbar, one of the pioneering differently abled Middle Eastern women who are challenging the status quo, changing perceptions, and building acceptance. Fighting for diversity and inclusive fashion, the three women here are not only leg amputees but models, athletes, record breakers, and inspirational speakers. Each has suffered trauma, overcome adversity, and showed tremendous courage, proving, in the words of Rania Hammad, that “anything is possible.”
Their harrowing hardships and powerful stories of determination have the force to resonate with all, showing what can be achieved with support, open-mindedness, and togetherness. These women hope that, in the future, they are no longer stigmatized but that exposure and education normalizes their perceived differences and that they are celebrated for their strengths.
Athlete, mother of two, and amputee Dareen Barbar from Lebanon has broken many barriers. The 43-year-old became the first athlete in the Arab world to complete a triathlon with a prosthetic leg. She was the first amputee to participate in a women’s beauty and fitness fashion show with able-bodied people in London, and became the first adaptive ambassador for a major brand in the Middle East when she stepped up for Adidas. This past June, she broke a Guinness World Record for the longest static wall sit for a female amputee, holding it for two minutes and 8.24 seconds.
Barbar lost her leg at 15 from osteogenic sarcoma, a rare kind of bone cancer. “I felt like life was hopeless, that the world had ended,” she says of her teenage self, who was a keen basketball player before her above-the-knee amputation. “I used to not believe that I could be someone and be something and have a purpose,” she recalls. Now, she inspires others to develop confidence and believe in themselves with the aim to influence wider society. “We should be more inclusive and more open, and celebrate differences,”she states.“The more people see it, the more normal it will be.”
Her journey after her amputation was tumultuous. “I was disappointed with the world’s reaction,” she says. “That’s what made me feel insecure; that’s what destroyed me. I wanted to go out there with a positive attitude. I wanted to move on, regardless of the pain and all the difficulties I faced.” She recalls growing up in Lebanon, a country devastated after the war, unable to find facilities, deprived of electricity, and walking up six floors with a heavy prosthesis. “What made the suffering harsher was the reaction of people – the questions, the looks, the pity,” she remembers. Today, buoyed by her work as a motivational speaker and athletic pursuits, Barbar reflects, “I would tell my 15-year-old, post-operation self to be patient, not to care what other people think, and believe in myself.”
The Egypt-born mother and fashion and design enthusiast Rania Hammad was six months pregnant when she was hit by a train in London, in 2018. She lost her leg above the knee on the spot but her unborn son survived. Since the accident, Hammad has endured more than 30 surgeries and complications, and undergoes continuous rehabilitation. “At the time, I felt like everything else was gone, too – my soul, my heart, and my life,” explains Hammad on her Instagram account, where she posts about her story. Her newborn child gave her the strength to fight. “I knew I had to move on and take care of myself in order to take care of him.”
Posting online about her experience has facilitated her recovery. “Helping other people has helped me,” she says. “When I started sharing on Instagram, I wanted to normalize the fact that some of us are different but we are the same.” If she learned to love her body the way it was, she quickly realized the world didn’t feel the same. “I studied fashion and design so I wanted to wear what I wanted to wear,” she says. She recalls being in Australia for an operation, where she received plenty of unwanted attention. “People said, ‘You freak’ and parents would tell their children, ‘Don’t look at her.’ It made me feel like an alien.”
Fashion can help break ignorance, believes Hammad. “Fashion is changing, but it is doing so slowly,” she says. “I would love the industry to be more inclusive when it comes to photo shoots, just like we’ve seen with models of various sizes. Let’s add clothing for people with disabilities, and introduce more differently abled models. It will encourage people to love their bodies.” Hammad no longer feels any shame about her form. “To women who are experiencing issues with confidence, I would say, you matter. Love yourself for who you are and only ever change for yourself. Be brave and strong – because this life is so difficult. Everyone is struggling in their own way and fighting their own battles. There is always light at the end of the tunnel.”
Iraqi pharmacist-turned-athlete and TV presenter Zainab Al-Eqabi suffered a horrific accident after an undetonated bomb exploded in her garden in Baghdad when she was seven. It disfigured her father and sister, and badly injured Al-Eqabi’s hand and leg. Her leg was later amputated due to gangrene.
“My father would always tell me that he wanted me to be strong and not depend on anyone,” she recalls. “He was worried to see me grow up in a society where there would always be questions about my abilities. He encouraged me to not let anyone underestimate me.” Al-Eqabi was boosted by her family, friends, and teachers. However, things changed in college. “I realized that when people in the wider world saw me limping, they didn’t know why; they didn’t know what an amputation was. When I told them I had a prosthesis, they didn’t understand. I knew I had to start something.”
Al-Eqabi set up a Facebook page called Disabled and Proud and shared humorous experiences from her everyday life. “I wanted to break that barrier between myself and society.” Now, at 30, Al-Eqabi has completed two triathlons in the UAE, hauled a 2000 kg Jeep for Dubai Fitness Challenge, regularly scuba dives, is an ambassador for prosthetics manufacturer Ottobock, and is the first amputee to present a TV show in the Middle East. She appeared on MBC1’s Yalla Banat [Let’s Go Girls], which she filmed in Saudi, Egypt, Lebanon, and Dubai. “Management never asked me to cover my leg; they believed in me and my goal. They wanted me for who I was. It was an amazing step in my life,” says Al-Eqabi, who believes that the more people see her amputation, the more people will stop seeing it.
Originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia
Style: Amine Jreissati
Hair: Deena AlAwaid
Makeup: Nadine Elias
Creative producer: Laura Prior
Photography assistants: Jaafar, Rachel Barakat
With special thanks to Marina Home Interiors