From a media mogul to a jet pilot, M profiles 10 diverse, career-minded women from the UAE and across the region who have raised eyebrows excelling in their fields, challenging inequalities as they chart the course for a generation of educated and ambitious Arab women.
The Egyptian activist and feminist Nawal el Saadawi says that “if we delve more deeply into ancient Egyptian civilisation we will discover? that women enjoyed a high status and rights, which they later lost”. Her theory is that women in the Arab world enjoy less freedom now than they did hundreds of years ago and that decades of male-dominated society have resulted in ever-increasing female oppression. This is a quote from 1997. Many may not have agreed with it then. And one could argue that the Arab world el Saadawi is talking about has changed markedly in 13 years. Najla al Awadhi, one of the first women to become a member of the UAE’s Federal National Council, believes “women’s advancement is a national issue and we have a leadership that understands that and wants them to have their rights”. Whether you agree with this or not, you will see from our examples that women in the region are conquering new heights in areas as diverse as the media and manufacturing. When planning this feature there was no shortage of candidates of unoppressed women, all embodying a mix of idealism, ambition, success and grace. And although this list is by no means exhaustive, we have tried to select women from different backgrounds who have excelled in their fields. There are many more out there, succeeding daily in re-balancing the inequalities of the past. And perhaps fighting against the inequalities of the future.
If proof was ever needed that women can have it all, one only has to look at Nashwa al Ruwaini. The 38-year-old chat show host juggles being a mother of two with running her own TV production company, presenting her own series, sitting on the board of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and studying for a doctorate in her spare time. If you have not already come across the “Oprah of the Middle East” via her eponymous Dubai TV chat show Nashwa, you might know her in her other guise – as the creator of the hugely successful Million’s Poet and Prince of Poets televised competitions, which are regularly watched by audiences of 18 million across the Arab world. “I have no idea where this energy comes from,” says the Egyptian-born presenter, laughing. “I am just a very determined person and focus on one thing at a time – I guess I feel I am making a difference.” By her own admission, there have been “quite a few milestones” in her career. As a teenager, she spotted a newspaper ad scouting for new talent and started as a radio presenter for Qatar Broadcasting Service, swiftly moving to Qatar TV and becoming the youngest news anchor in the Arab world at 17. At the same time, she was studying for a degree in English literature. “I woke at 4.30am because I had to present the news at 5.30am, 6.30am and 7.30am. “Then I would go to university until 3pm, then I would go back to the TV studio for the evening bulletins until 8pm. There was not much to do in Qatar in those days,” she quips. Work, she says, was the only thing that gave her self-fulfilment. After graduating, she moved to London as a senior producer with the Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) to launch shows such as Masah Al Kheir Ya Arab (Good Evening To Arabs) and Gawa’ez El Hawa (Prizes On Air). In 1999 she was appointed head of MBC’s Egypt and North Africa office based in Cairo. Under the umbrella of the broadcaster, she introduced the global phenomenon of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? to the region, as well as creating a number of youth programmes. At the same time, she established her own production company, Pyramedia, which was responsible for the reality poetry contests and for securing roles for Arab actors in Hollywood blockbusters such as Kingdom Of Heaven and Pirates Of The Caribbean III. But she still steps out from behind the camera for Nashwa, which began broadcasting five years ago and deals with sensitive topics ranging from the role of women to religion, Aids and child abuse. In between, she acts as an adviser to the Abu Dhabi Film Festival (previously the Middle East International Film Festival), which she directed before Peter Scarlet took over, and studies for a PhD from the University of London. Meanwhile, her Nashwa Foundation campaigns to improve the lives of Arab women and children. “I do not take ‘no’ for an answer. Every time I knock on a door, the initial answer is ‘no’, then it is a ‘maybe’ and finally I succeed. It is harder for women to be taken seriously. “It was especially difficult in the beginning. Everything was 100 times harder because I was young, a woman and on screen, which makes people think you are an airhead.” She has twice made the list of Forbes Arabia’s 50 most powerful Arab businesswomen and hopes other women will follow her example: “If I had stopped every time a door was closed in my face, I would never have achieved anything.” Tahira Yaqoob
Salma al Baloushi never intended to be a pioneer. She was supposed to be a nurse or an air stewardess because, she says simply, she likes “meeting people from different backgrounds”. Instead, the diminutive 22-year-old has already earned herself the accolade of being one of the “female aviators of the future” and a “present-day pioneer” after becoming the first female to fly a plane solo under an Etihad Airways Emiratisation programme. Al Baloushi has already graduated as a second officer, making her third in command in the cockpit, and is en route to becoming the airline’s first female commercial pilot once she has spent enough time practising in a simulator. She is expected to be flying an Airbus A320 commercial passenger jet by the end of the year. She is among a growing breed of young Emirati women taking up roles traditionally seen as the preserve of men. There are two other female Emiratis in her class while another four signed up to the cadet programme last year. But al Baloushi, who is from Al Ain and has earned a mention in the British book, The 100 Greatest Women In Aviation, is undaunted by competition from her male counterparts. “I hope this sends out a message to other girls that nothing is impossible for us. If you have faith in yourself and support from your family you can do anything,” she says. “Hopefully more girls will follow in my footsteps. I feel a responsibility because all eyes are on people like me to succeed, so I need to set an example.” Flying high above the clouds is “the best feeling in the world,” she adds. But it was pure chance that she ended up donning a cadet’s uniform in the first place. After failing anatomy studies, she was considering switching from nursing to air hostessing when she spotted a newspaper advertisement for a pilot training scheme. She applied without telling her parents, Mohammed and Aisha, and was only found out when her mother read a text message saying she had got through to the interview stage. But she says their support has been crucial to her success.”My parents are very encouraging and a supportive family is important in this career.” Tahira Yaqoob
Mariya Kassam started her career in international humanitarian projects for the UN and Amnesty International. “I consider myself extremely privileged to have been part of these esteemed international organsations and these experiences have helped me evolve into the person I am today – a philanthropic citizen of the world,” she says. She worked in New York for the UN in peacekeeping and crisis management and on women and leadership programmes in the Middle East and South America for Amnesty during her studies. Mariya moved to Dubai from Karachi with her family in 1994 because of her father’s business interests. “We didn’t want him to have to commute between the two, we are a very close family and wanted to stay together,” she explains. Kassam has a degree in political science from the University of Massachusetts and a master’s in international studies and diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. In 2008, aged 31, she opened Soirée, Dubai’s first multi-brand Pakistani boutique. “For me and for my family, Soirée was natural progression. We have always been involved in the textile industry, added to which I wanted to give something back to my country. I am the first person in the UAE to profile Pakistani designers. Soirée is not just a boutique, it is a platform, it is about corporate social responsibility. My biggest achievement is that I have built up a name for the designers of the region; people are always saying, ‘I had no idea Pakistani designers were so talented’ and they really appreciate the workmanship.” For the moment Kassam is happy to focus on giving back to her country through her fashion venture, but says she may one day go back into full-time humanitarian work. “You never know what the future brings.” Helena Frith Powell
Women want to prove to society that they are no longer a minority,” says Raja al Gurg. “The woman is half the society and half the brain in the society, so she shouldn’t be ignored.” This is a lady no one ignores. Al Gurg has run the company that her father, Sir Easa Saleh al Gurg CBE, a former ambassador to the UK, founded 45 years ago, since 1989, when she joined the group as a member of the board of directors. Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group is a family business involved in trading, manufacturing, retail, franchising and property that began in the 1960s selling British American Tobacco products in the Gulf. Al Gurg, who started her career as the headmistress of Zabeel Secondary School for Girls in Dubai in 1978, oversees the day-to-day operation and running of the business in the UAE. She is responsible for 29 manufacturing and trading companies with 3,000 employees and more than US$2 billion (Dh7.3 billion) in combined annual revenue. She is also the president of the Dubai Business Women Council, the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and a representative at the US Middle East Partnership Initiative. She was selected as being one of the four most influential businesswomen in the Arab world by Forbes Global magazine in April 2006. “There is no doubt that women in the Gulf have managed during the past years to achieve many accomplishments and made their mark in various fields, especially since they now have capabilities and qualifications that enable them to do so,” she said recently while accepting an award from the Federation of GCC Chambers in recognition of her work for the Federation and for her dedication to strengthening the economy of the region. “They now have the conditions readily available to them that enable them to carry out their activities within an appropriate environment, motivated by wise legislation and considerate laws.” Helena Frith Powell
When my male colleagues look at me, they don’t see a professional, they don’t even see a photojournalist,” says Eman Mohammed, 22, from the Gaza Strip. “They just see a girl.” Eman, fresh out of college, is this embattled Palestinian enclave’s only female professional photographer, gaining international recognition for her poignant and compelling photos, while at the same time battling her own society’s prejudices about the path she has chosen. Despite her community’s – and even her mother’s – wishes, Eman picked up a camera when she was 19. Now, three years later, she’s made a name for herself as a self-taught, freelance photographer in one of the most dangerous, male-dominated professions in largely conservative Gaza. “When I started my work, it was hell,” Eman says. “Everyone, even my colleagues, told me if I continued, that no one would want to marry me. I was harassed all the time.” Eman’s photographic portfolio, whose images have appeared in the The Guardian, the Washington Post and Le Monde, captures everything from the deadly air strikes during Israel’s war on Gaza last year to impassioned militant funerals and the picturesque work of Gaza’s deep-sea fishermen. Several scenes Eman photographed in the aftermath of the Israeli assault won her international awards, including the Carmignac Gestion Judges’ Special Prize of 2009 for the “sensitivity of her work”. She was also given an honorable mention in Unicef’s Photo of the Year 2009 contest. “I felt like all the men in my profession were concentrating on hard news, but that I might get the story behind the news,” Eman says of her war photographs. “I thought I might get the emotion, something the guys wouldn’t pay attention to.” In one of Eman’s post-war Gazan images, an older man feeds swooping pigeons amid the rubble of his destroyed home under a clear blue sky. In another, a young girl, burned by the white phosphorus shells Israel fired during the war, clings to the arm of a female relative who is also burned. Eman remains undeterred by what she says is pressure from Gaza’s conservative society to stifle her talent because she’s a woman, pushing her towards marriage and a life in the home instead. “Marriage here, it ends your career,” she says. “That’s not an option for me.” “Sometimes girls, they approach me and say: ‘I wish I could do what you’re doing but my family, or my husband, would kill me,'” she continues. “I tell them: ‘Well, here I am, still living in this world.” Erin Cunningham
Hissa Hilal may have lost the battle by not winning the top prize in the Million’s Poet contest in April, but she certainly won the war, propelling the cause of Saudi women to global prominence with her impassioned poetry. Hilal, 43, overcame bedouin and religious traditions in the most restrictive Muslim country in the world to travel to Abu Dhabi (with her husband’s permission) and participate in the televised competition in which masters of Nabati style poetry, popular in the Gulf, vie for the first prize of Dh5 million. The housewife and mother of four children from Riyadh lost to a Kuwaiti man, but she touched upon something deep and profound in the Arab woman’s psyche when she recited compositions that criticised the Saudi establishment for “terrorising people and preying on everyone seeking peace”. She compared those who disagree with the truth to suicide bombers. By criticising the powerful clerical class, Hilal, in theory, posed a challenge to the royal family, who are backed by the Salafi scholars. But then Hilal is a sign of the social reforms that are, if not exactly sweeping Saudi Arabia, then at the very least proceeding in an encouraging, crab-like fashion. Since coming to power in 2005, King Abdullah has overseen the opening of a major university that offers mixed-gender classes. Saudi scholars and the public are now starting to debate a previously taboo subject: is it all right for men and women who are not related to each other to mingle in public? A few women are breaking another rule and driving cars. “I wish the written law would change and give women more rights and chances,” Hilal said in an interview with The National recently. “This is what I am talking about, the right of women and wives to play a role in society, to take responsibility for themselves.” Inevitably, such words get far more attention when spoken by a Saudi woman than anyone else. Hilal was born in the desert and despite little formal education, became a poetry editor at Al Hayat, the pan-Arab daily newspaper based in London. Million’s Poet was an opportunity to broadcast and begin a debate about what matters to Arab women. “I want the Arabs to take a chance. There is open media now.” Hilal is not appreciated by everyone because her poetry won her huge attention in the western press and support from liberal societies perceived as immoral and decadent. That could provoke a backlash. She has already received several death threats, but remains undeterred. Many other would-be Saudi reformers are using the internet, blogs and social networking sites to talk about politically charged topics. But change in the Kingdom remains a royal prerogative and the debate is sometimes centred around how ready Saudi society is to allow women to have rights similar to men. If Hilal and the outpouring of support she has received are any indication, Saudi women may be ready sooner than anyone thinks. Hamida Ghafour
Khwala al Kuraya tracks killers, and as with all good detectives, curiosity has been a midwife to success. Al Kuraya is principal clinical scientist at Riyadh’s King Faisal Hospital and Research Centre, and director of the research centre at King Fahad National Centre for Children’s Cancer, where she also directs its Human Cancer Genomic Research programme. Al Kuraya, a medical doctor and certified pathologist, supervises a large staff of scientists, doctors and administrative personnel who conduct numerous research projects, as well as ensures that her centre’s pathology and diagnostic testing departments function at the highest standards. Her special research interest is identifying genetic mutations in cancer cells in order to generate more effective, targeted treatments for this deadly disease. She recently travelled to Paris to negotiate Saudi Arabia’s participation in the Cancer Genome Project, a five-year global effort to profile all known cancer tumours. Al Kuraya is also the first female Saudi recipient of the King Abdulaziz Award of Excellence, a national honour she received in January. On the cusp of her fourth decade, she is already making a difference in her field and providing inspiration for other Saudi women drawn to science and medicine. Along the way, she also raised four children. Al Kuraya was born in Al Jouf and by the end of secondary school, had decided to become a doctor. While studying at King Saud University medical school, she became interested in pathology. She went on to do a residency in clinical pathology at Georgetown University Medical School in Washington, DC, and a fellowship in molecular diagnostics at the National Cancer Institutes in Bethesda, Maryland. She says she was drawn to this research because “I thought that what we’re doing for patients is not enough… You can have three patients with cancer, and you give them the same treatment and they will respond differently.” This diversity, she adds, “increased my curiosity to ask a lot of questions.” Al Kuraya has faced her share of bias in her work. “I’ll tell you the truth,” she says. “When women are very enthusiastic about their careers and work seriously and maybe pass a few steps beyond men, they face some difficulties. But that is all over the whole world. Nothing I faced here is different from what I faced in the United States.” Still, she says “a lot of people, when they see productivity and hard work, they are supportive”. A big part of her success is due to her family. “I married when I was 16. I had my first son at 17 when I was in my first year of medical school. It was hard. I put out more efforts than most of my colleagues. Without my family support, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.” Her long-term professional goal? “I dream of the day when we have a therapy for every kind of cancer and I dream of the day when it will be available for every patient.” Caryle Murphy
Munira Fakhro has a long history of political activism. She was fired from her university post as a result of her political activities but reinstated when King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa came to power in 1999. Shortly after, Sheikha Sabeeka bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa, the king’s wife, appointed her to the advisory board of the Supreme Council for Women. Despite being threatened by Islamic Salafists, who openly opposed the candidacy of any woman, and having her campaign sabotaged (as was the case with other female candidates), she managed to win through to a second-round vote, but eventually lost. “I will run again in this year’s elections,” she says. “The reason that Waad [the party she belongs to] has decided to take part is that we want to use the elections as a platform to spread our message and reach out to the public. She says better housing and parliamentary reforms are at the top of her agenda. “Protecting the rights of women is also a pressing issue for me. The lack of a unified family law leaves matters of divorce and child custody to the interpretation of Sharia, which can be inconsistent. “Bahraini women, compared to others in the Gulf, are in a better situation due to the fact that education for women started a long time ago, with women working in almost all the fields. But they are not involved in the hierarchy of decision making.” Fakhro adds that reforms over the past 10 years have allowed more freedom of expression, but points out that reforms to the constitution and parliament are pivotal to strengthening the democratic process. “As long as there is a true desire at the level of policymakers to bring about real change that goes beyond public image and cosmetic concerns, we will be able to achieve a lot.” Mazen Mahdi
On April 23, Elham al Qasimi, a 27-year-old Emirati, became the first Arab woman to travel across the Arctic ice cap and reach the North Pole. This is the story of her adventure. “The North Pole is something I have dreamt about for a long time. My journey to reach it began when the helicopter dropped us off in that barren land. We were set down at 89° latitude and would ski the last degree to the North Pole, carrying all our supplies and skiing for eight hours a day with almost no breaks. The expedition was going to take around 10 days. The first day we set off, the views were spectacular. We had been warned of the risks of going on this expedition, one of which was encountering a polar bear. It was not expected, being so high in the Arctic and away from open water where polar bears like to go. But we were prepared. The first night we set up camp. In the middle of the night I woke to an unfamiliar sound. I froze. It had to be a polar bear. I went over to my guide. “I think there’s a bear outside,” I whispered. He listened for a couple of seconds and said, “Yep, that’s the flag flapping in the wind.” He turned around and made it very clear that he was not impressed with me waking him up, interrupting the precious sleep he needed for the next day. The next morning we started our first full day of skiing. You’re warned about the conditions you will face, you’re warned about the weather, you’re warned about the difficulty of keeping your body warm and how much energy it takes, but you just don’t know until you get there. I skied really hard and by hour six, I hit a huge wall. I went into a negative downward spiral, thinking ‘what am I doing here? I don’t belong here, maybe I didn’t train correctly, maybe I’m not designed to do things like this’. I turned to my guide and said I just couldn’t go on. I was slumped on the ground. ‘Get up,’ he told me. He said the problem was that I wasn’t eating enough. So he starting shoving food down my throat. That day I did another two and a half hours of skiing. In the end it was a great first day. The next day my guide said that my sled was way too heavy and he was going to throw away anything he thought I didn’t need. I told him the only thing they couldn’t throw away was my small brown journal. He asked me what it was. I told him it was a book where everyone that loves me had written a small note to remind me why I’m here and why they believe I will succeed. I hadn’t read any of them and I would read them as I needed them, whenever I felt low. He asked me why I hadn’t read one the day before when I felt I couldn’t go on. I said that wasn’t a low, it was a learning curve. It was getting to know the North Pole. It was just the beginning. The magnificence of the place was humbling and while every day was so beautiful, each had its own challenges. I arrived at camp each day exhausted and woke up every morning excited, wanting to face the day and wanting to conquer the cold. By day six my legs, fingers and face were all swollen. But I was still enjoying myself. Because I was skiing so fast, I was sweating a lot. By the time we stopped my entire base layer had turned into one large ice sheet that was rock hard. I had decided to take my iPod with me on the trip. I spent a lot of time downloading everything that I thought might help me from meditation chants to music from my childhood. But I didn’t listen to it once. I took a journal and I did not write in it once. I took two books but I didn’t open a page. There was so much movement going on within me, so much change. It was almost as if, as our sleds were getting lighter as we ate our food, some intangible element inside me was getting lighter as well. It was the most profound experience I have had and I didn’t feel like disturbing it. We reached the North Pole on April 23. We woke up that day thinking we had five miles to ski. In fact, we had six because we had drifted south on the ice overnight. We got a call from the station saying that there was a huge storm coming and that they would pick us up in the afternoon, whether we made it or not. What should have been a comfortable ski turned into a race against Mother Nature. I was worried about getting there and not really enjoying the moment. For the first few miles I was pretty uncomfortable and really unhappy. After the third mile, I thought about it and told myself ‘I have come this far and I am not arriving at the North Pole in this negative mindset’. A profound feeling came over me. I wasn’t lonely that day. I couldn’t read any of the online posts and didn’t have any communication with the outside world, but I felt there was a world of people with me. I skied happily and the last miles were easy. I got there feeling quiet, very humble and private. You don’t conquer the North Pole, you are allowed to visit. The last thing I did was stop to pour out the bag of sand I had brought with me from the UAE. The sand represents my country and its people, with its highs and lows, strengths and weaknesses, all of which are part of what made me achieve this. The helicopter arrived and it was one of the most welcome sights I have ever seen. The moment I sat down in the helicopter I fell asleep.” Alison McMeans
Nayla al Khaja is the UAE’s first female independent filmmaker. She has already attracted a lot of attention with a bold six-minute film called Arabana about child abuse, made in 2006. Not only are her films bold, but the 32-year-old is making a name for herself in the commercial and creative film world. She is the chief executive and founder of the Dubai-based D-Seven Motion Pictures company that produces commercial material and is intended as a stepping stone to the eventual production of independent documentaries and feature films. Her great interest in film comes from, as she sums up, “being passionate about people telling a story and a love of the high energy levels of the film industry, the organised chaos and the fact that the film world caters to every part of my character; the business side, the artistic side and the creative side”. She says that her gender has been an advantage in her career. “The problem here is not so much being a woman, but that we don’t have a film industry that is up and running. Because I am a woman, by default I get a lot more attention. As a clever filmmaker you can take advantage of that. In our culture story-telling is very specific to women. And another advantage of being a woman is that you stand out.” Al Khaja went into media after graduating from Dubai Women’s College with a higher diploma in mass communications. In 2007, she was awarded best Emirati filmmaker at the Dubai International Film Festival, as well as the Young Woman Entrepreneur of the Year. She enjoys painting and writing stories in her spare time. Ola Salem