Women Empowering Women in the Middle East


By: Hyacinth Mascarenhas

“I don’t mind if I have to sit on the floor at school. All I want is education. And I am afraid of no one.”

This is one of the many powerful statements by Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year old girl who protested the Pakistani Taliban’s ban on education for girls in her home district since she was a preteen. Fighting for the basic human right to education, Yousafzai’s voice has been bold, outspoken and fierce both in her blog for the BBC and television interviews in Pakistan.

And she’s not the only one doing so.

While Yousafzai called for girls’ education in Pakistan, hers is one of the many female voices speaking out as potential agents of change.

As the world marked international women’s day earlier this month, influential women across the globe have been recognized and even rewarded for the willingness to share their stories and fight for change especially in conservative societies like the Middle East and South Asia.

Women have also become increasingly more vocal about their unique experiences and challenges working their way up the ranks to assume leadership positions that would earlier be considered male domains.

Campaigning towards change

Investment adviser and womens’ rights advocate Reem Mohammad Asaad, who started the successful campaign in Saudi Arabia to replace male shop assistants in lingerie and cosmetics stores with women, says “social media, internet information flow and telecom openness” is a generational change that has catalyzed the trend to speak up.

“I personally reach out to women across the globe to inform, enlighten and get inspired. ‘Transcend the space and language barrier’ is my motto,” Asaad said.

Starting off as a Facebook page in 2008, Asaad’s campaign resulted in a decree by the Saudi government banning all men from working in lingerie shops.

Her online campaign, however, was about more than just lingerie.

The move not only allowed for an end to an uncomfortable situation for most women, but also helped reduce female unemployment in the kingdom.

“If you were to ask me how to describe the nature of the campaign I would definitely say it was media-supported and backed by some ideological [people] in the country who wanted to eliminate certain business practices.” said Asaad in a National article. “It’s a social movement telling everybody that this is a new generation that is willing to accept work that was previously stigmatized or belittled.”

Asaad also added that this campaign would have a “domino effect” on other feminist initiatives within the region as well. “Ideally, we need to first create a moderate shock, sit to reap the fruits, assess the impact and then move on from there,” Asaad said.

Breaking through the glass ceiling

Education has played as a major role in women’s empowerment in the region as a catalyst for social and economic change. With the female population increasing at all educational stages, women are climbing up the ranks to challenge and even break the glass ceiling.

CEO Middle East magazine’s list of 100 most powerful Arab women exemplifies this trend.

Topping the list for the third year in a row, UAE’s first female minister Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi is the former Emirati Minister of Foreign Trade who was recently appointed as Minister of Development and International Cooperation. With a background in IT, SHE “won plaudits for developing a system that slashed cargo turnaround times at Dubai airport, and in 2000 founded Tejari, the Middle East’s first business-to-business online marketplace.”

CEO of Riyadh-based Olayan Financing Company and one of Saudi Arabia’s most accomplished businesswomen, Lubna Olayan, was ranked second. Philanthropist and vice chairwomen of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation, HH Princess Ameerah from Saudi Arabia came in third.

These women have not only taken on prominent professional positions that were previously held by men in various sectors, but have excelled in their professional roles and challenged common notions about female competencies.

Although women’s participation in the labor force is still limited in some parts of the Middle East, the line up of women within the list achieving excellence in their respective fields is still a significant accomplishment and an inspiration for women in the region.

Bringing stories to life

While brave women across the globe are becoming more vocal about their individual struggles and stories, the media industry is also actively seeking to illustrate their stories and capture this trend.

Girl Rising,” a powerful new feature film released on International Women’s Day, highlights the power of education to life nine girls out of poverty and captures the essence and drive of the human spirit.

The film is also narrated by Oscar winning Hollywood stars Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep as well as Bollywood stars like Priyanka Chopra who illustrate the stories of nine girls in developing countries whose thirst for learning rises above their unforgiving circumstances.

“Girl Rising” is also part of a global campaign by 10×10, an organization founded by award winning journalists at the Documentary Group and Vulcan Productions, along with strategic partner, Intel Corporation, to educate and empower girls whose stories would otherwise be left untold.

Academy Award nominated director Richard E. Robbins said that education, however, is not the only goal for the film.

“My job as the filmmaker is not just to make people understand that girls’ education is important, but to make them believe that the change we need is possible,” said Robbins in a press release. “Those girls are just like our girls. Like girls everywhere. Smart, powerful, and eager to make the world better.”

He also admitted that his most memorable moments were his interactions with the girls themselves.

“Every time our energy flagged or we had problems on the production, we only needed to glance over at the girl whose story we were telling and everything seemed possible,” said Robbins in a press release. “They never felt sorry for themselves. They have boundless energy and optimism. They work harder than me… and I work pretty hard.”

Acknowledging female accomplishments

As of the UAE’s most influential women, Rafia Ghubash wanted to acknowledge and honor the contribution of women to the country’s history and culture.

Creating the Middle East’s first museum dedicated to the accomplishments of women in the region, Ghubash introduced Bait al Banaat, or House of Women in Dubai which was inaugurated last year. She also financed the museum with $3 million of her own money.

Trained as a doctor at the University of Cairo, Ghubash became an assistant professor of psychiatry in the UAE before she became the president of the Arabian Gulf University in Bahrain from 2001 to 2009. She later founded and served as the president of the Arab Network of Women in Science and Technology.

“Women here were empowered a long time ago, but haven’t had a chance to tell our story,” said Ghubash in a CNN article. “Don’t think because we are covered we are not empowered.”



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