A few independent women in the Arab heartland are throwing societal norms to the wind as they carve out a place for themselves
By Heba Hashem in Dubai
Traditionally perceived as submissive housewives, with a role restricted to raising children and tending to household chores, Arab women from the Gulf have now become active members of their societies, discrediting outdated social prejudices that prevented them from participating in the development of their communities. But this was no easy journey.
Just ask Nayla Al Khaja, founder of D-Seven Motion Pictures and the UAE’s first female producer and director who faced many stumbling blocks before being able to practise what she loves most – filmmaking.
“When I was seven, I discovered my love for cinema through my father. He used to keep a collection of black and white Indian cinema. But he made sure I couldn’t reach them. So when he was away, I would get a stool, stand on it and open this cupboard,” recalls Nayla.
That one little cupboard with more than 800 world cinema titles in VHS cassettes changed her life. “After graduating, I really wanted to study films but there was one thing that stood against me and that was my gender. Being a woman was a serious handicap,” she says.
Having obtained her bachelor’s degree from Dubai Women’s College, Nayla was thrilled to receive a full scholarship to study films at Ryerson University’s prestigious School of Radio and Television Arts in Canada.
But despite her family being fairly open-minded, they were still concerned about her choice. Her father gave her an ultimatum to either get married or forget about travelling to Canada altogether.
Nayla, only 21 at that time, initially rejected the idea of marriage but soon realised that this was her only gateway to studying abroad. She then decided to get married to a close friend and was soon on her way to Toronto where she completed her studies.
“I wasn’t going to let my gender stop me and I think no woman should be stopped from attaining an education,” she says.
Back in Dubai and armed with a film degree, Nayla was ready to get started in an industry which was completely new. “Nobody had set the ground before me. I had to make mistakes to learn how to get things done. One thing I did have in lots was curiosity,” she looks back.
The non-existing industry wasn’t the only challenge awaiting her. After setting up her business at the age of 26 and visiting numerous advertising agencies, she noticed that potential clients weren’t taking her seriously, with some people even questioning abilities of a young Emirati woman.
An intelligent solution quickly struck her entrepreneurial mind, and she decided to reach out to a former college professor who was Caucasian and looked perfect for the ‘role’. It involved attending meetings with her and occasionally nodding his head.
“You wouldn’t believe it, within three to four months, I was able to nail a very big client by having this man with me,” she says. “You have to be creative and find solutions – nothing should stop you”.
Nayla continues to deal with gender- related issues. Working in a maledominated industry, she often has to manage production sets where 95 per cent of the people are men.
“It’s exhausting and you have to be strong. I’m on sets where there are mostly men and when you’re directing them, you have to massage their egos all the time. That’s not just in UAE. It’s everywhere,” she says.
“Women got into this field really late; in the seventies they were doing the makeup, costumes and editing but they were not directing, producing or handling the camera,” Nayla adds.
Today, Nayla is reaping the rewards of her determination. She has received multiple awards for her short films, many of which tackle sensitive social issues and is working on her first fulllength feature film, based on a true story.
“Right now I’m focussing on my first feature film, which will be an hour and a half long. It’s going to be a co-production between the UAE, Qatar and France,” she says. Nayla’s life, though, is nothing less than a movie in itself.
Kuwait, like other Gulf Cooperation Council states, is an Islamic society. But, according to the HDR’s Gender Inequality Index, Kuwaiti women are considered to be amongst the most emancipated in West Asia.
In fact, the country was ranked highest among the region’s nations in terms of gender equality. This relatively liberal environment made it easier for Abrar Al Masood to build her corporate career in Kuwait.
As chairman of Future Group, a company she founded in 2006 that specialises in technology solutions, media services, consultancy and human development, Abrar seems to have enough on her plate.
But being a natural leader and a highly driven businesswoman, she also oversees ‘Thukur’, a project created to secure the nation’s precious assets in times of need.
In addition, she is the CEO of Al-Mubader, a national initiative dedicated to helping Kuwaiti entrepreneurs and SMEs by providing them with comprehensive support ranging from financing to marketing assistance.
Conceived by Abrar herself, Al Mubader will be implemented across all GCC countries, and her dream is to ultimately go global with this initiative.
“I am passionate about Information Technology and about using it to aid various sectors and industries,” says Abrar, who has completed the Executive Leadership Certificate Program from Cornell University, US.
Unlike most Gulf families, who would typically frown upon the idea of their daughter becoming a businesswoman, Abrar’s family is the foundation of her strength. The family’s guidance and wisdom have influenced her performance at every level.
“They were the first to support me and taught me a quality that I will always remember – to be on the top. Contentment is great but ambition is even greater. I have high ambitions and a clear, defined strategy to achieve them,” she says.
That said, Abrar stresses that she never lets ego get in her way, regardless of how much she achieves, as this “kills ambition”. According to her, maintaining a down-to-earth attitude is the key to success.
“Perhaps one of the most important ambitions that I have is to transform the Gulf Cooperation Council’s SME sector, which I have adopted and taken responsibility for. With God’s will, I shall achieve this goal through hard work and perseverance,” she says with uncanny conviction.
In Qatar, Buthaina Al Ansari, senior director of human resources at Qatar Telecom and an award-winning businesswoman, is busy changing the way women do business in her country.
Using her education in human resources and business disciplines from universities in Qatar, London and Cairo, she founded Qatariat in 2009, after observing that Qatari women were not rising up the corporate ladder.
“I came from the banking sector and saw that women were not leading, but only reaching middlemanagement levels. I wanted to help move them up to senior level positions,” explains Buthaina, who was listed in Arabian Business’ 100 Most Powerful Women for three consecutive years (2011-2013).
Buthaina’s company incorporates three entities – Qatariat Training and Development; Qatariat Development Consultancy; and Qatariat Magazine – all which support women in one way or another.
“I want to take the lead and create change in my country, by empowering women through different initiatives. Like women in other parts of the world, we want to be role models for our kids – this will not come by staying at home,” she says on a philosophical note.
(The contributor is a senior writer based in Dubai)