From breaking ground in the film industry in the UAE and nurturing new mothers through the hardship of childbirth to eradicating human trafficking and wiping out rubella, these incredible Arab women helped changed the world in vastly significant ways this past year.
Nayla Al Khaja
As the UAE’s first female film director and producer, Nayla Al Khaja is accustomed to “firsts”. She holds the honor of creating the first film to ever be made by an Emirati woman, and was also the first Emirati filmmaker to ever have a project accepted by the Producers Network at Cannes. She is also the founder of The Scene Club – Dubai’s first independent film club – which has over 20,000 members.
Unveiling Dubai, a documentary film that premiered in 2004, was the project that launched Al Khaja’s career and, ever since then, she has been breaking ground with her pioneering vision. Never one to shy away from controversy, she bravely tackles topics like child abuse and arranged marriages in her films. She also owns her own production company, has lobbied the government to incentivize the film trade in the region, and has been instrumental in bringing film projects to the UAE that significantly boost the local economy.
Even in highly developed nations, women are still dying during childbirth or due to complications arising from pregnancy at alarming rates. According to the UN’s latest global estimates, 303,000 women die annually from pregnancy-related complications – roughly 830 women a day. In the UAE, one woman is working to change that with a holistic and compassionate approach: Dina Ghandour. She is a certified yoga teacher, a pre-natal yoga instructor, and a pre- and post-natal doula who works closely with women to ensure the healthy delivery of their babies.
By creating joyful and uplifting environments, Ghandour removes the fear and stigma often related to childbirth, and looks after new mothers after they’ve given birth in order to deal with lasting issues of postpartum depression, nursing, attachment, and more. She also created yApparel in 2014, a popular online destination for fitness apparel in the UAE.
Actress and humanitarian Hend Sabri had a monumental year. She just wrapped shooting for Noura Tahlam, a Tunisian film based on the true story of a woman’s suffering as a result of the public detention of her husband. She has upcoming roles in Al-Mamar, which tackles a difficult period in Egyptian history during the War of Attrition, and she just got cast in El-Feel el-Azraa 2.
As if she wasn’t already busy enough balancing work and family life, she is also a brand ambassador for IWC watches, the face of Garnier in the Middle East, and a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN ‘World Food Programme’. We are constantly inspired by her work ethic, extraordinary acting talent, and advocacy for women’s rights issues. Earlier this year, we had the pleasure of interviewing Sabri about being named the number one actress in the Middle East by Forbes magazine, her feminist beliefs, and more, which you can read on our Arabic sister title here.
Although it is 2018, there are many women in the Middle East who are breaking ground as the “first” in their field. Enter: Taleedah Tamer. This stunning model is the first Saudi woman to be featured on the cover of an international magazine, the first Saudi woman to land a global editorial campaign, and the first to walk in Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week when she opened and closed the Antonio Grimaldi show this year.
This year, she was also tapped to be the face of the Tanween festival’s fashion exhibition at Ithra in Saudi Arabia. To her tremendous credit, Tamer has proven to be more than just a beautiful face. She has also used her elevated profile and platform to advocate for animal rights, and has called for an end to poaching in support of the documentary film, The War Against Poaching.
Hayat Sindi is so ferociously brilliant that it’s almost intimidating to read down her list of accomplishments. With a PhD from Cambridge University, not only is she the Middle East’s leading biotechnologist, but she is also the first Saudi Muslim woman in the GCC to have a PhD in biotechnology – period. She was one of the first female members of the Shura Council, a formal advisory body to the king. She is also an advocate for science and technology in the Middle East, and founded Diagnostics For All, a NGO that provides medical care and diagnostic tools to the region’s most impoverished and remote areas.
And if all that wasn’t impressive enough, Sindi is also an UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, was appointed to the group for the UN ‘Sustainable Development Goals’, founded and chaired the i2 Institute for Imagination and Ingenuity, and acts as a Senior Advisor to the President of Science, Technology, and Innovation at the Islamic Development Bank in Saudi Arabia. Sindi is extremely passionate and outspoken about empowering women, education in the fields of science and medicine, and is a strong advocate for women in the sciences.
If it weren’t for Yanar Mohammed, at least 800 women would have never been able to escape the cycle of domestic abuse and violence that they were trapped in. As Iraq’s most prominent feminist and the President of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, her mission in life is to help survivors of abuse by providing safe houses, counseling, civic and human rights education, and life and job skills training for them through her network.
Mohammed has been awarded the Women’s Rights Prize by The Gruber Foundation, the Rafto Prize by Rafto Foundation for Human Rights, and is a prominent subject of the documentary film, I Am the Revolution. She works tirelessly to promote gender equality and the abolishment of human trafficking, child marriage, and other harmful practices – and has done this all while facing numerous death threats.
HE Noura Al Kaabi
Named one of the most powerful Arabs under 40, Noura Al Kaabi has been a force for positive change and cultural development in the UAE. A highly decorated individual who has been awarded the title “Business Woman of the Year” at the Gulf Business Awards, named to Forbes’ list of the “30 Most Influential Women in Government”, and named to Foreign Policy magazine’s “Top 100 Global Thinkers” list, her contributions to the cultural environment in the country cannot be overstated.
Not only does she sit on multiple prestigious advisory boards, like that of the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce & Industry, but her role as Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development has brought about such events as the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and Abu Dhabi Media Summit.
With an estimated value of $550 million in 2018 according to Forbes, a new reality show on Facebook, a new fragrance launch, and a forthcoming skincare line, Huda Kattan of Huda Beauty is sitting on top of the beauty world. From working for free to running a sprawling beauty empire of her own, Kattan is one of the UAE’s most powerful businesswomen and, at the age of 35, she’s still just getting started.
While she has a lot in the works related to building her beauty empire, what has inspired us most about Kattan as of late is the launch of Huda Beauty Angels – an early-stage investment fund for female entrepreneurs – that will see its first round of investments ramp up at the beginning of 2019. Beyond that, Kattan’s goal to build Huda Beauty into a conglomerate large enough to compete with the likes of Estée Lauder and L’Oreal makes her the very definition of “inspiring”. No wonder she has been dubbed the “Bill Gates of Beauty” and invited by institutions like Harvard Business School to lecture.
HRH Princess Lamia Bint Majid AlSaud
While some born into privilege might never question their station, HRH Princess Lamia Bint Majid AlSaud – daughter of Prince Majed bin Saud of Saudi Arabia – sees it as her obligation in life to use her resources to help those less fortunate than herself. It is what makes her so unique and compelling as a well-known public figure in the Middle East, as she is much more concerned with the welfare of the downtrodden than the superficial trappings of the material world.
As the Secretary General and member of the Board of Trustees at Alwaleed Philanthropies, Princess Lamia partnered with UNICEF, to which the charitable organization contributed $50 million towards completely eradicating measles and rubella worldwide. She also used Alwaleed Philanthropies to support the launch of Wa’iyah Initiative for Women’s Legal Rights, which raises awareness for victims of violence. We had the pleasure of interviewing her earlier this year, and spoke to her in-depth about her philanthropic work, which you can read here.