From becoming the first female to race professionally in Saudi Arabia to hopefully being the last in a long line of women who have suffered at the hands of genocide, these incredible Arab women helped improve the world in vastly significant ways in 2019.
2019 was a strong year for Arab cinema, and that has a lot to do with one dynamic woman: Nadine Labaki. As the first female Lebanese director to be nominated for an Academy Award for her heartbreaking film Capernaum to her starring role in Oualid Mouaness’ debut film 1982, Labaki is a star. However, she’s not going down the conventional Hollywood route. Instead, she is careful about the projects that she involves herself in, and maintains philanthropy as the backbone of her work.
To date, she still financially supports the children who were in Capernaum, as well as their families and their future education. She is also an outspoken human rights advocate, and has been visibly involved in the protests happening in Lebanon. For these reasons – and many more – she is one of our eternal heroes.
Ashwaq Al Messabi
Emirati fencer Ashwaq Al Messabi is not only an accomplished athlete, but also the youngest and only female international foil referee in the region. At only 21 years old, she saw the landscape of male referees and was determined to make it different. She and two of her friends, Alanoud Al Sa’adi and Mariam Salah, took the national referee test in 2017 and gained international licenses. Not satisfied to referee regionally, Al Messabi has her sights set on taking her talent to the Olympic level, telling Gulf News, “I think my future lies as an official, perhaps one day making it to the Olympic Games.”
Butheina Hamed Kazim
One of the flagship attractions of the hip Alserkal Avenue is Cinema Akil, the only independent arthouse cinema in the entire region. The inspiring co-founder behind this project is Butheina Hamed Kazim. Her passion for media led her to opening the cinema, which is the only place in Dubai screening under-the-radar Arab films like Weldi, indie favorites like The Motorcycle Diaries, and cult hits produced by the likes of Studio Ghibli.
Not only is she willing to challenge audiences with must-see cinema and provide a cultural outlet for cinephiles, but Kazim is also an aspiring filmmaker whose short documentary Letters to Palestine won the Special Jury Prize at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
Race car driving isn’t just a male-dominated sport in the region, it’s a male-dominated sport worldwide. Meet the first female to race professionally in Saudi Arabia, Reema Juffali. Not only is she making history in the Arab world, but also the racing world at large. Juffali is a fearless competitor who made her racing debut at the age of 27 after the ban on female drivers lifted in the country. Growing up watching Formula One created a passion in Juffali and, now that she’s winning legions of fans at her races, she’s got her sights set on the world’s most intense racing competition, 24 Hours of Le Mans.
As an Emirati and a poet, Afra Atiq had a dream to create a space for other Emirati writers in the region. For that reason, she created Untitled Chapters, a community for female Emirati writers to workshop their creations and gain the feedback and support of others – all with the intent to help them reach publication status. Untitled Chapters also hosts workshops for the general public, and is an engaging and inclusive community for women. Atiq has also collaborated with regional designers like MKS Jewelry to help other sectors of the public interact with the craft of poetry in authentic ways.
Noor Tagouri might have “influencer” status on social media, with over a million followers across platforms, but she isn’t an influencer. She’s influential. As a Libyan-American journalist, Tagouri has used her popularity to consistently speak truth to power. In the past, she has been a marketing partner to brands like Burberry and Prada, a public speaker, a reporter, and a documentarian whose 2018 documentary series Sold in America tackled human trafficking. In 2019, she is the host of The Barneys Podcast, which features discussions with fashion leaders who are helping advance the cultural conversation.
A moment at the White House in July went viral. A human rights activist by the name of Nadia Murad was relaying her tragic story to Donald Trump, telling him that ISIS had “killed my mom, my six brothers.” Bizarrely, the President responded, “Where are they now?” And in response, Murad was forced to reiterate, “They killed them. They are in the mass grave in Sinjar, and I’m still fighting just to live in safe[ty]. Please do something.”
Murad’s story is powerful and gut-wrenching. She was abducted and enslaved by ISIS in August 2014, but managed to escape a few months later. Since then, she has made it her mission to help women and children who are victims of abuse and human trafficking. Although Murad won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018, it was this viral moment that put her on the international stage in 2019. Suddenly, Google searches for her name spiked, which led people to discover Nadia’s Initiative, a humanitarian project that confronts the empty words of world leaders and urges them into tangible action to help communities afflicted by genocide.
Ingie Chalhoub has long been considered one of the most powerful businesswomen in the Middle East. Her Etoile Group is responsible for bringing the biggest luxury brands in the world to the Middle East, starting with Chanel in the 1980s. Since then, she has continued to expand her group’s portfolio, launched her multi-brand concept Etoile “La boutique” regionally, started her eponymous fashion brand INGIE Paris, and won the coveted Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in France along with her husband, Patrick Chalhoub.
In 2019, Chalhoub teamed up with UNICEF for the first time as she was tapped to join The Leadership Circle in order to help raise awareness for underprivileged people in third world countries. In an exclusive interview with Savoir Flair, she told us, “For me, UNICEF is about making a broader impact – not only financially, but also for raising awareness and having more people help with its projects. We need everyone’s attention on this issue. The message I am trying to get across is: we are really privileged. Think about all you have been given, and then think about what you can do to give back. We all have to make this effort together.”