Despite what you may read in the newspaper or see on TV, girl power is blooming in the Middle East. My experience at the Global Women’s Forum in Dubai recently can attest to this. I, along with nearly 2,500 other women from over 70 countries, came together for the first-ever forum of its kind for women in the Middle East and North Africa to promote “strengthening the role of women and examining how [we] contribute to the economy.”
It was fitting then that we heard from – and were inspired by – some of the most amazing, innovative women of our time. In attendance was Queen Rania of Jordan; Christine LeGarde, director of the International Monetary Fund; HE Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, the newly elected president of Mauritius; and Dr. Hessa Abdullah Al Otaiba, the Emirate’s ambassador to Vatican City. Beyond these noteworthy keynotes were numerous other powerful female speakers from all corners of the intellectual map.
What struck me most profoundly during the life-changing event was the discussion with Sarah Amiri. For many of you, her name may have no significance. But for me, and the millions of women in the Middle East, Amiri represents hope. As part of the Emirates’ 50 year anniversary, they will be sending a rocket to Mars; an ambitious goal that will be lead by an equally ambitious woman. Amiri, a 28-year-old computer science engineer is the deputy managing director for the project, the highest ranking woman on the team.
For us “Westerners” that might not seem like such a big deal. In many parts of the world young women make headlines for leading and founding successful companies and world changing projects. But for women in the Middle East, it’s been a complete different story. Just recently however, there’s been a shift and it’s becoming the norm to see women, young women, play larger roles in science, government, and business. Just last year, the Emirati government formed the UAE Gender Balance Council, chaired by a woman of course. December 2015 was a historic month for women in my adopted country of Saudi Arabia. Not only was it the first time women could vote, it was the first time women – 17 in total – were elected to public office. While Saudi Arabia certainly has a long way to catch up, it is a huge step in the right direction.
Dr. Basmah Omair, CEO of Jeddah Chamber of Commerce & Industry, a working mother and business leader, gave Saudi women the additional affirmation they needed at the Forum by sharing the results of a new survey in which 49% of Saudi men polled agreed to allow women to drive and have the freedom to work. She made clear that the gender issues in Saudi aren’t the result of religion, but of culture.
The Prophet Muhammad’s wife, Khadijah, was a prime example of 6th century “Girl Power.” After taking over her father’s merchant business, she built an empire. Khadijah “leaned in” 1500 years before Sherly Sanberg was born. The epitome of a consummate leader, Khadijah, was known for her integrity in business and compassion for the poor. At 40 years old, widowed twice and with two children, she sought out the 25 year old Muhammad and asked him to marry her.
On the plane back to Saudi, I feel hopeful for the future of women living in the Middle East. 2,500 of them will go home feeling inspired and encouraged, ready to overcome obstacles in their workplace, in their communities, and in their homes, myself included.