Looking forward to Emirati Women’s Day on Sunday, August 28, some of the country’s best-known ambassadors in their chosen fields – from fitness to art – share their thoughts on female empowerment and the need for more opportunities.
Hind Mezaina is best known as The Culturist – an authoritative blogger who has tirelessly promoted arts and culture in the UAE for more years than many can recall.
In fact, her blog began in 2009, after years of compiling a weekly email to collect or share details of cultural happenings in the Emirates. “I was sharing all this with my friends and I thought, why not share with others?” she says.
Inspired to move beyond the virtual world and into the physical realm, The Culturist’s most recent achievement was hosting Cruel Summer, a curated evening of short films, accompanied by themed refreshments and music, at Dubai arts space thejamjar.
“I’m trying to interact with people in real life,” says Mezaina, who hopes to host more events soon.
In the ever-changing media climate, The Culturist has evolved into a distinct social-media presence on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, while Mezaina is also one-half of the podcast team behind Tea With Culture. “A lot of people tell me they only have time for short updates,” she says. “But I still believe in blogging.”
The long-term plan, she adds, is to create an archive for arts in the Emirates that would otherwise be forgotten.
“It’s a statement – a long-term record of what’s happening,” she says.
Mezaina is also an established artist in her own right, who three years ago gave up a steady corporate career to pursue her photography and installation work. Last year, she hosted a video installation as part of Art Dubai, based on archive photos of Deira, under the Artists-in-Residence Dubai residency programme.
She is also reaching the closing stages of a year-long the Salama bint Hamdan Emerging Artists Fellowship, with work to be unveiled next month at Abu Dhabi’s Warehouse421.
“Around the world, there’s always a need to promote women in the arts,” she says. “If no one says anything, it will always be a boys’ club.
“Ironically, in this part of the world, the arts are more female – but that’s because it’s not taken seriously, it’s a hobby. So there’s a lot of opportunities for women – but also a lot of limitations.”
* Rob Garratt
Hend Al Mutawa
Hend Al Mutawa – founder of the abaya label Nabrman – is not only a successful entrepreneur at home, she’s a proud ambassador for the UAE abroad.
“When I travel, people are impressed when I tell them that I’m Emirati,” she says. “Very often, they would love to visit the UAE, so I almost act as a virtual tour guide.”
Al Mutawa’s pearl-and-bead-embellished creations have caught the attention of key influencers in recent years, most notably reality-TV star Kim Kardashian, who wore her designs when she visited Dubai in 2011 to open Millions of Milkshakes.
As the UAE approaches its 45th National Day in December, and Emirati Women’s Day on Sunday, increasing global recognition of local women is par for the course, says Al Mutawa.
“People continue to hear about the UAE’s development in terms of knowledge and the female workforce, our intellectual abilities and achievements in many industries beyond oil and gas,” she says. “Economic diversity is creating advancements in the UAE and shaping people’s perceptions around the world.”
Having established her cool and contemporary label in 2008, Al Mutawa’s growth has been organic and well-paced thanks to her degree in business and finance from the American University in Dubai. Her pieces are on sale at the Nabrman boutique, in Dubai’s Jumeirah district, and in outlets in Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
“I used my savings to start the business and it was important for me to build my own thing,” she says. “The biggest challenge is dealing with constant changes in the marketplace and the economy. As a small-business owner, everything affects you, from the oil price to real estate.
“Also, because Dubai is a business hub, people are creating businesses every day and competition keeps increasing. Thankfully I’ve been able to succeed and distinguish myself from newcomers. Always being aware is key.”
This awareness comes in many forms, not least appreciation for her female peers and everyone in the UAE.
“Emirati Women’s Day is very important – it’s a day to be proud of all the achievements that women have made,” she says. “Not just Emirati women’s achievements – but all here. We should celebrate that these things have been possible through the UAE’s advancements and the support the country has provided us with.”
* Rebecca McLaughlin-Duane
Maitha Al Shamsi
Emirati lawyer Maitha Al Shamsi is chief executive of the Human Rights Sector in the Community Development Authority.
She is also the co-owner of, and heavily involved in the running of, Mama Tani Cafe.
“Balancing the two is really all about clever time management,” says Al Shamsi. “Mama Tani Cafe is a creative outlet for me and is also like my family. It’s my passion.”
Mama Tani, which she co-owns with her brother Omar, specialises in Emirati food, including khameer and balaleet, and serves as a home away from home for Emiratis.
“It was important for me to be able to express my pride in my identity and culture,” says Al Shamsi. “That’s where the passion for Mama Tani came.”
She says her success is driven, in part, by her stubbornness.
“I have set a vision for myself, a long-term goal,” she says. “This challenge is what drives me. I believe in Mama Tani and it’s that faith that motivates me.”
She says that in Mama Tani, you are surrounded by friends and family.
“As a woman, I think it is in our nature to be nurturers and Mama Tani Cafe is all about that same warmth you feel when you have a fresh meal cooked and served with love,” she says.
Emirati Women’s Day is for her a day for celebration and pride.
“It’s a celebration of our achievements and an inspiration for us to achieve more,” she says. “As women, we have been given equal rights in education, health, employment and, now, even within the Government. The value of the contribution women have made is recognised and celebrated.
“Looking at my daughters, I hear their dreams and aspirations – they dream with no limits. I believe that’s because they are growing up in a country that does not limit us just because we are women.”
• Mama Tani Cafe is in the World Trade Center Souk in Abu Dhabi. The original Dubai outlet, in Town Centre Jumeirah, has closed but a new branch will reopen in Downtown Dubai in the coming months. For more details, visit www.mamatani.com
* Stacie Overton Johnson
Sumayyah Al Suwaidi
Sumayyah Al Suwaidi is a woman of many talents. She was one of the first female Emiratis to pioneer the trend of digital art. She also regularly curates art exhibitions in Abu Dhabi, where she lives and works. Most recently, she opened Seen, a specialised boutique in d3, Dubai’s Design District, which showcases her art, jewellery and fashion designs.
On top of all that, she is a mother of five and works full time at Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority.
She says that the success she enjoys in all these fields is, in part, due to her nationality.
“I am lucky to be an Emirati because this country really appreciates women,” she says. “I can’t think of any other country in the world that puts women first in the way that the UAE does. We are given so many opportunities and support, so there is no excuse for any woman in this country not to achieve the goals she goes after.”
Al Suwaidi says she feels proud and inspired by Sheikha Fatima’s call for participation in Emirati Women’s Day.
“She [Sheikha Fatima] is a true role model,” she says. “I believe that her being married to the late Sheikh Zayed helped the women of this country a lot. From the beginning she was the one who started it all and thanks to her encouragement, Sheikh Zayed always supported women as much as possible.
“In fact, my mother, who didn’t finish high school before she started a family, went back to work because of the inspiration she took from Sheikha Fatima. She was an inspiration to me and I hope I passed that on to my children.”
However, she added that while the national celebrations for Emirati women are highly appreciated, they are not necessary for her to feel exceptional.
“To be honest, I don’t think there needs to be a special day for Emirati women,” she says. “We are always really special and this country makes us feel that way.”
* Anna Seaman
Nayla Al Khaja
Nayla Al Khaja is probably the best-known female film director in the UAE, having produced and directed shorts such as The Neighbour and Malal, both of which were nominated for and received awards from regional festivals including the Dubai International Film Festival (Diff), Florence Middle East Film Festival and Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
To date, her films have been screened at more than 42 festivals around the world.
Al Khaja is also the founder of D-Seven Motion Pictures, which produces commercial and corporate movies beyond festival fare, and Dubai’s Scene Club, which has been bringing indie cinema to Dubai audiences since 2007, along with some of the world’s most acclaimed underground directors for Q& A sessions and screenings.
Al Khaja was named Emirates Woman of the Year in 2005, and has been a brand ambassador for camera giant Canon, and local telecoms company du. She is also regularly a judge or mentor for film competitions organised by the likes of Diff, Samsung and Canon.
Further accolades include being ranked among the Top 50 most powerful personalities in Arab cinema, and the 100 most powerful Arabs under-40 by Arabian Business magazine, and being awarded Visionary of the Year at the magazine’s awards in 2011.
She has her own thoughts on what being an Emirati, and Women’s Day, mean.
“I wake up in a country that links the world geographically and I’m caught up in that web of cultures and diversity,” she says. “As a UAE national I have the core foundation of what Emirati means: tolerance, hospitality and an openness to creating harmony and embracing quality.
“I’m very lucky to be raised here, I stand proud knowing that as a UAE woman my work, even in a modest scale, has an effect on many women from all around the world.”
* Chris Newbould
Amal Mohammed Murad
From childhood right up to her time as a student at university, 24-year-old Amal Mohammed Murad tried every sport she could, from basketball to CrossFit. But it was not until last year that the graphic designer found her true calling: parkour.
Murad is the only Emirati parkour coach in the UAE, and leads an all-women class every week at the Gravity Calisthenics Gym in Dubai.
“I’ve always had an inner monkey within me,” says Murad. “And growing up I played all sorts of sports – but a part of me was missing something. When I saw parkour athletes, I felt like they were flying, and that’s when I knew.”
However, it took a while for her to convince her parents and her cousin, who owns the gym she teaches at, that women would be interested in this kind of exercise.
“There aren’t many exclusive ladies’ classes in fitness, and that’s why CrossFit has taken off, because a lot of boxes now provide all-ladies’ classes,” she says. “So when we began the parkour classes for women, interest grew.”
Murad fuels this interest with her Instagram account (@leap.of.hope), in which she posts videos of her parkour moves.
“Not a lot of people understand, but you need to have strong legs to be able to flip and jump from box to box in parkour,” she says. “You also need strong arms for climbing and holding on to bars.”
But the first step, she says, is to overcome the mental challenge.
“It’s not just physical but gaining the confidence and overcoming the fear of falling or getting hurt,” she says. “You have to be quick with your reflexes, so there is no room for hesitation.”
The parkour coach says the strides Emirati women have taken in sports and fitness in the past few years is what drives her to continue working to inspire other women to take up such activities.
“Women are proving themselves in all fields of sports,” she says. “Just look at Ayesha Al Balooshi’s progress in weightlifting at the Olympics.
“It goes to show how serious women are about sports, and passionate about making this their career. Women are more passionate because they still constantly have to prove that they are equally, if not more, talented than their male counterparts.
“In this regard Emirati women are creating their own path.”
* Afshan Ahmed