International Women’s Day. Let’s be real, we should clone this day, make it their day, 365 days per year, notably in the MENA region, until every Arab state, every Arab person, understands how crucial it is for our mothers, grandmothers, daughters, sisters and wives to be fully empowered. Until they understand how outrageous it is that, with equal skills, a woman is paid less than a man, how urgent it is that every girl goes to school and to university, how senseless it is for a woman to be beaten to death by her companion, or for a girl to be murdered by her father or her brother for sullying some twisted sense of “honor”, without the criminals ending their days in prison. They need to understand how laughable it is to see only a tiny handful of female deputies and ministers in a parliament or government. How intolerable is it that a woman cannot do with her body exactly as she wishes. All these are basic, obvious concepts, but here we are, in 2022, talking about it again and again. It is just unacceptable. But we will never stop, until Arab women win, and get exactly what they deserve.

Meanwhile, here on Pulse, we wanted to celebrate March 8th through the voices and the eyes of three exceptional Arab women. Each one of them, in her own way, fights relentlessly, like a lioness, to change mentalities, to build bridges, to push back the boundaries, and pave the way for women all over the Arab world.

Moroccan Jamila Halfichi is the fashion editor for Asharq Al Awsat, a leading pan-Arab newspaper founded “off-shore” in London in 1978, where she and the publication are still based today. In 2004, Halfichi launched Asharq Al Awsat’s Style section, and, as a leading fashion voice and critic, what she covers and how she presents it has an impact on readers and other influencers across the region. In 2013, she was the first Arab journalist to be a member of the BoF’s 500 people shaping global fashion.

The brand Meera Adnan was established by Meera Albaba, a Palestinian creative director from Gaza City. This contemporary ready-to-wear label was launched in late 2019. Meera Adnan crosses borders and spaces by operating from Gaza City. Its work focuses on reclaiming the narrative and is influenced by religious, political, and local references that create a romantic and nostalgic visual monologue from the City Under Siege. Albaba and her team also aim to build a platform for Palestinian creativity that we would love to see in a future Palestine.

 

Dania Akeel is a motorsport champion, the first Saudi woman to hold a National Competition License for Speedbike Circuit Racing issued by the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation, the first woman in the world to win an FIA Cross Country World Cup, T3 category in 2021, the first Saudi woman to complete the Dakar Rally, and first Arab woman to finish in the top 10 (she came 8th in the T3 category) racers. In 2020, she wrote a series of short stories about her experiences which were published in a book titled “Freefall”.

We are honored that these three intergenerational Arab role models answered Pulse’s questions.

JAMILA HALFICHI

What does being an Arab woman mean in 2022? How did you find yourself as an Arab woman and build confidence over the course of your career?

Being a woman in 2022 is definitely easier than being a woman in the 90’s, when I started my career. It was tougher then and required a great deal of maneuvering, as well as a lot of emotional and social intelligence, especially when you have to work in a male dominated environment. Thankfully, my passion, and eagerness to see the cup half full, were my salvation.

With the #Metoo movement and how women are rallying lately to support each other, attitudes have definitely changed for the better. Being an Arab woman did not make a difference for me, because I was lucky to have been brought up by an enlightened father who believed in empowering women and who taught me that the sky is the limit if you work hard. I was also lucky to have lived all my adult life in London. A city not just full of energy, but one that is capable of empowering anyone open and willing. I am grateful for the fact it has nurtured the rebellious spirit in me and given me so much confidence on both the personal and professional level.

Define yourself using three words.

Open minded, resilient and positive.

If you were in charge in your country, politically, what would you do to push for women’s empowerment and gender equality, to make them a reality, not just slogans or wishful thinking?

Abolish all oppressive rules and laws that make women second class citizens, but as I am aware that this is too ambitious, I will rely on education. I strongly believe that education is the solution to many problems. Moreover, it is a sustainable solution. I will start by creating a curriculum that instills in both males and females the idea of respect based on the fact they are in this life to complement and support each other, not to fight or compete. This has to start from childhood, of course, and women need this education as much as men, because most of the time, they are the ones who shape who we are in adulthood, due to their role as mothers.

Do you think that celebrating an international women’s day still helps the cause of women’s empowerment and gender equality? Do you believe in feminism? If so, why?

Any opportunity to reflect on, and expose the plight of women, or celebrate their contribution to our social, political, economic and cultural history is a plus as far as I am concerned.

Yes, I believe in the kind of feminism that advocates equality and respect to all humans regardless of gender.  It would be amazing if we live to see the day when we stop seeing each other in terms of different “sexes”, but simply as humans.

Do you think that Arab mothers should raise their sons differently? If so, why?

Definitely. It is sad to say that many mothers are guilty of perpetuating the problem in the Arab world. As long as they keep the same traditional mindset of preferring boys to girls, and creating this inherited hierarchy, which instills in the former the conviction that he is special, and in the latter that she has to be obedient and take care of his needs, they are guilty of perpetuating the plight of women and weakening any [female] evolvement in our societies. The male will continue to feel superior and entitled, which might make it difficult for him to accept that women are his equals as an adult. As I mentioned before, education should start at an early age and at home, and educating the woman, whether she is a mother or a daughter, is fundamental for her wellbeing in the future.

Who are five women that you’d like to invite to a private dinner party at your house, and why?

I am an old soul I am afraid, so I would love to invite Coco Chanel, Zaha Hadid, Wallada bint Al-Mustakfi, May Ziadeh and Fatima El Mernissi. Why? Simply because they are all outspoken, strong and fearless women who defied the norm, dared to be different and advocated the causes of women in a way or another. I would be so intrigued to listen to them conversing with each other, discussing their points of view.

If you could travel in time to meet a female Arab icon who still inspires you, who would it be, and why?

Because I am a passionate advocate of education for all, it will be no doubt Fatima bint Muhammad Al-Fihriya, the founder the world’s first university in 895 CE, known as the University of Al Qarawiynn. I am in awe of how she prized education for both men and women, and how she thought of using her wealth to help her local community. It is thanks to this woman that universities around the world exist. This makes her a true philanthropist long before the word philanthropy was forged and become fashionable.

Who is the one female Arab fashion designer you will always wear, and why?

I am impressed with many young emerging designers and will not hesitate to parade in their designs, but since I discovered Racil some years ago, I am addicted to her cuts, which she infuses with modern twists.

Who is the one female Arab singer you will always listen to, and why?

Fairouz, simply because I grew up with her songs and her voice always manages to soothe me and take me to a happy place.

If you were an Arab city, which one would you be, and why?

Casablanca: It is a city full of contradictions and hidden beauty. The secret is that you have to be open and positive first, because only then she will reveal her true self and gems to you…and in abundance

MEERA ADNAN

What does being an Arab woman mean in 2022? How did you find yourself as an Arab woman and build confidence over the course of your career?

Though we are in the 21st century, I feel like we still have a long way to go in terms of equality and women’s rights. Living under the patriarchy, women have been taught that they have no place in public spaces, and even nowadays women have to work hard just to prove their right to exist in these spaces. I believe in women’s solidarity, because it’s been the only thing I can rely on for genuine support. I feel like I wouldn’t have been able to make it this far in the industry without the tens of women who reached out to me and offered me their knowledge, love, and unconditional support.

Define yourself using three words.

Hyper-vigilant, compassionate, and genuine.

If you were in charge in your country, politically, what would you do to push for women’s empowerment and gender equality, to make them a reality, not just slogans or wishful thinking?

Politics under today’s neoliberal and gravely imperialist influence is truly deadly. The world has convinced us that having a parliamentary quota, fighting in the army, or creating more capitalist regulations is the answer. However, if I were to make the rules or have any power to make a change, I would start with dismantling the patriarchal tools that limit human knowledge. These tools are controlling every aspect of our lives as women, and barring us from any real equality or justice.

Do you think that celebrating an international women’s day still helps the cause of women’s empowerment and gender equality? Do you believe in feminism? If so, why?

I feel like this celebration only serves as superficial capitalist tool to remind women that they matter and are worth celebrating. Thus, it falls short, which makes it our responsibility as women to take advantage of this worldly celebration and take it a step further by reminding society that we still have a long way to go and that the greatest thing men can do when it comes to women’s rights is to help make sure that women’s voices are heard and that we don’t need men to speak on our behalf, even when they consider themselves to be allies. Because, women’s rights are not limited to economic empowerment, it is about true equality, the mere fact that women’s lives are not worth less than any man’s life in this world.

Do you think that Arab mothers should raise their sons differently? If so, why?

Absolutely. However, we need to understand that the way mothers raise their children is a byproduct of patriarchy. Also, let us not forget that women do not have the independence or power to raise their children as they might like without clashing with father figures and the rest of society. That’s why the issue of women’s rights and inequality require working collectively on different fronts and levels.

Who are five women that you’d like to invite to a private dinner party at your house, and why?

Zainab al-Khawaja, Bella Hadid, Ilyasah Shabazz, Mona Seif, and Angela Davis. I believe they are all beautifully daring and outspoken women and intersectional feminists who have made huge changes in their societies.

If you could travel in time to meet a female Arab icon who still inspires you, who would it be, and why?

Definitely, Radwa Ashour. An incredible novelist, woman, and human being. Aside from being one of the most respected Arab literature critics regionally and internationally, she was also politically and socially active against Zionism and inequality.

Who is the one female Arab fashion designer you will always wear, and why?

If I had to choose one, it would be Nafsika Skourti. Her creations are glamorous, chic, eccentric, and effortlessly sexy. I love the multilayered story-telling and richness of the brand.

Who is the one female Arab singer you will always listen to, and why?

Um Kulthum. There are many incredible female Arab singers and as mainstream as my answer may be, there’s something incredibly captivating about her art. She created perfect masterpieces. From music, to lyrics, to her magnificent voice that transcended time. Nothing can disconnect me from reality and force me to connect to my raw emotions like her work.

If you were an Arab city, which one would you be, and why?

I would be Acre. It combines both movement and stillness. It is one of the oldest and most beautiful Palestinian cities. It has witnessed historical battles and survived due to being resilient against foreign invasions.

DANIA AKEEL

What does being an Arab woman mean in 2022? How did you find yourself as an Arab woman and build confidence over the course of your career?

I find that being an Arab woman is a privilege and a blessing in today’s world. I have seen many opportunities present themselves which are intended to include and celebrate a profile which has not been considered advantageous in the past. I am grateful for the momentum that comes with being an Arab woman today.

Define yourself using three words.

Driven, curious, direct.

Do you think that celebrating an international women’s day still helps the cause of women’s empowerment and gender equality? Do you believe in feminism? If so, why?

I believe that a day like women’s day helps bring into people’s awareness the importance of recognizing the presence of women in society, and might highlight any gaps that exist. In our day to day lives we are loaded with information as a result of living this digital age, so it helps to be reminded of the value of significant pillars within society, like the role and influence of women.

Who are five women that you’d like to invite to a private dinner party at your house, and why?

Kristalina Georgieva, head of the IMF, because she is exposed to the financial needs of countries on a global scale and can have clear insight into the differences between societies and countries across the globe. Angela Merkel, for her ability to govern with stability and consistency no matter the external circumstances. HRH Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saudi, for her unique positioning between my home (Saudi) and the Western world, which gives her exposure to interesting dialogues and discussions between the two. Maya Angelou, for her wisdom in regard to humanity’s raw nature. Finally, Serena Williams for her outstanding athletic achievements, which are only possible with a strong mentality cultivating discipline, commitment, patience, and all the qualities which a top athlete requires to succeed.

If you could travel in time to meet a female Arab icon who still inspires you, who would it be, and why?

Sayida Khadija bint Khoweilid, first wife of Prophet Mohamad PBUH. For her advanced role in regard to the women of her time, where she was a successful businesswoman, as well as a devoted and loving wife; mastering the balance between her professional and private life that many women seek today.

If you were an Arab city, which one would you be, and why?

My hometown, Jeddah. It is by the sea and gives an air of simplicity, friendliness, and has a casual nature, much like my personality.