Women are smashing the Arab world’s glass ceiling

By Khaled Diab

are not waiting for others to empower them, they are doing it for themselves. Over 40 are on the list of the most influential young Arabs.

Wednesday 6 May 2015

Despite Arab revolutionaries' dream of and empowerment for all, the cause of has taken such a battering that the dream has turned into a nightmare for many women across the region. This is nowhere more poignantly illustrated than with the rise of the Islamic State ().

Fortunately, there is some cause for hope amid the despair. This was dramatically demonstrated this week with the release of a list of the most powerful Arabs outside of politics under the age of 40. Of these young movers and shakers, more than 40, by my count, are women.

All highly educated and ambitious, the women who appear on this league table have found success in a dizzyingly wide array of fields, including science, technology, political activism, the arts, the media, , entrepreneurship, business and finance. In a region notorious for its neglect of science and , these high-flying women count a certified mathematical genius, IT whizzes and leading scientists in their ranks.

One interesting pattern is the large number of women from the Gulf, especially the UAE (16), who appear on the power list, though quite a number are not native to the Gulf. This conflicts with the widely held perception in the West and the traditional liberal centres of the Arab world that Gulf women are the most marginalised and disempowered in the region.

This is an encouraging sign that, despite the entrenched power of the patriarchy and regressive legislation on the Arabian peninsula, women there are fighting back and carving out a niche for themselves.

However, it would be a mistake to read this as evidence that Gulf women are necessarily the most influential in the region. Other factors play a role in their dominance of this list. One is the inevitable subjectivity of such an exercise. The league was compiled by ArabianBusiness.com, a -based financial publication. Whether intentionally or not, this is bound to introduce both geographical bias and a tendency to skew the list more towards business and finance, where the Gulf has a huge advantage.

This would explain some of the unclear choices, such as Nayla Al Khaja. Though as the UAE's first female film producer and director, she is undoubtedly a trailblazer and pioneer, that is not the same as being influential. What about those legion female directors from the Arab world's more-established cinematic centre who make ground-breaking films which reach wider audiences?

Regardless of where they come from, the prominence and sheer number of these successful and influential young women seem to stand at odds with the image of the Arab woman as oppressed and repressed.

Part of the reason is the warping effect of the media and public consciousness, where those who scream the loudest or commit the worst atrocities capture the most attention, while those who quietly get on with the business of life only receive footnote-sized attention.

"I believe that women have always been powerful." - Reem Khouri
“I believe women have always been powerful.” – Reem Khouri

“I believe women have always been powerful, but today they have a better chance to be recognised for their amazing work,” says Palestinian-Jordanian social entrepreneur Reem Khouri, citing the example of her Palestinian great-grandmother who bucked social convention in the 1920s to send her daughter to school.

And, indeed, Arab history is replete with powerful and successful women. “The fact that we, as the rest of society, have failed to see that is our shortcoming, not theirs,” contends Mohamed El Dahshan, a young Egyptian economist and activist who also made the list.

Beyond this, and counterintuitive as it may sound, there is actually a quiet social revolution taking place largely under the radar in which women, tired of waiting to be granted their own rights, have taken their causes into their own hands, in a phenomenon I call the “underground sisterhood”.

“I think that women aren't waiting for someone to give them their rights to dream and achieve, rather they are doing it,” Khouri told me.

This is reflected in, for instance, how many of the women on the list achieved their success against the odds, in spite of, not thanks to, the prevalent order. “I owe this to my mother,” Afrah Nasser, the prominent young Yemeni journalist and blogger, admitted to me with disarming simplicity. “[She] managed to fight an abusive husband, fight a patriarchal Yemeni society which did not accept her as a divorced woman, and struggle financially to feed her two daughters.”

“I owe this to my mother. [She] managed to fight an abusive husband, fight a patriarchal Yemeni society which did not accept her as a divorced woman, and struggle financially to feed her two daughters.”  - Afrah Naser
“I owe this to my mother. [She] managed to fight an abusive husband, fight a patriarchal Yemeni society which did not accept her as a divorced woman, and struggle financially to feed her two daughters.” – Afrah Naser

As someone raised by a tough, dedicated, no-nonsense and selfless Arab mother, I totally appreciate what Nasser means.

But it would be a mistake to believe that it is only women who stand by women in their pursuit of success and equality, many fathers and brothers do too – what you can call the “new” Arab man, who is actually not new at all.

In addition, in Arab societies, where family is a mighty force, open-minded families are a great help in creating a conducive for women's success. “I was brought up by parents who never differentiated between my brother and I and who continuously supported me in anything I wanted to pursue,” admits Khouri.

The fact that two-fifths of the 100 most influential under- are women is also a sign of a generational shift in gender attitudes among millions of young Arabs. One important factor in this regard is the emerging importance of meritocracy in many Arab circles, according to El Dahshan. “And a meritocracy, conceptually, is gender-blind,” he explains.

Beyond that, though sidelined by the established order, the youth who propelled the Arab revolutions also tend to believe in gender-blind meritocracy.

And, in part, the counterrevolutions and Islamist insurgencies gripping the region are a backlash against the equalising power of the region's youth. The regime and jihadist violence we are witnessing, especially against women, is not a sign of the strong flexing their muscles but of the weak lashing out in panic as their bankrupt ideologies and political experiments fail the test of reality.

But as the largest and youngest demographic group in Arab society, the young have time and numbers on their side.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 29 April 2015.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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