Arab women have been pioneers in their fields for as long as we can remember; from politics, finance, and economics to science, art, and culture, we’ve seen a major spotlight being shone on them in recent years as the Middle East recognizes gender equality and diversity.
To celebrate International Women’s Day this year, we’ve listed the Arab women who are paving the way for the future generations across the Middle East.
Sheikha Mozah Al Maktoum
Sheikha Mozah Al Maktoum is no ordinary princess. In February 2017, the Emirati royal became the first female commercial pilot from within Dubai’s royal family. Taking to the skies, Sheikha Mozah passed the APP First Officer Programme from CAE Oxford Aviation Academy in 2016 before taking her first assisted flight assignment as a pilot for Emirates Airlines in 2017. She told Vogue Arabia of her passions for flying in 2018, "When I was a child and traveled with my family, I always wanted to be in the cockpit. I used to sit there during the takeoffs and landings. I loved being there and asking the pilots questions; I never felt scared."
Princess Reema bint Bandar
This Saudi entrepreneur, humanitarian, businesswoman and advocate for women’s rights and empowerment, who was also named as one of Forbes’ 200 Most Powerful Arab Women in 2014, is none other than Princess Reema bint Bandar. In early 2019, the Saudi royal was appointed the Kingdom’s first female ambassador to the United States and then appointed head of the country’s newly-established Special Olympics Federation shortly after. Princess Reema has been consistent, over the decades, in empowering Saudi women and pushing for them to achieve their goals and was consequently appointed Vice President for Women’s Affairs of the General Sports Authority in 2016.
Colonel Fatma-Zohra Ardjoune made Algerian history when she acquired the rank of General in 2010, and also became the first woman in Arab history to obtain this position and title. A doctor by trade, she led research in hematology in the 1980s and was a veteran of the Algerian War for Independence. Following Ardjoune, in 2014 three other women were also attained the rank of General in the Algerian Army, making Algeria the top country in the Arab world with women in high-ranking military roles.
Sheikha Aisha bint Rashid Al Khalifa
Another princess proving that she is a force to be reckoned with is Sheikha Aisha bint Rashid Al Khalifa, who became the first female fighter pilot from the Bahraini royal family. Graduating from the UK’s prestigious Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (which was also attended by Crown Prince Hussein of Jordan, Sheikh Hamdan of Dubai, Prince William, and Prince Harry), Sheikha Aisha soared through the skies in a BAE Hawk warplane last year. The Bahraini royal has the position of pilot officer in the Royal Bahraini Air Force, joining a number of inspirational female pilots from the Arab region, including Emirati Aisha Al Mansouri, the first Emirati A380 female pilot to have flown for Etihad Airways. Her sister, Major Mariam Al Mansouri, also became the first Emirati female fighter jet pilot after graduating from Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa bin Zayed Air College in 2007.
Nadine Labaki was the name on everyone’s lips last year as she earned herself a 15 minute long standing ovation for her third feature film, Capharnaum, when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 2018. The Lebanese actress, director, and writer’s film gained critical acclaim for its heart wrenching storyline and outstanding performances by the cast, as it took home the Jury Prize at the international film festival. This prize made the Lebanese director the first Arab woman, and second national to win the award. Capharnaum went on to receive nominations for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, Best Film Not in the English Language at the 2019 BAFTA Awards, and the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2019 Critics’ Choice Awards and 2019 Golden Globe Awards.
Haifaa Al Mansour
Haifa Al Mansour made history in 2012 as the first female Saudi filmmaker with her award winning film, Wadjda – a warming tale of a young Saudi girl who wants to ride a bicycle in her country but isn’t allowed – which was the first feature length film to be shot entirely in the conservative Gulf country. Though Wadjda was up for an Academy Award, and the first from the kingdom to be nominated, it didn’t take home an Oscar but went on to win a number of awards at international film festivals, including the Muhr Arab Award at the Dubai International Film Festival. Following her successes, Haifa most recently produced two other feature films, Mary Shelley (2017), a biopic about the English writer of Frankenstein, and an adaptation of Trisha R. Thomas’ novel, Nappily Ever After.
Nour El Sherbini
At just 23 years old, Egyptian squash player Nour El Sherbini became the first female to score a hattrick and win the Tournament of Champions 3 times, following her victory over the world’s previous champion, Raneem El Welily inside New York’s Grand Central Terminal earlier this year. When she won the women’s title at the World Junior squash Championships at just 9 years old, in 2009, El Sherbini became the youngest champion in the history of squash. Later in 2015, she made history once again as she became the youngest woman to win the Women’s World Championship in Malaysia, and then a year later maintained her title by defeating El Welily, at the Women’s World Championship held in El Gouna, Egypt.
Known as the first Emirati figure skater, Zahra Lari rose to fame when she qualified for the 2018 Winter Olympics. Not only did she gain much media attention for her participation in the Winter Olympics, she also made headlines globally when she appeared in Nike’s trailblazing Nike Pro Hijab ad campaign, since she was also one of the athletes who participated in testing out the prototypes for the sports hijab. This year, Lari is representing the UAE at the Winter Universiade in Russia and training to qualify for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
All eyes were on Ahd Kamel as she made international news when she became the first Saudi actress to obtain a lead role in a Netflix series. Born in Saudi’s capital, Riyadh, Kamel plays the role of Fatma, a Muslim refugee in the streaming platform’s new series Collateral, which was released in 2018. Collateral’s story is a murder thriller starring Oscar nominee, Carey Mulligan, John Simm, Billie Piper and July Namir. Ahd Kamel obtained a directing degree from The New York Film Academy and caught the attention of many with her role as Ms Hussa in 2012 Saudi film, Wadjda.