There have been a sequence of pioneering moments in recent years that have made the global focal point turn to the Middle East and realize a greater balance of diversity across style, sports, art, and culture. In honor of Women’s Equality Day (August 26), Vogue.me highlights some of the key game-changing women across the region that revived the hashtag #ArabFirsts or signaled a seismic shift in girl-power status in the region.
From the Arab world’s first female general in the military to the first Muslim woman in US Congress, read on for the 11 history-making women you need to know.
A staunch advocator for the empowerment of women, the ambitious Saudi businesswoman, entrepreneur, and humanitarian is a prominent figure in the Middle East. Named as one of Forbes’ 200 Most Powerful Arab Women in 2014, Princess Reema continues to build on her long list of achievements. Last year, she was appointed as Saudi Arabia‘s first female ambassador to the United States. Weeks later, the royal was tapped to head the Gulf country’s newly-established Special Olympics Federation. For decades, Her Royal Highness has been shattering glass ceilings and pushing boundaries for Saudi women across the Kingdom. In recognition of these efforts, in 2016, she was appointed Vice President for Women’s Affairs of the General Sports Authority, just days before the 2016 Olympics. Later, in July 2020, she became the first Saudi woman to be appointed to the International Olympics Committee.
A 15-minute standing ovation set the precedent for Lebanese actor, writer and director Nadine Labaki’s Capharnaüm at its 2018 premiere at Cannes Film Festival. Her third feature film, it has been celebrated for its outstanding performances and touching storyline, scooping up the prestigious Jury Prize at the film festival. The win saw Labaki become the second Lebanese national, and the first Arab female, to take home the prize. The politically-charged film would go on to receive a number of nominations, including Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. It was also up for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2019 Critics’ Choice Awards and 2019 Golden Globe Awards as well.
After defeating world number one Raneem El Welily inside New York’s Grand Central Terminal earlier this year, Egyptian squash player Nour El Sherbini became the first woman to win the Tournament of Champions three times—and she’s not yet 30. The Egyptian athlete is no stranger to making sports history. In 2009, she became the youngest world champion in the history of the sport when she won the women’s title at the World Junior squash Championships at just nine years old. In 2015, she became the youngest woman to win the Women’s World Championship, which was held in Malaysia, and then a year later retained her title by beating her most recent opponent, El Welily, at the Women’s World Championship held in El Gouna, Egypt.
After winning the race in Michigan, Rashida Tlaib, who ran as a Democrat, now fills the seat formerly occupied by Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers, making history as the first Muslim woman in Congress. The daughter of Palestinian immigrants, Tlaib ran unopposed on the general election ballot following her primary win. The 44-year-old Detroit-born Democrat, who served in Michigan’s state legislature from 2009 to 2014 before working as an attorney, is also known for disrupting a speech given by then-presidential nominee Donald Trump. She further made headlines when she decided to wear a traditional Palestinian thobe from her motherland when she was sworn into the House of Representatives.
In 2010, Colonel Fatma-Zohra Ardjoune obtained the rank of general for the first time in the Algeria’s history. She is also the first woman in the Arab world to attain this rank. A medical doctor, she pioneered research in the field of hematology in the country in the 1980s and had been a veteran of the Algerian War for Independence. Three other women were promoted to general in the Algerian Army in 2014, making the North African country the top in the Arab world in including women in high-ranking military positions.
Sheikha Aisha bint Rashid Al Khalifa
Sheikha Aisha bint Rashid Al Khalifa has become the first female fighter pilot from Bahrain’s royal family. A graduate of Britain’s prestigious Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (which was also attended by Crown Prince Hussein of Jordan, Prince William, and Prince Harry), the Bahraini royal took to the skies solo in a BAE Hawk warplane in 2018. Sheikha Aisha holds the rank of pilot officer in the Royal Bahraini Air Force, and joins the ranks of trailblazing female pilots from the Gulf, including Emirati Aisha Al Mansouri, who became the first Emirati A380 female pilot by flying for Etihad Airways. Her sister, Major Mariam Al Mansouri, became the first Emirati female fighter jet pilot after graduating from Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa bin Zayed Air College in 2007.
The Tunisian model has captivated designers and photographers throughout her 18-year-long career, landing on the runways of prestigious fashion houses such as Giorgio Armani, Celine, Valentino, and Vivienne Westwood, as well as the pages of international Vogue (including the Vogue Arabia October 2017 issue). And when she wasn’t racking up an impressive client list, she was busy making history as the first Muslim model to appear in a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in 2011. Fourati, who started modeling at 15, continues to break barriers through political activism and improving conditions for models in her adopted city of New York. A few years ago, she launched a platform, Osay, to showcase collaborations with Tunisian designers and artisans.
The Saudi director has shattered her fair share of glass ceilings. In 2012, Haifaa Al Mansour made history as the first female Saudi filmmaker with the award-winning Wadjda— about 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. It was also the first production from the Kingdom to be submitted for Academy Awards consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Though it didn’t snag an Oscar, the highly-acclaimed movie won numerous awards at film festivals across the globe, including the Muhr Arab Award at the Dubai International Film Festival. Following the success of Wadjda, Al Mansour went on to produce two other features, Mary Shelley (2017), a biopic about the English writer of Frankenstein, and a film adaptation of Trisha R. Thomas’ Nappily Ever After.
Zahra Lari is known as the first Emirati figure skater, breaking ground by being a professional ice skater hailing from the Middle East when she qualified for the 2018 Winter Olympics. Months later, the athlete made international headlines again when she was tapped to star in the official campaign for Nike’s groundbreaking Nike Pro Hijab. Additionally, Lari was one of the young athletes who helped in the design of the athletic garment by testing out different prototypes.
The actor made headlines as the first female Saudi actor to land a major role in a Netflix series. Riyadh-born Ahd Kamel played the role of a Muslim refugee named Fatma in the new series Collateral, which premiered in 2018. The show is a murder thriller set over four days and revolves around the mysterious shooting of a pizza delivery man in London. Kamel stars alongside Oscar-nominee Carey Mulligan and actors John Simm, Billie Piper, and July Namir. Kamel, who received a directing degree from The New York Film Academy, has captivated audiences with her previous projects, including her role as Ms Hussa in 2012’s critically acclaimed Saudi film Wadjda. Her debut movie, 2009’s The Shoemaker, which she wrote, directed, and starred in, was named ‘Best Short Film’ at the Beirut International Film Festival, took home second prize at Dubai’s Gulf Film Festival, and received a special jury mention at the Arab Film Festival of Oran in Algeria in 2010. Additionally, in 2006, her acting debut in Razan won Kamel the ‘Best Actress Award’ at San Francisco’s International Film Festival.
In February 2017, Sheikha Mozah Al Maktoum took to the skies as the first female commercial pilot from Dubai’s royal family. The Emirati princess passed the APP First Officer Programme from CAE Oxford Aviation Academy in April 2016 before she went above the clouds for her first assisted flight assignment as a pilot for Emirates Airlines a year later. In the March 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia, the young royal admits she’s always had a passion for flight. “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,” she revealed.