In honor of Muslim Women’s Day on March 27, we celebrate the diverse stories of 10 Muslim women around the world who not only overcame any discriminatory or prejudicial barriers in their path to groundbreaking success but also empowered others to rise up and do the same in their own communities, whether it’s in politics, athletics, fashion or entertainment. From the world’s first hijabi ballerina to Oscar-nominated directors, read on to meet these inspiring game-changers who showcase their limitless potential every day with each milestone moment.
Well on its way to becoming one of the world’s top 25 countries for gender equality by 2021, the UAE is already regarded as a model for female empowerment in the Middle East, with Emirati women making up a third of the country’s government and 50% of the Federal National Council. One of the first female members to be elected onto the council back in 2016 was HE Noura bint Mohammed Al Kaabi. Since October 2017, Al Kaabi has been the UAE’s Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, responsible for promoting the local culture at international levels and supporting emerging creative communities through national initiatives and policies. In addition to this prestigious role, Al Kaabi’s list of titles stretch far and wide, yet all are rooted in her passionate commitment to the UAE’s growth whether it be in the arts, media, or sports. From chairwoman of Abu Dhabi’s Media Zone Authority and media free zone twofour54 to board member of the UAE’s National Media Council, Abu Dhabi Media Company, and Abu Dhabi Sports Council, it seems there are more than 24 hours in a day for this Forbes Middle East-ranked “30 Most Influential Women in Government”.
This American-Palestinian congresswoman made history in 2018 when she became one of the first two Muslim women elected to the United States House of Representatives alongside fellow Democrat Ilhan Omar. Wearing her heritage proudly during the historic ceremony, Rashida Tlaib donned a traditional Palestinian thobe handed down from her mother as she was sworn in on a Qur’an. Nominated to represent Michigan’s 13th congressional district, Tlaib’s progressive platform advocates for environmental and economic justice, as well as equal rights for all citizens, especially the ethnically-diverse immigrant population her district is home to. This self-proclaimed “mother working for justice for all” is also on the key House committees for financial services and oversight and reform, helping keep different branches of the US government accountable and leading the movement for change from the nation’s capital.
While nowadays, it’s becoming increasingly common to see Arab models walk the coveted fashion week runways or star in international campaigns, that wasn’t the case when Hanaa Ben Abdesslem first appeared on the scenes in 2011. The Tunisian supermodel is often credited with helping to open the doors toward a more inclusive industry after working with some of the most lauded fashion houses in the world, including Chanel, Oscar de la Renta, and Vivienne Westwood. The former Vogue Arabia cover star was not only the first Arab model to be featured in the legendary Pirelli calendar but also one of the first to join a major beauty maison when she became the inaugural Muslim brand ambassador for Lancôme, paving the path for other Muslim models to chase their big-break dreams as well.
Syrian filmmaker Waad al-Kateab had a momentous year in 2019. After receiving the coveted Prix L’OEil d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a staggering four nominations at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards—of which she triumphantly took home the accolade for Best Documentary—al-Kateab received the highest distinction in cinema: an Academy Award nomination. Making her red carpet Hollywood debut at the Oscars with a creation from Syrian designer Reem Masri, al-Kateab’s dress displayed the message “We dared to dream and we will not regret dignity” in Arabic calligraphy, encapsulating the emotional and thought-provoking glimpse of her war-torn life in Aleppo that she gave viewers in For Sama.
G. Willow Wilson
One of the silent heroes we often don’t hear about, American writer G. Willow Wilson changed the lives of many young girls when she reinvented Ms. Marvel into the first Muslim superhero for the wildly famous Marvel Cinematic Universe, bringing a breath of long-awaited diversity into the comic book world. Instead of the original white Carol Danvers, Wilson’s alter-ego of the heroic character featured a Pakistani-American teenage girl named Kamala Khan who attends high school by day and secretly protects the streets of New Jersey by night—all while struggling to overcome the typical issues facing many Muslim-American youths. Not only did Wilson’s version of Ms. Marvel go on to become an American Book Award-winning series and garner its own television show on Disney+, but it also gave a much-needed voice to an underrepresented community in popular culture.
It’s not every day you see a chef on national television wearing a hijab, but it was a weekly occurrence when Nadiya Hussain competed on BBC’s The Great British Bake Off. Once the British-Bangladeshi chef was crowned the winner of the sixth season, the cooking show’s strong cult-following immediately thrust her into the spotlight and she became one of the most prolific Muslim chefs in the UK. Fast forward to today and Hussain has written two adult cookbooks rife with Bangladeshi-inspired fusion recipes, two children’s cookbooks, and two novels in addition to starring in a documentary chronicling her life and multiple cooking series for BBC2.
A fry cry from the burgeoning couture house created in the UAE five years ago, Atelier Zuhra has already built an internationally-recognized name for itself in the sartorial world, recently presenting its second collection at London Fashion Week in February to a packed audience. While Mousa Al Awfi founded the Omani label, her daughter and CEO Rayan al Sulaimani’s entrepreneurial mastermind scaled the Dubai-based company worldwide and gathered a star-studded clientele of style icons ranging from Sonam Kapoor to Ellie Goulding that is quick to wear the mother-daughter duo’s glamorous gowns on the red carpet.
When Stephanie Kurlow began dancing from the age of two, she likely never imagined she would soon be training to become the world’s first professional hijabi ballerina. Yet, with each passing year, it seems the Russian-Australian dancer is making strides to accomplish this dream after years of being rejected from ballet classes for wearing the hijab. The eighteen-year-old’s perseverance paid off this year when she was selected to join The Wiggles’ new TV show and toured Australia performing with the company. Kurlow also starred in campaigns with Converse and Lenovo bringing the conversation about inclusion in the arts to wider commercial platforms in hopes of inspiring other young girls to pursue their dreams, regardless of obstacles based on their faith.
While Mthayel Al-Ali is recognized throughout the region for her modest fashion-forward Instagram account boasting more than 700,000 followers, the young Emirati entrepreneur is also the founder of Dubai-based creative marketing agency Tkhayyal. Collaborating with local and international companies including Nike, Google, and Clinique as well as various regional personalities, the Sharjah-born influencer aims to help create social media platforms driven by purpose and continue creating content that empowers other Emirati women.
One of the first Muslim social-media sensations to takeover Youtube and Instagram with creative headscarf styling tutorials, modest outfit posts, and vlogs that tackle family, fashion, and faith, Dina Torkia is one of the kickstarters of the modern modest style movement online. After working with top brands such as Tom Ford and YSL Beauty, the British-Egyptian blogger also released her own clothing line and published a book called “Modestly” that explores the everyday blessings and difficulties that accompany her dual identities and publicly modest lifestyle with grace, humor, and honesty.