The first Arab woman—and only the second woman ever—to lead the International Publishers Association (IPA) throughout its 125-year history, Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi is a story of success, a role model, and inspiration in the pursuit of literacy and culture
As the first Arab woman and only the second woman to preside the IPA, Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi is a role model for every pioneering Arab woman. Her home, the emirate of Sharjah, is the cultural hub of the region, where her journey with literacy and culture began. “My family, especially my father, was instrumental in my passion for culture and reading. He would often tell us stories from his readings and his travels, so we grew up curious and in love with the idea of reading and learning,” she says. “When I was growing up, I was fortunate that books surrounded me, and this is what made me deeply appreciate the written word. I think I was holding books before I could read. It’s something I feel is really important in children’s lives, books open to them a window onto the world, and other people’s lives – as the more we read, the more we understand one another and what it is to be human.”
Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi’s foray into publishing began when she found herself reading books to her eldest daughter. “She preferred reading storybooks in English because she found the Arab children’s books, available at that time, too classic and old-fashioned. After a candid conversation with her about Arab children’s books, I wanted to do something to change this thinking,” she recalls. It spurred her to create Kalimat Group to bring Arab stories to life with beautiful and creative illustrations and designs, a factor that is essential in attracting children and developing their language skills. “I believe we succeeded in giving Arab children now a variety of valuable books and stories that suit their tastes. We will passionately continue doing so in the future.”
Setting up Kalimat Foundation and the UAE Board on Books for Young People (UAEBBY) comes from her belief that reading and literacy is a right for every child, especially in a world where poverty, wars, and marginalization exist, and children are often the first victims through no fault of their own. “No matter where they are in the world, or what circumstances they are in, children should not be deprived of books and the light they can bring into their lives to help them dream of something beyond their current circumstances,” she explains. “The idea that children can be given some glimmer of hope with the gift of a book, in their native language, brings me great joy.” In addition, the ‘Ara’ initiative was launched targeting visually impaired children, in which large print, braille, and audio books were donated, so that no-one would be excluded from the pleasure of reading or simply listening to stories. “Ultimately, literacy and knowledge are a powerful force, and by empowering these children, we believe we can help them have a fighting chance to turn their lives around and that of their families,” she asserts. Believing that conflicts can only be fought with the power of culture, Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi also extended her support in restoring the Samir Mansour Library in Gaza. “We certainly need more books and fewer bullets in this world. I hope to offer some healing in a region that has suffered so much. I wish for the bookshop to be accessible to people of all ages, and the books there will help them see the world from multiple perspectives.”
Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi is constantly striving to empower people with culture and literacy, and her exemplary efforts and outstanding achievements to enhance Sharjah’s contributions as a hub of reading, literacy, and culture have received international recognition. In 2019, Sharjah was designated by UNESCO as the World Book Capital of the year. Perhaps her most cherished achievement is becoming the first Arab IPA president, and the second woman to ever hold this position. “I hope my story can inspire other women to chase their dreams and never give up because everything is possible when you believe in yourself,” she says.
“It was a huge honor for me to be nominated as President of the IPA. The fact that I am only the second woman to be appointed into this post, and an Arab woman at that, speaks volumes about how the organization is changing – it reflects a more diverse industry and one that is more inclusive. I am passionate about it, and I hope my being in this role will help usher in a new era within the publishing industry.” She emphasizes the importance of diversity and inclusiveness because if it does not reflect the world we live in, it becomes irrelevant. Thankfully, this is the case for literature, too. “It gives me great joy to see new voices being heard, reflecting the lives and cultures of different people around the world. We need this now more than ever.”
The IPA has a major and essential role in supporting the publishing sector, as it was created 125 years ago to support the protection of copyright and freedom to publish. “These two aspects are still key priorities, but the IPA has since grown to include a wider remit. It is now much more global and diverse, as it represents 86 organizations within 71 countries around the world. Its role now is to support publishers particularly as they are adapting to the digital age, and also work with their respective governments to create a more conducive legislative and economic environment to help them to succeed in their work”, she explains. “The IPA also supports its members worldwide in many initiatives related to literacy and the development of a robust reading culture. During the pandemic, IPA played a crucial role in supporting its members with consultations, sharing case studies, and creating opportunities for cross-industry collaboration.”
Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi represents a role model to Arab women, and her main message to them is to have confidence in their voices and to contribute as much as they can locally and regionally. “We all have gifts and talents to bring to the world, so let them shine.” She believes that the world and the region need more women’s voices on decision-making tables to bring balance and perspective.
As a woman in a leadership role, she also believes that women have great potential, and can play an important role in building society, which extends further than being a wife and mother. “Being a wife, especially a mother plays a vital role in keeping our societies healthy and balanced. But a woman can expand beyond those two roles. I try to support women gain more confidence by encouraging and inspiring them to share their voices with the world. I also launch or participate in different initiatives, in publishing or otherwise, designed to support the right of women to play a meaningful role in our societies.”
Believing in women’s potential, her efforts towards women empowerment yielded another incredible achievement when she established PublisHer in 2019, an informal platform for communication and interaction to strengthen women’s role at senior levels within the publishing industry. “I started working regionally and internationally, I was struck by the fact that even though women made up the majority of the workforce, very few made it to a senior level. So, I began speaking to like-minded women at various book fairs worldwide, and we started meetings and gatherings as side events to look at how we could turn this around”, she explained. PublisHer continues its growth with launching so many initiatives including the fantastic mentorship program, usually for younger women, to help guide them and facilitate their publishing career growth. It also produced a comprehensive diversity and inclusion tool kit to help businesses make unbiased hiring decisions and adjust their workforce to make it more inclusive and diversified.”
Despite the emerging of digital spheres, Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi is very confident about the future of the publishing industry. “Ours is an industry that is extremely resilient – its history goes back hundreds of years and has faced many challenges but emerged every time stronger. The emerging digital technologies are fascinating but also pressure us to adapt fast. Mobilizing a global industry to adapt to fast-changing trends is not an easy process” she shared. As the President of the IPA, she confirms: “This is where IPA and my role come into the picture. As the IPA president, I am working with all our members and stakeholders to create the right balance between healthy and sustainable progress in the publishing industry”.
One of the biggest challenges was the pandemic that impacted many industries, including the publishing industry. “The massive and sudden shift to the digital space for content for educational, recreational, or research purposes meant that publishers had to adapt in a very short period to a global shift of content distribution and consumption. In fact, this trend started before the pandemic, but we saw an acceleration of the demand for digital content during the lockdowns. Many publishers adapted quickly to this new situation because they had the digital infrastructure and know-how to switch their sales to online”, she explained. “Unfortunately, many others lagged, especially those who relied on the physical distribution of their books. Although this has posed an existential threat to many publishers worldwide, we in the IPA see it as an opportunity for our members to review business models, upskill and reskill the workforce, and generally adapt ourselves to fast-changing trends”.
Thanks to its hard efforts, the publishing industry managed to survive witnessing unparalleled outcomes. Under the theme ‘There’s always a right book’, the Sharjah Book Fair this year was even bigger and better than previous editions. “This year’s book fair was incredible, with a big number of attendees from all walks of life and many countries around the world. It was such an uplifting experience after two difficult years for our industry”, she shared. As for the reason behind choosing the theme, Al Qasimi explained: “We chose this theme because we wanted to highlight that the world of books is an inclusive one, it’s for everyone, and there is always a book about a subject or something you are interested in. We want everyone to come and discover the joy of books and reading and feel that they are understood and included”.
Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi is deeply passionate about books, and can’t choose a favorite from her many top picks. “This is always a difficult question for me because my reading choices are varied and diverse, as I enjoy exploring different ideas and parts of the world through books. I am, however, currently reading We Wrote in Symbols, written by a selection of Arab women writers and edited by Selma Dabbag. Elif Sharak, who I am a big fan of, wrote a captivating testimonial of this book.”
As a woman in a leadership role, Al Qasimi believes that things are changing, and women empowerment is continuing to become a priority. “In the UAE, for instance, we now have lots of female leaders in government, business or economy. This was unthinkable until relatively recently, so I think this is positive progress. That is not to say that the situation is necessarily easy for women in the Arab world. Some people still have outdated preconceptions of what a woman should or should not do, but these principals don’t change overnight and certainly don’t change voluntarily. We need to constantly strive to have our voices heard, not just for ourselves but for the greater good of society. My message is the same message for the publishing industry – we are at a time when listening to each other is really important because we are facing complex challenges that require contribution from everyone regardless of their gender, color, or any other categorization”.
With respect to the UAE golden jubilee celebration this December, she says: “I am proud that the UAE is adapting fast to a changing world while maintaining its cultural roots. It’s not an easy transition, but it has been handled with grace and care, so everyone can adapt and accept change more readily. We present a unique example to the world, and I am proud to be part of its journey”.
Originally published in the December 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia