Manuel Arnaut and HE Noura Bint Mohammed Al Kabbi at the inaugural WILL Summit. Photo: Hyku Photography
While all of the contemporary buzz surrounding female empowerment through social media campaigns and outspoken celebrities is pushing women’s rights to the forefront of a global conversation about equality, it’s sometimes easy to generalize the term and lose the true meaning of empowerment amidst the hype. On November 25, the inaugural WILL Summit sought to uncover a deeper understanding of its multifaceted definition within a group of female trailblazers changing the narrative on women’s capacities and leading the movement towards gender-based social action in the Middle East.
Presented by Nervora, Vogue Arabia, UN Women, and the General Women’s Union, the all-day event sponsored by Neutrogena and Bulgari at the Rosewood Hotel in Abu Dhabi promoted female empowerment in the Arab world by providing an interactive platform for some of the region’s most accomplished women from various walks of life to share their personal journeys and hopeful visions of the future.
Intimate panel discussions, one-on-one interviews, and live performances revolving around the themes She Leads, She Impacts, She Works, She Plays, and She Performs, added an inspiring human element to the sometimes statistic-driven, macro-level debate on feminism while videos featuring successful Arab women around the world motivated attendees to reflect on what role they, too, can play in enacting progress.
“It’s really incredible to have all these women here sharing their experiences with each other,” remarked Vogue Arabia editor-in-chief, Manuel Arnaut, who often publishes such features within the magazine.
The Summit opened with a thought-provoking address by Dr Mouza Al Shehhi, Director, UN Women Liaison Office for the GCC, before Arnaut engaged in a candid conversation with HE Noura Bint Mohammed Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development for the UAE about the untapped potential of women in this country.
“The WILL Summit is a very good chance to be more visible and to be stronger in our advocacy,” said Al Kaabi. “We brought women from government and from the private sector to talk about themselves and their achievements. There were a lot of emotional stories today. No one would’ve heard these stories if it wasn’t for the WILL Summit.”
A few of these powerful narratives from foundation founders, talented creatives, and powerful CEOs, managed to capture the essence of hope instilled in those who are still striving to make a difference through their personal and professional lives despite the challenges they face in prejudiced or male-dominated spheres.
“When I help men, I’m Mother Teresa,” explained philanthropist Maria Conceicao who created a foundation dedicated to lifting Bangladeshi children out of poverty. “When I help women, I’m accused of human trafficking. But when I look in my girls’ eyes, I don’t see poverty, I see potential.”
“Today, we have women working in the oil and gas industries, which previously would have been unheard of,” shared Adnoc LNG CEO Fatima Al Nuaimi. “In the region, we have many challenges but economic participation for women is vital for progress.”
Nonetheless, women of all ages continue to rise above the glass ceilings and perpetual stereotypes to lead generations of pioneers throughout all disciplines in the region.
“When I started the sport it was just me,” said champion Emirati figure skater Zahra Lari who was the first to represent the UAE at global competitions. “Now we have more than 100 Emiratis and we have a national team of five skaters that compete at international level.” The first female member of the Saudi Arabian Motorsport Federation, Aseel Alhamad, also discussed the need for development to happen from within. “We need women who break barriers and lead the change.”
“Sometimes we compare ourselves to men, because that’s what society makes us do,” remarked Ingie Chaloub, founder and president of Etoile Group, and creative director of Ingie Paris. Yet, women have unique capabilities that deserve to be voiced and trusted. “My intuition is my weapon. Women are very intuitive – use it; don’t try to hide it.”
Although this was the first WILL Summit, it’s unlikely to be the last. As part of a broader WILL Initiative founded by Nervora in partnership with UN Women and the General Women’s Union to encourage advocacy and empowerment for women through a series of programs, this Summit was just the first step for the team towards active change in the Middle East.