ME women

My top 10 Arab women

By Nesrine Malik, Friday 11 March 2011 13.11 GMT

Arabian Business recently published a list of the 100 most powerful Arab women, which was topped by Sheikha Lubna of the UAE. A member of the royal family, Sheikha Lubna was recognised for her considerable impact in UAE business and politics.

Averse as I am to the prominence of Arab female royalty in such lists, I was relieved that it was Sheikha Lubna and not Queen Rania of Jordan (entirely absent from the list) who came top. Lubna al-Qassemi isn’t your typical fashion-forward telegenic royal walkabouter. She actually has a real job – as the minister of foreign trade, no less.

In second place is another business force to be reckoned with, Lubna Olayan of Olayan enterprises in Saudi Arabia.

Obviously, considering the nature of the magazine, its ranking criteria are heavily business focused. But while an encouraging number of Arab women now occupy top positions in business, this is not an accurate reflection of the different ways Arab women wield influence. Activists, feminists and human rights campaigners are conspicuously absent and media personalities rank low.

While there is much fascination with women who achieve great things in business in the Arab world due to the challenges this must have posed and the wealth they have accumulated, there should be room in this slightly sanitised list for those whose ideas and actions consistently question the status quo.

I was surprised that Egyptian feminist and writer Nawal el Sadaawi did not get a place anywhere, and when I remarked about this on Twitter a Saudi woman responded that she probably needed a Hermes tote to make it.

Also, most of the women at the top end of the list seem to have had a very firm springboard, either through vast inheritances and conglomerates bequeathed by their late fathers, or political legacies and blue-blooded connections.

More impressive perhaps, is Nashwa el Ruwainy, a middle-ranking 38th. She is a media phenomenon who has managed to carve out a space without the help of royal genesis, a trust fund, or the patronage of a husband. Khadija bin Ginna and Leila Al Shekhaly, top al-Jazeera anchors who have for years commandingly interrogated and taken on those in authority are placed scandalously low at 87 and 90 respectively.

Interestingly, the top business/economics achievers hail from the Gulf. The UAE scores highest with 15 placings in the list, followed by Kuwait. This defies the stereotype of a conservative Arabian Gulf lagging far behind its north African/Levantine peers in terms of women’s rights.

The entertainers on the list are almost exclusively Lebanese – which perhaps indicates that public codes of dress or lack thereof do not necessarily reflect the status of women in those countries where they are enforced. The Gulf women who top the list are rarely seen without the black abaya and headscarf.

The choice of Nancy Ajram over Haifa Wehbe as the highest-ranking Lebanese entertainer reflects the list’s conservative bent, the latter being a more risqué (and I would argue, more powerful) version of the former.

Overall, the list roughly betrays the self-perception of the business elite. The Gulf is a powerful economic dynamo, the Levant entertains, north African Arab countries offer occasional culture and media personalities, and black African Arab countries are nowhere.

I propose an alternative top 10 below. Please feel free to add suggestions.

  1. Nawal el Saadawi, Egypt. Writer and activist
  2. Dr Hawa Abdi, Somalia. Doctor and human rights campaigner
  3. Zeinab Badawi, Sudan. News presenter and anchor
  4. Mody al Khalaf, Saudi Arabia. Writer and academic
  5. Haifa Wehbe, Lebanon. Entertainer
  6. Rula Jubreal, Palestine. Film director
  7. Zainab Salbi, Iraq/US. Writer and activist
  8. Haneen Maiki, Israel/Palestine. Gay activist
  9. Tawakul Karman, Yemen. Political activist
  10. A placeholder – dedicated to all women who protested in the streets of the Arab world over the past three months or or

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