Part of the “Women To Watch” featured in the November issue of Inc. Arabia. Contrary to popular belief, the Middle East and North Africa region is home to millions of highly educated, driven and successful women who stand shoulder to shoulder with men. Here are some of those inventors, change agents, business leaders, educators, innovators, entrepreneurs, and investors are no longer okay with the status quo.
Nayla al Khaja’s fascination with film started at a very young age. She remembers spending endless hours watching Bollywood movies that her father had collected. That she was going to do something in the world of films was a no-brainer to her.
And while people around her went towards more conventional career choices, Al Khaja ventured into the world of film—by first majoring in Fine Arts and Mass communication at Dubai Women’s college and then studying film at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada.
Fresh out of college, and back in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Al Khaja set up her own production house, D-Seven Motion Pictures, in 2003. Her first project, she recollects for us, was a documentary, Unveiling Dubai, which premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival.
Not that it was easy as it sounds.
“It was difficult because the film industry in the UAE was almost non-existent at the time. Major components were missing. The big question was how do you begin when you have nothing to work with. I was clueless,” she admits. “But I knew in my gut that I had to just start. So I raised money for a social awareness film through UNICEF and different government and private units.”
However, the underdeveloped film industry wasn’t Al Khaja’s only or the biggest challenge. It was the fierce and vocal opposition that she received from her closest circles.
“It wasn’t very easy for me. I had to work really hard to prove myself. I had to make some truly difficult decisions within my personal life to pursue my dreams. My parents were absolutely against my career choice. I went through a very tough time, trying to study film.”
In 2006, she produced and directed Arabana, a six-minute film on child abuse, a subject considered taboo in the Middle East region, for which she won an award. Her next film, Once, was about the secret dating lives of Emirati women.
In 2010, Al Khaja produced another controversial movie that took a look at the issues that arise out of arranged marriages. In Malal, a young Emirati couple visits Kerala on their honeymoon that is soured by the wife’s boredom with her new husband.
Her choice of taboo topics was not to garner attention around herself, she stresses, but to spark dialogue in her country.
“I want to push the boundaries by addressing controversial topics so that we can address important issues that surround our society.”
In 2007, Al Khaja launched The Scene Club in Dubai, which is the UAE’s first official film club. The club, which began with just 52 members has over 9,000 today and is fully subscribed every single month. “I think I am bringing so much to the table by introducing independent cinema to my country and bringing the community together to engage in dialogue,” she explains.
Today, Al Khaja is busy working on her lifelong dream—her first feature. It tells the story of a young Arab girl and a British traveler’s chance meeting in the deserts near Hatta, in the UAE, in the 1960s.
It is no surprise that most of Al Khaja’s work has the woman in focus. As the UAE’s first ever female filmmaker, she is a staunch believer in the role that film and art play in advancing gender equality.
“I think film is a very sublimary way of addressing a message. It speaks to you directly. It can change a preconceived idea or even an ideology that you have been so clingy about. Film and art have a huge impact in altering our perspective towards not only gender issues but many other social concerns.”
Photograph by Gabriela Maj