By Alison Dilworth
“Majlis” is an Arabic term meaning council. It has been used to describe various special gatherings among common interest groups for administrative, social, or religious reasons. The Majlis is incredibly important throughout the Gulf region as a mechanism to promote discussion and social cohesion.
In 2018, Embassy Abu Dhabi’s Economic Counselor Alison Dilworth created a Women’s Majlis Series (WMS) in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with senior diplomatic women from the Australian, British, and Canadian embassies in Abu Dhabi. The original goal of the Women’s Majlis was to bring together a small group of women to provide an informal space for diplomatic women to engage with one another and to maximize the opportunities available for professional development.
“The Women’s Majlis is an opportunity for female diplomats to hear directly from women who have moved to senior leadership positions and benefit from the lessons they have learned and also their great wisdom,” said Julie Shams, deputy head of mission at the Australian Embassy to the UAE.
In the two years since its inception, the Women’s Majlis has exceeded all expectations. Panels on topics such as mentoring, sponsorship, imposter syndrome, and recruiting men as allies have garnered wide praise, and membership quickly grew to more than 200 diplomatic women in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. A partnership with the local United Nations (U.N.) Women’s Office brought in even more women, and soon WMS had a waiting list for in-person events. Panels consisted of a local female ambassador, a high-ranking Emirati woman, and a subject-matter expert for each event. Networking sessions after each panel brought diplomatic women together, strengthening relationships between embassies and consulates, and providing support and empowerment to young female diplomats, who could benefit from facetime with more senior female diplomats and learn from their experience. In December 2019, Consulate General Dubai joined the WMS with its own inaugural session, hosting more than 50 women for a lively virtual discussion.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the WMS board worried that webinar fatigue and the challenges of balancing working from home with online schooling and mental well-being would severely limit the effectiveness of any WMS panel. The board asked Canadian Ambassador to the UAE Marcy Grossman to do a fireside chat online, and she readily agreed. Offering to speak about authenticity and her own struggles with being authentic throughout her career, Grossman struck just the right tone. The session had more than 90 participants online who stayed 30 minutes over the scheduled time to continue asking questions and solicit feedback on staying true to oneself.
“The true magic of WMS events has always been those instances when panelists have spoken from a place of true authenticity and vulnerability about their own challenges and triumphs,” said Canadian Political Counsellor Shereen Mikhail Vaughan. “It invariably draws the audience in, creates learning opportunities, and indelible moments in our memories.”
Soon after the COVID-19 pandemic put Abu Dhabi into lockdown, the WMS Board realized the need to address the intersectionality of race and gender, spurred to discussion by the racial riots and tensions in the United States and the United Kingdom (U.K.) The WMS team sent out resources to learn more through books, articles, and documentaries, and the response was overwhelming. To fully address the issue, the WMS Board decided to deviate from the standard panel format involving high-ranking Emirati women and female ambassadors. Instead, it turned to three diplomatic women of color from the United States, the U.K., and Canada—who were posted in Mexico City, Islamabad, and Abu Dhabi respectively—to hear them share their amazing career journeys and the challenges they had faced, based both on race and gender. Their stories were inspiring and heartbreaking, and the similarities between experiences felt around the globe was striking.
“Being part of the WMS Board has been one of the most positive professional (and personal) experiences of my time so far in UAE,” said British Deputy Head of Mission Sophia Brecknell. “It’s been an opportunity to contribute on issues I care about deeply; to meet and get to know women from across the world, including Emiratis; and to stretch and grow in the most supportive and stimulating environment. I have learned a lot, smiled a lot, and cried a bit too. If you’re thinking about something similar, go for it! Every capital should have a Women’s Majlis.”
In January, the Women’s Majlis was exceptionally fortunate to have a star-studded panel composed of Ambassador Barbara Leaf, National Security Council senior director for the Middle East and North Africa; Mina al-Oraibi, editor-in-chief of the National (UAE’s top newspaper); and Captain Aysha al-Hameli, the first female Emirati pilot and a senior executive at the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority. These three outstanding women spoke on “Getting Past the Hairstyle—How to Be Heard.” The discussion ranged from how to ensure your substantive message gets heard when others want to focus on your appearance to how to use your appearance to send a clear message to ways to respond when others insist on commenting on it.
Future Women’s Majlis events will feature the Emirati minister of culture at one of Abu Dhabi’s premier universities, a joint event with the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and a Women’s Majlis at Expo 2020 Dubai—the first World’s Fair to ever be held in the Middle East. The Women’s Majlis has become a standard feature of the UAE diplomatic calendar, providing a tremendous venue for diplomatic women in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai to empower, strengthen and inspire each other. One of the most powerful and unexpected outcomes from creating the Women’s Majlis is the bond that the WMS Board has developed, serving as a true peer-to-peer sounding board for all sorts of professional growth and leadership questions. The challenges of organizing the WMS sessions pale in comparison to the inspiration and professional growth achieved through the process.
For more information on how to set up a Women’s Majlis in your country, please contact Alison Dilworth.
Alison Dilworth is acting deputy chief of mission at Embassy Abu Dhabi.