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A woman with a cross sign on a paper on her lips

It’s Time to Talk About International Childfree Day

Let’s live and let live already?

As someone whose pre-pandemic life was dominated by travel, it was unusual – rare, even – for a country to leave behind an emotional imprint. Until Vietnam happened. I found myself on the unassuming island of Phu Quoc in 2015 after a traumatic series of events left me without a plan for the first time in years and, almost on impulse, started exploring the country from south to north and falling in love with just about everything along the way. However, it wasn’t until I reached Hanoi that I found purpose again – volunteering at a non-profit that serves children born with birth defects as a result of Agent Orange.

Spending my days with children suffering from severe autism and Down syndrome changed me forever. Between my heartfelt connection with them and seeing their everyday realities up close, I vowed that I would dedicate any surplus time, money, and energy to institutions that cater to children who are already here and in need of help. And with whatever is left of my limited resources (yes, there’s truth to the term ‘starving artist’), I’d rather pursue the travel experiences on my bucket list: sleeping in a yurt by Issyk-Kul Lake, hiking to Everest Base Camp, practising sunrise yoga in Bali, exploring the undiscovered corners of Balochistan, taking a hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia, and capturing a rainy day at Salar de Uyuni. And I don’t feel the need to apologise for my priorities – or do I?

The subject of childfree women, such as myself, is a prickly one. Just setting out to write this article in celebration of International Childfree Day, today, led to everything from uncomfortable debates to downright judgemental reactions. For the uninitiated, International Childfree Day was created in 1973 and described as “a day of celebration worldwide for those couples who have faced criticism, ridicule, and rejection because they chose to be childless”. And it’s due to the stigma around what is an incredibly personal decision that I felt the need to speak with three resolutely childfree women in the UAE. What I never could’ve predicted, but makes a lot of sense in retrospect, is how similar they are – despite their differences. These are women who dote on their nieces and nephews and feel passionately about animal welfare, thereby disproving the stereotype that childfree women are “selfish”. Here are their stories.

Deborah

Born in the UK to an English mother and Iranian father, Deborah works in marketing and moved to the UAE 10 years ago. A few things that she’s passionate about? Animals, the environment, global warming, and everyday compassion. “I’ve become vegan over the last couple of years and, as a result of changing my diet, I think about a lot of things very differently now, including how we use the Earth’s resources and how we treat each other. More than the UK, you see stark differences between rich and poor in Dubai, and I’ve become more aware of that recently – how we treat those most vulnerable in our society, which includes animals that are completely dependent on kindness from others.”

Deborah says that it was a series of events – as opposed to one aha moment – that led to her decision not to have children. “Growing up, I never questioned that I wouldn’t have children. Like a lot of people, I thought I would get married by 27 and have probably two or three kids in my 30s. That was my plan and I never really questioned it, but there were a few different things that happened,” she says. “Firstly, I didn’t really meet anyone that I could see myself marrying. I spent a lot more of my adult life single than in a relationship and, while the relationships that I was in were very much by choice, they weren’t necessarily going to end in marriage.” Like so many of us, her light bulb moment happened in the shower.

“I got to a point where I was in my mid-to-late 30s and asking myself, ‘What if I don’t meet someone in time to have kids?’ And I’d never really thought about that before. I remember feeling a sense of shock that all of these things that I’d assumed would happen might not happen. But after taking a few days to really ponder it, I came out the other side feeling like it’s not the end of the world if I don’t have kids. I didn’t feel like I was going to be missing out on some universal life secret. And I was a little surprised by my indifference,” she explains. Her priorities were more rooted in meeting the right person.

“If I had to make a choice between meeting the right person and having children, I would always choose the former. I knew that I wasn’t going to do sperm donors or adoption if I hadn’t met anyone. And if I met someone who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with and they didn’t want kids, I knew that I would prioritise them. I also didn’t want to have kids within a few months of meeting someone – that’s a huge commitment and you need to be really sure about the relationship. I was around 36, 37 at the time and starting to edge towards a point where it may not be suitable for me to have kids anymore. I never wanted to become a mother in my 40s,” she explains.

It was around this time that Deborah underwent a post-breakup period of emotional recovery that entailed both spiritual work and adopting cats. “I also started looking at life from all kinds of different aspects, including spirituality, which helped shake off the need to leave a legacy in this life. At the same time, fostering and adopting cats made me realise that I could unconditionally love something that I wasn’t connected to by blood, and it freed me from this idea that I needed to physically have a child. It also introduced me to the idea of other options, like I could adopt a five-year-old if I suddenly felt the need to catch up with everyone else. It sort of released from the fear that I couldn’t love a child unless it comes from my own body.”

As fate would have it, she ended up meeting her now-partner a few years after this phase of healing and introspection. “I was 41 when I met him, and we had the conversation about kids early on. He said he would be supportive of my decision either way, but admitted to feeling relieved when I told him that I didn’t want children,” she says with a laugh. “He has children from his first marriage – two teenage boys – and it’s really nice in many ways. We get along really well and, while I’m not their mother, we make a nice family unit when they visit. Those few weeks of activity drop-offs and cooking for them and family time together leaves me feeling like it’s enough.”

Elsewhere, family time comes in the form of nieces and nephews, who helped take some of the pressure off Deborah – not that she ever felt pressured. “Both of my older sisters have children, so I wasn’t depriving my parents of having grandchildren. They have six grandkids and that’s plenty,” she says. Explaining her stance on connections, she asserts, “If you are supposed to be part of somebody’s nurture, it doesn’t matter whether you gave birth to them or not.” While Deborah says she has never felt the need to explain her decision to people, she does occasionally address the proverbial elephant in the room – just in case they’re wondering.

“But I tend to find that people who have kids never really question me on it,” she tells me. “And people who’ve known me a long time understand that it wasn’t a snap decision. It’s just the way that life unfolded, and you go with it.” As for what advice she’d give to women who are facing pressure or judgement as a result of their choices? Two words: dog mentality. “My advice is the same as it is for a lot of stuff. I understand that people have opinions or beliefs based on where they’re from. And that’s fine. But the best way that you can ever address anything is with a bit of kindness and empathy – even if they’re not kind and empathetic towards you.”

Being an animal lover, Deborah says she always asks herself what a dog would think of a particular person. “Dogs don’t notice your designer shoes or the size of your apartment or your body type. They’re just going to go, ‘Oh, this person is lovely! Do you have something nice in your pocket? Do you want to play with me?’ Dogs – and animals generally – give people the benefit of the doubt and approach people with positivity. Humans on the other hand? We’re the exact opposite. We care what you wear or what you look like. Along those same lines, dogs are completely unaware of the vehicle they’re in. All they care about are the simple things – who will feed them and who will be friends with them. And that would be my advice to such women, you know? People are always going to have opinions that you can’t change, so be who you are and be really comfortable with who you are.”

Mia

Mia, who works in business administration and marketing, hails from the UK and has lived in Dubai for seven years. Her parents migrated from India to England back in the 60s, and she says that her mother (who she describes as a go-getter) has been instrumental in her ability to question social norms. “My mum broke a lot of barriers in her time. She was the first woman in the community to learn how to drive, for example. And it was her strength and courage that has not only inspired me achieve a lot in life, but also influenced where I am today – getting married and having babies feels like a bit of a social institution.”

As a result of witnessing the breakdown of several marriages around her, Mia started to look within at a relatively young age. “I started questioning the decision when I was 21. Why should I have kids? Because society tells me to? And getting married and having children is the be-all and end-all? Is it an expectation from my parents? Or is it because I don’t want to feel lonely when I’m old? None of these reasons felt meaningful enough.” She tells me that she was a serial dater in her late teens and early 20s, but that changed after some key realisations. “When I was younger, I had to be in a relationship because there was this kind of urgency – I need to get married, I need to have children. And then I realised that I didn’t have to get married if I didn’t want to. I’m not going to settle. And I don’t really need to have children. That was a real wake-up call and it enabled me to have quite a healthy relationship with myself.”

Like many women who are childfree by choice, Mia says that seeing friends and family members with children doesn’t stir up anything. “I love children. I’ve got lots of nieces and nephews who I absolutely adore, but it doesn’t make me feel broody. I’ve got friends who hit 30 and panicked about their body clock ticking or being unmarried. I don’t have that feeling. I never have.” Mia says she gained newfound wisdom when she turned 30 and became a lot more accepting of her decisions, but not everyone followed suit. Over the years, her choice to remain childfree has been met by everything from incredulous gasps to patronising comments like, “You’ll regret your decision when you’re older and it’s too late.”

Like Deborah, Mia is the youngest of her siblings, all of whom went down a more ‘traditional’ route. “My siblings conformed to society, getting married and having children, which gives my parents the enjoyment of grandkids. But it didn’t spare me from the incessant questions about my future. There was this whole ‘it’s a part of your religion’ argument. But I’m Muslim, and part of my religion is also to give back,” she says emphatically. Between rescuing cats and educating children – tomorrow’s animal owners – on more humane treatment, Mia is determined to bring change in the future. 

“Look, I go around picking up all the disabled ones that really need help, so what’s stopping me from going to an orphanage and adopting a child that really needs help? That’s kind of my motto in life – giving opportunity. And I’m very fortunate to be able to do that. For me, having children is about bringing someone into this world with the intention that you’re going to create the best version of that person and give them the best kind of chance in life. I feel I can do that through adoption someday. I don’t necessarily need to give birth to be able to do that.”

Despite observing a move towards a slightly more tolerant mindset in general and across Indian-Muslim communities, Mia says there’s room for improvement when it comes to respecting one’s decisions. “I’m quite open about why I’ve chosen not to have children. And it’s not something that has come about recently, you know? I’m 34. This is a belief that I’ve been carrying for almost 15 years. I’m not going to start conforming just because I’m the only singleton at a dinner table with couples who are married and have children. And people need to respect that. We just have to respect how a woman chooses to use her reproductive organs, really,” she says wryly.

As for women in the Middle East? “We are entering into an era where women are able to challenge the longstanding limitations on their freedom. I think it’s crucial for women to be vocal, especially for those who are unsure of their decision or feel they aren’t allowed to think the way they do. This is a fundamental move to be liberated from the patriarchal system. Don’t be ashamed to speak up. I mean, we’re becoming more and more tolerant about people’s choice of gender identity and sexual orientation – why should it be any different for what a woman decides to do with her body? This particular subject doesn’t get as much publicity as it should.”

Pranjal

A homemaker and long-term expat, Pranjal has lived in Abu Dhabi for over 19 years, but what our chat reveals first and foremost is how her upbringing in India has shaped her into the real-life Dr. Dolittle. “I got my master’s degree in Marine Zoology from the University of Mumbai. I’ve always been a science freak and wanted to be a researcher, but I got married and moved here with my husband. As a child, I was a rescuer before the term was even coined. We had a house full of rescued animals – everything from dogs and cats to snakes, squirrels, and birds like egrets and cuckoos. In fact, if anyone ever found an injured animal or a baby animal in need of help, they would bring it to us. I was used to being around animals all the time,” she says.

Pranjal credits her paternal grandmother – who was an avid animal lover – for her penchant to rescue animals, but says animals were in much better shape back then. Her parents, like many, thought she would simply outgrow her tendency to pick up an orphaned puppy or injured cat on the way back from school. But luckily for the animal welfare scene of Abu Dhabi, she didn’t. “I remember people warning my husband that I was a bit mental about animals when we were getting married,” she chuckles. “But then it happened. I found my first rescue here. Being passionate about helping voiceless creatures, I picked up a poor cat helplessly lying on the asphalt in the summer. And that’s how my story in the UAE began. I’ve since been involved in areas like rescuing, humane trapping, and neutering. And I won’t stop unless I’m really old and unable to do things anymore.”

While I think of the capital’s stray cats as Pranjal’s unofficial family members, I can’t help but ask about her pets at home, and her reply is nothing short of fascinating. “Right now, I have a dog that I found in the street about nine years ago. He’s a big Saluki – and who throws a Saluki out in the street? But they do here. They’re thrown out once they’re considered no good for racing. He’s a hunter and an ex-racer, but he’s a submissive chap and became friendly with my five cats soon enough.” Her next anecdote is just as endearing as she recalls a puppy that she once rescued. “She used to collect shoes from all the villas around our house, and would dump them in the garden.  And in the middle of that, she once deposited a baby tortoise at my kitchen door. I remember being puzzled at the time, like, ‘Okay, this isn’t a shoe.’ That’s how I got Ninja, my tortoise.”

Pranjal goes on to recall more incidents – a 47-gram owl that needed to be force-fed by a vet before being released back into the wild, a sunbird that she found lying outside after it hit glass, and countless cats and dogs in need of help. The more I hear, the more I’m moved by her life purpose. Selfish? Childfree women are selfish? What’s more selfless than tending to an innocent animal that can offer nothing in return? Explaining the thought process behind her decision, Pranjal says the ever-growing human demands on natural resources was a big factor.

“I always was and still am a voracious reader, which is how I started learning about ecology and human encroachment on nature while I was in school. The Discovery Channel came to India soon after, which got me into all these wildlife documentaries. And then it just didn’t make sense – if this planet has finite resources and we are clearing things up for the sake of humans to exist, where will these animals go? They shouldn’t be in zoos for us to gawk at. Oh, and that owl I found? That’s because a new community was built in the middle of the desert, and wild animals were suffering. This is what human demand does to the environment. Forests everywhere are dwindling and, whether the land is cleared for livestock grazing or concrete jungles, the animals lose their habitat either way. I started asking myself what we should be doing as responsible humans.”

But while there are responsible humans, there are also nosy humans. Pranjal has been on the receiving end of both positive and negative reactions, some of which are just downright appalling. “I’ve never experienced a friend being judgmental – in fact, I met my best friend here because of our dogs. But I’ve also had women proactively give me phone numbers of fertility specialists. And then there are those who react to the fact that I don’t have kids by saying, ‘Oh no, I’m so sorry.’ At times like that, I ask myself if I should explain, but then I just let them assume what they want,” she says with a shrug. And in case you’re wondering, yes, she has also been called the S-word. “I’ve been called selfish, I’ve been called a child-hater, which I’m not. I love my cousin’s kids and I love kids generally – unless, you know, I’m on an airplane and the kid behind is kicking me,” she confesses with a laugh. Another classic? “You must have at least one child – who’s going to take care of you when you’re old?”

I ask Pranjal what advice she’d give to women who are on the fence about having a baby, but feel pressure in light of societal norms – particularly in this part of the world. “I would say to them what I said to myself: it’s your choice and nobody can make it for you. You should have a child only if you feel driven by your maternal instincts,” she explains, asserting that it’s not an experiment. “You cannot just have a baby and then see how you feel. But if you have made up your mind, like everything else in life, stand by your decision and know that your family will eventually come around. There’s no point making yourself miserable just because somebody else wants you to have a baby. Back then, a 20-year-old girl sitting at home was considered unacceptable, but it’s not like that today. You shouldn’t be pressured into becoming a parent.”

International Childfree Day may have been created nearly 50 years ago, but Pranjal (rightfully) feels that the overall mindset towards childfree women hasn’t changed much. “Honestly, I think that the you-must-have-children camp is much bigger than this small percentage of us who have decided to take this path. People simply need to respect others’ personal decisions – I mean, my neighbour has nothing to do with whether I have children or not. I’m happy there’s a specific day that recognises people like us, but I don’t think a discernible shift will happen anytime soon, especially in this region. Things are totally different in the West, but here, a husband and wife alone cannot be a family. There has to be a child in the equation.”

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Ghaliah Amin

At Home with Saudi Model Ghaliah Amin

Meet a woman on a mission.

In a world where impossible body types (read: skinny) are glorified, regardless of the cost, International No Diet Day is a celebration that deserves more recognition. Marked annually on May 6 to promote body acceptance and body shape diversity, it aims to help both men and women worldwide to appreciate their own bodies – a mission that Ghaliah Amin is all too familiar with.

She is widely hailed as Saudi Arabia’s first plus-size model, but in the process of breaking boundaries and defying stereotypes, prefers simply to be known as ‘a model from Saudi Arabia’. The Dubai-based model and TV host is also an outspoken body positivity activist – and full of surprises. For starters, she has a master’s degree in Art History and Museum Studies, a fact reflected in every inch of her eclectic apartment, where we spent an afternoon discussing filters, photo retouching, family pressure to lose weight, and the often-unseen resilience of Saudi women.

She also founded the Ana Ghaliah (I am precious) social media initiative to promote body positivity after first-hand witnessing the lack of diversity and inclusion in the fashion world. “Beauty is all about becoming the best version of you,” she says, setting out to remind all women that they’re precious, regardless of their shape or size. And because the correlation between a positive body image and improved mental health is undeniable, we’d be remiss not to celebrate this model – and role model – for her self-love message on International No Diet Day, today.

Watch The Video: Ghaliah Amin Gets Candid

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Haiya Afroze

Meet The Foodie Behind Pass Me The Dim Sum

Haiya Afroze talks all things Ramadan.

If your mindless scrolls on Instagram are accented with enticing flatlays of culinary delicacies, you have one woman to thank: Haiya Afroze. Not only is she the founder of Haiyatea, a tea room and artisanal tea shop, but she’s also the creator of our favourite foodie account, Pass Me The Dim Sum. Haiya’s feed is focused on wholesome, educational recipes as well as offering a glimpse into her always eventful daily life. As a proud and practising Muslim, she talks to us about what Ramadan means to her and how tea fits into the holy month.

Q

Why do Muslims break their fast with dates, and what’s
their importance during Ramadan? 

A

Dates are easily digested, making them a quick source of energy and nutrients. Eating dates after a long day of fasting can help the body’s blood glucose levels quickly return to normal. Our Prophet (PBUH) used to break his fast with dates, so it’s a tradition followed by all Muslims. Modern science also proves how beneficial they are on an empty stomach. 

Food Blogger Dubai

Q

In what ways can non-Muslims help observe Ramadan
with their Muslim friends?

A

To be quite honest, Muslims try to retract from worldly activities and do more self-reflection and worship than usual in the month of Ramadan. My personal struggle with my non-Muslim friends is the peer pressure to hang out, go out, socialise – and that’s just not something I enjoy as much in Ramadan. These are golden days, and any worship done is rewarded many folds, so that’s how I want to spend most of my time in Ramadan. I would love if my friends understood that.

Q

What is your go-to dish to cook during Ramadan, and why? 

A

My husband and I aren’t very traditional and, because we live alone and have no relatives here, we tend to keep our iftars (the meal at dusk to break the fast) quite light and simple. They often just comprise of the regular meals we would’ve had anyway. The one thing that’s different is that we’ll always have dates and Arabic coffee – flavours and scents I now associate with Ramadan – on our table. We’ll also have a fruit salad as it’s perfect after a long day of fasting. We avoid sugary drinks and opt for water, and sometimes we’ll have dahi phulikiyaan, a dish comprising of crispy rehydrated gram flour swirls submerged in whipped yoghurt. So refreshing!

Q

How will you incorporate your love for tea into Ramadan this year?

A

My love for tea doesn’t stop during Ramadan! What’s amazing to me is that on a normal day, skipping my morning matcha will give me a migraine, but God just makes it easy during a fast. After we have iftar, I’ll fire up the humidifier with a refreshing scent of choice and spend the evenings reading Quran and refilling my pot of tea several times. 

Q

Do you always go traditional for Ramadan or shake it up with other cuisines?

A

Ramadan really is about revisiting and embracing traditional foods, but as I am not a very traditional person and don’t always relate to the culture I’ve inherited, I always merge traditional with untraditional. For example, I was once commissioned to create an Arab-inspired dish using oats. Saudi oat soup is the most traditional dish that comes to mind when I think of oats, but I couldn’t do that – that’s too easy. So, I made a savoury granola using za’atar, cumin, and pomegranate molasses, serving it alongside Turkish tomato sauce, grilled eggplant, and whipped garlic yoghurt. 

Q

What dessert do you always cook during Ramadan, and why? 

A

I love basbousah! It’s a semolina cake of sorts, which is drenched in sugar syrup. I bake it with orange juice for some zestiness, and line the pan with tahini for more decadence! 

Q

Can you share your favourite Ramadan recipe with us?

A

I wanted to incorporate my treasure chest of oats into recipes that are popular this time of year, regardless of whether or not those recipes traditionally call for oats. I grew up in Saudi Arabia, where pull-apart cheesy bread is a common and standard teatime accompaniment all year round, but an especially popular item on the iftar table. Each little pillow of dough is stuffed with a cube of firm white cheese (mozzarella, halloumi, or Kiri) because there is no such thing as ‘too much cheese’ or ‘too many olives’ in the Middle Eastern vocabulary.

Q

What is your most cherished Ramadan memory, and why? 

A

My most cherished memory, without a doubt, are the iftars I had alone with my late grandmother at her place. She was the ‘hostess with the mostess’ and always expressed her love through food, but during the many Ramadans I spent with her when there were no guests? Those are my favourite memories. She would make two perfectly portioned bowls of fruit salad and a few pakoras for us both – pakoras are gram flour fritters and they’re my ultimate Ramadan weakness, but I avoid making them as they’re deep-fried and I could eat a plateful. We’d then go straight to dinner. Those iftars encompassed the true essence of Ramadan for me: modesty, simplicity, family, love. And no gluttony! 

Q

What’s a dish that you never thought you would try, but love?

A

Fermented green tea leaf salad. It’s a Burmese snack that’s sweet, savoury, spicy, and oh-so-moreish. 

Q

What tips can you share to help others through the Ramadan season?

A

When you’re fasting, you want to eat a horse. Don’t do it. Don’t go overboard with iftar preparations – make just as much food as you would for a regular dinner because chances are you’ll want to eat even less than you usually do. When you make too much food, though, you tend to overeat just so you don’t have to deal with leftovers. And obviously, drink lots of water between dusk and dawn. During suhoor (the morning meal before the sun rises), avoid spicy or greasy foods that will make you thirsty and try to have some yoghurt. I always find that yoghurt makes me feel less thirsty throughout the day. 

Q

Are there any other changes that you make in your life during Ramadan?

A

It’s not advised to change our religious inclinations during Ramadan and return to a lifestyle that is un-Islamic. However, we do try to better ourselves in whatever personal capacity we can and see ourselves lacking in, but with the intention of maintaining those ways – not just for a month.  As Muslims, we are encouraged to give charity throughout the year. In fact, one of the fundamental pillars of Islam dictates that we must donate 2.5% of the savings we have had for over a year to the less fortunate in order to keep income disparity at bay. However, charity peaks during Ramadan because we believe that all good deeds are rewarded many folds during this blessed month. The spirit of generosity during Ramadan is truly palpable in the air.

For more recipes or just plain FOMO as Haiya dines across Dubai, follow her here.

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Islam Mosque

Faith, First: In Conversation with Mathilde Loujayne

Meet an inspiring – and unlikely – face of Islam.

Raise your hand if your teenage years revolved around makeup, fashion, college applications, and dating. Mathilde Loujayne’s adolescence was no different, except hers also featured a nearly decade-long spiritual quest that eventually led to a life-altering decision. Today, as we continue into the holy month of Ramadan, Mathilde talks us through her journey to date. The Dubai-based author, who hails from the south of France and works in PR, converted to Islam at the age of 18.

“Trust me, I was obsessing over boys and makeup as well,” she says with a laugh. “Your teenage years are such an interesting time, there’s so much going on. But a common thread throughout my life, even when I was a kid, was a strong sense of spirituality. I was eight when I first started asking the bigger questions.” Ironically, Mathilde was born into an atheist family, making her questions that much harder to answer. “I was never taught about God. I had to find those answers myself. And when I learned about God, I was in France and asked my parents if I could get baptised. They agreed.” 

Baptised at the age of 10, Mathilde reveals what prompted her decision: the death of her older brother, who was only 16 years old. “It really opened the door to wanting to understand what happened to him. Why did he die at such a young age? Where is he now? Where is his soul? I had to figure all that out as a very young child – and I was still grieving, of course. As a Christian, I was trying to find answers through my community at the time, but was unable to. That pushed me to understand other perspectives, other religions. And shortly after, my parents moved to Oman.”

Mathilde Loujayne

Both nature and nurture come together to shape who we are, a fact illustrated by Mathilde’s move to Muscat at the age of 11. “I went to an international school, where there was so much diversity, so many different backgrounds and cultures and nationalities. My friends and I were really open about discussing our thoughts on certain topics, which prompted me to read more about other religions. But I was still thinking Christianity – maybe Orthodox or Protestant? I wasn’t really looking elsewhere.” 

Mathilde pauses to warn me that what follows is a long story, but it’s a fascinating one. She discloses that her father survived cancer before she was born and was on a spiritual journey of his own. “It was something we’d never really discussed. But around that time, he told me and my mom that he had converted to Islam a few years prior. We had a Quran at home, and I would debate endlessly with him. I wouldn’t consider his point of view, I was very confrontational – a typical teenager, I guess.”

And then 9/11 happened. 

“I was 17 at the time and, suddenly, the whole world turned against Muslims. I couldn’t understand what was going on because Omanis are so peaceful, so hospitable. I’d never met a violent person in Oman, and my dad was now Muslim. I figured that since I want to read about other religions, I might as well start with the Quran. I have one in my house, I live in a Muslim country – it just makes sense.” But while her decision to read the Quran was more about general knowledge and less about conversion, Mathilde approached it with an open mind. And an open heart. 

“I was so surprised when I started. I found myself reading about the prophets that I knew in Christianity, the stories were so similar, the message was so similar. It felt so familiar, but so new at the same time. It felt like God was speaking to me directly. And the message was so loud – it brought peace to my heart as I was still grieving. It answered so many questions that I had about my brother. It eased my pain and gave me more than I was asking for. That’s when I asked my parents if I can become a Muslim. They were very supportive, so an imam came to our house and I said my shahada – the pronunciation of faith – in their presence.”

The rest, as they say, is history. “I’ve never looked back,” she remarks. Striving to keep her faith strong, Mathilde has been on a mission to understand Islam from a female perspective. As for what she’s discovered? “I encountered many misconceptions that I had to explore. I did a lot of research to understand women’s rights and why certain things are forbidden. What I’ve realised is that it’s a religion of logic, it’s all for our own benefit. Like now, for example, we’re fasting not only for spiritual reasons, but also health. I researched the wives of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to understand their journey because I wanted to approach the story of Islam through the women of Islam. Even his daughter Fatima – I learned so much about the importance of modesty through her. Being French, I had a hard time with modesty,” she admits with a giggle. 

Mathilde rightfully asserts that women from the early years of Islam – both Khadijah and Aisha were pillars of the community – aren’t recognised nearly enough. “If you think about it, a lot of the lectures focus on the companions of the Prophet, but not so much on his wives. Some of them were scholars themselves, they would teach the companions. No one talks about that. It’s such a huge achievement and something we should be proud of as Muslim women. Seeing how much knowledge they had contrasted by how many girls don’t get an education in Muslim countries today? It’s not right.”

female influencer Dubai

Talk of influential women steers the conversation in the direction of Halima Aden, who famously gave up a thriving modelling career, stating that it was at odds with her faith. I ask if this act of sacrifice resonates with Mathilde. It does. “I always wanted to be in the music industry. And I was. After moving to the UAE, I worked for a company that put on major concerts and music festivals with A-list artists – Kanye West and The Prodigy included. It was a lot of fun, but you can imagine what the music industry is like. There were so many times when I thought, ‘What am I doing here? These are not my values.’ Don’t get me wrong, I still love music, but I knew I had to give up my job. I resigned and ended up in the corporate world, which was a sacrifice because I loved the work. It just wasn’t compatible with my lifestyle.”

But it’s not just behind the scenes in the music industry where Mathilde feels like a bit of a misfit, unfortunately. With Islamophobia at an all-time high in France, I ask how she reconciles the fact that’s she French, female, and Muslim. “It’s a confusing time because I love my country, but I can’t stand the news.” And yes, she hears about the hijab ban daily at this point. “That ruins it for me. I wish France would embrace its diversity, but it’s going in the opposite direction. I almost don’t know what to say because I feel very sad about the situation. It hurts when your own country goes against your values – I wouldn’t be accepted if people knew who I was.”

While Islamophobia is a relatively recent phenomenon, longstanding opinions about the religion are well-documented. “Islam is the best religion, and Muslims are the worst followers.” I read aloud this famous quote by late 19th century playwright George Bernard Shaw to Mathilde, curious about her reaction. Caught off guard, she chuckles before confessing, “When you’re a new Muslim, you embrace the religion fully and think all Muslims are perfect Muslims. It’s an assumption we falsely make because we’re all human at the end of the day – no one’s perfect. But living in the Middle East, you can’t assume every Muslim is practising – everyone is on their own path. I’ve learnt to not judge.”

Big Little Steps

Big Little Steps. PRP AED 78,
available at thedreamworkcollective.store

This is a message reinforced throughout her book, Big Little Steps. “New Muslims come with an energy of wanting to be perfect, but I tell them to take their time. You have to understand why you’re doing certain things, understand the rationale behind it.” Aimed at both converts and those born into Islam, Big Little Steps breaks down the religion’s principles in a simple and inviting way with the aim of making it more approachable and highlighting its beauty. Published by The Dreamwork Collective, it tackles preconceived notions of Muslim women in a positive manner. Even the aforementioned Halima Aden makes an appearance.

“I wanted to share everything that I’ve learnt as a woman and a new Muslim,” says Mathilde, delving into the idea behind the book. “When you embrace Islam, there’s so much to learn, and it can be very overwhelming because people from every corner come to you with advice – unsolicited advice sometimes. It comes from a good place, but yes, it’s overwhelming.” The book was born as Mathilde sought the right words to explain why she chose to embrace Islam to her mother. “I wrote Big Little Steps with non-Muslims in mind – specifically my mom – because all this time, I was trying to prove to her that I’ve become a better person. I’m not very talkative, so it came out as a book.”

As someone who struggled to find material for new Muslims, she recalls, “I wish I had something like it growing up. I had to buy a children’s book when I was learning how to pray. That’s why I wanted to make it available to others.” Big Little Steps is also strategically designed to engage readers, encouraging them to take notes as they go along. “The idea is to understand Islam through my personal experiences, with the book serving as a guide to read the Quran. It’s not about my vision. I want the reader to start their own thought process.” Referring to herself as a mere vessel to spread the word of God, Mathilde says her goal is fulfilled if she can help even one person. 

Now that’s modesty.

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Jessica Smith posing

Life Lessons Through the Lens of Jessica Smith

We tap into the wisdom of an extraordinary woman.

Wouldn’t things be boring if we were all the same?

It’s this seemingly simple question that adds one more hat to Jessica Smith’s already impressive list of roles: author. Coming into prominence as a Paralympic swimmer, she is a mother, a motivational speaker, a body-positivity advocate, a recipient of the Medal of the Order of Australia, and the Chief Operating Officer of TOUCH talent management (an inclusive talent agency and disability consultancy that aims to educate society about the importance of inclusion, both from a professional and social standpoint).

Now, she’s celebrating the launch of Jessica Goes to School, the first children’s book in the ‘Just Jessica’ series, which is rooted in themes of disability and acceptance – a far cry from the resources she grew up with as a little girl born without her left forearm. The books are the result of not only Jessica’s personal journey into parenthood, but also her drive to create characters who represent what kids see in everyday life, thereby encouraging them to understand and embrace differences. Set to complete the trilogy with the release of Jessica Goes Swimming and Jessica Joins the Band later this year, she continues to mould young minds and encourage conversations around social inclusion, taking a moment to share her life lessons with us. Listen in.

Q

What has being a Paralympian taught you about overcoming adversity?

A

Being a Paralympian is being part of a group of people who have had to overcome so much in their life before being given the opportunity to represent their country. I was born missing my left arm, and then had a scalding accident as a child, which left me with prominent scarring on my neck and chest. I feel fortunate that I was born with the disability and those traumatic events happened at such a young age – I grew up not knowing any different. So even though the world wasn’t built for somebody like me, I was able to adapt and find my own way of doing things. Sport was a natural progression because it was a way for me to use my body and prove to myself and everybody else that I wasn’t going to be limited by perceptions around disability.

Because I struggled with body image issues and eating disorders at the time, I don’t have the best profile on paper when it comes to a Paralympic swimmer. However, I think I’m one of the most celebrated Paralympians, especially from Australia, because of the parallels that I’ve been able to draw from that phase of my life and apply it into all areas of my life – and that’s something only elite sportspeople are able to understand. It’s that goal-setting, that drive, that determination, and not giving up at any cost. In a world that didn’t value disability, representing my country gave me the confidence to be where I am today – as an author, as a mother, as a business person.

Q

What has creating the character of Jessica taught you about the importance of representation?

A

Because it’s such a personal exploration of my own childhood, and therefore my entire life, it’s taught me a lot about what I missed out on, and therefore what’s so important for me to leave as a legacy for my own children and for all children – whether they identify as having a disability or not. I didn’t feel represented as a child, and disability was never seen in a positive light, especially when it came to storytelling. Disability was always a villian, it was always someone scary, something to be afraid of. And that really had an impact on my self-identity from as young as I can remember, questioning who I was and why I looked the way I did.

As a result, the process of writing the stories of this Jessica character – who of course is essentially me – has not only helped me touch into that vulnerability I experienced, but also what I wish I had and how I can try to change that for future generations, so it’s been very complex. It’s funny, when I came up with the idea of wanting to write a children’s book, my husband was like, “Oh, you’ll do that in a weekend. It’ll be easy.” It’s been three years now of being able to understand how to tell complex ideas and thoughts in a way that ignites fun and enthusiasm from children. And so it has been a journey – and it continues to be a journey.

Jessica Smith

Q

What has life in Dubai taught you about the power of diversity?

A

Dubai is such a wonderful melting pot of cultures and ideas and thoughts and processes, and it’s been so interesting for me. I’ve only been here for three years, and I feel very welcomed – not just from a female perspective, but a female with a disability trying to create more dialogue around such topics. However, there is still the pressure I feel driving down Al Wasl or Jumeirah Beach Road that comes from this constant bombardment of the unattainable, so I’m trying to have these really important conversations about difference – whether that’s through beauty or aesthetics or disability.

I feel there’s so much focus on beauty and plastic surgery and Botox and all those things, which I sometimes find myself contemplating as I move closer towards 40. And when I’m confronted with having to make those decisions, I wonder if it goes against what I’m trying to say in the narrative around being empowered to be who you are. But, yes, I do find Dubai to be such a huge contrast in many conversations that happen around diversity and inclusion. It’s fascinating, and I still have so much to learn.

Q

What has being a woman taught you about the dangers of unrealistic beauty standards?

A

Oh, I think the pressure that women face is incredibly unfair, and I don’t even know where it has come from because it’s such a small percentage of females who fit within those beauty standards anyway. Nevertheless, we’ve all become so obsessed with trying to fit within those societal moulds, and the impact it’s having on our mental health is catastrophic. We see it at every stage of a female’s life because it doesn’t matter what we’ve gone through – pregnancy, illness, disability – there’s this expectation that we will just bounce back and regain our pre-whatever body. And while I don’t understand why that has become part of the narrative, I still see so many women who are judgmental of other women. That is where we do ourselves a huge injustice.

Personally, my negative body image issues stemmed from the fact that I didn’t fit anywhere in society, so I convinced myself that losing a little bit of weight would maybe make people see past my obvious imperfections. I think that’s something so many women can relate to, no matter who they are or where they come from, because we’ve somehow become so disconnected from what we’re trying to achieve as feminists. It’s a societal issue. Certainly as a mother, I’ve faced the expectation to bounce back, and I don’t even know what that is because we’re always evolving, so why should we be reverting? We need to change that narrative. We need to sit with our thoughts and feelings because it’s going to make it so much easier to process those negative body image feelings when they do come – because they will come. I’m nearly 38, and this has been an issue my entire life. I don’t want it to be an issue for my daughter, so how do we stop that? It’s through us.

Jessica Smith

Q

What has being a mother taught you about intergenerational ethics?

A

This is something I touch on whenever I’m giving a talk because we’ve recently marked International Women’s Day, for example, and a lot of what’s discussed is around how people are fatigued of the conversation because we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. And certainly, the pandemic has pushed that movement back even further when it comes to equality and advancing women. I think what’s important is that we stay motivated with the hope that every little bit does help and will create change for the future. We may not see it. Well, we won’t see it, but I have to hold onto that little bit of hope that my daughter is seeing what I’m saying and how I’m acting, and will in turn be a good role model for her children and future generations. 

We need to make sure that the goal, even though it might seem out of reach at the moment, it’s still worth the fight. And the fight is knowing that we have a moral and ethical obligation for future generations, never giving up and continuing to empower one another in order to create a better future. My own mother and grandmother were trailblazers within their own circle, so when you see it, you know you can be it. That was the case for me, and I want that to be the case for my children.

Q

What has being an entrepreneur who champions disability inclusion taught you about social acceptance?

A

We still have a long way to go, but people are very eager to be part of the conversation. And that’s what it’s about. It’s about not calling people out. It’s about encouraging everyone – society, the corporate world, every single person – to be part of the conversation. It’s about how Touch, as an organisation, can help bring awareness to the topics of disability and difference in a way that makes people feel that they want to be involved and contribute. Our mission is to be industry leaders when it comes to inclusion and diversity, so we represent amazing talent ranging from podcasters to athletes, Michelin-starred chefs, and Emirati musicians – and some happen to have a disability. If we were to only represent people of determination, then that would be exclusion as well.

The amount of talent that we represent just goes to show that this region is moving a lot faster than what people think when it comes to wanting to see inclusion at every stage, so Touch can hopefully be that pathway for corporate bodies to be able to see that inclusion needs to be from education through to employment through to every personal right. We want organisations to look within their own teams and ask, ‘Who’s not in the room, and why?’ We want to make sure that there’s a seat at the table for everybody, and that doesn’t just include those with a disability – though that is a strong driving force, of course. And when it comes to the economic side of things, between 8 to 13 trillion dollars per annum is being missed out because companies don’t have a disability strategy. They’re starting to realise that this isn’t just a feel-good thing. It’s the same as the fight for females; inclusion doesn’t exist if you don’t have a disability at the table.

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All Hail the UAE’s Queen of Flatlay

The Gaggler meets Emirati artist Fatma Hilal.

Mother, artist, photographer, designer, self-taught coder, and one of the first female Emirati web designers – Fatma Hilal is something of a trailblazer. A student of business administration back in the 90s, she longed to be a designer despite being dedicated to her college course – a career that, at the time, was one only the rare few got a chance to pursue.

But after a stint in the corporate world, the opportunity of studying for a brand-new graphic design degree at university prompted Fatma to take a leap of faith – one that proved not only brave, but also visionary. Graduating with honours, she opened her own photography studio, proving to herself and others that was she great at what she did and could make money off her talent, too. 

Ladies beauty products in Dubai

Following the birth of her first child, Fatma decided she needed to make another mark in the photography world and capitalise on her love for a recently discovered new app that everyone was talking about: Instagram. Focusing on flatlays – something that was only seen on the pages of glossy magazines at the time – she kicked off her journey to being crowned Flatlay Queen. Today, she shares her trips and tricks through her popular masterclasses, which are available in both Arabic and English. The Gaggler caught up with Fatma to find out everything there is to know about the art of the flatlay, followed by some top tips that no Instagram addict should miss!

Q

How do you juggle both your creativity and masterclass teaching with being a busy mum?

A

Being a mum, especially in these times, I have to really find the time to be creative. Between virtual schooling and looking after the kids, every spare moment – be it 10 minutes or an hour – I really utilise this time to organise and plan shoots before executing them.

Q

Why did you start your flatlay masterclass?

A

Since starting my Instagram, I would constantly get questions from my followers on how I created certain images, where I got my ideas from, and my use of flowers. I started by doing little interactive classes with friends and some followers in cafés that I loved shooting in (and had the right amount of natural light). From here, I was contacted by some big international and local brands and began to do workshops with them, too. I started to do masterclass videos, and also offer one-on-one video chats after participants have completed the course. 

Ladies beauty products in Dubai by Fatma Hilal

Q

Do you find waking up early during Ramadan helps or hinders your creative process?

A

Ramadan is very special – it’s a time I fast and can see family. During fasting, my mind feels very clear. I design more, I find myself more creative, which you can see in my content during Ramadan.

Q

What are some tricks you can share with readers to help improve their flatlay photography?

  • I prefer to use an iPhone – I think they are best to capture the light and softness that I prefer for all my images.
  • The theme you see throughout my entire Instagram feed is a white backdrop. I recommend white, grey, or neutral colours  to create a high-end/luxe visual.
  • You should always take advantage of natural light – my favourite time of the day to shoot is 7am or between 4pm and 5pm. Put your flatlay next to a large window to utilise as much natural light as you can.
  • If you are shooting flowers and need to re-shoot or include them in another shoot, keep them in the fridge so they hold their shape – they will last much longer.

Watch the Video: How to Take Amazing Photos with Apps and an iPhone

  • You don’t have to go out and buy a backdrop when you start – use what you have at home first. A clean white sheet or white board is perfect to use as a backdrop.
  • Avoid bright colours – you need a studio light and professional camera to really make them pop.
  • Once you have completed your flatlay, walk away for five minutes and come back – you may see something out of place or decide to move a prop to create the perfect picture.
Emirati artist Fatma Hilal
  • Take photos from different angles, not just above – sometimes you will capture the perfect click from an angle you haven’t tried before.
  • ALWAYS flip your phone upside down, so the camera is at the bottom – this can capture some stunning images.
  • Always place the main object you are capturing (a cup of coffee or pair of shoes, for example) in the middle of the flatlay. Use the grid option in images to place the main object in the middle of the picture.

Q

What are your personal favourite flatlays?

A

I have a few – all for different reasons! On this shoot, I got to work with one of my favorite shoe brands, Manolo Blahnik. I also utilised different photography elements, included a model, and played around with different props and colours.

I was heavily pregnant with my second child and stayed awake until the morning as a result, so I decided to utilise this time to create content.

We had a shoot with Bvlgari at Bvlgari Resort Dubai, and this was where I got a chance to meet the ladies I had been getting to know via Instagram for the first time. It was like a dream to meet everyone in real life!

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An Etiquette Advisor on Ramadan Done Right

Consider this your go-to guide.

Ramadan is the time for hearty iftars, communal prayers, and late-night gatherings with family and friends. This year, as we return to normalcy, we share our top tips on Ramadan done right.

TIP 1: Be a Good Guest

As a guest in the Middle East, it is important to respect the traditions and cultures of the country you now call home. You can start to do this by educating yourself on the meaning of this month. Ramadan is the ninth – and most sacred – month of the Islamic calendar. It is a time of fasting, reflection on one’s relationship with God, togetherness as a family, and study of the Quranic scriptures. 

In this holy month, it’s also crucial to know how to exchange greetings. You can greet people by saying ‘Ramadan Kareem’ or ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ to acknowledge that we are in Ramadan. You can also add ‘Al Salam Alaikum’ – the standard greeting when meeting people – to enhance your Ramadan greeting. Here are some short but useful phrases to brush up on during the month.

ramadan greetings

If you would like to know if a colleague or acquaintance is fasting, you may ask, “Sayem?” You may also hear ‘Emta El Maghreb?’ quite frequently. This means, ‘What time is the Maghreb prayer?’ The fourth prayer of the day, it indicates what time the fast is broken.

TIP 2: Timing Is Everything

Work timings often become shorter during Ramadan as Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. You should also be mindful of prayer timings as Muslims pray five times a day – two of which take place during working hours. It is important not to schedule meetings or deadlines that will interfere with prayers during these timings.

The prayer time you should be most conscious of is the one that takes place around 6:45pm because that’s when the fast is broken for the day. If you have house help who observes Ramadan, you can lessen their workload during this time as fasting is not an easy task – especially at the beginning of Ramadan. Those who fast are most likely to be tired later in the day, so if you can schedule chores in the morning while they still have energy from eating suhoor, it would certainly show your mindfulness.

TIP 3: Avoid Eating and Drinking in Public

Eating (including chewing gum) or drinking in public during Ramadan is not allowed in the UAE, unless you have a medical condition. In this post-pandemic age, you also need to be cautious not to have food or drinks nearby during Zoom calls. Even if you’re not drinking or eating, do not have water or food nearby so that these items don’t appear within your Zoom frame.   

As for alcohol? It is not okay to drink or show alcohol in public – either online or offline. And what does this mean? Comments or photos that display alcohol products or consumption on social media isn’t allowed – yes, this means #winenotwednesday is best left for after Ramadan. Also be sure to not display alcohol during your Zoom calls. This does not mean that you should change your preferences or lifestyle during Ramadan; simply continue to eat and drink as you would, but privately.

Watch the Video: Must-Know Tips for Ramadan

TIP 4: Fashion, But Make It Modest

Ramadan fashion has some strict no-nos – even on Zoom calls. This means no tank tops, shorts, low V-necks, or sleeveless tops. Instead, you can opt for jackets, long-sleeved tops, or an embroidered kaftan if you are feeling adventurous.

Looking to get into the sartorial spirit? During this time, you’ll see that several clothing outlets, online retailers, and local designers run Ramadan collections ranging from the affordable to the luxurious. Keep in mind that even if you don’t fast during Ramadan, it is still important to dress responsibly to show respect to your host country and its people.

TIP 5: Err on the Side of Caution 

During Ramadan, make sure that you do not behave aggressively, engage in public displays of affection, dance or play music in public (although you may listen to music quietly with headphones), and swear (blasphemy is considered extra offensive during Ramadan). Generally, it is best to avoid doing anything that might be considered rude or wrong in Arab culture.

TIP 6: Be Generous and Charitable

Gift-giving is considered a significant act in Arab culture, especially during Ramadan. You could gift sweets or dates as it’s a way to wish your Muslim friends or colleagues a sweet life as they break their fast. Patchi chocolates and Bateel dates offer beautifully packaged gift sets during Ramadan. Another option is tea sets or coffee cups from O’de Rose.  

Charity is one of the pillars of Islam, so if you’d like to get into the spirit of Ramadan by giving back, look into the One Billion Meals campaign. The recently launched charity initiative by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum aims to donate one billion meals to the poor and hungry worldwide. Giving back at this time is another way we can show love towards both our community and the country we call home.   

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You, But Better: The Gaggler Agenda for April

Mark your calendars.

April 2: Take a Stroll

Kickstart the holy month on a cultural note, exploring the colourful neighborhood of Karama through a Gulf Photo Plus photo walk entitled Suhoor Strolls. You’ll be given night-photography tips to capture images that depict Ramadan alongside a special tandoori chai stop, insights on local history, the discovery of hidden gems, and feedback on your work.

Learn more here.

April 5: Process Your Emotions

Research shows that painting can be a very potent method for expression and emotional release – and that’s where the Process Painting session at Kave comes in. Considering the experience of painting is more important than the outcome, you’ll learn how to trust your intuition and overcome blocks by embracing their hidden message.

Learn more here.

April 9: Join the Community

Ramadan Nights at Jameel Arts Centre are all about family-friendly fun from 9pm until midnight. You can explore exhibitions, participate in workshops for both adults and children led by a locally based creative, join a hands-on activity at one of many stations, and enjoy a late night treat at farm-to-fork restaurant Teible or one of the local food vendors. Bonus: entry is free.

Learn more here.

Wellness Events

April 13: Prioritise Yourself

It’s no secret that women tend to put themselves last, and attempting to remedy the problem is the Women’s Empowerment workshop at Illuminations. Taking place onsite, it will teach participants about the art of self-care – tangible tools and strategies included – in order to achieve more balance, energy, vitality, and well-being.

Learn more here.

April 15: Clear Your Chakras

Hosted by SEVA, the Full Moon ThetaHealing session is a wonderful opportunity to free yourself from the limitations and energy blocks in your life because the full moon phase is downright powerful – it’s an optimum time for recharging your energy field and clearing your chakras. Unsurprisingly, many cultures have full moon rituals because there’s so much pure energy in the air that can be used to yield incredible healing results.

Learn more here.

April 17: Mold and Destress

The Clay Art For Wellbeing session at The Workshop in Jumeirah is not about learning pottery. Instead, it’s about working with clay to release stress as participants will be directed by prompts to mold and create a piece of art based on the theme of the day, with a registered Art Psychotherapist leading the workshop.

Learn more here.

Wellness Events Dubai

April 20: Recognise the Signs

With the pandemic resulting in a rise of eating disorders worldwide, the A Parent’s Guide to Eating Disorders webinar hosted by The LightHouse Arabia is a great tool to help parents gain a better understanding of what an eating disorder is and how they develop. The session will help recognise the warning signs, learn about treatment, and learn practical tips for supporting young people with such issues.

Learn more here.

April 22: Play Your Part

With the return of Earth Day, the time for action is now – and there’s still time to register for the Green Call Project hosted by Emirates Environmental Group. To get involved and help heal the planet, exchange old mobile phones and tablets for an opportunity to plant a native tree sapling in December.

Learn more here.

April 29: Broaden Your Horizons

The beloved Ramadan Iftar Program at Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding returns, taking place in a wind-tower house in Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood. Not only will guests have a traditional iftar with Emirati hosts, who will happily answer questions related to the holy month and local customs, but there will also be a visit to Diwan Mosque before returning to the center for dessert and tea.

Learn more here.

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7 Women-Led Businesses That Give Back

It’s not just about the bottom line.

In a world where women are still fighting for equality – both in the world and in the workplace – female entrepreneurs deserve recognition. As for the female entrepreneurs leading companies that are driven by a purpose bigger than the bottom line? Well, the word ‘heroine’ comes to mind. Whether they’re using comedy to defy stereotypes, helping those coping with grief, empowering underprivileged women through employment, or inspiring the next generation to help the planet, these women across the UAE are giving back in their own unique way. And that’s why we’re celebrating them on International Women’s Day, today.

Dumyé

Designer Sahar Wahbeh is the entrepreneur behind Dumyé, a company creating ethically crafted dolls that are made by underprivileged women and can be personalised to suit the recipient. ‘Karmic Goodness’ drives this beloved brand as, for every Dumyé doll sold, vulnerable children are supported through play, food, and education. In fact, each doll comes with a ‘Giving Card’ that invites the owner to discover exactly how their doll has given back to a child in need.

The LightHouse Arabia

Founded by Dr. Saliha Afridi, The LightHouse Arabia has offered hope, help, and solace to countless people struggling with loss, trauma, infertility, eating disorders, depression, chronic stress, addiction, and more. Most admirable are its efforts to make mental wellness more accessible through the likes of affordable check-ups that evaluate one’s emotional well-being and free grief counselling offered to individuals and families. Turn to its calendar of events, and you’ll also see support groups that cater to varying ages and concerns – all of them free of charge.

Women-Led Businesses

Upfill

Mariam Khafagy co-founded Upfill, the region’s first waterless personal care, and cosmetics brand, in August 2021 in order to steer us towards natural beauty products that are both water-mindful and devoid of plastic. Soon after, the brand partnered up with Azraq and RECAPP to further its efforts towards a healthier planet. Not only is Upfill reintroducing coral reefs in Dibba to support local marine life, but it has also arranged for its recyclable tin packaging to be collected free of charge directly from consumers.

Al Ghadeer UAE Crafts

Created by Sheikha Shamsa bint Hamdan Al Nahyan to empower underprivileged women through culturally inspired products, Al Ghadeer UAE Crafts trains and employs over 200 craftswomen of different nationalities and ages. Besides producing items that feature Al Sadu, a traditional weaving technique inscribed on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding because of its significance, the art of Telli (metal-thread embroidery) and Khoos (palm-leaf weaving) is also preserved.

Dubomedy

With laughter being the best medicine, comedian and Dubomedy co-founder Mina Liccione’s spot on this list is a given – but she does so much more than use comedy to unify Dubai’s over 200 nationalities. Dubomedy’s Clowns Who Care initiative sees Mina and fellow comedians bring love and laughter to hospitals, charity organisations, and centres for those with special needs. Elsewhere, the New York native’s television specials like Araby by Nature and short films like The Shocking Truth About Muslims have helped defuse negative stereotypes about Muslims amidst audiences abroad.

Dubomedy, Women-Led Businesses

One Good Thing

Proving that gifts can simultaneously be stylish, high-quality, and socially conscious, One Good Thing is anchored in giving back. The company was co-founded by Bridgett Lau and Micheal Cooke, a married couple that set out to make a difference after Bridgett’s cancer diagnosis back in 2015 had her questioning her legacy. Today, One Good Thing stocks products sourced from far and wide, but the common denominator is a positive impact – be it planting a tree, removing harmful plastic from the oceans, or offering employment to a survivor of human trafficking.

Save Our World

Author Colette Barr and illustrator Leona Collins are at the helm of Save Our World, which raises awareness of environmental issues through funny and engaging children’s stories created to inspire change and action for a more sustainable planet. The Eco-heroes series of books features five fictional friends who want to help save the planet through recycling, energy and water conservation, reducing food waste, and minimising plastic, thereby encouraging readers to make positive choices from a young age.

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You, But Better: The Gaggler Agenda for March

Mark your calendars.

March 1: Cultivate Awareness

According to Mayan belief, working with cocoa – a.k.a. food of the gods – allows one to cultivate awareness on an emotional and spiritual level, releasing what no longer serves you and guiding you in the direction that you need to take. And that’s where the Cacao Ceremony with Nacho at SEVA comes in. Led by a medicine man from South America, the ceremony will open your heart in order to help you see more clearly.

Learn more here.

March 3: Identify and Respond

Knowledge of physical first aid is universally considered crucial and, now, The LightHouse Arabia is proving that mental health is no different. The wellness institute is offering a 10-hour course entitled Mental Health First Aid, which will teach participants how to identify, understand, and respond to the signs that someone in their life may be struggling with a mental health issue – depression, anxiety disorders, and addiction included.

Learn more here.

March 6: Sweat and Refuel

W Dubai – The Palm’s popular wellness experience FUEL Happening returns, this time partnering up with leading fitness retreat BeFitreat to host an unrivalled week full of epic workouts and delicious healthy cuisine. Expect everything from Muay Thai sessions to mindfulness workshops will be offer, complemented by exclusive access to the Instagrammable WET Deck and overnight stays in the hotel’s Wonderful Room.

Learn more here.

Wellness Events In March

March 7: Champion Equality

With the theme of International Women’s Day 2022 established as #BreakTheBias, the Joint Business Council event hosted by British Business Group at Hyde Hotel will delve into how gender equality factors into a more sustainable tomorrow. A number of inspirational speakers will share their own experiences in this area – Carly Dubery from (founder of Vegan Entrepreneurs UAE)  and Nayla Al-Obeidli (founder of FixPro UAE) included.

Learn more here.

March 10: Read Your Chakras

With the seven chakras in the human body serving as potent energy centres that influence your life experiences in areas like relationships, finance, and career, knowing the flow of energy will help you make choices that can bring your desires to life. Enter: the free Online Chakra Reading with Bharti Jatti Varma workshop that is hosted by Illuminations and explores the chakra system in an interactive forum.

Learn more here.

March 18: Bend, Stretch, Twist

Yogafest Dubai – the largest and only eco-conscious wellness event in the Middle East – returns to the city, this time taking place at Dubai Internet City Amphitheatre. The yoga festival will consist of three days packed with sessions covering different types such as hatha, power, and vinyasa, complemented by pilates and meditation sessions and stalls selling yoga gear and health food. 

Learn more here.

Dubai Wellness Events In March

March 20: Return to Nature

Ideal for beginners and nature enthusiasts alike, the upcoming Gazelle Trek and Trail Notes led by UAE Trekkers will wind through hills and around a lake to see ancient villages, geological features, an old falaj, a gazelle enclosure, and more in Hatta. The first 40 minutes will be a gentle walk, followed by hikers climbing the first group of switchbacks and coming over the top of the ridge, back down the same side, clocking a total of 7.5km.
Learn more here.

March 24: Explore Entrepreneurship

Taking place at Media One Hotel, the March edition of Female Fusion’s Firestarter Breakfast will delve into the challenges of entrepreneurship – and the roller coaster of emotions that comes with them. Attendees will therefore hear from three women who have not only faced massive challenges in life or business, but also managed to overcome them and thrive as a result. Expect to wrap up by noon with plenty of new wisdom to take home.

Learn more here.

March 31: Bid Farewell

Few details are known about the closing ceremony of Expo 2020 Dubai, but if the pomp and circumstance of the global event’s opening ceremony is any indication, it’s not to be missed. While not everyone will be able to witness the spectacle onsite, it will be live-streamed on Expo 2020’s official YouTube channel. As for what happens after that? The site will transition into District 2020, a sustainable smart city that will reuse at least 80% of the Expo-centric infrastructure.

Learn more here.

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In Conversation with Jenny Lawson

Still hilarious, still brutally honest.

Jenny Lawson is broken, but in the best possible way – according to her latest book, that is. The New York Times bestselling memoirist is known not for her physical and mental health issues, but how she copes, using an unapologetic combination of sardonic wit and a hysterically skewed outlook on life. Her 2021 release Broken is easily her most personal book yet, chronicling the ups and downs of her life through a collection of essays that hold nothing back. Here, she gets candid on all things humour and health following her sessions at the 2022 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. Listen in.

Q

Mark Twain famously said, “Humour is tragedy plus time.” Is time the ingredient that helps you see the humour in a challenging situation or something else?

A

Personally, I’ve found that being able to laugh at terrible things as they are happening is a wonderful tool – if it works. There’s something about laughing at monstrous things that makes them somehow smaller and more manageable. It sounds strange, but my sister and I always end up giggling at funerals. In fact, we tend to laugh the most at the ones that are the hardest to be at, but I think that’s because laughing is such a wonderful way to counter terrible pain. The more I mourn something, the more I have to find a way to smile about what I’m mourning so that it doesn’t destroy me, so I guess I will consider myself a great success in life if there are people laughing hysterically at my funeral.

Q

Your ability to put a light spin on a heavy subject has become a signature of sorts. What’s your earliest memory of using humour as a coping mechanism?

A

I’m not sure, but I do remember when I was about seven, my dad had to write a note to let me out of class early. We ended up creating a ransom note offering to exchange my teacher’s mother for me (at 2pm so I could go to the dentist), and I remember being absolutely delighted at how ridiculous it was and wondering why grown-ups didn’t always do these insane sorts of things. I vowed to always try to be ridiculous whenever I could, and it has served me (moderately) well. There’s enough darkness in the world, so sometimes, you have to take back joy in extraordinarily silly ways to counter it.

Q

Around the world, access to mental health resources remains a luxury, which is why your An Open Letter to My Health Insurance Company essay resonated with so many. What did the process of fighting for adequate coverage teach you about yourself?

A

It taught me that, in spite of what the insurance company seems to think, I am worth fighting for. It taught me that depression tells you terrible lies about your worth, but that just because healthcare and coverage doesn’t come easy, it doesn’t mean that I’m not worth the time and effort. I’ve learnt that it’s okay to ask for help, and that includes asking for help from friends or family because when you’re in severe depression, you often don’t have the energy to fight for yourself.

Q

Mental health is no laughing matter, but laughter has been proven to do everything from boost mood to diminish pain. Is laughing in the face of adversity a value that you’ve instilled in your teenage child, Hailey? 

A

One thing that I’ve learnt is that not everyone deals with struggle in the same way that I do so, especially during the dramatic teenage years. I had to make sure Hailey understood that my way of dealing with things through humour didn’t mean that I was discounting how difficult or serious things can be. Just because that’s the healthiest way for me to deal with things doesn’t mean it’s the best way to parent because each kid is so unique in their needs. Luckily, Hailey has inherited a lot of our strange sense of humour, so we often find ourselves laughing at awkward situations and that makes it easier to discuss hard things.

Q

You’ve addressed the overwhelming anxiety that comes with the responsibility of being a parent. Any advice for women who are first-time moms during such a socially isolated time?

A

It gets easier. And then harder. And then easier again. I discovered blogging when Hailey was a few years old and that really helped me to find other parents I could identify with. It is a really isolating time, but there are a lot of online resources that help. One of the best things I’ve learnt is that whatever decision you make is the right one for your child because you are their parent. Unfortunately, whatever decision you make is probably also the wrong one in some way, but in the end, it all works out. And if you screw up? It just teaches your kid that it’s okay to make mistakes. 

When Hailey was young and my depression was terrible, the only thing I could do was sit on the couch and watch Doctor Who episodes with them. And I felt awful because other moms were making organic dinners and setting up playdates and doing laundry. I was just trying to breathe and waiting for myself to come back. But when Hailey was older and I apologised for those periods, they thought I was insane because they only remembered how I was spending time with them instead of cooking or visiting friends. What I thought was failure ended up being a wonderful memory for my kid. We need to give ourselves credit for the things we don’t even realise we’re doing. 

Q

Yet another side effect of the pandemic is that we’re a lot more socially awkward than we were in the past. As a self-professed introvert, is there a sense of relief that comes with those dynamics? 

A

This pandemic is a marathon of isolation that I’ve been training for my entire life. Honestly, I sort of love that I don’t have to make excuses to avoid parties and awkward interactions. That said, I did have some dark times in the past two years where I thought I was going to go a little stir-crazy. We ended up doing a lot of serial-killer-escape-rooms-in-a-box and I literally read hundreds of books because that was the best way I could escape into another world that wasn’t my house. Now that we’re all vaccinated and more likely to get out, I’ve sort of become even more socially out-of-shape than before. I love to see old family and friends, but after 30 minutes, I need a break to catch my breath. It’s a little embarrassing. 

Q

Not all your fans were privy to the bonus chapter of Broken, which chronicles your life in quarantine. Can you give us a glimpse of how that has changed since 2020?

A

It changes from day to day, but the biggest difference is that I started a bookstore called Nowhere Bookshop. I literally opened it as the pandemic began. We couldn’t open the doors because it was too dangerous for our staff, so we did online orders and curbside book delivery. We also started a monthly book club called The Fantastic Strangelings and became (I suspect) the longest running bookstore that had never actually opened its doors to customers. Luckily, we eventually all got vaccinated and now we’re finally open. I spend a lot of time reading advance copies of new books because picking titles for the books club is pretty much my favourite thing. That book club saved the store and, in some ways, it’s still saving my sanity.

Q

Sometimes, it’s easier to confide in or lean on complete strangers, and your thriving Twitter community is proof. Can you share a recent anecdote or example of how it has helped you through a particularly dark moment?

A

It’s not unusual to be struggling with anxiety at 3am, but I know if I reach out on Twitter – even when I’m feeling incredibly alone – there will be people who immediately tweet back that they’re also awake wondering why they said that dumb thing in 6th grade or whatever else is haunting them. And for some reason, it’s comforting when you realise you aren’t alone. Also, there’s something about telling other people it’s all okay and they should go to sleep that makes you think that maybe it’s also all okay for you and that you can go to sleep as well.

Q

You’ve frequently credited reading for helping you through the pandemic. Which three books can we turn to for our own diminishing sanity levels?

A

Oh gosh, I don’t think I could narrow it down to three. Some of my most recent favourite escape-from-my-head-books are Still Life by Sarah Winman, Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, and Meaty by Samantha Irby. Oh, and The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec. And The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. And Madhouse at the End of the Earth. You should stop me now because I could talk about books all day.

Q

Written notes have played a special role in your life – from your mom leaving them in your lunchbox to remind you everything was okay to connecting with classmates at a time of social anxiety. Can your experience carry over into the smartphone era? Can a tweet or text ever replace the magic of a written note passed discreetly in class?

A

That’s such a good question. I think electronic notes can absolutely make an impact and I am so incredibly lucky that texting exists because I have a fear of the phone, so it makes it much easier for me to talk to people without actually talking to people. But I also don’t think it’s a substitute for an ephemeral, handwritten note. You know, someone came into my bookshop and set up a little station at the bar with coloured paper, pens, and a little sign asking people to leave a kind note to a stranger and encouraging people to take home a kind note from a stranger. 

I would see people spend an hour going through all of the colourful notes left all over the bar, and I didn’t blame them – I did the same thing. Sometimes, they were confessions or words of encouragement or funny stories. I noticed that people left them, but seldom took them, probably because they wanted others to enjoy them. In the end, we had so many that we started tucking them into books as we shipped them out so people would find a little secret note from a stranger. That’s the kind of magic that makes the world go around.

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