Back in November when Expo 2020 Dubai had just opened its doors we met with Hind Alowais, Vice President of International Participants Department, ahead of the opening of the Women’s Pavilion in collaboration with Cartier.
There was huge anticipation surrounding this unique concept that would see an entire pavilion dedicated to the achievements of women and open conversations about women’s empowerment, gender balance and more. Over the past few months, Hind and her team have worked hard to offer insightful, diverse and incredible opportunities for women and men to share their stories through the platform, be it through exhibitions, panel discussions presentations and more. As Expo 2020 Dubai comes to an end later this month, we reflect on the successes so far and the crucial role the Pavilion will continue to play in raising awareness of this highly important topic.
We last spoke at the beginning of Expo 2020 Dubai and now of course we are coming towards the end so what can you share with us about the progress of the women’s pavilion to date?
I think we’ve had amazing success with the Women’s Pavilion. In terms of visitors, we have done really well when it comes to numbers in fact, we have exceeded our expectations. It’s great. When I look at the visitors and I see men and women and families from all walks of life, it’s amazing to me that this pavilion is speaking to the general public in its entirety. To see that is encouraging and heart-warming and I see it as a signal that this initiative is speaking to everybody.
We’ve also had ministers, first ladies, presidents, UN officials and more coming to visit us. At least once a week we have a high-level request from another Pavilion for a minister or esteemed guest that wants to visit for a tour. And I think that shows how everybody is invested in this gender and these issues. Politically I think people see it as a way to demonstrate how committed their countries are to the issue of gender equality and women’s empowerment and I think this is consistent across the world.
The space tells the story of women and gender in a really special and very different way. It also gives the younger generation, an opportunity to imagine that they will one day have a seat at the table or be in leadership positions. I’ve heard stories from my colleagues overhearing conversations between little girls and their mothers saying that they can do anything.
I love giving the tour of the Pavilion and just yesterday I was showing around a group of friends and suddenly it turned into a crowd of over thirty people! People of all ages even children, listen so attentively. And that gives me hope that we are making an impact. It’s not just on a policy level, it’s not just by engaging the decision-makers, but it’s also by telling young girls that they have a role to play. And also telling the young men that they are allies in this endeavour. It inspires me and it keeps me thinking that no matter how hard we have to work or the sacrifices we have to make, it’s what keeps me so invested in this and keeps me believing in what Expo has the potential to do.
And it seems as though the Expo has really given children an opportunity to understand these issues…
Exactly and I think what’s important is that we’re not just educating them, we are activating their responsibility as citizens of this world. And you start to feel like you have a role to play, whether it is in the issue of gender equality and women’s empowerment by respecting the women in your life, by making them understand that nothing should hold them back, but also in the issues of sustainability and opportunity. By becoming conscious of the simplest things like not littering. It’s a beautiful thing to see and to be part of.
How do you think the Pavilion has reflected the UAE’s mission for gender equality?
First of all, I think the two go hand in hand. The UAE has always been a strong supporter of gender balance but it’s not about women taking over from men. From the establishment of our country, the leadership shared its vision and everyone followed that vision and made it a mission. When you hear His Highness Sheikh Zayed, the founding father of the UAE talking about women’s equality, you know it is engrained in our history. And that demonstrates that there were very strong principles that have led us. In terms of how we have done this, as you know the UAE has consistently tried to do it systematically. The Mother of the Nation, Her Highness Sheikha Fatima with the General Women’s Union told us that education was a priority from very early days and she educated the women of this country. This was followed of course by other efforts including the establishment of the Gender Balance Council. When you think about literacy, just as an example, fifty-six per cent of female UAE graduates are literate in STEM, you don’t see these numbers anywhere in the world. When you think about peace and security, the UAE recently ranked first in the MENA region and 24th in the world on women’s inclusion in justice and security. When you think about political representation and participation, twenty-one per cent of our ministers are women. Which is huge. Women in the UAE are achieving so much in such a short time it’s amazing. The UAE is making progress very intentionally, putting in the measures and building an ecosystem that supports women in all fields. Another demonstration of the support for women is the laws that have been put in place. I think we are very self-reflective in this country and we’re always looking at how to improve things and increase access to opportunities.
What have been some of the most notable highlights at the Women’s Pavilion that you can share with us?
There’s been so many! Most recently Malala Yousafzai came to visit. She walked through the Pavilion and read every text, asked questions and took pictures. She wanted to take it all in. She talked a lot about girls education and how important it is. It was really amazing.
We’ve had so many incredible talks that have enabled us to draw out lessons on how we can do this better. Because as you can imagine, this agenda is not new. So when we talk about impact, and you create a space that allows people to step out of their positions or policy lines, it allows them to discuss and engage with us and put forward new ideas and new thinking.
It was great to host the Foreign Minister of New Zealand, the Vice President of Costa Rica, and not only that, we have welcomed so many high-level names, both men and women.
Another great visitor was Tima Shomali, director of a Netflix series, “The AlRawabi School for Girls”. She attended one of our sessions on the Role of Islam and Women in Arabia, a series of discussions around many topics. In her case it’s was about how we use media and TV shows to tackle some of the most difficult issues and to shatter stereotypes. Arab women are not sitting in the corner, waiting for someone to give them equality, they are asking for it, they are tackling issues.
We had a TV presenter from Saudi Arabia talking to us about what her career has been like and how she used her talk show which was running for over a decade to share her point of view and how it was received and criticised. These discussions are important because the world doesn’t realise that Arab and Muslim women are having these conversations. We had a panel discussion as part of the Women in Arabia and Islam on Climate and Diversity and it was amazing to see so many Muslim women bringing solutions to their communities. And that’s what the platform is all about. It’s about giving women the opportunity to make their voices heard and showing the world the amazing impact that women have, whether we’re giving them the opportunity and giving them access or not, they’re doing it.
How do you intend to continue the story and the message of the Women’s Pavilion after Expo 2020 Dubai?
Plans are in the pipeline and I believe that we will be able to reveal more on International Women’s Day, but there are plans in the works for the Pavilion to continue after Expo. How it will look and what it will be in its final form, I can’t tell you yet, but we are working on keeping the exhibition so that it lives on in District 2020.
Her Excellency Reem Al Hashimi’s vision led us from the very beginning and it will continue to lead us post-Expo. And I think that her commitment to this is key.
And finally, all of our talks from the Women’s Pavilion throughout Expo are available to watch on YouTube and will continue to be available to re-watch after the Expo ends.
How do you think partnering with a brand such as Cartier has allowed you to elevate the message of the Pavilion?
Cartier has been an amazing partner. They’ve stuck to their word, their commitment to this issue has been consistent and clear. When I look around the Pavilion I’m so proud of what we were able to do and curate together and I think that the brand’s presence has enabled us to speak to the non-traditional people that otherwise may not have been involved. If you think about the issue of women’s inequality, a lot of the time it’s positioned as a “poor woman’s” issue and having Cartier be a voice and stand on principle, demonstrates that this is everybody’s issue. It helps us expand our reach and explain that women’s issues are not simply women’s issues, they’re everybody’s issues. No country in the world has been able to close its gender gap. No woman in the world is free from gender discrimination. And so having Cartier as a partner allows us to further our message and to reach places that we perhaps were not able to reach previously.
Tell us about your personal journey during this time?
First of all, I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to be part of a project like this and to have had the support of Her Excellency Reem Al Hashimi who trusted me and my team to deliver this. I’m grateful for the institutional support within Expo to bring this to life because it was not easy. It’s a very unique pavilion. It’s the only pavilion that is in collaboration with the private sector. It’s the only pavilion that features so many women. We had to ask permission from all of these women to have them as part of this. So it’s been a learning experience and it’s transformed me as a person. Coming from the UN I had one lens that was very policy-driven and through this experience, I realised that change doesn’t always happen on that level alone. Change happens with people, with storytelling and when you engage people. It happens through these kinds of collaborations that at first might have seemed impossible.
What is a takeaway message we should all keep in mind from the project?
It’s the same one we have been sharing since the beginning: “When women thrive, humanity thrives.” We’re still on that same message because we deeply believe in it and it applies in so many different ways. If you empower women, you empower societies and you empower humanity. Women are fifty per cent of the global population and when you recognise that inequality is so harmful in so many ways, it is not just about the freedom of a woman to choose and to be who she is and to do what she wants to do. It also translates to her not being able to be part of the global conversation. We are telling the world about these issues in a very positive way but unpacking that means dealing with all the inequalities and the discrimination and lack of opportunity that women face on every level and the fact that it is still happening is unbelievable.
What can we expect to see at the pavilion for International Women’s Day?
There will be a lot happening. We have an event called “Break the Bias” which will start with a music festival with an all-female lineup of artists on 5th 6th and 7th March. On International Women’s Day itself we’re having an assembly of nations coming together and curating their own sessions, looking at issues of women in diplomacy, industry, climate change, health and more. And then we’re having a forum which is another segment co-curated by Expo and Cartier. We’re looking at women in politics, women in the private sector, how you unleash leadership and we’re looking at women in pop culture. So there’s going to be some big names coming up and more will be announced soon.