Book excerpt: Shujaa’ah – Bold Leadership for Women of the Middle East

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In a passage from her new book, Annabel Harper looks at leadership challenges for women in the Middle East.

You can have impact by being bold

What does making your mark in the world of work mean? How does anyone make their mark? Maybe a better approach is to look at what needs to happen so that you are noticed, are visible and that your contribution to an organisation is valued and appreciated.

I have become aware over time that the women from the Middle East who I know and those who I have worked with, have one thing in common if they have a strong desire to move into leadership roles or are already there.

They have not waited for someone to come and ask them, they have pushed for promotion and stated their ambitions and intentions. In this culture where it is still very much a man’s world, this is hard to do.

Nevertheless, unless you are prepared to step up and claim what is yours, it is not going to happen in the way you might like it to, or as quickly as you would like it to. Sama advised women to help themselves more by going beyond their job description to take on bigger challenges at work and identify roles they were interested in. This would mean that senior management would “see their potential first-hand”.

If you want to be a leader, you need to learn more about it and more about the world of work.

Showing that initiative may be the only thing standing in your way. Instead of assuming that your request will probably be turned down, so there is no point in asking, assume that it will not be turned down. If it is, find out why and do not let that put you off.

You might have to make a case for it, and in your own organisation, you will know what the benefits could be, not just to you but also to the company in terms of return on investment. If you want to be a leader, you need to learn more about it and more about the world of work.

Expand your leadership learning

One way to build your knowledge about leadership is to read about it and hear examples of other women’s experiences, according to Hiba. She also thought it was important not to be risk-averse. “Take risks, even when it is VERY uncomfortable. If you are hard-working and persistent, it will eventually pay off.”

Hiba recommended joining or building a professional network outside work. It was an effective way to gain skills and learn about other kinds of business.

In addition to networking, Maha Bin Hendi advised women to ask for coaching and mentoring. “I also believe in mingling with experts and intellects that could help improve their understanding and skills in developing their leadership roles.”

Attending workshops was ‘vital’ according to Maha. Advancement was all about setting appropriate targets for short and long-term career success. “Women have to believe in themselves first and know what they want.”

Women who wanted to learn more about leadership should be thinking from a wider perspective, said Maha Albwardy. “Women should be more daring in gaining knowledge in politics, immerse themselves deeper into its context, and boldly take the lead…whatever is necessary…with confidence that women are born to be leaders too.”

This would also require “moral support from the government as a sign of recognition and permission that it is timely to train women in all these aspects.”

It is already evident that women are better at negotiating for others than they are for themselves. Women do not want to feel they are being demanding. But it is worth considering that if a male colleague felt he wanted to progress and that there were tools and training he would find useful to help him, he would probably ask for them. Women need to do the same.


The question posed at the beginning of this article was about how anyone makes their mark. It is all very well to state that you can have impact by being bold. It depends, of course, on your definition of being bold. In Arabic, the feminine version of the word for bold is shujaa’ah.

In the context of what is being written about here, boldness equates to being courageous, brave, undaunted and positive. Being bold means pushing boundaries, improving yourself and getting to know your abilities and becoming self-aware.

If you think about a time you feel you have shown courage, consider what transpired, what was the outcome and impact when you demonstrated courageousness. That courage might be something you did that you planned.

It could also be a moment when you seized an opportunity that came your way because your instinct told you that you should. You may not have had much time to think about it, but you did it anyway. It could be that you had an opportunity to change your job, even your company.

Sometimes these opportunities come up at the wrong time. You may have had to decide quite quickly should you take the job or stay where you are. That kind of decision means being bold. It means taking the decision based on your best interests.

You might even have used the opportunity of a job offer to go to your manager, explain the situation and get a sense of whether it would be a loss to your present company if you moved on. You might even be able to negotiate a pay rise, but if you do not ask for it, it is unlikely to happen. Women need to take responsibility for their own career progression.

Natalia gave some context as to why women may be reluctant to put themselves forward, “Middle East culture is always trying to protect women. That’s why women are used to relying on someone (father, brother or husband).

“They should have the opportunity to make mistakes and be responsible for it, learn how to handle life challenges without asking for permission. Only in this case will we be mentally ready to take the responsibility and be able to lead.”

This is an adapted excerpt from Shujaaah: Bold Leadership for Women of the Middle East (£12.99, Panoma Press) by Annabell Harper.

About the Author

Annabel Harper is an Executive Leadership Coach and Facilitator with a deep interest in the development of women in leadership in the Middle East. For more information visit


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