international womens day_

Beacon of Art

Hala Khayat

Regional Director, Art Dubai

In the vibrant Middle Eastern art world, Hala Khayat, is a name to reckon with. As the Regional Director of one of the Arab region’s most sought-after art fairs, Art Dubai (on until March 5, 2023), she essays a multitude of roles with elan. As a scholar on Arab and Middle Eastern modern and contemporary art, her current role involves community engagement and developing strategies for local and regional collectors’ interactions.

Hala describes herself as a contemporary woman, a mother, a colleague, a sister, a Syrian and most of all a representative of the Middle Eastern art world. ‘I am very passionate about each one of my roles. I enjoy keeping myself updated about art, meeting creatives and facilitating them to connect with the right people. Commitment and kindness are two of my biggest motivators,’ she says.

Born in culturally rich Damascus, Syria, Hala says that her early life was heavily influenced by art and history. Growing up in Byzantine-era streets, in homes with Islamic art mosaics and inlaid furniture, she often accompanied her parents to several art exhibitions. Naturally, when it came to choosing a profession, she didn’t have to look too far. After graduating with a degree in design and visual communications from Damascus University, she went on to do a Master’s in design studies from the University of the Arts, London.

A major milestone in Hala’s life was being part of the launch team of Christie’s Dubai in 2007, where she played a key role in the expansion and globalisation of the Middle Eastern art market.

During her time at Christie’s, she was known as a specialist on Arab, Iranian and Turkish art as she worked closely with collectors on an international level. ‘It was important to let the world know that artists in the Middle East are just as talented as their western counterparts,’ she says. ‘Today, as part of Art Dubai, I love meeting young emerging artists and encouraging them, as I believe every purchase can change their life.’

A keen advocate of Syria’s art community, Hala has also founded a charity, SAFIR, in 2014 to support young Syrian artists.

She says she is fortunate to have lived and worked in the UAE for 20 years, under a leadership that encourages gender equality. ‘We are in a country where, as a woman, I feel privileged. It helps that our minister of culture is also a woman. Even at Art Dubai, we are very much a female driven team There is also great emphasis on women artists in the art world today.’

Yet Hala admits that building a successful career did not come easy. Early in her professional journey, as a young mother, she did have to let go of opportunities as she wanted a work and family life balance. ‘There were always some compromises that one has to make. When my kids were younger, I could not travel and I let others in my team take those opportunities,’ she says, ‘Plus the art world is quite sensational. There is always a gala opening night, an art fair or a biennial to attend, but you can’t have it all. You have to be focused depending on your priorities,’ she says.

International Women’s Day for her is a time to not just celebrate the feminine force, but also the entire humanity.’ I strive to wake up every day to become a better person. The reality is not the same for everyone. There are so many refugees the world over today. We need more peace and respect for each human,’ she says.

As for the art world, Hala hopes to be remembered for spreading cultural knowledge and building niche art communities.

The Marine Crusader

Barbara Lang-Lenton

Director of Aquarium, Burj Al Arab, Jumeirah

Pursue your dreams and never give up. If there are barriers, they can be overcome.’ On International Women’s Day, Barbara Lang-Lenton’s crisp yet powerful message for all young women, urges them to follow their passion. In the last 19 years of working in the UAE, Barbara, an environment and sustainability professional, has enjoyed a wide spectrum of experiences while following a career path very close to her heart. Besides being the Director of Aquarium at the Burj Al Arab, she also heads The Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project, is part of the Jumeirah Sustainability Committee and is a subject matter expert on biodiversity and environment planning for Dubai Holding.

As a young girl growing up in Spain, she says that she was always keen on caring for animals. ‘I was that kid who wanted a lot of pets. My pockets were always full of ants and crickets, and I had a cat at home,’ she says. ‘So, when it came to choosing a career, I wanted to do something I loved because I knew it was key to becoming successful and happy in life.’

Barbara 2
Turtle rehabilitation is a 24X7 job, she says Image Credit: Supplied

After completing her education from Madrid in Zoology with a doctorate on gazelles, Barbara says her career took many turns before she joined her current portfolio in 2021. ‘I moved to England and started working in the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth and they sent me to the Burj Al Arab in 2004 where I joined as an assistant operations manager in the aquarium team,’ she says.

Over the years she become an ace scuba diver and instructor, and dabbled in environmental planning, sustainability relations and consultancy roles with organisations in the UAE. Her most cherished role these days, is being part of the Turtle Rehabilitation Project doing community outreach programmes, where she engages with the public and delivers talks on the subject, the most recent one being at the Dubai International Boat Show.

‘Turtle rehabilitation is a 24X7 job. At times we get calls on weekends, and even at night with information about rescued turtles. As a mom of three young boys, I have tried to involve them in my passion as well. They enjoy tagging along with me on these turtle rescue missions,’ she says.

As a woman helming a successful career and balancing life as a mother, Barbara’s role models are in her own home– her mom and mom-in-law. ‘I had a working mom and now I take inspiration from my mom-in-law, who at 81 is still working,’ she says.

Pursuing an unconventional career as a woman, she did have to break a few barriers convincing her colleagues that she could take on responsibilities, just as her male counterparts. ‘We are not just mothers and wives but are also working professionals, who unfortunately don’t always have the same rights as men.

‘To young women I would say to not get discouraged by the challenges that come their way. For inspiration we have our women leaders, they are living examples of what women can achieve if we put our minds to it.’

All for women’s rights

Paola Diana

Entrepreneur, commentator, women’s right activist

From being a victim of domestic abuse to a champion of women’s rights, Paola Diana has come a long way. Now a successful businesswoman and political campaigner, Paola is determined to end violence and misogyny towards women globally.

Growing up in a toxic home environment, Paola’s childhood was clouded with unhappy moments. ‘I was born in a very conservative family in Italy. My father had a dominating nature and as a child, I was lonely and depressed,’ says Paola, a British Italian.

Her childhood struggles led to teenage bulimia. ‘I was eating to fill an emotional hole inside myself. Beauty standards for women at that time also put additional pressure to conform to certain physical parameters. As a young woman I was an easy prey to these unhealthy beliefs,’ she says.

It was only when she relocated to a new city to pursue her college education, did she heal herself. Staying away from her unpleasant home environment brought the first wave of change and helped build self confidence in her. ‘I had enrolled for a degree in Political Science, which I immensely enjoyed studying. I was always a strong person but now I knew, I had to become my own saviour,’ she says, revealing that she was able to self-soothe her bulimia eventually.

A global entrepreneur, Paola also launched a recruitment firm Artemide Recruitment Image Credit: Supplied

In her mid-twenties, she created her own happy family and became a mom of two. Motherhood was a turning point in her life spurring her to give back to society by helping other women. Breaking away from the cycle of domestic abuse in her own life, she now wanted to pave way for greater gender equality.

She was able to launch PariMerito (equal merit), an initiative in Italy that helped in lobbying to pass new equality laws in Italian workplaces including a new bill that required every company board to have a minimum of 30 per cent female representation.

A global entrepreneur, Paola also launched a recruitment firm Artemide Recruitment, that today operates out of four international locations. ‘I wanted women to see that they can be strong and self-confident at any age - after they have kids, before they have kids, even when they are working and have no time for themselves, when they are aging and feeling low about growing older,’ she details.

Her move to the UK a few years ago gave her more opportunities to work for women’s rights. Today she sits in the Council of the 2022/2023 Sherriff of The City of London, as the Advisor for Women’s Rights. She has been able to organise a series of closed door events for the judiciary where they have discussed female genital mutation, gender and law, domestic abuse and domestic violence. ‘I want women to know the there is always hope and that even if they are in a difficult situation, it is not the end. They can find strength in themselves or in others – be it in a friend, a teacher, a psychologist or a politician. I just urge them to break the silence of abuse,’ she says.

On celebrating women on International Women’s Day, the author, podcast host and Jiu Jitsu practitioner feels that this day should be observed more often, for instance, extended to a day every month of the year. ‘Women are the pillars of a family. They are the ones who feed us and take care of us. Even the fate of a democracy depends on the way women are treated. It’s critical to have women in top management and leadership roles, to improve the life of the average person on the street. She should be celebrated more often,’ she says.

Yet another of Paola’s ardent wish is to help women find work opportunities after they have taken career breaks to raise families. ‘A mother is naturally bestowed with rich experiences that would makes her a valuable human resource. ‘The job market should be flexible enough to take her back into the mainstream workforce.’