Hind Alowais on the making of Expo 2020's landmark Women's Pavilion

Dubai - Senior Vice President of International Participants department at Expo 2020 Dubai on how the pavilion seeks to strengthen women’s place in history with the motto '‘When women thrive, humanity thrives"


Somya Mehta

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Published: Thu 11 Nov 2021, 6:34 PM

Last updated: Thu 11 Nov 2021, 7:33 PM

It’s been over a month since the World’s Greatest Show opened its doors to the citizens of the world, bringing in audiences from around the globe. And while there have been several surprises and showstoppers at the Expo site, an initiative that has particularly turned heads amid avid Expo-goers is the Women’s Pavilion. Located in Sustainability District, the glistening Women’s Pavilion, in collaboration with Cartier, stands tall as an endeavour to cement the pivotal role women have played throughout history. Driving home a singular point that all major social progression has had women at the heart of it, the pavilion landmarks their place in time — a place they’ve often been excluded from.

It’s no surprise that this celebration of women’s achievements was championed by women who’re empowered and independent changemakers themselves. Back in 2015, Hind Alowais became the first Emirati woman to be appointed for an international position at the United Nation headquarters. From then to now, becoming one of the key members to lay the foundations of Women’s Pavilion in 2021, Alowais has actively contributed towards pushing the narrative of advancing gender equality, an agenda that lies at the core of the Expo pavilion. “When women thrive, humanity thrives,” fortifies Alowais, who’s also the Senior Vice President of International Participants Department at Expo 2020 Dubai. In a conversation with wknd., she talks about how the pavilion seeks to bring this very essence into existence.

What were your formative years like? Were you empowered as a young girl?

I was very fortunate that I grew up in a household that was very international. I think I fell in love with diplomacy very early on. I learned that serving your country was one of the most important things you could do at a young age. What really shaped me as an individual was living in different countries and getting to know different cultures. Both my parents were always interested to know other traditions and cultures. So, when my father was posted from one country to another, it was never seen as something that was daunting or difficult to adjust to. It was celebrated as getting to know a different side of the world. And I think I adopted the same feeling and approach to life. There’s always something you can learn from others. That’s why the Expo was so attractive to me because we managed to gather 192 countries to tell their unique stories. Not just for an exhibition fair but to really tell their stories, to celebrate their heritage, their culture, their traditions. And that’s what we do here at the Women’s Pavilion, too.

You were the first Emirati woman to be appointed for an international position at the United Nations headquarters back in 2015 and we’re almost nearing the end of 2021 now. Do you think the women’s movement has advanced in the last six years?

It’s unfortunate, but the answer is no. What has happened with the pandemic has proved to us how fragile the progress we had made so far was. Before Covid, The World Economic Forum estimated that closing the gender gap would take at least 99 years. After Covid, that has now increased to 136 years, which means that the progress has been rolled back. A shadow pandemic has emerged: violence against women. It just proves that there’s so much more that needs to be done. The gains we have made have to be rooted more deeply in our society; they can’t be undone so easily when pandemic hits or when there’s a crisis.

In a country like the UAE — where there’s been noticeable progress – with several Emirati women breaking stereotypes and taking on roles that have historically been considered ‘male-dominated’, what do you think the establishment has got right over the last few decades?

I think that indeed is the right question because the UAE has done so many things right. We are unique in the region. We have been leading the way for women on this agenda. The Gender Inequality Index placed the UAE at the top of the list regionally in countries that are addressing this inequality index. We were positioned at number 18 globally. These are not just figures, but also something to be very proud of. I think that the UAE got it right from the start. They recognised that we needed to do two things. We needed to truly adopt the idea that women are equal partners. And that’s what the late founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, did for us.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan

He founded this country and made his views known to everybody. He would tell people women must have an equal place in society and would always say, “Nothing makes me happier than seeing women take their equal place in society.” That’s the principle that he instilled in the people of the country and the government bodies. That’s something that other leaders have also upheld and pushed forward. This was accompanied by the UAE taking active steps to address the status of women, whether it was on an educational level or any other area.

Her Highness Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, the mother of the nation, decided that the first thing we would have to do as a country was to educate our women. She educated girls, their mothers and their grandmothers; that was transformative. They addressed the culture and laws, which I think makes the UAE a very unique place in the region and in the world. So, we have a lot to celebrate. We have nine women ministers. We have the Federal National Council, which is now a 50-50 split in gender. Out of all the people working in public sector jobs, 60 per cent are women. There’s a lot to be grateful for, and that’s due to the vision of the leadership.

It’s been over 50 years since there’s been a dedicated Women’s Pavilion at the Expo. How did the idea take shape?

Her Excellency Reem Al Hashemy, Minister of State for International Cooperation and Director General at Expo 2020 Dubai, is really the one behind it. We are just here to deliver on her vision and on the country’s vision. When you understand what this country stands for, it’s almost natural to understand why we have the Women’s Pavilion. The Expo is also a place where we come together to solve global challenges. Whether it’s on climate change and biodiversity, water, urban and rural development and health concerns. You can’t even begin to tackle these issues if you’re not taking into consideration 50 per cent of the world’s population. And that is women and girls. It then becomes imperative to say that I’m going to have a space that addresses inequality first because if you address this, then you have double the hands to help you tackle the other problems.

Her Excellency Reem Al Hashemy, Minister of State for International Cooperation and Director General at Expo 2020 Dubai
Her Excellency Reem Al Hashemy, Minister of State for International Cooperation and Director General at Expo 2020 Dubai

The pavilion reads “When women thrive, humanity thrives” in bold right as we enter. It’s a very powerful statement. How are the two interlinked?

“When women thrive, humanity thrives” is something that is so dear to my heart because we have been trying to get this message across for so many years. You know, women have to spend two hundred million hours per day globally fetching water. So, imagine if you actually found the solution to address this need for women, what would happen?

Not only would a woman be able to use the water for herself to cook and clean but it would also mean that her daughters won’t have to walk five hours with her daily. It means that they can go to school. They don’t have to look after their siblings or do house chores. It means that early marriage for them is prevented. It means that the cycle of poverty for this family can be broken. For the woman herself, it means better health. She doesn’t have to walk and carry a huge jug of water on her head. It means that she is safe. She’s not putting herself at risk of being attacked or facing sexual violence.

So, when we say that women thrive, it’s not just about women thriving, it’s about their families thriving. It’s about their communities thriving, society and humanity as a whole thriving. Women’s issues are everybody’s issues. Societal issues can never be resolved without women.

Has putting together this initiative for the Expo changed your own perspective in any way?

It’s made me appreciate women even more than I already did. It’s given me an opportunity to translate a policy agenda into something that will relate to the youth. Something that will resonate with everyone, whether young or old, man or woman. And it’s been a transformative platform, to be able to tell the story of women from the past and present that have made tremendous contributions to the progress of our society.

What are the future plans for women’s pavilion not only in the next few months, but also beyond the Expo?

For now, we’re focused on facilitating conversations that matter. We have the Women’s World Majlis, which looks at the role of women in sustainable development across Expo’s themes. We are looking at the role of women in Islam and Arabia and want to pay respect to the women of Muslim heritage who have done great things but are always forgotten. There’s something called Visions and Journeys at the Women’s Pavilion, where we invite notable personalities, both men and women, to tell us what their vision for a gender equal future looks like and what their journey on a personal level has been, in creating equality for the world.

We’re partnering with so many entities in the UAE. The Gender Balance Council is our main partner when it comes to advancing the narrative on gender equality and women’s empowerment. They are the entity that is tasked with legislative reform in the UAE under Her Highness Sheikha Manal bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, President of the UAE Gender Balance Council and President of the Dubai Women Establishment. They’re helping us put all our programmes together so that there’s an impact and there’s a legacy. To ensure that it’s not just talking for the sake of it but with the hope that we can come up with something concrete in the end.

We are still working on what that would look like. It’s not something that’s predetermined because we like to work in coalitions with others. And this is an issue that requires everybody’s participation and commitment. So, that’s what we hope to do.

Lastly, what is that one message that you want every man or woman who walks through the door at Women’s Pavilion to take home?

When women thrive, humanity thrives.

Entrance of Women's Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai
Entrance of Women's Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai


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