Is Jessica Kahawaty Dubai's answer to Amal Clooney?

Is Jessica Kahawaty Dubais answer to Amal Clooney?

The Dubai-based model and humanitarian is becoming a talking point globally


Karen Ann Monsy

Published: Fri 28 Sep 2018, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Sat 29 Sep 2018, 9:11 AM

There's something very Amal Clooney-esque about Dubai-based model Jessica Kahawaty. It's not a new analogy for the 30-year-old, who is - like Clooney - also of Lebanese origin, a lawyer by degree and a humanitarian by choice. The duo even share the same luscious locks and sport strong brow games that are the envy of their admirers. While Jessica has, in the past, said that any comparison to the formidable human rights barrister is an honour, we can't help but note that she has done a fair bit to earn her own stripes as well.
An international model, Jessica was raised in Australia to Lebanese parents and won her first beauty pageant at the age of 17, before going on to snag the second runner-up title at Miss World 2012. She first came to Dubai on a holiday with her family five years ago - and when the city's "beautifully multicultural" vibe won her over, she decided to set up base here. Although, by her own admission, she's hardly ever in town (last year alone, she racked up about 53 flights around the world), she finds Dubai to be the perfect hub from which to operate.
"I didn't have any sort of culture shock when I moved here," she recalls. "The transition was almost seamless, because Dubai is made up of such diverse people. And it's perfect because I wanted to be in the Arab world but also in a progressive city." Yet, like many expats, she is no stranger to the question of identity that stems from a life that is lived "neither here nor there". "It's quite funny, because when I am in Dubai, I say 'we in Dubai' - but also use that word 'we' in the same sense when I am talking about Lebanon or Australia," shares Jessica, who was recently chosen to be the face of Australian natural skincare brand Sukin in the UAE.
Her dual heritage was never a "problem", though. If anything, she feels, it gave her an edge. "My parents taught me to embrace my beautiful ethnicity. We always spoke Arabic at home and ate Arabic food; my dad would also ensure that we visited Lebanon every year so we could get to know the Arab way of life."
That's not to say she no longer has moments of uncertainty - especially when, in Australia, she's seen as more Arab, but in the Arab world, it's vice versa. "I do feel like I'm constantly trying to prove myself," she says. "And, sometimes, you don't feel like you completely belong to one place - but having said that, why should we [have to identify with only one place]?" Home really is where the heart is, she argues, and if there's anything travelling so much has taught her, it's about how interconnected we really are. "We have different stories and different ways of communicating, but all of us have the same longing to be understood." It's why she believes it would serve everyone to be citizens of the world first, then a particular country.
Despite her own 522,000-strong Instagram following, the model feels that the image Arab women have in the West is not always a positive one, nor are they easily accepted. "Unfortunately, people are still not very educated about the amazing achievements of Arab women in the region," she observes. "They still ask a lot of questions I used to hear 5-10 years ago about freedom, inclusivity and education. Every culture does have its positives and negatives, but I find a lot of things can be exaggerated. What's important is to celebrate the notable achievements of Arab women who are taking on these incredible positions across the region in everything from fashion to government to engineering."
For her part, Jessica says she has always had to work hard wherever she was. And while she knew she wanted to study law (she's been educated in everything from refugee law to Islamic law to international law), she was also torn between her love for the world of fashion. "I knew it would be hard to practise law fulltime and be a model, and I wanted to embrace both." Today, she's managing to enjoy the best of both worlds - building up a high profile modelling career and using her influence to "fight for the underdog" through various causes. "Whether in the courtroom or outside it, I feel like I'm still achieving my dreams - just not in the conventional way, because now I use my platform in fashion to appeal to the masses, highlighting causes close to my heart without barriers. Things that I couldn't say in the courtroom, I can talk about on social media."
Recently, she worked with Louis Vuitton to join UNICEF at the Za'atari camp in Jordan to support children affected by the Syrian humanitarian crisis, travelled to Bangladesh with UNHCR to visit the Rohingya Emergency Refugee Camps, and delivered an address at the United Nations General Assembly on the subject of adolescent and gender issues in the MENA region. "It's never going to be enough," she concedes. "You could raise a lot of money and still feel like you've barely achieved anything because there are always going to be people suffering in disadvantaged situations."
Still, for Jessica, it's about 'doing something' to combat what she calls 'this era of slacktivism'. "We're always posting our thoughts and prayers when we come across a natural disaster or war or some other cause. We'll share a few photos and write comments about how saddened we are - and that's appreciated because it's important to have active discussions on these subjects." However, she believes, one is far more effective when open to the idea of active volunteerism. "Not everyone needs to be involved in helping refugees or saving animals from extinction. But everyone has a soft spot for something - find the cause that speaks to you, and do whatever you can to reach an audience with it."
Despite her ultra glamorous lifestyle, the model wasn't fazed by the grime and despair she encountered at the refugee camps last year. "I've always been so in touch with what's happening around the world that it wasn't a shock to not be in 'hair and makeup'. The greater shock was the sheer number of refugees we were looking at. It's one thing to hear the numbers or read of them - but to experience 600,000 of them in a camp, see so much potential that remains untapped just because of circumstances, that was heartbreaking. If anything, it makes me feel guilty to live this dream world of glamour, while others who may be more talented than I am don't have the opportunity to pursue the same dreams."
Privilege is not the only currency that goes the distance, if you ask her. "If you don't have the financial resources to spare, just volunteer. When you give your time to people, you're giving them the human touch they long for. The stories you get from those experiences are much more powerful than donations you make sometimes."

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