Juggling Act: How to Be A Superwoman
Daughter, sister, wife, mother - juggling career, family and fitness - five women celebrate empowerment and everything it means to them
It's the ultimate paradox. While society has come a long way, where women are concerned - they also haven't. As fashion entrepreneur Meher Mirchandani says in our story, there are still "pockets" of communities and sects that hold women back from pursuing all their goals. We speak to five superwomen who've been there, done that - social mores, familial responsibilities et al. They don't wear capes - though they probably should. Instead they come to the rescue with life lessons to the most critical question: how can a woman do it all?
RAHA HASSAN MOHARRAK
Flitting across the room in a pretty black-and-white peplum top, skirt and heels, Raha Moharrak seems to be as comfortable socialising with the ladies as she is conquering the mountains and high altitudes she's best known for. A graphic designer by trade and a public speaker to boot, the 29-year-old's call to fame is her 2013 record as the youngest Arab and the first Saudi woman to conquer Mt Everest. And nothing about her journey was "easy".
"I'm a daughter, the youngest, born into an Arab family, in Saudi Arabia - there were definitely a lot of things working against me," assures the record-setter with a laugh. It all started a few years back, when her parents moved back to Saudi Arabia and were "pushing me in a very traditional direction", asking her to get married, she recalls.
"That really bothered me because, at that point, I wanted to do something different - something bold and something new. and I didn't know what it was till an acquaintance mentioned she was planning to climb Mt Kilimanjaro." The idea was right up Raha's alley - and her family reacted to the proposal just as she knew they would: they thought she was "insane".
But she persisted - and, seeing her determination, they relented and agreed to let her climb "just Kilimanjaro". Fourteen mountains and three-and-a-half years later, Raha is easily one of the most inspiring women you'll meet. Empowerment, to her, is about "being who you are, at your fullest potential, and being happy" - whatever that may be. "If you wish to be a mum, a stylist, a lawyer or a cook, be it and be fulfilled," she says. "That's what empowerment means to me - and it was climbing mountains that taught me that."
Surprisingly, she credits her parents with being the biggest inspiration on this journey. "It's clichéd, I know, but they inspire me, simply because it's extremely difficult to be a parent to a daughter like me, Arab or not. Yet, they've taken everything with such grace, and I have to admire them because, although we argued and fought a lot, they never broke my spirit."
One thing she was clear on was that she didn't want her success to cost her her relationship with them. "It took a lot to reach this point. I didn't just say I wanted to climb a mountain and sit on my behind. I worked extremely hard. It took a lot of patience and love on both sides, but my parents have since gone from being extremely shocked ('what are you doing?!') to the most supportive people in the world, asking me what I want to do next and how they can help."
What's next is a good question. After all, what can top conquering mountains? But Raha says, "I'm always evolving. There are so many things left on my bucket list - I want to finish writing the book I started, go back and climb the last mountain I couldn't finish, see the Northern Lights." Get married? "Sure," she laughs. "I'd love to settle down now. It's amazing how I ran away from the very thought a few years back. But now that I've done all these things, settling down is not such a bad idea. It might actually be nice."
What's her advice to other women like her? "Pick your battles," she says. "We don't always get what we want. So, be bold but be smart about your dreams. The battle I lost was that I had to move back to Saudi Arabia, which I didn't want to do. But, in return, I gained the opportunity to climb the highest mountain in the world. And if a Saudi woman could stand on top of the world, what makes you think your dreams are so hard to reach?"
Before she moved to Dubai in 2008 to help with her husband's career, Singaporean Edwina Viel was a banker with UBS in the UK. The move was a huge step for her, because it involved moving countries, moving homes and giving up her career - all while being a mum to a five-month-old.
"It was really hard," says the now 37-year-old, honestly. "Every woman has to deal with her ego, when it comes to giving up her career. Not because we don't love our families, but because you spend your whole life creating that career, achieving great things in the material world, and then you have to give it up - and devote your time to essentially doing things for others. You have to learn to let go." It takes a period of adjustment, she says, but once that happens, it's great. "I love doing things for my family now," she says, contentedly.
The first couple of years were tough, recalls Edwina. In fact, she felt terribly alone. "When you move to a new country, you don't do so with all your family. Raising children without the typical support from parents and grandparents can really have you scratching your head sometimes, wondering if you even know what you're doing." That's why, two years back, she started the blog SeaShellsOnThePalm.com - an online community to show mums they're not alone. The blog has mothers contributing articles and connecting with each other from all over the world, and Edwina loves "putting all their voices out there".
She certainly doesn't look like a mum of four. "That's because I have no time to eat!" she jokes. "Honestly though, with four children, I realise I have to keep up my fitness levels. I have a personal trainer and do Pilates. Even during my pregnancies, I always tried to eat sensibly, instead of taking it as licence to eat. Kids are energetic. You have to be constantly on the go. I was an investment manager back in the UK - but this is harder! Staying fit helps me to be patient with them and better available for all their needs."
How does she juggle the blog, her family and her fitness goals so well? "I don't," she returns. "I have to start everyday afresh and not punish myself - because there are days I do really well and days I don't. I realise I have to be more forgiving of myself, as a mum. Feeling guilty all the time won't get things done. So I just resolve to do better the next day, and protect the time I have with my children. For example, I try my best not to take appointments or check emails in the afternoon, because that is the time they come home and I'd like to use it to focus on them."
Empowerment means different things to different people, she says. But what's more important is to empower each other. "If friends tell you they're striving for something, encourage them. Introduce them to others that could help. Appreciate others' success. We don't have family here, so, supporting each other can really help us achieve our dreams."
As a child, Saima Khan's family moved around a lot. Her mother was constantly starting up new ventures and always included the kids in everything she did. "It gave us a very optimistic view of the world," says Saima, a serial entrepreneur herself. "She taught us to believe that every day was an adventure and that we could achieve anything we set our minds to. We learnt to express ourselves effectively at a very young age. The word 'No' was never really a 'No' - if we could use our words and convince her otherwise."
The upbringing inspired Saima to "create and incubate" business concepts right from the age of 18, and out of the several companies she started, two have already been acquired by publicly traded companies. "I love the freedom and flexibility to create and take ownership of your very own concepts," she enthuses.
That's not to say it's not a lot of hard work, clarifies the director of Cheeky Monkeys, a premier children's entertainment venue. "Time management and discipline are critical for me. I organise my days in advance, and try to stick to my schedule as much as possible - despite variables that I have no control over. I think we are all accountable for our time on this earth, and that all the privileges and opportunities we are blessed with come with some sense of accountability. When you look at it that way, you waste less time and spend more time on things that matter."
Empowerment, to her, means giving oneself the fuel to get things done. "I truly believe empowerment comes from within. It cannot be purchased, transferred or taken away from you." Having said that, she does admit empowerment for women in today's society can often be a struggle. "The modern woman is so busy being a mother, daughter, wife and, most importantly, sister to other women that it is easy to lose herself and shift into autopilot mode."
Give yourself a break sometimes, she advises. "We may get educated in one field and find out, after having children or moving countries, that the career we chose is no longer suitable," she continues. "We are subject to more changes, biologically and socially, than men. It's all the more reason to learn to convert our challenges into opportunities that can empower us daily. And the courage to do that can only be found within."
MAYSSA ASSAF AKAR
"I don't think there are many women who've been through hardships worse than Oprah Winfrey," declares Lebanese-born Mayssa Assaf Akar. "As a person of colour and poor economic status, she went through so much but still managed to stand up against the odds and come out triumphant in the end. That's why she's the first person to come to mind whenever I hear women talk of the restrictions they face in their societies. I think if Oprah did it, so can we all."
A journalist, editor and image consultant, Mayssa says she's grateful that she never faced any such obstacles growing up in Lebanon. On the contrary, she has had several "leaders, presenters and writers" in her own country to look up to for inspiration and empowerment, as opposed to "some communities that still don't provide women with the appropriate assistance and laws to help them achieve their career goals".
A normal day for the TV presenter involves switching off the six o'clock alarm and seeing her three boys safely to their school bus. By 9am, she hits the gym, followed by client meetings, fashion segment shoots and networking events at 12pm. It's bonding time with the kids from 4-8pm, followed by an hour-long walk, and more events or dinners in the evening. "There is no other way to get it right without being perfectly organised and fixing your schedule well in advance," says Mayssa. "Family always takes priority, though exceptions can be made once in a while."
As a working mum, it's easy to find oneself swamped with several responsibilities at once and being unable to finish the tasks one starts, she adds. "That's why the attitude to have must be a combination of determination and patience. Ever since my youth, I have been fascinated by the words: 'Where there's a will, there's a way.' Today, I know these are more than mere words and, whenever I think of the empowerment of women, my mind hastens back to them. I believe we women must find a way to build, learn and, eventually, triumph."
Meher Mirchandani (pictured below, right) and Riddhima Whabi have been best friends since third grade. They studied together at St Mary's Catholic High School in Dubai, then pursued fashion design and marketing degrees in Dubai and London. Both of them graduated in May 2002 but, while most of their peers breathed a sigh of relief and took a break, the duo didn't slow down. By September of the same year, they'd launched their very own fashion brand called M&R.
"Both of us have been very interested in fashion since childhood," explains Meher, who is CEO of the label. "Dressing up dolls, stitching clothes for them. Plus, 30 years ago, it was my father who started the first garment-manufacturing unit in the Jebel Ali Free Zone. He produced a million pieces a month for stores like Gap, Debenham and BHS. I was constantly surrounded by fashion, fabric, deliveries, shipments, and even interned with him during summers, so I guess it was natural that I should pursue it and take it to the next level."
The brand's success speaks for itself, with several celebrities donning it - from American model Dita Von Teese to Bollywood actresses Richa Chadda (Gangs of Wasseypur) and Kirti Sanon of recent Dilwale fame. However, M&R was not envisioned to fill any particular gap in the market. "The world has evolved and everything is available," says Meher. "But it is what you create with love and passion that becomes saleable." And that's how they intend to empower women: by "delivering happiness". A lot of emphasis is placed on the comfort, fabric and finishing so the wearer feels happy, special - and ready to take on the world.
The subject of female empowerment is especially dear to Meher's heart. "I've seen a lot of people who got married young and didn't know what else life has to offer. Thirty years down the line, those same people are feeling sorry for themselves for giving in to social mores and not achieving the things they dreamt of, once upon a time. It really bothers me to see that - especially when my own mum has been such a phenomenal inspiration to me as a working woman."
There are still pockets of communities and religious sects that don't encourage women to follow their dreams, she notes. But empowerment does not mean you have to run a multinational company, says the 34-year-old Indian expat. "Empowerment, to me, means being able to fulfil your passion in life - whatever that may be. A friend of mine says all she wants to do is be a good mother. That's amazing! You have to discover your passion - the thing that brings you real happiness - and work to live it."