Interview: Sofana Dahlan, the first Saudi woman allowed to study law

The authors of Game Changers speak to Sofana Dahlan, founder and CEO of Tashkeil



A lawyer by profession, Sofana Dahlan founded Tashkeil – a Saudi Arabia-based social enterprise that incubates and promotes creative entrepreneurs.

She was the first Saudi woman to be given permission to study law by the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education and was also the first Saudi to serve as fellow for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations on a tour of Europe and the United States.

What do you think are some of the biggest barriers for female entrepreneurs?

“In my opinion, in the entrepreneurial world men and women face the same set of challenges and barriers, regardless of gender. If we are talking particularly about Saudi Arabia, then women here also have to face some cultural restraints, such as restrictions on mobility, gender interactions, and so on.”

Why is it important for companies to invest specifically in female leadership?

“It is important for companies to utilise all available human recourses and capitalise on their competence. A study by Psychology Today reported that women do have an edge over men when it comes to emotional intelligence that comprises self-awareness, managing emotions, empathy and social skills. These are key leadership skills.

“Research by Catalyst also indicates that companies with more women leaders outperform companies with fewer or no women. Harvard University has also reported that companies with more women have a higher net profit margin. Hence, companies that invest in women do benefit in the long run.”

What are your thoughts about the experience of women in this region whose nationalities are different from yours?

“Women are women whether they are in this part of the world or another. They face the same struggles and constraints. And they have the same goals, whether it is to advocate for women’s rights or break the shackles of a stereotypical and cultural mindset. Of course it varies from one country to another in its intensity.”

In your view, which part of the world is the most advanced in terms of gender diversity and equal opportunities for career growth and leadership?

“The Nordic countries are advanced in gender diversity and have lots of opportunities for both men and women. Boys and girls not only have access to basic education but both genders enjoy high levels of enrollment in a highly-skilled workforce. A Huffington Post article also reported that in Nordic countries women have abundant opportunities to rise to positions of leadership.”

How do you see the current status of Arab women, as opposed to 30 years ago and 100 years ago? How do you see it evolving?

“Years back women had more rights within the cultural context — they ruled kingdoms, participated in decision-making and were active citizens. However, it reached its deteriorating peak in the last 80 years due to strong cultural impositions and the influence of tribal culture. Now I believe Arab women are getting educated, have more civic sense and have the drive to reach the zenith by breaking through in male-dominated fields and making society a better place to live in.”

What does the word feminism mean to you? What is the first image that comes to your mind when thinking of it?

“Feminism means preserving fragility and vulnerability and using strength, courage, wisdom and perseverance to fulfil the role of a mother, caretaker, businesswomen, and so on. The name of Syeda Khadijah bint Khuwailid, the first wife of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), fits this image. I believe she is a great role model for feminism. She was a prominent businesswoman of her time who took bold decisions and initiatives, while preserving her role as a highly dignified woman, mother and wife. She had the wisdom to choose the right husband for her when he was not even a prophet yet. She was the backbone of all the Prophet Mohammed’s propagation initiatives, and played a leading role in his life while he conveyed God’s message.”

In multinational organisations that typically focus on equal opportunity for all, how do you balance efforts towards supporting female diversity? Can this be viewed as positive discrimination? Do the men complain?

“I think gender should not be taken into consideration as long as an organisation knows which gender is capable of handling the task efficiently. If they are qualified and capable then they should earn the position regardless of being a man or woman, but with equal support and monetary benefits for both. My workplace comprises 70 per cent women because I think they are better for that particular post.”

What did you want to be when you were a little girl?

“I aspired to become an architect. However, the belief and passion of helping had been embodied in me since childhood. So, when I noticed that my country did not have any women in the judicial realm to stand up for women specifically, I decided to change my career course and become a lawyer instead.”

Who is the male or female figure that inspired or supported you the most when you were growing up?

“My father was always my role model, especially his strong work ethic and commitment to serve and help the people of his country. And my loving aunt Faiza played an instrumental role in the highs and lows of my life.”

What is your personal leadership style and philosophy for success?

“My leadership style stems from the characteristics of water. Water has strength, it has the quality to take any shape, find new ways around things and withstand pressure, but even then it doesn’t lose its subtlety or softness.”

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

“Oprah Winfrey said: ‘Where there is no struggle there is no strength’. I too found my own strength amid my struggles. Struggles open doors and prompt one to take decisions that are bold and fruitful. I have faced numerous struggles in my life and each one of them has been a life-altering experience for me, whether it was becoming a lawyer, setting up a business and running it solely, or being a single mother.”

As a very successful and internationally recognised woman, what would you consider the most enjoyable and most challenging aspects of your job?

“I’m working on changing mindsets and applying standards. That is definitely a challenge in a country like Saudi Arabia.”

Tell me about your career choice and path. Did you always know you would do what you are doing? Did you study and plan for it or was it accidental?

“Becoming a lawyer for me was more of destiny’s play than a planned career path. I hoped to become an architect but decided to become a lawyer after being inspired by the story of an orphan girl who married a wealthy man but was denied rights to inheritance by her stepchildren when her husband passed away. When the poor widow tried to seek legal help from a male lawyer, she was accused of having an affair with him. The plight of the widow, and women in general, made me realise how much our country needed a female lawyer to not only represent women, but to educate them about their rights and support them to obtain it.”

Who are your greatest role models, and why?

“Syeda Khadijah bint Khuwailid, for her ability to make bold choices and Nelson Mandela because he never gave up on the cause he initiated.”

Tell me about your family. How do you teach your children the life lessons you have learned in the pursuit of your career, passion or calling?

“I have two daughters and I strongly believe that spending one hour of quality time is better than spending four hours of idle quantity time. What’s the use of spending five hours with your child sitting right next to you, but your mind is occupied with all the other things that need your attention?

“As an independent businesswoman I tend to spend less time with my daughters, but when I do spend time with them they have my undivided attention. This doesn’t mean that I don’t take care of their needs. I may not be with them all the time but I’m always around for them when they need me – not to mention that I’m up to date with all their activities at school or at home. Likewise, they are also completely aware of what I’m doing, and they not only support me but they are also very proud of me. Even though they are very young, they give me their opinions, which I respect and value more than anything.

“I have redefined the word ‘mother’. I want to become a role model for my daughters instead of a stay-at-home mum so that when they grow up they have the drive to scale heights. I want to be such an example for my daughters that better things can happen to them, and they will always have my back through thick and thin.”

Do you believe in the term ‘work–life balance’? If yes, how do you maintain it?

“For me, work–life balance is on an everyday basis. I wake up in the morning and set my priorities straight. For example, if I wake up and find my daughter unwell, I will tend to her first. And if everything at my house and my daughters are fine then work takes priority.”

If there was one change that you could make for the position of women in the world, what would that be?

“Various reports and studies have suggested that companies under women’s leadership excel. I believe that nurturing and polishing the leadership skills of girls from a tender age would be beneficial for economies, as well as developing themselves personally.

“They should be taught practical leadership skills, for example through sports or other physical or academic exercises. This will enable girls to unleash their hidden talents and discover more about themselves. It will also help them find out what they want to do in the future.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be part of the workforce in order to change mindsets or to bring about change; they can be great leaders by being mothers who play the important role of shaping a child’s future.”

If there was one thing about women that you would never want to change, what would that be?

“Vulnerability and femininity — we should never lose our gentleness, sensitivity and empathetic nature.”

How did you break into what many consider to be an old boys network?

“It’s only with perseverance and persistence that we can break into the old boys network. I was the first woman in Saudi Arabia to be granted permission to study law by the Ministry of Education, and was among a handful of women who received the licence to practice law in the kingdom last year. I got my licence accredited after 13 years. I persisted until I got it.”

What advice can you offer to an individual looking to start a career in your industry?

“In the creative industry they need to be innovative and think out of the box; their work should show originality.”

What should be the top priority for organisations to actively support greater gender diversity and inclusion? Can you give an example of a specific programme or initiative that has been successful?

“They should invest in their people generously. I am fascinated by Accenture’s programme, which was designed to help women in the organisation climb the ladder of success by becoming future leaders and building their career capital as they move forward within the organisation.”

What is the role of men in supporting gender diversity?

“Men should view gender diversity from a macro point of view. They should view women as equivalent co-workers instead of living with the fact that they are ‘losing to a woman’.

“A report by Catalyst suggested that men who champion the cause of diversity have a strong sense of fairness. It also stated that ‘men who were committed to the ideal of fairness were found to have more personal concerns about issues of equality in general and were more aware of gender bias in the workplace and likely to take action’.”

What is the role one can play individually to support diversity efforts?

“Change conventional mindsets, practice before you preach and lead by example.”

Game Changers: How Women in the Arab World are Changing the Rules and Shaping the Future is published by Motivate and is available at several retail outlets and booksarabia.com