Pearls of Resilience

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She is one of the first ten women lawyers of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A fighter, a game changer and a survivor, Sofana Dahlan founded Tashkeil, a Saudi based social enterprise that incubates and promotes creative entrepreneurs. Yasmeen Maqbool discovers the woman with indomitable spirit – the force behind the fast evolving Saudi woman identity.

A beautiful woman clad in a black abaya, stands centrestage at BOLD talks/ Woman 2014 held at Ductac, Dubai. She is introduced as a Saudi entrepreneur activist who aims to bring about change. And before you know it, you are being told the tale of rebellion, challenge/s, resilience and sheer perseverance. Sofana has lived it all.

Questions and Answers
In March 2010 when Sofana’s second daughter, Huda was born, her 3 year old asked her: ‘What will Huda be when she grows up? A question that forced her to think about her life, her experiences and her identity as a Saudi woman. As she attempted to answer this unexpected, but challenging question, her newborn opened her eyes for the first time in anticipation of the answer her mother was about to give. “The obvious answer would be: She can be whatever she sets her mind to be. But a more realistic one would be: Whatever that she is permitted to be.Tears filled my eyes. I was anxious thinking of what my daughters’ prospects are? What obstacles will they have to face? Will I be able to tell them that their choices of education and career could be limited?” she says.

Reshaping Her Path
The answer wasn’t far away. “Am I not the consequence of the obstacles and difficulties my mother and my grandmother faced,” she asked herself – a thought that made me adapt, learn to be flexible and reshape her path.

She grew up in KSA and went to a local school. However, her parents sent her for an after-school enrichment programme, which she learnt to disapprove and then approve of, as she entered the formative years. “At 17 years of age I opted to study architecture, which to me meant a ticket to leave Saudi. Until one day I heard of a woman whose step-children had refused to give her share of inheritance after her husband’s death, and when she sought help from a lawyer, she was accused of having an affair with him. A sinful act in my country. It was at that moment when I realized the dire need of a female lawyer in my country, to not only represent women, but to fight for them as well,” Sofana was inspired to study law. She left to study at Cairo University in Egypt. After her degree in law, Sofana pursued her masters in Islamic Studies.

Turning Point
Here for the first time she was introduced to the varied schools of thought – philosophical and religious, that helped her explore women’s rights in different religions and sects. “It helped me understand the framework of where social justice and value operates in my society,” she states. But just after completing her graduation, life took a 360 degree turn. She lived the biggest truth of her life. “I was not able to attain a license to practice law in Saudi as I had no proof of being with a male guardian through my study years,” she states. While her batch mates received their licenses, she was left with no option but to take up desk jobs at legal firms. It made her feel useless, unworthy and unaccomplished. But more than anything else, she experienced injustice. She decided to move on,

Sofana Dahlan received the Most Innovative Woman Entrepreneur award at the WIL Achievement Awards 2014.

“At 25 I got married and left for Kuwait.” There after a good struggle, she finally got approval to work in a corporate law firm. But soon she was pregnant with health complications and needed special attention. “I put my dream on hold to focus on my child,” she states.

The Process
As life unfolded, Sofana came at crossroads with her marriage. She had by then decided to become a single mom. She realized, “That the hardest moments in life are not when people don’t understand you, it is when you don’t understand yourself.” Unanswered questions haunted her, “Who am I? What is it that I want from life? How can I make a difference?” She chose to take the road not taken, realizing all the while that the trick lies in understanding the steps to be taken. “Keeping faith in self, exploring my ability by identifying of my strength and weaknesses was the key,” Sofana states. “I sought to find my motivation and master creativity, which was to me about breaking established patterns to look at things in a different way. Redesigning your dream and redefining your mission helps,” she states.

On A Mission
Sofana began on a mission of innovation, engaged in building bridges and facilitating a path of fulfillment, promoting creativity while preserving her country’s rich heritage. “My goal is to contribute to the social development of my society.” In 2010 she launched Tashkeil. Tashkeil’s aim is to cater to the needs of the
local market with products designed by local designers, with the help of a business model that utilizes local human resources. “I believe in never to give up and in 2012 I applied for my license in law again. And eventually last year, on November 24th an arduous battle of 13 years ended. She is all set to open her own law firm which will provide mediation and litigation expertise within the creative industry.

“I believed in my dreams and had faith in my choices,” she says. This is perhaps what her parents saw in her eyes and named her Safana, which is Arabic for ‘a rare pearl’. She concludes with optimism in her voice and hope for the future of the Saudi women who are examples of leading change today through independent decision and choices.

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