ABU DHABI // Persistent stereotypes, the scarcity of women who make films, and identities rooted in gender were top issues for a panel of powerful female media personalities who gathered this week.
"I once had a male colleague who refused to accept that he had to answer to me as his boss, simply because I am female," Hala Sarhan, president of Rotana Studios and famed TV hostess, said during a panel discussion she moderated yesterday at the Intercontinental Hotel Abu Dhabi. "What is most important is the professionalism of women in the industry in reflecting a positive message. You have to master everything you do."
Dr Sarhan added that through the Circle Conference, in its second day yesterday, and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, there is evidence that women are now being rightly honoured.
Haifaa Al Mansour, a director and last year's Shasha competition winner, said during the panel that as a Saudi Arabian woman, finding a voice in the industry is a major challenge.
"I always had a manager more important than me and when I started producing, I felt that people started to listen," she said.
Nada Doumani, the communications and culture manager at the Royal Film Commission Jordan, disagreed. She said the focus should not be placed too much on being an "Arab woman".
"I have never felt that my gender affected my professional or family life," she said. "I am lucky to work with the commission because it is a powerful means of communication. I consider myself a media person not just a filmmaker or writer."
Dr Cynthia Schneider, the co-founder of Muslims on Screen and Television (Most) and former US ambassador to the Netherlands, questioned the role of gender in films.
"Is there even such a thing as a woman's film?" she asked. "The Hurt Locker was directed by a woman and that is an action movie. 500 Days of Summer was written mainly by men and it is a romance, so it is very hard to distinguish."
Oprah Winfrey, she continued, is the most powerful woman in media and is as ambitious as any man.
Mai Masri, a producer and director at Nour Productions, said that to her, the camera is an empowerment tool.
"My first film was set against the backdrop of war in Beirut and, despite the conflict, people were managing to live. My projects are about real human stories," said Mrs Masri. "The industry is hard enough and, being a woman, you have to work even harder. The language of film is universal but 'universal' starts at home."
Nayla al Khaja is a UAE filmmaker who did not attend yesterday's panel discussions, but she shares the sentiment.
"It has been very challenging. My industry is totally male-driven, sometimes I feel as a woman I am not taken seriously, although I put in 150 per cent of my time and dedication," she said in a previous interview with The National.
Vicky Jewson, a director and producer at Jewson Film Productions, said intellectual confidence is the key to success.
"I left school at 18 and got a £20,000 [Dh117,000] loan from a bank, then spent a year developing my film idea and invited as many rich individuals as I could to a fund-raising evening," said Mrs Jewson. "I raised £1.2million and produced my first feature film, LadyGodiva."
Egyptian singer and actress Lebleba said women should be respected for what they really are: "From my personal experience, we do face competition at work. And I don't want to upset any men, but women are heroes! They are heroes because we can balance between our business, personal and family life."