For as long as I can remember I've been drawn to art and fashion as a means of self-expression. When I was four my uncle called me “The Big Shoe Lady" because I was always dressing up in my mom's clothes and heels, scooting around our house. My mom was a hairstylist and had built a home salon so she could raise my brother and I.
I remember watching her cut, color and style her clients hair. It was amazing to witness how much she helped brighten their day, not just by transforming their look, but by creating a space for them to express themselves,to be seen and to be heard. Not only did they trust her with their hair, they also felt safe enough to share some of their most vulnerable stories and experiences. After each appointment, her clients would walk out with a newfound self-esteem and empowerment because it was like she was giving them both a makeover and therapy session at once. Seeing her ability to help uplift their spirit and self confidence inspired me to want to have that kind of impact too. Between her creativity, compassion and loving heart, I had big shoes to fill.
When I was 14 I started my first job at a women's clothing boutique. By this age I was making art out of anything and everything I could- painting, drawing, photography, sewing and altering clothes. I loved curating the shop and helping customers pick out outfits that made them feel confident and beautiful. While I really enjoyed all of the creative aspects of the job, the dressing room was a very vulnerable place, and I witnessed the immense pressure that women of all ages, shapes, sizes and colors face to conform to society's beauty standards. Although it was my job to sell clothes, I put my heart into finding them the fiercest outfit possible to help them transform their insecurities and fear into confidence. This is where my passion for supporting women started to sprout. I had watched my mom uplift women through her craft and I wanted to use my art as a means of empowering people as well.
I fell in love with the therapeutic process of designing and styling people and the experience of evoking emotion, so I started collaborating with friends on different projects. My senior year of high school I put together a mixed media portfolio and dreamt of going to an art college, but all of the schools that I wanted to attend were not financially feasible. My parents wanted me to study business or something more practical than art, but I decided to apply for a full scholarship competition to study design and visual communications in San Francisco. And, I won! The submission was a short fashion film that I directed and styled and my friend Sara helped shoot and edit. We became close friends during this time and decided to move up to San Francisco together when I started school.
"These ladies were unapologetically themselves and designing their lives on their own terms. After getting to know them, we saw that our fears and obstacles were so similar. Through our conversations, we were able to learn different ways to overcome them" - Holli Rae (Photo Courtesy Carl Kerridge)
While living in the city for few couple of years, Sara and I were constantly inspired by the multifaceted women we met everywhere we went. They were artists, doctors, mothers, chefs, healers, business owners, lawyers, community leaders and so much more. These ladies were unapologetically themselves and designing their lives on their own terms. After getting to know them, we saw that our fears and obstacles were so similar. Through our conversations, we were able to learn different ways to overcome them. We realized how empowering it is to hear stories from people that you can relate to, and we wondered why so many women's experiences and perspectives were missing from mainstream media.
Like many of us young girls seeking advice and inspiration, I grew up looking to television, movies and magazines to find role models, but I rarely found any famous women that I could relate to. The more we started to talk about this, the more we realized that others felt this way too.
"Movies play a huge role in shaping our culture, and nearly every woman we knew felt frustrated by the constant bombardment of the same stereotypical roles, photoshopped images and unrealistic beauty standards." - Holli Rae
"Each day brought new challenges, but we kept driving with the knowing in our hearts that our intuitions would guide the way" - Holli Rae (Photo Courtesy of The Goddess Project)
Although neither of us had ever made a feature-length film before, Sara and I decided to stop complaining about the lack of representation and to start doing something about it. We made a pact to set our fears aside and travel from coast to coast interviewing other women who were doing the same. I dropped out of school, we sold all of our belongings at a yard sale party and had a successful crowdfunding campaign to fund the project. We hit the road in a mini school bus that was serendipitously donated to us by a stranger with a heart of gold named Chirp. Driven by our desire to see a broader spectrum of female role models in the media, we set out to talk to inspiring women from all walks of life about their paths to self-discovery.
At the beginning of our journey, we met an incredible painter named Michelle Robinson who transformed #TheGoddessBus with her artwork into a goddess billboard on wheels. As we made our way across the country, our beautifully painted bus attracted people everywhere we went. This was almost always a blessing, but sometimes a curse (like when trying to locate an incognito spot to park overnight). We met women to film at coffee shops, at rest stops, and even through Twitter while driving on the highway.
It only took a couple of weeks being on the road to realize that living out of a bus during the hot summer while making a movie was going to be a lot more challenging than we had anticipated. The vehicle itself had about six by ten feet of living space and none of the amenities we had grown accustomed to in our daily lives. All we had was our camera equipment, a bed, two drawers for our clothes, a cabinet to hold dry food and a cutting board that doubled as a desk. It was basically like camping in a hot tin box. Not to mention, we went from taking public transportation everyday to learning how to fuel and operate a veggie oil powered school bus practically overnight. All while filming and editing interviews, and finding a new place to park in every city. Each day brought new challenges, but we kept driving with the knowing in our hearts that our intuitions would guide the way.
"Connecting with women across the country opened our eyes to so many new possibilities. As we got to know each of them, we discovered how similar many our goals and struggles were. We realized that although our individual paths look so different from the outside, there are threads that connect us all."
We interviewed artists, mothers, healers, businesswomen and scholars about the life-changing experiences that shaped them to become who they are today. The filming process was unique, because we were just a team of two on the road. No staging, lighting, make-up artist, sound engineer or fancy crew. It was less like a movie set and more like a conversation between girlfriends because we were sharing our story with them too.
Connecting with women across the country opened our eyes to so many new possibilities. As we got to know each of them, we discovered how similar many our goals and struggles were. We realized that although our individual paths look so different from the outside, there are threads that connect us all. I think I shed tears during almost every interview because I was just so touched by how open the women were with us after just meeting. We laughed together, we cried together, and it got really real.
By the end of the trip we traveled 10,000 miles, interviewed over 100 women and filmed 300 hours of footage to create the feature documentary. We then spent four years editing and working with a team of artists and animators from around the world to help illustrate women's stories. Since the film's completion in 2017, The Goddess Project has screened in over 250 venues around the world, inspiring conversations about empathy, sisterhood, and vulnerability in all kinds of venues from theaters, yoga studios, universities, and festivals to conferences, women's shelters, prisons and more.
"Our paths are a series of moments and choices, and it is incredible to look back and see what has led me here today" - Holli Rae
I never imagined I'd become a filmmaker, but as life unfolds I've spent the past six years learning how to produce, direct, market and distribute a social impact documentary project from scratch. To say I was naive getting into this would be an understatement. I never realized that making a film could be as difficult or rewarding as it has been, but I know that none of this would have been possible if we didn't commit to being fiercely vulnerable in pursuit of this vision.
"Our paths are a series of moments and choices, and it is incredible to look back and see what has led me here today" - Holli Rae (Photo Courtesy of The Goddess Project)
Our paths are a series of moments and choices, and it is incredible to look back and see what has led me here today. I never imagined I'd become a filmmaker, but as life unfolds I've spent the past six years learning how to produce, direct, market and distribute a social impact documentary project from scratch. To say I was naive getting into this would be an understatement. I never realized that making a film could be as difficult or rewarding as it has been, but I know that none of this would have been possible if we didn't commit to being fiercely vulnerable in pursuit of this vision.
Being open and honest is the greatest gift you can give to yourself and others. Vulnerability is strength, and the more transparent we can be, the more we can deeply connect with everyone around us and create a more harmonious world.
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.