The first in our feature of women empowering women and change within the region, we sat down with the inspirational boss lady Marriam Mossali for International Women's Day. Marriam is a Saudi Arabian entrepreneur and founder, running Saudi's leading Luxury Consultancy Niche Arabia, author and architect behind Saudi's first female driven platform Under The Abaya, to name a few of her many businesses, and Business of Fashion's 50 Most Influential Women in KSA.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do... 
My Name is Marriam Mossalli. I’m the founder of Niche Arabia as well as the instigator behind UNDER THE ABAYA, one of the first female empowerment platforms within Saudi Arabia, as well as Saudi Style Council not-for-profit initiative that helps connect local creatives with international business opportunities. I would say that am a serial entrepreneur ever since I can remember when I was selling pumpkin shells at the beach or friendship bracelets at recess at elementary school. I've always been a serial entrepreneur. 

Under The Abaya is your non-profit, can you give us a summary and tell us how it's been a game changer for Saudi culture.. 
It’s a not-for-profit platform that helps empower Saudi women through having them be able to control their own narrative whether it’s through the media including social media. The idea here is to have the woman herself tell her story from her perspective because I think for way too long we have been relying on Western media to tell it for us and that’s where we get these inconsistencies and these misconceptions around the enigmatic Saudi female. I definitely think it's been a game-changer. We launched in 2018. We were one of the firsts to do this. We were told that our title was too controversial, women aren’t ready, that they would only be very superficially involved, that it was still considered taboo to put yourself out there. I think we really helped changed that within Saudi along with different government initiatives and leadership that have supported this movement. 

What ignited your passion to change the narrative of women in the region...  
I have always been an advocate of having someone tell their own story and so throughout my career, whether it has been as a features editor for the largest Arab newspaper in the Middle East or through my company, Niche Arabia, that has always been my mission. I often tell people that there was this instance that I think was like the last straw that precipitated and really motivated me to push forward. This was when I went to do a series of talks in LA, it was about female entrepreneurs in Saudi and yet every time I would get on stage to speak, I was still bombarded with those stereotypical questions, “How come you’re not covered head to toe?”, “Why you’re not wearing Niqab?” these things that you would think we have dispelled through just modern times and globalization but they were still existing and pervasive in 2016 and so for me that was really a motivator to say, “Hey you know what, the only one who is going to correct these things are us, Saudi women, we need to control that narrative. Hence the UNDER THE ABAYA book was born and we launched that in February 2018. 

What are the biggest milestones for you on this journey.. 
I would say the biggest milestones are always when we see our work in action. During the first edition, we were able to provide five women with academic scholarships to pursue their passion in photography and this year we worked on having various jobs opportunities given, as well as buying shelf-space and reserving it for young entrepreneurs wanting to test out their products. I think it is always seeing the fruits of our intuitive and how it actually applied to those women.  

How do you approach the challenges and resistance in the region that comes with your work... 
I have to say that in the beginning, it wasn’t so much the challenges within the Kingdom. It was really how do we get the attention of the Western media and so under this guise of Fashion as Saudi’s first street-style book, we really able to actually create a platform for Saudi women and allow them to be these stars of their own story. Then within the Kingdom, as I mentioned earlier, we were told that things were taboo and I think in Saudi it’s always about really pushing the envelope and once people see that it’s not so scary then it’s so easy for them to do and follow suit and that’s one of the risks you take as a leader is that, yes, you might fall flat on your face but there are times when you can just really launch and take-off, those are really rewarding times and I think that we were lucky, again, to have such support from people like  Princess Reema Bint Bandar from the beginning as well as our amazing sponsors Cadillac for the first issue and Lux Arabia for the second. 

What is your vision for women in the region... 
My vision for the women in the region is really just to normalize our participation in the economy and in sports and in every other industry where it’s still kind of considered taboo. I think that oftentimes we always get the West like looking at this clickbait of, “Oh, first Saudi female…” and I am done! The “first” shouldn’t be something anymore, it should be the best. We should be striving to compete globally with other women around the world, whether it’s entrepreneurship or sports, or cooking, whatever it is. The idea here is that it’s no longer about being this phenomenon of, “Oh my God, the first-ever” but rather really being the best. 

Can you tell us a little about your other projects... 
Sure! I think for us, one of the biggest exciting things that we are doing is that on March 8th to 12th, we are launching the biggest female empowerment event to happen in the region which is a 6000-passenger cruise that will take us along the Red Sea up the coast all the way up to Aqaba, Jordan and the entire itinerary and theme is female-centric utilizing over 500 women that have been featured in our 1st and 2nd book and platform, from Yoga sessions to moonlight sound baths, to fitness classes on the deck, to fashion shows - utilizing real women from all different shapes and sizes and colour. That’s, kind of, what we’re doing and I am so excited to have that happening to celebrate our five years of female empowerment within Saudi Arabia. 

You are also a wife and mother, could you give us some insight into how you juggle it all... 
A lot of help. I definitely have a lot of support from family and my team on the ground and I think that’s what is required, is that you just make balance and make sure that you are not neglecting any of those things. Which why I often see my son tagging along at every single event and now it’s biting me, now it’s definitely biting me in the butt because now I can’t leave him at all but it’s a lesson learned for the second one. I’m going to let her be a lot more independent, I think. 

You've been an advocate of Conscious (clean) beauty pretty much since the beginning, how do you feel about it now and it's future in the region...
 
In fact, we often talk about what we would ingest and what we put in our body and we forget what we put on top of it in terms of the products that are being absorbed through our pores and so for me they kind of go hand in hand. If you're gonna talk about organic then you need to talk about clean beauty and I think that, you know, coming from the Middle East specially, these types holistic, clean procedures or beauty regimes has been really, kind of, with us since the beginning. Its been something very endemic in this region. A lot of them, whether it’s cupping or anything you see Goop basically has been appropriated, I feel, from the Middle East and so I think that it’s amazing that finally we’re having our influencers and our KOLs speaking up more about it and really advocating a healthier cleaner future for ourselves and for our kids. I mean, it’s funny, I grew up very Westernized - eating fruit roll-ups and lucky charms and all of things that I’m sure are not great for you and it wasn’t until moving back to Saudi that, I was like, you know, I had fruit for breakfast, I’ve my avocado toast, those type of things versus those pre-packaged sugars and I would tell you same thing goes for my beauty products. I would use things like Clinique thinking that, “oh, because this person has a lab coat at the cosmetic counter - must be something good for you,” you fall for the marketing and I think that nowadays we are more conscious consumers and we look more into what are purchasing and what we are putting inside and outside our bodies.  

Could you tell us your favourite Powder picks... 
My favourite picks for Powder, definitely French Girl bath salts and I would tell you also to choose a face oil, I also use Salt & Stone, Moon Juice Plump Jelly and Rahua oil for my hair. 

Lastly, so many of us doubt our own capability, what's your best advice to all the women on the first step to fulfilling their potential... 
I would tell you that it’s okay to be scared and that’s completely normal. If it wasn’t scary, would it be exciting? Would it be fun? Leverage that, use that to motivate you to push forward. If something has already been done, that’s boring. I think that one of the things that I always try to tell my team is that, think big and really go for the stars because you never know when something is going to pan out. Again, I started UNDER THE ABAYA just thinking I’m going to create this cool book, non-profit, help some girls go to college which, Alhamdillah, we did. We were able to get five academic scholarships but I never ever anticipated it to be this platform that it has evolved into. We're now buying shelf-space at stories for young entrepreneurs, we're providing opportunities, jobs for fresh graduates, we are connecting women with real job opportunities. These are all things that evolved from a small vision and it continues to evolve and now we are celebrating five years so, that’s differently my advice.

You can find more information on Marriam's exciting projects on IG @marriam.mossali

March 08, 2022 — Nadja Iman