‘Your voice is a flame, create that fire’: Celebrating International Women’s Day with Zahra Al Hilaly

SAARI Collective invites you to join our International Women's Day series - every day, women of colour are blazing trails in their fields and leading their communities, but their achievements aren’t always recognised. Valuing their contributions and achievements is vital to advancing gender and racial equality and to showcasing the voices of women of colour all around. We invite you to join us in recognising and celebrating their efforts, achievements and immense contributions - follow along as we profile some resilient and inspiring women of colour over the coming days. 

Today, we celebrate Zahra Al Hilaly. 

Know that you represent millions of women and girls who have felt unheard. Your voice is a flame – create that fire.”

Zahra truly encapsulates the saying that age is just a number. The 21-year-old writer, speaker and intersectional feminist is a national and international advocate for gender equality, refugee rights and equitable representation. Zahra is a Non-Executive Board Director of an International Affairs NGO, Missing Perspectives, which endeavours to amplify the voices of young people across media and journalism. She is also a Co-Chair a a Co-Chair for The Government of Western Australia's Youth Ministerial Advisory Council and also advises a number of platforms, including YWCA and the Multicultural Youth Advocacy Network.
 

The young leader has also been the recipient of several recognitions for her impact, such as the inaugural winner Under 25’s Rising Star for the 40-Under-40 Asian Australian Leadership Awards, and was a finalist for Young Muslim of the Year (2020). Until recently, she was also a consultant at UN Women where she worked to further their Generation Equality campaign.

“As a first-generation Australian of Palestinian and Iraqi descent; living on Boorloo (Perth) reminds me of my privilege to consistently decolonise the inequitable customs found on the land that I am a guest of. My identity inevitably surges my passion to create reform, or rather, a revolution, through my very existence.”

Fueled by the vision to create a sustainable future that benefits every individual, regardless of their intersectional background, Zahra is also a penultimate Law and Journalism student at Murdoch University and works tirelessly to help create more opportunities for women of colour, especially in the media. 

“My very first reminder of being excluded due to my identity is warped with my early childhood years. The alienation I received due to my hijab too often sought a major role in my lack of development. These experiences have influenced my trajectory of life – to create space and to amplify grassroots voices.”

And while she believes things have evolved, she states there still exists a gap in representation as the voices that are typically emphasised in the Australian media are the same. She urges other women of colour to step into leadership and empower themselves and each other to grow. “I believe it is essential to implement more opportunities and resources for young WoC to succeed. These opportunities should be implemented by WoC themselves, to avoid any cultural barriers that are not considered,” Zahra says. 

“Creating room for women of colour is our job too. 

There is enough room for every single one of us to be a part of this revolution. Let us make some space for more intersectional voices that have yet to be heard.”

 

For Zahra, International Women’s Day is not a celebration, but rather, a benchmark of the progress that has been made. “My existence is not possible without the women that have raised me. [International Women’s Day] is too, a reminder of the women that have come before us, defeating all odds that have endeavoured to claim our existence. I often dwell on the memory that my voice is a recollection of voices that have come before me, surging my strength to continue to fight for the change that is necessary. Whilst this may be celebratory to many, for me, it is a reminder that there is still limited space that validates my voice as a woman of colour.”  

When asked about a woman leader who inspired her over the past year, Zahra applauds Dhanya Mani – an Indian Australian Feminist, advocating to make policies safer for women and minorities. “As a woman of colour who has experienced assault, I recognise the fundamental flaws in the system that fail to amplify voices of women of colour. [Zahra] courageously fought and represented all women of colour and demanded to be heard, despite the backlash that WoC can face. Speaking out as a survivor and being a woman of colour places a major target on your back – from your community and the public. She is my courage this International Women’s Day. Dhanya is the reason why I will fight.” 

Dhanya Mani is an advocate for change and the empowerment of political minorities. Source: Indian Link

This year, Zahra wants to break the bias of who can be a leader and says we must debunk the myth that a leader is a position that one holds. “Leadership is a characteristic that is ingrained in every single one of us. It is our life experiences that warp our strength and courage to continue to transpire and flourish. There is no set ‘method’ of becoming a leader.” Just as it takes a village to raise a child, she believes it takes a community to build a leader. Here are a couple of nuggets she offers to help other women of colour step into leadership - 

• The first step is to find a supportive environment that will safely protect you despite the criticism you may receive. As a woman that has been doxed by both white and multicultural people, it is integral to have a group of wonderful people backing you up. Zahra says she found her people through working in the space of advocacy and that one will naturally gravitate to voices that are similar to their own – "a bird finds their flock"

• The second step is to take up space. "Whilst it is important to create space, emerging girl and women leaders must recognise the power of their voices. Whilst you may feel inferior, know that you represent millions of women and girls who have felt unheard. Your voice is a flame, create that fire.”

As someone who represents everything that is strength and authenticity, we applaud her work and watch on in awe to see where this journey takes her. 


You can connect with Zahra via Linkedin


Pranjali Sehgal is a writer and journalist based in Melbourne. She is a member of SAARI's Editorial Team and can be contacted via email. You can connect with her via LinkedIn or Instagram.