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10th Anniversary Essays

The Empowerment of Arab Women

One of 16 special essays on how the field of social innovation has evolved and what challenges remain ahead.

 

Over the past two decades, there has been an important yet gradual development in the Arab World. It doesn’t grab the headlines, like the conflicts and revolutions we often witness, and it’s hard to perceive without looking closely. The development I’m speaking of is the slow but continuing empowerment of Arab women. Although we’re still climbing a hill laden with stumbling blocks, we’re inching closer to the top.

Despite a widespread narrative of the disenfranchisement of women in our region, I would like to point to a few examples that make me optimistic and proud. A 2011 study by Booz & Company asked a group of young Arab women: “What should be the role of young girls/women in society?” Seventy-one percent of respondents said it was to seek employment for financial support and financial independence, whereas only 22 percent saw their role as housewives and mothers. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2012 Gender Gap Index, women in Jordan, Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Morocco were on par with, or outperformed, their male counterparts in literacy and educational enrollment rates.

Naysayers may assert that educational trends and high aspirations are only as useful as society permits. If Arab women face a labor market unwilling to hire them, they have hit a wall, even before leaving university.

But there’s a complementary trend that also makes me hopeful. The Arab Spring gave our young people an opportunity to display their online skills, as they used the Internet as a primary vehicle to share ideas and mobilize. Revolutions throughout the region could not have taken place with such speed and strength, without the organizing capabilities of young people using social media. Even basic technologies, such as mobile phones, leveled the playing field between governments and their people and allowed men and women alike to contribute. Although more males than females are using Facebook and Twitter, females were at the front line of the Arab Spring in both the digital and physical spaces.

Rising educational levels and increased Internet access will inevitably result in more female entrepreneurs in our region. More Arab businesswomen are gaining regional and global recognition. We also see an entrepreneurial spirit spreading among young women and girls. In fact, at the recent INJAZ Young Entrepreneurs Regional Competition in Doha, a young Yemeni student enterprise, Creative Generation, led by a team of 15- and 16-year-old Yemeni high school girls, took home the first prize for Company of the Year. Their business was more sophisticated than one might expect from high school students. The company designed solar-powered products to help offset Yemen’s electricity deficiencies. The teenagers learned how to construct these devices by hand, watching YouTube videos. A panel of judges, consisting of top Arab business leaders, awarded the teenagers the top prize after a rigorous question-and-answer session, and the girls received a hero’s welcome upon returning home.

Rising educational levels and increased Internet access will inevitably result in more female entrepreneurs in our region. More Arab businesswomen are gaining regional and global recognition.

The INJAZ experience of turning youth into entrepreneurs has shown us how quickly young females in the most marginalized parts of our region can rise to the occasion when doors are opened for them to become creative thinkers. Female entrepreneurs have started an event management company for West Bank youth, who are constrained by endless checkpoints and starved for entertainment; while Omani girls created an e-book production company to help younger people develop an interest in reading; and, in the case of the Yemeni students, they have provided solar energy to run a fan in the sweltering heat. The students now aim to take their invention across their erratically electrified country.

These are just snapshots of a much larger narrative that’s usually ignored when we are talking about the Middle East. Of course, these examples and data cannot be used to ignore lingering challenges, but we can mobilize around them—to carve out a permanent and prominent role for Arab women in our schools, economies, and societies.

 
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