THE stereotype of the Arab woman in the minds of non-Arabs has often been that she is passive, stays at home and financially dependent on men in her life, either a father or husband.
A new e-book titled “Arab Women Rising,” authored by Nafeesa Syeed and Rahilla Zafar, puts an end to this stereotype, featuring interviews with 35 Arab women that range in age from their 20s to their late 70s. They have chosen a broad range of women from Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE that are doing innovative and groundbreaking work in trash collection, microfinance, digital innovation to amplify minority rights, and filmmaking among many others.
The e-book is 150 pages long, which means you can dip into it and read what catches your attention first, as each profile is independent.
The story of Maali Alasousi, a Kuwaiti woman who moved to Yemen in order to run social projects to improve the lives of the poor and needy, was especially inspiring. There she implemented programs to get Yemeni farmers of khat to switch to coffee; started microfinance projects and campaigned against blindness. While doing this she had to endure daily cuts of electricity of up to six hours and gasoline shortages. Although she has now been forced to return to Kuwait because of the precarious security situation in Yemen, she notes that as an Arab she was much more easily accepted by local populations than western aid workers who are often killed for being suspected spies.
Maha Al-Farhan, an Emirati woman who founded her own medical and clinical research company in 2001, made me laugh in agreement when she said that Gulf women need to wake up early every day in order to get anything of significance accomplished in their lives. “Wake up early; really, I’m serious. If you don’t wake up early, you can’t get anything done…this is something that I criticize the unemployed women for. Many stay up late and they don’t do much,” Farhan said.
Princess Adila bint Abdullah, an advocate of women’s empowerment and campaigner against domestic violence, admits to the authors of this book that the influence of her position has helped the cause of women in Saudi Arabia and beyond. “I hope my support to combat domestic violence will influence Muslim women to stand up against any act considered to be disrespectful or demeaning to their humanity,” she said in her interview.
Despite all of these inspiring stories of Arab women rising up against many odds to establish their own businesses, it has not been an easy journey, and still is a difficult road to take. Reem Asaad, the Saudi activist and banker, who started in the 2008 the successful campaign to allow women to sell lingerie in shops in the Kingdom, notes in the foreword to this book that until 2011 the entire public workplace in Saudi Arabia was dominated almost entirely by men. That has since been slowly changing after women were allowed to sell lingerie and are now seen working in supermarkets as cashiers and as saleswomen in perfume shops. But much more is still required.
Still there is hope. The authors of the book note that there are much higher levels of innovation for women than for men. For every woman entrepreneur in the region, there are six women who would like to set up a business. For every male entrepreneur, there are only 2.5 more men who intend to do the same. Arab governments, especially those in the Gulf, should make sure that barriers are removed for women entrepreneurs who want to start their own businesses. A World Bank study concluded that women entrepreneurs in the Arab world could provide better and more innovative jobs through their businesses. That is something I would like to see happen sooner rather than later.
•The writer is a Saudi journalist based in Brazil.