Debate continues on the political implications of the so-called Arab Spring, including its impact on women. Less, however, has been said about the changing economic landscape from country to country, especially with regards to women's economic empowerment. In honor of the upcoming International Women's Day, I sat down with first-time author Rahilla Zafar, whose newly-released book co-written with Nafeesa Syeed, Arab Women Rising, profiles 35 female entrepreneurs from Tunisia to Saudi Arabia that are changing themselves, their families, and their countries.
Jane: What first inspired you to write this book?
Rahilla: In Saudi Arabia, I began to hear about how women were launching campaigns and opening centers that challenged extreme Islamic interpretations. These women were succeeding in changing laws and I thought that it would be important to document to inspire other women in the Muslim world. Eventually it evolved into a book project that highlights women entrepreneurs from across the Arab world.
Jane: What were your goals for profiling these specific women?
Rahilla: I really wanted to showcase how Arab women are playing profound leadership roles in virtually every sector within their countries. I also wanted to highlight the diversity within the Arab world. No two countries are the same. The opportunities and challenges in each place are so different. Also, not all Arabs are Muslim and I'm glad that our book reflects that, from featuring a Coptic Christian in Egypt, to a Palestinian Christian that grew up in Abu Dhabi.
Jane: So how did you meet the women that you profiled?
Rahilla: I attended conferences, such as ArabNet in Beirut, which is the largest tech conference in the region. I would meet young women who were gamers, coders, and illustrators from countries like Syria, Saudi Arabia and Palestine. (US-based non-profit) Vital Voices had a wonderful women's event in Abu Dhabi that drew very dynamic women from across the region.
I then asked my friend and journalist Nafeesa Syeed to co-write the book with me. She spent time in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Sudan.
Jane: Did you have a woman with whom you especially connected?
Rahilla: I connected with all of them for different reasons. One that particularly stands out is Yasmin Altwaijri. She's one of Saudi Arabia's most senior scientists and is doing groundbreaking work on important areas, including mental health issues, women's obesity, and diabetes within the Kingdom. The lack of mobility for women, particularly in the Gulf countries, is something that really startled me. In Saudi public schools, there are no physical fitness classes for girls. I really admire the work that she's doing and on top of that, she's an amazing mother.
Jane: How different were the women's' stories from country to country? Did you find a lot of common themes? Common challenges?
Rahilla: I think the common theme was that many women entrepreneurs started their business to solve a social problem. In Lebanon, for instance, a woman I profiled wasn't satisfied with the after-school programs that she saw available for her kids, so she created the company Little Engineer, which is a fun way for young children to learn about science and environmental issues. My co-writer, Nafeesa, featured a woman in Tunisia who started a for-profit recycling company motivated by wanting to clean up the country's beaches.
One big difference was access to capital. Capital is easier to get for female entrepreneurs in some countries than in others. Safety and mobility also varied from country to country.
Jane: Was there anything that was especially challenging about writing this book?
Rahilla: In Saudi Arabia, I always had someone traveling with me. I think it would be difficult to travel to Saudi Arabia as a woman unless you had a competent driver with you at all times and a strict agenda. It's not to say you couldn't go or that you'd be harmed if you were alone. It's just a place where you'll have a much smoother experience establishing a network prior to going.
I also visited Bahrain, but initially the airport security wouldn't let me in because I had Afghanistan and Syria visas in my passport. I tried to explain that I was an aid worker in Afghanistan and that I went to Syria before the Arab Spring had even begun on a Wharton Business School trip with other students. That didn't help and the security guards did a Google search on me and saw that I had written articles. They assumed that I was there to interview protestors, which wasn't the case. It happened ironically on the same day that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the U.S. would resume arms sales to Bahrain.
Jane: What was the most surprising thing that you learned in your research and interview process?
Rahilla: The legal structure is more evolved in some countries than in others. For example, many Saudis find it much easier to start their businesses in the United Arab Emirates than in Saudi Arabia. Then again, many are excited to see their country evolving. I met very bright Saudi women that could work elsewhere if they wanted to, but are excited to be part of change and new opportunities that they're seeing happen within their country. It was also interesting to learn that historically, all these countries have had prominent women leaders.
Jane: Is there a message you want readers to walk away with in advance of International Women's Day?
Rahilla: Just like anywhere in the world, the Middle East has its problems. However, stereotyping women's lives there is pretty counterproductive. Every single developed country has gone through some sort of women's revolution. Arab women are no different from American or European women in their ability to rally and push for change. They've been doing it for decades and will continue to do so.
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