“We need your voice out there” – changing perceptions of Arab women
Samar Alshorafa has made it her mission to change the way Arab women are portrayed. Here she explains how she is achieving this with She is Arab, a platform that is addressing the underrepresentation of Arab women in leadership roles.
Growing up, Alshorafa’s role models were her mother and grandmother. “My mother worked with my father in our family business, and always pushed me to grow beyond my comfort zone,” she says. “My grandmother carried my dad as a baby in 1948 when she left her home in Palestine, and she kept our family together. I was fortunate to have these two women as role models, but today my role models are everywhere. There are all these amazing women getting things done out there. They deserve for their stories to be told.”
This is the purpose of She is Arab, the company she founded in 2019 to encourage women into leadership roles, and into public speaking. Her goal is to change the way Arab women are seen, both in the west and in the Arab world. “It’s all about storytelling, sharing experiences and learnings, and this is what makes a difference. Arab women are perceived as though their abilities are limited, or that they must be conservative, even docile,” Alshorafa explains. “This narrative must change. I really believe that media outlets in the West have helped perpetuate this image, whether through movies, TV shows, or newspaper articles. And it’s not true – women have played very important roles in this region’s history, whether economically or socially, but this has been overlooked over the years.”
Changing the narrative of Arab women
Born into a Palestinian family, Alshorafa’s father worked in the clothing industry, but she wanted to take a different route and got a job in tech straight after graduating instead. “I was the first female in my generation to steer away from being part of the family business and get a job as an employee,” she says.
She spent more than 15 years’ in international development and consulting, working on the European Commission’s Industrial Modernisation Program for Egypt, and at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which focuses on growing the private sector in developing countries. It was this work, which led her to travel across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, that got her interested in policy reform, education, and gender issues.
“I learned so much about the diverse region we have, and also about its women,” she says. “I also worked with an organisation in the UAE called the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum foundation, which exposed me to a lot of economic and societal challenges. This, along with my experiences as a woman and a mother led me to where I am today with She is Arab.”
Advancing women’s rights with storytelling
When she was setting up the company, Alshorafa and her team carried out research revealing that many women felt shy to speak in public, and uncomfortable being in a boardroom surrounded by men. “We’re hoping to address these issues,” she says. “I will feel that I’ve accomplished my mission when I walk into an event and see half the speakers are women and there are gender equal panels. And when the percentage of women in the C-suite crosses the current 30% target mark.”
As well as providing a platform for women entrepreneurs to network, its aim is also to share success stories. “There’s no shortage of talent,” Alshorafa says. “This is what we’re trying to show with She is Arab. We use role models and success stories from the region to demonstrate that firsthand.” A glance at She is Arab’s Instagram page defies many typical stereotypes, with posts dedicated to women who are ministers, fitness instructors, paediatricians and singers; some wearing hijabs, some not, from Sudan all the way to Iraq.
The reaction to She is Arab has been overwhelmingly positive and Alshorafa has been interviewed by a number of regional outlets, calling the project “timely” and “necessary.” “There is so much going on all around the world, like initiatives led by Melinda Gates or MacKenzie Scott that didn’t exist before” she says. “But countries across MENA are making great strides towards achieving gender equality too. In the UAE for example, where our head office is based, a new law has been approved that guarantees equal pay for men and women. Emirati women must occupy 50% of federal national council seats. In Saudi Arabia women have gained the right to drive, and they can now vote in municipal elections for the first time.
Gender equality has gained momentum in the Arab world
“Egypt’s government has appointed eight female ministers so 24% of the cabinet is now made up of women,” she continues. “They’ve also recently announced a partnership with the IFC to deliver a three-year programme to create family-friendly workplaces for women, which will definitely help Egyptian businesses become more inclusive.”
Alshorafa believes there is great momentum in the Arab region right now. “There are cultural and social challenges that influence the choices that women make in their careers and their lives. And governments have different priorities, some have put women empowerment and inclusion as a top priority, while others may not have done that. We need to highlight that this region is huge and diverse, and we’re talking about so many countries with complex histories and ongoing internal unrest in some cases. But some are advancing women’s leadership and the participation of women in public life, and I’m certain that this will yield great results in the future.”
“My message for all women out there, regardless of age, gender or background, is that you can do anything, so don’t ever doubt yourself. Don’t miss out on any public speaking opportunities, because we need your voice out there.
“As Arab women we should be proud of our culture and our heritage. We should bring our whole selves to work wherever we are.”
This is an edited version of a podcast hosted by Unlimited. NADJA Media is a partner of Unlimited, a multimedia podcast platform that gives a voice to female entrepreneurs in the UAE. To listen to the full podcast visit Anchor FM.