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.
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.
While this may be true, there is a complementary trend that also makes me hopeful — the digital revolution that is sweeping our region. No one can downplay the role that the internet and related digital communications play as a primary vehicle for sharing ideas and mobilizing people. The Arab Spring was just an example of the potential of digital technologies to influence society and shake-up entrenched beliefs.
Even basic technologies, such as mobile phones, level the playing field between governments and their people and allow 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.
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. Other 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 is 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.
INJAZ Al-Arab is a non-profit organization that promotes youth education and training in the Arab World under the three pillars of workforce readiness, financial literacy and entrepreneurship. The organization started its work in the region in 1999 and in 2004 became the Regional Operating Center of Junior Achievement Worldwide (JAW).
Today, INJAZ works in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen and Pakistan. Over 2 million students have participated in a broad base of entrepreneurship training opportunities aimed at developing basic business skills to start and run their own businesses while obtaining soft skills increasingly demanded by the private sector and eventually fostering success in future careers. Across the region, INJAZ works with 14 ministries of education, over 3,000 schools, 418 universities and a network of 7,000 corporate volunteers who implement a series of business and entrepreneurship programs that impacted nearly 340,000 youth during 2013-2014.
JA Worldwide is one of the largest global NGOs dedicated to addressing fundamental social and economic challenges of young people by educating and empowering them to transform their future and own their economic success. The 123 country JA Worldwide network is powered by more than 400,000 volunteers and mentors from all sectors of society, reaching over 10 million young people around the world. Through its relationship with Junior Achievement, INJAZ Al-Arab is able to tap into a substantial network of global resources, including the curriculum, experience, and partnerships that Junior Achievement has formed since its inception in 1919.
Soraya Salti was the late founder and former CEO of INJAZ Al-Arab and former senior vice president of Middle East/North Africa for Junior Achievement Worldwide. She won the 2006 Schwab Social Entrepreneur award for Jordan, and was the first Arab woman to win the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. In 2013, Soraya was named as one of the 100 most powerful Arab women by Arabian Business.
The tragic deaths of Soraya Salti, 44, the mother of one, and her sister Jumana Salti, 37, in Jordan on 6 November, 2015 shocked and baffled friends, relatives and colleagues. The bodies of the two sisters were found near a building under construction in Jwiedeh, a rundown area of the Jordanian capital Amman. The police suggested that the sisters committed suicide by jumping from the top of the building, and assertion strongly rejected by all who knew the two sisters.
In a Facebook posting on her death, Injaz Al Arab said it was “devastated by the passing of our founder and inspiration, Soraya Salti. She will be remembered as a dreamer that dared to create new opportunities for Arab youth across the region. To date, the organization she created has affected over 2,000,000 youth. We all mourn her loss today and our prayers are with her family.”
- Soraya Salti