Middle East women talk rights, tribalism and power tools on International Women's Day

An animator, an entrepreneur and a lawyer open up about what it takes to achieve your dreams amid the battle for women's rights at home and in the workplace

Young Arab women are only starting to unleash their potential.

Although the past few years have witnessed dramatic changes in women’s rights across the Middle East and North Africa region, with females taking up careers and positions they were barred from before, the road to equality, eliminating gender discrimination and attaining full rights is still long and thorny.

The National speaks to young women from some of the region’s largest countries that have undergone and still face immense social, political and economic upheavals.

We followed the women in their daily struggles to achieve and to be recognised and asked them about their hopes and dreams.

Dina, Egypt’s foremost female stop-motion animator

In the middle of a crowded studio, with bits of wood strewn about, boxes full of dismantled appliances stacked high against a wall and a light breeze blowing through the room, stands Dina Amin, 32, Egypt’s foremost female stop-motion animator.

After her return to Egypt, from studies in Malaysia, Ms Amin became deeply enthralled with how everyday gadgets like computers and blow dryers are built.

“When I studied product design, our focus was on how to build things. We would study minute parts of things that people use every day,” says Ms Amin.

“However, what captured my fascination the most was where these products went after they were thrown away. This is how I became the avid lover of garbage that I am today.”

A big part of her artistic process, which she loves, is wandering around various junk yards in Cairo to find discarded appliances she can bring to life in her often elaborate animations.

Amin has produced content for Vodafone, Ikea and Adult Swim.

Despite accomplishing a great deal of success in the Egyptian art scene, Amin says that she still faces a fair bit of discrimination because of her gender.

Her scavenger hunts regularly involve her standing shoulder to shoulder with Egyptian men, many of whom grew up with a culture that frowns upon a petite, soft-spoken hijabi girl rummaging through piles of junk metal.

“My job involves a lot of manual labour. I am often working with electric saws, drills and other equipment that the men I deal with consider too dangerous for a woman to use,” she tells The National, “Many of them will even refuse to sell me tools because they don’t want to be responsible for what might happen if I have an accident while using them.”

She says it is frustrating because a large part of her degree was focused on industrial design, so she often knows more about her critics’ line of work than they do themselves.

“It’s particularly bad when I am in Sabtia or Gomhoreya street, where most of the tools and raw materials I use are sold, because I am usually the only woman there, which makes me somewhat of a spectacle,” says Ms Amin.

“I thought bringing a guy friend along would be better but they just ended up speaking only to him and ignoring me.”

She says that in the beginning, it was really discouraging, but as she developed as an artist, she also developed a thick skin and began taking these criticisms in her stride.

“After a while, I knew that I could do it. I didn’t need them to give me their stamp of approval any more. I have learnt to make fun of it now. Plus it’s always fun to see the look on their face when I tell them a couple of technical facts about their work and they feel stupid for underestimating me.”

Danya, the entrepreneur taking over Saudi Arabia's tea scene

Danya Sindi, is a young Saudi entrepreneur who launched her own tea company in 2019. Ms Sindi, a biomedical undergraduate student at University College London, returned to her home town Jeddah in 2017, where she started working at a bank and went on to launch MaChii Tea.

Ms Sindi moved to the UK at the age of 4. She would return to Riyadh, move to Switzerland and then go back to the UK for her university studies.

The Matcha Essentials Kit, by MaChii Tea. Photo: MaChii Tea

Returning home to Saudi Arabia for Ms Sindi was never in question.

"I always wanted to come back to my favourite place, especially now it's so exciting to live through the changes," she says.

One of the goals of Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 is empowering women to join the workforce and bridging the gender gap by giving them top-level roles and equal opportunities. The country aims to create one million jobs for women by 2030.

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We tend to look at things linearly but that's not how the world works. Nothing's impossible ― there will be challenges.
Danya Sindi, Saudi entrepreneur

The London-based Global Entrepreneurship Monitor has said that the kingdom is now the only country among 23 high-income economies that it tracks with a higher business start-up rate for women than men.

"We're living through 'bookmark' history," Ms Sindi says.

She said it took her two years to get MaChii Tea up and running. The brand was born out of scarcity.

"I missed tea, which is a huge part of the UK culture and struggled to find different blends of teas in Saudi Arabia," says Ms Sindi.

"So I started ordering from abroad but the shipping costs were more than the tea itself and that's when I thought about creating the brand."

Matchii Tea supplies luxury tea blends across the kingdom in retail stores and cafes and says it offers the finest quality of teas with a "purpose and an experience."

Ms Sindi infuses the Western palate with Eastern ingredients, travelling "thousands of miles around the globe and sampling hundreds of ingredients in pursuit of creating the perfect blends."

She has been to Japan, South Korea, India, China and Sri Lanka looking for the best blends and ethical farming practices.

"It is great to see such diverse cultures, how they all process teas differently."

"Sustainable farming and ethics [of farming] are extremely important to us."

She says most tea plantation workers are underpaid and travelling to different parts of the world has helped her select "small boutique tea plantations that have great quality and treat their workers fairly."

"Even the way we package our product" is centred around sustainability as her matcha tea is sold in aluminium tins instead of plastic.

"I remember tasting 187 samples of matcha in Japan, which I serve now."

Ms Sindi manufactures 90 per cent of her tea products in Saudi Arabia and 10 per cent in the UK.

She is a yoga and fitness enthusiast and occasionally coaches girls in Jeddah.

The young entrepreneur says she is inspired by the Japanese concept ikigai, which loosely translates to life purpose (‘iki‘, ‘life’ and ‘gai‘ ‘worth’).

"If you think of a venn diagram your ikigai is the centre. It is composed of four circles comprising of life's purpose — what you're good at, what the world needs, what you love and what you can get paid for. So if you can get that sweet spot — it's your life's purpose. When you're doing something you love, it really pushes you to get up. So achieving that balance is my goal in life."

Ms Sindi advises young Saudi girls to follow their dreams.

"We tend to look at things linearly but that's not how the world works. Nothing's impossible ― there will be challenges, it's just overcoming them," she says.

Rasha, an activist lawyer from Iraq

For Rasha Wahab, 34, feminism in Iraq still has a long way to go.

Like other human rights activists, she is determined to continue fighting for a more equitable society.

“The women in Iraq are disempowered, with gender inequality pervading all levels of the society,” says Ms Wahab, a lawyer from Dahuk, one of three provinces that make up the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

“Tribal mindsets affect the life of the Iraqi woman and support for her in all aspects of life is scarce,” Ms Wahab tell The National.

International Women's Day is being observed in Iraq amid a surge in killings of women, mainly in the conservative Kurdistan Region.

At least 11 women have been killed in domestic violence incidents this year, government statistics and local media reports show. The latest victim was a social media star, 20, whose body was found on Sunday dumped in a main street.

“We are still seeing many cases of violence against women,” says Ms Wahab.

“We need not only to adopt laws that guarantee equality between women and men, but also to change how society sees women.”

The traditionally male-dominated society “doesn’t respect the woman and it looks at her differently,” she says.

Ms Wahab studied English translation at the University of Salahaddin in Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Region.

After graduating in 2008, she worked with several non-governmental organisations.

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They looked at my outward appearance rather than my certificates and achievements.
Rasha Wahab, Iraqi activist lawyer

During that time, she had first-hand experience about various several social issues. That work led her to study law, to enable her to defend human rights.

“During my work with NGOs in Kurdistan, we launched several projects in villages where I met a lot of women and youths who are deprived of their rights and know nothing about the law,” she says.

“I decided to study law to boost my work, defend and talk in the proper legal language,” she adds.

Asked how is life for young ambitious women in Iraq, she says, “Very, very hard and the change we seek needs different stages to be achieved.”

She considers herself lucky to have support from her family, but says she faced challenges outside the home.

In 2018, she was one of hundreds female candidates who took part in the national elections. Then she failed to win a seat.

“I saw the other face of the society during the elections, a society that is different from the one I used to see while working with NGOs,” she says. “In one area, the residents asked me to wear hijab before voting to me,” she recalled.

“Then, I told them ‘sorry’”.

“They looked at my outward appearance rather than my certificates and achievements,” she added.

She believes that any meaningful change “must come first through the education inside the family when they raise their children to respect others’ rights, especially the women.”

“The segregation in schools boosts the theme of ‘you are the man and therefore you have the right to do anything’ and ‘she’s the girl’,” says Ms Wahab.

“These concepts must be erased. We have to go to the roots of the problems to solve them. At the end, we are all humans, we are all the same.”

Along with other activists, she advocates for women's rights on social media and mainstream media platforms.

Ms Wahab is outspoken about laws and social norms that deprive others of their rights.

She hopes to see women being elected to power without confining their representation to the gender quota of 25 per cent in parliament.

“Why are some government positions are only for men?" she asks.

"Why we can’t we see a female parliament Speaker or prime minister or president?”

Updated: March 15, 2022, 9:30 AM