Amani El Tunsi

Ashoka Fellow
fellow-21001-Amani El Tunsi (Headshot).jpg
Egypt
Fellow since 2013
This description of Amani El Tunsi's work was prepared when Amani El Tunsi was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013 .

Introduction

Amani El Tunsi is empowering women to overcome difficult life challenges by creating a safe space to talk about taboo subjects and providing women with the tools and resources to make life changes.

The New Idea

Amani is countering repressive ideologies that threaten women’s status in Egypt at a critical time. By creating a safe space for educated girls and women to discuss taboo subjects—fully operated by and for women—she is providing a new channel to speak about silenced topics and to receive guidance on specific challenges. Furthermore, Amani has created a powerful network of women who provide resources and opportunities to young women—equipping them with the tools and confidence to make life-changing decisions.

Creating a program that empowers women personally, medically, and legally, Amani’s multifaceted work responds to women’s fears by providing them with knowledge and referring them for specialized assistance. Amani’s work helps women change their circumstances by not accepting the traditions and norms that limit them to second-class citizens, but provides them with a sense of self and responsibility. Her work is creating a generation of girls defined by a strong sense of control. In turn, Amani’s work is redefining the role of women in Egyptian society by enabling them to challenge deep-rooted and outdated norms.

Amani’s work fills a gap in the citizen sector that many other citizen organizations (COs) focused on women do not. Her work has spread beyond Egypt to other Arab nations including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria.

The Problem

Women in Egypt commonly face struggles related to marriage, divorce, sexual harassment, being single, and drug addiction. These taboo issues are not openly discussed, nor are they deemed appropriate to discuss within the family. Without a space to talk about these or other sensitive challenges, women are isolated from assistance, feedback, and positive reinforcement. Furthermore, in a society that still views women as unequal to their male counterparts, women may lack the self-awareness and confidence to speak and be heard. Due to this environment, young girls—even educated girls—live in an atmosphere that crushes their needs, denies them their rights, and refrains from offering solutions.

Unlike the popular phone/Internet hotlines available in Western countries for women to discuss uncomfortable issues, Egypt and the Arab world have not adopted this approach. One reason women do not have the space to discuss sensitive issues is that the Arab media is male-dominated and lacks female perspective. For example, women are still portrayed as sinners and subordinates. This translates to the inequality of men and women in society. Disparities exist even in how Egyptian girls and boys are raised. Early on, girls’ encounter discriminatory practices, even treated as subordinates in their family. They are overburdened by household chores and the care of younger children and elderly family members. Girls and women have less freedom to be outside the house and are discouraged from being active in social services or employed in many male-dominated fields. It is difficult for them to escape this cycle with a sense of self or pursue their interests.

The Strategy

Amani’s idea is to educate and empower young women to prosper, by providing them with the knowledge and resources to have control over their lives. Her model includes four components: (i) a website and radio station (ii) a rehabilitation center (iii) a publishing house, and (iv) a program to prepare girls to enter the workforce in the media/communications sector. All four of these elements are essential pieces of her platform, Banat wa Bas.

The first and primary component of Amani’s work is the website, which began as an online radio program in 2008. The station began as a space for girls and women to discuss life-sensitive subjects. In the early stages of the platform, Amani found a team of 20 strong women who were passionate about the future of Egypt. This team became some of her first volunteer reporters and program hosts. The station airs programs that provide information women cannot get elsewhere, such as Mosh Kol Al-Teir (Not All The Birds), which enablers listeners to talk about how men treat women and to learn the strategies men will use to deceive them. Another program allows listeners to call and discuss specific challenges regarding divorce, being a single mother, and unemployment. Be Meet Ragel (100 Men), is another program that focuses on helping women build self-confidence, anger management, and how to effectively communicate with others. Although the programs cater to women, Amani occasionally invites male guests to provide their views. All programs are archived on the website so that viewers may listen to a program at any time.

In addition to being cost effective, Amani decided to use online radio because she would be able to reach a broader audience, including women who might shy away from calling a live program and illiterate women. She capitalized on the rising use of social media by using technology to reach her target group. The radio station allows young women to call and ask questions, write to the website, engage anonymously, and talk personally after the program. For many, this is the only opportunity they have to seek advice and encouragement about difficult life-challenges. In the first week, Amani’s page had 15,000 visitors, indicating a real, immediate demand for the information she offered. Over 5 million people have accessed her website and listened to her radio programs across the Arab region, with 80 percent of listeners in Egypt. The content of all the radio programs is collected and presented entirely by women.

The radio programs have gained regional appeal and are beginning to accommodate international audiences. The programs aired internationally on BBC and CNN because they offered to translate them. Amani recently hired two foreign journalists to cover their issues and issues in the Arab world in English. After launching the online radio, Amani’s audience asked for a phone number to call to ask personal questions after a show. She quickly realized that in addition to a website, she needed a live forum for her audience. Amani created an online communication forum for her listeners to interact with staff and support each other outside the radio programs.

From reading the women’s comments, Amani was inspired to launch the second part of her platform, a rehabilitation center exclusively for women, U-Turn. She relies on a vast network of volunteer professionals who provide individual assistance to women at the rehabilitation center. For example, Amani uses support from pro bono lawyers who accept divorce cases for women in need of special legal advice. Doctors and counselors work with women who call about sensitive health problems, including harassment and drug addiction. All volunteer professionals are women, and many have faced similar challenges in their own lives. The rehabilitation center also offers self-defense courses for women to protect themselves.

The third component of Banat wa Bas is the publishing house. It was established to complement Amani’s efforts to address taboo subjects, and alter the prevailing norms related to Egyptian women. Amani works with authors who want to publish books that will assist women and girls. To date, the publishing house has distributed 70,000 copies from 70 different books. The boldest book, which addresses homosexuality in Egypt, was one of the first she published. After it was printed, few bookstores would buy it, worried about selling a book with such sensitive subject matter. Amani was able to find bookstores to purchase the book only after she put an ad on her website about it. She personally delivered 5,000 books to interested buyers across Egypt and continues to use her website to advertise other books she publishes.

The final component of Amani’s platform is a program for primary and secondary school girls to prepare them for careers in media and communications. She created a curriculum that is currently used in seven public schools and enables girls to learn computer skills, writing, design, and other skills that will help them gain the needed confidence to be successful in the workforce, specifically in media-related jobs. The curriculum even facilitates the girls to gain first-hand experience by presenting a broadcast at their school. The curriculum starts by bringing in varied professionals to speak to students about their experiences, and uses that as an entry point to present girls with the opportunity to pursue a career in media. Students are selected and then trained to write scripts and run the equipment for a basic five-minute news program. Amani is in the process of selecting the most talented girls from the students who have already been trained to present a program on the Banat wa Bas radio station for three months. The students came up with a program, Still in School, in which they plan to discuss issues that young girls face during daily school interactions.

Among the numerous personal and professional challenges Amani has successfully overcome was the financial difficulty to establish her radio in 2008. All government organizations along with international donors refused to support her idea, worried that it was too controversial or that there wouldn’t be a demand. Amani initially financed Banat wa Bas through a personal loan but currently relies heavily on advertisements on the radio program as well as book sales from the publishing house for financial support.

Another crucial challenge Amani faced was the way the National Security dealt with her to ensure that she abide with their regulations and avoid airing taboo subjects related to religion, politics, and sex. During the revolution in early 2011, without orders from their superiors, officers broke into the station, stole much of the equipment, and arrested Amani for three days. After she was released, officials denied they had anything to do with the loss of her equipment and her alleged arrest. Although this was a difficult experience, it eventually led to more publicity and support for her work. Within a few months, the radio station was relaunched and running all 25 programs. Since the Arab Spring, Amani has continued to gain support. She has expanded her program to cater to women across the Arab world and is working to publish her programs in other languages to expand to other countries.

The Person

From an early age, Amani knew that she would have to take a stand for what she believed. When she was just nine years old, she stopped going to school because her teacher mandated that she wear a veil, and she objected. After confronting her parents about the issue and filing a complaint, the teacher was transferred and Amani returned to school—without a veil. Amani started working at 16 with her uncle, an interior designer, as she wanted to be an artist and to have a different life from what society expected of her. Shortly thereafter, she prepared to go to college to study art. On the day Amani was to take an exam to qualify for the School of Art and Design however, she was robbed and beaten by two women on the street, leaving her physically unable to attend her exam. This was an important turning point for Amani, not only was she not able to go to art school, she was also confined by her parents to stay close to home and stop working with her uncle, in an effort to keep her safe.

Less than a year after the incident, Amani decided to make a change, knowing that she couldn’t let the experience keep her from the life she wanted. Against her family’s wishes, she left home and worked full-time in another city to save money for her education. Amani worked at a hotel in Sharm El Sheikh, a tourist destination along the Red Sea. Knowing that she needed to continue working to have the financial means to pursue an education, she created a distance learning tool and negotiated with a nearby university to allow her to study and remotely complete coursework. After Amani demanded to study using distance learning tools, the university allowed other students to send in their work and communicate with their professors online for the first time.

Amani studied computer science but knew she needed to follow her passion for art. The combination of her passion and technical skills helped her land several Creative Artistic Director roles at renowned magazines. By this time, she had gained the confidence to pursue something that she knew she needed to do; being concerned about the future of women in Egypt, she wanted to provide girls with the things she wished she’d known during her formative years. Amani created Banat wa Bas to provide knowledge, support, and encouragement to girls in Egypt.

Amani’s work received much acclaim and criticism within Egypt. Shortly after creating the platform, she appeared on television programs and radio shows to discuss her work. Despite setbacks and with the newfound feminism spirit after the Arab Spring, Amani’s work has continued to grow and impact girls and woman across Egypt and other Arab nations.