Linking the Arabic Awakening to Social Entrepreneurship

Story bubbles on world map
Source: Ashoka

It was a great pleasure to host Dr Iman Bibars, Regional Director of Ashoka Arab World, during her visit from Cairo to the UK between the 30th January and the 8th February. An outspoken voice for socio-economic justice and empowerment of underprivileged communities and women, Bibars is also the co-founder and current Chairperson of the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women (ADEW).

Bibars was visiting the UK as part of a drive to garner support for female social entrepreneurs – the key, she believes, to reversing the spread of ideas and movements attempting to silence Egyptian women’s voices. Wherever she went, she opened eyes and provoked lively debates, as was the case when she spoke on “The Arab Awakening and the Role of Social Entrepreneurship in Building a New Society” at an event hosted by Ashoka UK and Hogan Lovells. Photos from the event are available online.

Some of her thoughts, such as why “Arab Awakening” may be a term more appropriate than “Arab Spring” for the events since early 2011, can be read in her Article for the Guardian. 

Supporting Social Enterprise in the Arab World

Ashoka Arab World, an apolitical organization, supports leading social entrepreneurs in seven countries in the MENA region, a substantial number of which are women. Their initiatives vary from improving the situation of unwed mothers in Morocco to increasing the economic prospects of women heads of household in Jordan to founding a radio station aimed specifically at women who wish to play leading roles in their communities in Palestine. A great number of these female social entrepreneurs reside in Egypt. Bibars maintains that the best way to support female empowerment in the MENA region is for the global community – members of the Arab Diaspora all over the world, along with businesses and individuals of all backgrounds – to offer practical support in terms of funds and raising awareness of these women entrepreneurs who seek to creatively restructure their societies. This ties in well with her recent appointment as Director of Ashoka’s Global Diaspora (GD) initiative.

Bibars has sought to raise awareness of the growing restrictions facing Egyptian women social entrepreneurs as well as the huge opportunities that still remain. She mentors aspiring entrepreneurs of both genders and has appeared on social enterprise reality TV projects with Bamyan Media, serves as a contributor to online current affairs publications Muftah and the Fair Observer and makes regular appearances in Egyptian media as a specialist in entrepreneurship and issues of gender equality.

“Strong female leaders are needed in Egypt, now more than ever”

The importance of female leadership was a key theme to the message Bibars brought to the UK. “This is not a question of politics. Social entrepreneurship is about giving a voice to the disenfranchised and a channel through which people can find solutions to the problems that affect them and their communities – creatively, responsively, organically”, she said, having spent over 30 years fighting for the rights of women in her country, campaigning for their equal treatment and working to improve their educational and professional opportunities.

Many have lauded the Revolution as kick-starting a wave of new business initiatives and enabling a more open, entrepreneurial spirit to flourish, even as Egypt’s economy has felt the pinch of a lack of overseas investors and a waning tourist industry. Yet with a newly approved Constitution provoking criticism from liberal factions at its treatment of women and a reported increase in levels of sexual harassment, egalitarianism between the sexes has never looked so precarious. The new phenomenon of mass sexual assault has become a regular, even unwillingly accepted, part of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square.

“Women were fighting alongside men during the uprising of January 2011 but now many are afraid to go to Tahrir” continued Bibars. “Egyptian women have a major role to play in the reshaping of our country – not just through demonstrating, but through educating, communicating as artists and activists, starting our own businesses and making an economic contribution, as well as engaging in dialogue with leaders as all Egyptians need to”.

Editor's Note: This article first appeared on the AshokaUK website and was writen by Margherita Philipp, Communications Associate with the Ashoka UK team. 

More about Dr Iman Bibars

Bibars’s tenure with Ashoka is marked with continuously innovative and long-lasting work. Through her relentless drive for social innovation, Bibars launched Ashoka Arab World (AAW) in 2003 and since she has raised more than 12 million dollars.  

With an international career spanning from UNICEF to Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and the World Bank, Bibars is a globally revered social development expert. Bibars has offered her expertise in women’s development issues to the World Bank, UNDP, European Commission and the International Development and Research Center.

She is also the author of several books on gender issues including Victims and Heroines: Women, Welfare and the Egyptian State, and The Women of Tahrir, which details the most recent experiences of women during the Egyptian uprising. Bibars also published one of the first books written in Arabic on US President Barack Obama– Dreams of a Good Fellow.