The portrayal of Arab women in the media often leads to the common perception of Middle Eastern women as socially and professionally restricted, and often considered to be second-class citizens. In fact my first-hand experience has proven these stereotypes to be true on several occasions. However, when discussing the elusive “Middle East” region, it is important to acknowledge the varying levels of women’s rights and engagement across and within countries. Since arriving in Lebanon almost two months ago, I have been pleasantly surprised by the active and prominent role women play throughout Lebanese society. From the leadership and staff of Kiva partner, Ameen s.a.l, and its borrowers, to my new Lebanese friends who are avid runners, there is definitely something different and encouraging about Lebanon’s women.
The Women of Ameen:
Within the ranks of Ameen itself, there is clear message that women can and will take on significant responsibility in the organization. The Deputy General Manager of Ameen is a no-nonsense, confident woman who is well-versed in the organization’s mission and committed to propelling Ameen forward, including increased efforts to measure social performance. The Senior Finance Manager is serious about her fashionable high-heeled shoes, but even more so about her number crunching. The female loan officers I have met all seem to share several characteristics—outspoken, self-assured, independent, and with a wicked sense of humor. The golden key to Kiva’s work at Ameen, Kiva Coordinator, Mirna, is now 9-months pregnant but she continues to work relentlessly to post new borrower profiles to the website and follow up with the field staff to make sure that the Kiva operation runs smoothly. She is planning to return to Ameen just two months after delivering her baby; she has told me many times that she wants to enter the hospital with a clear mind and no pending issues with Kiva!
Successful Business Owners:
Similar to Ameen’s staff, Ameen’s female borrowers are strong and impressive. Kiva borrower, Noura, runs a successful tailoring shop. She has 14 years of experience and has been operating her current shop for the past 10 years. Noura has not felt any slowdown in business in recent months; in fact she articulated that there are often too many customers and not enough time to serve them all! Noura has a vibrant sense of humor and she is looking to open a small factory where she can employ several young women to assist her. According to the loan officer that was with me, Noura has established a strong relationship with many of the local schools based on her high quality work and is hoping to take on long-term, large orders for uniforms when she moves to a bigger location.
Borrowers like Amal illustrate the business potential of Lebanon’s women. She has over 15 years of experience selling electrical goods and successfully opened a small shop two years ago. She has requested a larger loan from Ameen to expand her business and her future goal is to open another branch of her store. Despite the growing presence of women business owners, they still remain a minority in Lebanon. A 2008 report by the International Finance Corporation estimates women to make up about 29% of the Lebanese labor force.
Running the Country:
On a personal level, I have come to know several Lebanese young women who are part of a weekly running group in Beirut. They actively take part in local road races and are training for the Beirut marathon. There is no way to escape the uncomfortable looks we receive while running down the Beirut Corniche, but it is certainly a big change to even run outside compared to my days living in Cairo where the harassment and traffic were often too much to handle. I have to say that sports have been an excellent way to connect with young women in the region as some of my best Egyptian girlfriends are former teammates from several soccer/football tournaments we played in Cairo.
In general, women in Lebanon, especially Beirut, seem more assertive and self-reliant than I have seen in other countries. Marriage and child-bearing can (relatively) easily go hand-in-hand with working and developing a career, and Beirut’s universities are brimming with eager female students ready to take on all types of careers. With young women busily buzzing in Ameen’s main office, ladies working in all types of jobs from retail to restaurants in downtown Beirut, and young ladies engaged in social activities from the arts to sports, there is a new image of the Arab woman that the Western media needs to include in its portrayal of the region.
Nishita Roy is a Kiva Fellow (Class 10) serving in Lebanon. Get involved with Kiva’s Lebanon partners, Ameen s.a.l. and Al Majmoua, today! Make an impact by lending to a Middle East entrepreneur today!