By Aina Krupinski-Puig
An interview with Director May Rihani, the designer of the Hub “Pioneers and Leaders: Knowledge Center About Arab Women”
May Rihani is the Director of the Women as Partners in Progress (WPP) project, which operates from within the Kahlil Gibran Chair for Values & Peace at the University of Maryland. A key initiative of WPP is it’s Hub “Pioneers and Leaders: Knowledge Center About Arab Women,” an innovative online center and tool for all knowledge seekers that “aims to break stereotypes and support the empowerment of women & their allies.” Here, Director May Rihani speaks about her vision of the Hub:
Q: What is the significance of the Hub?
A: The critical significance of this Hub is that for the first time a Hub has been created on Women Leadership in the Arab World. For the first time, Directories have been compiled of Arab Women Pioneers, Leaders, and Organizations supporting women in 15 countries across the Arab World. These Directories of 212 women pioneers, women leaders, and civil society organizations tell a collective story of brave women overcoming barriers, being role models, carving paths, being the shoulders for others to advance, breaking glass ceilings, exemplifying values of progress, peace and human rights for all, inspiring others, and challenging and shifting mindsets of what is possible. They are those who did not allow obstacles, constraints, walls - and I mean it, walls - to stop them, and who indirectly taught any generation that comes after them, “you can do it too”.
The Hub is a platform for networking and interaction, with enough information and detail to allow women within the Hub in 15 Arab countries to network together even without knowing each other. For example, if women in Morocco, Lebanon, and Jordan are working on changing laws relating to harassment or gender-based violence, they can look at the Hub and see and read about women lawyers who have done similar work or are currently working on this issue, and can contact each other to become a more powerful group. As a result of this networking, they can empower each other.
Another aspect of significance is that it allows any woman or man reader, from the West, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, or anywhere else, first, to break their stereotypes about Arab women, and second, to deepen their historical and present knowledge about the contributions of Arab women to their countries, to their regions, and to the world.
Q: Was your vision of the design and content of the Hub inspired from any of your previous work?
A: It’s inspired from my work over the past several decades, in particular on girls’ education in the Arab world and Sub-Saharan Africa. During my field work in many different countries, whenever I asked a large classroom of 30-40 girls, “what do you want to become?” I got two types of answers. If I was in a rural and poor area, the girls would say “teacher,” or “mother”. And when I would respond, “what else?” they would look at me with searching eyes and say close to nothing. In my first few years in the field, I couldn’t understand why their answers were so limited. Then I would go to a city, to a well-endowed school attracting the daughters and sons of very well-educated parents, and I would ask the girls the same question, “what do you want to become?” Their answers included a diversity of professions, “I wanna be a scientist,” or, “I wanna be a medical doctor that does research,” or, “an architect,” or “the mayor of the town.” And I would say, “That’s great! Tell me how you thought about it.” They would respond, “Oh, I read in the newspaper about this woman who was a scientist,” or, “My sister who’s at university, her teacher is an architect.” And I realized, they were talking about role models.
I understood, after many visits to schools in rural and impoverished areas and to elite schools in cities, that if you give a girl role models, she can do better. She will expand her aspirations. She can think of many more things to be than just a teacher and a mother. There is nothing wrong with being a teacher or a mother, there is everything good about it, but nobody should limit anybody’s aspirations.
Q: Why did you decide to include both profiles and research and link them in the Hub?
A: I always allow project designs to brew in my head for several months before I make them final, reflecting on them and how I can improve them. For the Hub, I also went through a process of refinement. Originally, my design was only about Women Pioneers and Leaders. But, the more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that even though they are the most important, however without civil society supporting them it would have been hard for them to do what they have done. They could have, but maybe a lesser number of them would have succeeded and accomplished as much as they did. So, I thought about including civil society organizations to show that they are the support system and the implementers of the ideas of the Pioneers and the Leaders. Adding this section creates a new model that is not based only on individuals, even though the individuals lead the effort, but based also on organizations and civil society who support the effort and push it forward. My own design evolved. In civil society, there are also men who are supporters of these women pioneers and leaders, and to me, the idea that men allies support these initiatives, is extremely important.
I do not understand women’s empowerment as a divide between women and men, I understand it as a movement that benefits the whole society. We need the men, and civil society provides that. Yes, this is about Pioneers and Leaders, but who supports them? Alone, they are not going to change society. They need civil society.
I continued thinking, can I add anything to make it even better? Yes; to ground this idea of the Hub, of Women Pioneers, Leaders and Organizations, in knowledge. I have been working over the past year with my staff at WPP synthesizing knowledge about Arab women, and then taking this synthesis and traveling to the Arab world, presenting it, and facilitating a discussion with women leaders about the findings of research. I saw how positively they reacted to it, how the synthesis inspired them to do more work and motivated them. Be it in Morocco, in Jordan, or in Kuwait. As a result of this experience, I added to the profiles, the synthesis of the research. Together, they provide the foundation for what I am calling a knowledge center about Arab Women.
The Hub is about Women Pioneers and Women Leaders, about who supports them and works with them, and it is based on knowledge - always both quantitative and qualitative.
Q: How does the Hub break stereotypes?
A: Walk down the street of any city in the U.S., pick 500 people at random, and ask if they think that there is a woman nuclear scientist in the Arab world. We have one in our Hub, Dr. Sameera Moussa from Egypt. I bet you, 80% or more would say no, if not 90%. Ask them, “Today, who is heading the IQ foundation in the world?” They might think of a German, of a Swede, or of an American scientist or mathematician. It’s a woman from the Arab world, Dr. Manahel Thabet. Ask them if they think that there was a woman president of a university in the Arab world in the 1960s. The majority will say no. It was Dr. Salwa Nassar, in Lebanon in 1965. Ask them if they think there are women senators in the Arab world. In the Hub, we have profiles of Ina'am Qaddoura Al-Mufti, Haifa Hajjar Najjar, and Dr. Sawsan Majali, these are women senators from Jordan. That’s how we break stereotypes. If they read the Hub, they’ll see them.
Q: Why did you decide to design and publish a Hub like this now?
A: The timing is extremely important because the Arab World, like any region in the world, goes through a lot of changes in any topic, and the changes can be progression, stagnation, or regression. The Hub is coming immediately after a period of immense change in the Arab World that started with the Arab Spring and has accelerated until now. Because of this change and acceleration, opportunities are being created to modifications in roles of men and women. It’s a window of opportunity for women to play bigger roles, to contribute further, to be more engaged, and to say, “it’s time to advance equality”.
Q: What is the Hub’s purpose in how it connects people? How will the Hub interact with other people?
A: The Hub is a tool; women can use this tool in so many different ways. In terms of geography, they can use it within their country, within 2-3 countries, or within the region as a whole. In terms of sectors, the same things happen, they can use it within their sectors only, within 2-3 countries, or within all the sectors. They can use it to network, to be empowered, but also to do research. Several examples that come to mind, this includes:
Students can use it to conduct research; in the Hub they have Bibliographies, examples of synthesis of research, and the biographies of the Pioneers that tell them about the history of the women’s movement.
Teachers can take the foundation of this Knowledge Center and expand on it or ask students to do so.
- People can write profiles, selecting or researching Pioneers or Leaders as examples of role models, researching what we’ve done and summarizing it. They can also create fuller profiles of the Pioneers, 3-4 pages, and teach about them.
Any youth, young girl or young boy, needs role models. This Hub provides the role models for the new generation. This Hub can inspire them and expand their aspirations, it can increase their confidence in themselves in preparation for breaking newer glass ceilings.