United we stand

Across the Middle East and North Africa, there is a network of men stepping up to combat gender inequality. We meet four who are determined to spread the word

In 2011, Ahmed Hegab bore witness to an incident that changed his life. The young Egyptian activist watched in horror as a girl was assaulted by a mob, in a bustling district of Cairo.

“It was in broad daylight and it was a main street, so it was a huge thing for me to see happen,” recalls Hegab. “At the time assaults were common in some areas, such as Tahrir Square. But this was in north Cairo.”

Hegab and a friend tried to whisk the girl away, but were pursued and attacked and his car was destroyed. The incident had a lasting impact, setting him on a path to tackling Egypt’s pervasive culture of female sexual harassment. “I felt very scared,” he says, “as though every woman or girl in Egypt was a potential victim. I thought, ‘I have to take action now’.”

With 20,000 rapes reported in Egypt a year, according to the country’s interior ministry, the problem of sexual assault is far-reaching and likely underreported. Hegab quit his day job to join HarassMap, a nonprofit working to end the social acceptance of sexual harassment in Egypt. What began as crowdsourcing assault data – to pinpoint harassment hotspots on an online map – has today grown into an influential network working to expand awareness among Egypt’s men and women about gender issues.

Hegab now runs the outfit’s Safe Areas programme, which sends teams of volunteers into universities, schools, offices and other public zones around Egypt to raise awareness of sexual harassment as a crime and to campaign for gender equality. These are ideas that elicit mixed reactions.

“You find resistance in the men on the street because when you are talking about sexual harassment they feel a little like they are targeted as criminals,” says Hegab, whose teams also do street-level awareness campaigns.

Mindsets in Egypt are changing, but slowly, he explains. “In the last five years we’ve succeeded in pushing the agenda of criminalising sexual harassment. Women don’t need help from men, they need a community that can stop violence against them,” he adds. “It’s not men helping women, it’s a community helping each other.”

It is help that has been needed for some time. Gender-based violence in parts of the Middle East and North Africa has been described as chronic and endemic. Change has been slow to come, restricting everything from women’s movement, to their access to education or employment. Few of these restrictions are the product of legislation; often it is quite the opposite. Egypt’s anti-harassment legislation, for example, is robust but suffers from inconsistent enforcement. Instead, it is social attitudes to women that trigger concern, such as the everyday harassment experienced by Egyptian women or rates of domestic abuse in some Arab countries.

The problem is no longer just a female issue. Men are recognising the role they play in cultural stereotypes, and many have become allies to the cause. Agencies such as HarassMap offer a platform for whole communities to take an active role in promoting gender equality.

Yann Borgstedt, the Swiss entrepreneur behind Womanity Foundation, cites the project as an example of technology combating gender violence. It’s an idea that will be raised this year at the annual Womanity Award, an event that seeks to pair innovators with partners for expansion. 

“We aim to find the right people and then help them to scale and replicate their work,” he says. Borgstedt’s approach to gender-driven philanthropy began in Morocco, where he worked with NGOs to combat prostitution. There, he discovered that many of the prostitutes were former ‘little maids’, young girls forced into domestic servitude by impoverished parents.

“Nobody was working on the actual problem of sending your daughter to become a little maid, and the reasons behind it,” says Borgstedt.

He backed a programme launched by the Institution Nationale de Solidarité avec les Femmes en Détresse in 2005 to rescue the trafficked girls, reaching more than 3,000. Since that first launch, he has become more ambitious in scale and scope. An education programme in Afghanistan – a project conducted with Cherie Blair and the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office – has reached more than 23,000 people, while the launch of women-focused Radio Nisaa in Palestine, combined with Arabic radio plays, claims an audience of 1.3 million.

“At the end of the day, I’m an entrepreneur: I’m happy to innovate and I’m happy to fail,” he says.

“There’s plenty of men who already believe in gender equality, we simply haven’t reached out to them in the right way”And fail he has. Before finding success in Palestine, Radio Nisaa started life as a project in Egypt but faltered in the face of the revolution and its aftermath. That failure morphed into 20 episodes of a radio play following the trials and tribulations of a young Egyptian girl who wants to be a journalist. Starring Nancy Ajram and Mona Zaki, the show launched in 10 countries, blending entertainment and information to create debate about the role of women in those societies.

“It is not a fight between women and men,” Borgstedt says. “You need to involve men. They need to look at women as partners, not as challenging their power.”

US-based Promundo and Lebanon’s Abaad were the first winners of the Womanity Award. The two had teamed up with Promundo acting as the idea-generating ‘innovation partner’, and Abaad as the ‘scale-up’ partner. Promundo had developed its Program H – where H stands for hombre – in Latin America, under the leadership of Gary Barker. Elements of this same programme were introduced to men in Lebanon through Abaad, and its resident psychologist Anthony Keedi. Barker began working on gender issues after becoming involved in research looking at girls being trafficked into the sex trade.

“I thought, what are we doing to look down the bar at the man who’s paying for the sex and understand why he thinks it’s acceptable?” he says.

At the time, Barker says, few services focused on engaging men on these issues. Ideas on how to tackle them emerged from talking to men who were already active supporters of gender equality.

“There’s plenty of men who already believe in gender equality, we simply haven’t reached out to them in the right way,” says Barker. “We need them to be part of the equation and use their voice.”

Promundo’s work has spread from the favelas of Latin America to some 25 countries, reaching out to men in Africa, Asia and now the Middle East, where Promundo staff have trained aid workers supporting refugees in Lebanon. The scheme uses street promoters, radio dramas on the airwaves and school, workplace or community outreach campaigns to spread its message. Abaad’s role in spreading the word in Lebanon has seen Keedi work with men struggling with gender expectations.

Raised in the US by parents escaping his homeland’s civil war, Keedi returned to Lebanon to attend university. It was during his studies that he became interested in understanding gender socialisation. Abaad’s programmes address ideas of masculinity and the aggressive behaviour that has become normal for some men. It also runs a Men Center, which provides free, anonymous and confidential psychotherapy for men who respond to public awareness campaigns.

“There is no mandatory court that makes men with abusive behaviour come to the clinic, so it’s all on a volunteer basis,” says Keedi.

Keedi gives the example of an older Syrian refugee who was struggling with not being able to secure work to help his family. While he could not find work, his wife could, but he was unable to see a place for himself in the home.

“From a gender perspective, a man’s value is often based on a traditional concept of being a provider and protector, not a wonderful father,” says Keedi.

Addressing issues such as unemployment and the other stressors that can lead to violent behaviours will be a long process for Abaad. The agency is working to create a network in the Middle East to help address the problem, train other organisations to tackle gender issues, and keep spreading the word.

“Hopefully – eventually – the ripple will become waves,” Keedi says.

Labour of love

Khalid Alkhudair, CEO at Saudi Arabia’s Glowork, has a hands-on approach to gender equality. In a country where women hold just 13 per cent of jobs, starting a recruitment agency focused on getting them into work is a big ask. But for Alkhudair, the fact 51 per cent of graduates in the kingdom are female and yet so few work, presented an opportunity. 

“I always wanted to do something that had social value, as well as made business sense,” he says.

Glowork places an average of 36 women a day and 1.8 million women have signed up with the agency. Still, Alkhudair knows more can be done to level the playing field for Saudi women.

“To improve the job market, I believe there should be more interaction between the private sector and universities,” he says. “Really it’s a matter of understanding the market and changing perceptions of what working for the government versus what working in the private sector is like, because that’s where the opportunities lie.”