Viewpoint: women and philanthropy

Are women emerging as drivers of philanthropy in the Middle East? Five experts give us their views.

Maysa Jalbout, CEO, Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education

Women in the Middle East play a strong role in philanthropy. Their work, however, often goes unnoticed as it is deeply entrenched in their way of life and manifests in day-to-day charitable contributions to local communities. We need to talk about these existing initiatives more, so women get the greater recognition they deserve. As philanthropy in the region becomes more institutionalised, it is not surprising to see more women in leadership roles. Much like corporate boards, foundations in the region would benefit from the stronger participation of women, to help ensure philanthropic investments respond effectively to local needs with innovative solutions, and to contribute to better results.

Muna AbuSulaymanCo-founder, Meedan.com

Philanthropy and women have a complicated relationship in the region. Arab women give away tremendous amounts of money each year; the majority by traditional means – either directly to individuals or through grants to relieve poverty. But women philanthropists are wary of initiatives put forward by philanthropic advisory companies, and anxious of the motivations behind such discussions. Still, we are starting to see women create philanthropic foundations to drive change. And as they flourish, they will inspire a new generation of female philanthropists. In time, we will see more of them examine how innovation in giving can be used to solve some of the world’s toughest challenges.

Saba AlmubaslatCEO, Humanitarian Leadership Academy

Aid workers tend to work in high-risk areas and women have not traditionally been seen as a good fit for the sector, at least in the Middle East. This is more a matter of social perception than women’s own assessment of their abilities. The aid industry needs to recruit more female humanitarians from the region to work with the Middle East’s women, whom conflict has made fully responsible for their households. Professional women get the balance right: maintaining their professionalism, but also showing compassion to those who sometimes need more than a blanket or food. Women must be seen as equal contributors in responding to, and recovering from, crisis.

Luc Giraud-Guigues, Senior philanthropy adviser, Lombard Odier

Women are key players in an emerging philanthropy landscape, collectively wielding nearly a quarter of wealth in the Middle East. On issues such as education and youth, social inclusion in the workplace and society, female philanthropists can influence change through economic and entrepreneurial opportunities. Getting started is easier if there are role models. They can start by meeting peers through platforms such as the Arab Foundations Forum. Giving can also be simple to start with: leveraging crowd funding or supporting community foundations. Empowering young women through education, and exposure to running charities or supporting capacity building, can also increase civic participation.

Milia Eidmouni, Regional officer, ActionAid, Arab region

Since the beginning of the Arab revolution, women across the region have stepped into non-traditional roles as aid workers. In Syria, women were running field hospitals as men went to fight, and later took part in the White Helmets – a movement of unarmed volunteer rescue workers. Being a female aid worker still comes with a certain stigma; women are often viewed as weak and many would-be aid workers are put off by this stereotype. Yet we need more women. They play a crucial role in the Middle East, where society makes it difficult for women to access services otherwise offered by men. More needs to be done to challenge the perceptions of women working in NGOs.

Illustration credit: Hanna Robinson