Arab Women Rising

By Rahilla Zafar, MES’11

Arab Women Rising coverAt the end of 2010, I began contributing stories to Knowledge@Wharton on women entrepreneurs in the Middle East. My co-writer Nafeesa Syeed and I began to spend more and more time in the region, witnessing how ripe for opportunities it is as well as being filled with innovators. When the Arab Spring came along, it appeared to open up new opportunities for women’s participation in social and political spheres as well. In addition, the literacy and gender gap in the region has greatly improved over the decades with more woman now holding graduate degrees than men in several countries. On top of that, social media and smart phone penetration is skyrocketing, even exceeding figures in the United States. Nafeesa and I spent much of that past three years in the region exploring these trends and eventually produced the eBook ‘Arab Women Rising’ published through Knowledge@Wharton (price: free).

Esra’a Al Shafei is one of the women I profiled who has become a leading Internet activist in the Middle East. She’s received support from organizations such as the Omidyar Network, along with being an Echoing Green and a TED fellow as well.  She is the founder of Migrant-Rights, which aims to improve the quality of life for domestic workers in the Middle East. Based in Bahrain, Al Shafei grew up appalled by the mistreatment of foreign workers and by how little was being done about the problem. She decided to use the power of the Internet to make a change, and since then has launched several sites, including, a user-powered platform that tracks voices of protest from around the world by crowd-sourcing information. She is also the founder and director of Mideast Youth, an organization that aims to amplify diverse and progressive voices advocating for change throughout the Middle East and North Africa using digital media. Most recently she’s launched, a platform for underground musicians in the Middle East, and the iPad application Making of a Century, highlighting 100 years of revolutions and social movements.

In Egypt, Nafeesa profiled Hanan Abdel Meguid, the CEO of OTVentures, where she oversees nearly 1,000 employees who specialize in online and mobile technologies. A subsidiary of Orascom Telecom, the company has exclusive partnerships with outlets like Facebook. A pioneer in Egypt’s tech scene, she founded her first tech company out of college in the ’90s, but learned hard lessons when she lost her first company in a merger. She’s candid about how she bounced back and became among the first to be exposed to the Internet in her country. After building large companies that have withstood upheavals, she says technology holds the key to improving education, health and other sectors. She now mentors young entrepreneurs and says they will serve as “saviors” in the country’s future.

These are just two of the women Nafeesa and I profiled in our book. The other 33 are just as amazing.

Visiting from Saudi Arabia, Reem Asaad who wrote the foreword to Arab Women Rising will be giving a keynote at the upcoming Wharton MENA Conference on April 12th. For more information:

rahilaBio: Rahilla Zafar received a Master of Environmental Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 2012 where she was also a member of the Wharton Venture Initiation Program. She is currently based in New York City and working on a follow-up book focusing on women in Saudi Arabia.