“Promote gender equality and empower women,” the third of the United Nations Millennium Goals states. A difficult undertaking, especially in the Arab world, where women were key players in the region’s political spring. Although generalising does not really make sense here. For just as little as there is “the Arab world”, given that each country between Morocco and Saudi Arabia has to pursue its own, individual policy, does the general notion of women’s backwardness in the Arab world truly hold, maintains Tunisia’s Minister of Women’s Affairs, Silem Badi. In Morocco, for example, there are now 3,200 women in the local parliaments, and Tunisia already has 18,000 women entrepreneurs.
Wool from Sabria – income for rural households
“Ouissal” is Arabic for “bridge” or “link” and refers to a German-Arab mentoring project supported by the German government and aimed at promoting women’s economic and social participation in Tunisia. Currently, there are a total of 15 projects in each of which a mentor and a protégé jointly implement a business scheme. Two of them were recently awarded prizes at the 2nd German-Arab Network Forum in Berlin/Germany, for example “Laine de Sabria” (wool from Sabria) of the tandem team Douja Ben Mahmoud Gharbi and Radegund Kahle.
The community of Sabria is around 40 kilometres west of Douz, in southern Tunisia, towards Algeria. Thanks to its location at the edge of the Sahara, Sabria is a popular point to set out from on desert tours, so that it has been able to develop a modest tourist infrastructure. Sheep are among the few sources of income for peasants. Each family keeps up to 20 animals. The women farmers process the wool using traditional looms. In addition to traditional garments, blankets are made out of virgin wool that maintains a pleasant temperature both in the winter and in the summer.
Since local marketing options are only limited while sales offer a further source of income, the idea emerged to sell the blankets to Europe. They are known to be untreated and are therefore bought readily. A company has already developed out of the project. The women of Sabria work as independent entrepreneurs and determine their own working hours. The blankets are collected by other women who perform the first quality checks. The virgin wool must not contain any bits of wood or have any holes. Before the blankets are exported to Hamburg in Germany, a second check is carried out. Each blanket has its own individual characteristics, and the additional income secures the women’s livelihood thanks to their own work.
A contribution to regional rural development
Bahia Bejar-Ghadeb of the Tunisian project “Democracy Needs Women”, run by the European Academy for Women in Politics and Business (EAF), regards small-scale projects like the one in Sabria as a successful regional development yielding new or additional income. But things can also start moving politically in rural regions. The 3,200 local politicians in Morocco were above all able to secure their positions because votes are only casted for parties in the cities. Retired Minister of Family Affairs Nouzha Skalli explains that out in the country, there is a first-past-the-post system. She herself was only able to secure a seat in parliament after several candidatures.
Morocco initiated human rights, gender equality and women's economic freedom reforms two years ago. Now 95 per cent of all girls go to school, and nearly 45 per cent of students are women. Skalli stresses that education is the most important mechanism to promote women in sustainable development.
Nevertheless, project activities remain a challenge. The project partners are confronted with the accusation of only involving secular women. It certainly is the case that the projects do not appeal to all women. Still, they are addressed. And at local level, tension between religion and the government and business is often eliminated. Up to 80 per cent of the women active in the EAF projects are veiled. They are learning that they can represent and pass on a heritage.
Roland Krieg, Journalist, Berlin