While for some, International Women's Day seems like a token occasion – one that serves to remind but not necessarily impact – Egypt is one country that needs these 'reminders' . The plight of women's rights in the country are well known, but changing views that have been passed down through generations and that are embedded in a culture, is a gargantuan task that won't be solved overnight, or with fleeting hashtag on social media.
There are women, though, that have fought against the grain – and won. These are women that might not have had their name dazzled in lights, but armed either with a wider cause or a personal ambition, have, against the odds, not only succeeded in their fields and ideas, but have left a legacy for women – and men, for that matter – to follow and build on.
Here are just five of the many women leaders who continue to inspire us every day.
Dina Abdel Wahab
A social entrepreneur and a mother who fought for her special needs son's equal right to a proper and integrated education, Dina Abdel Wahab formed an integrative education model for special needs children into mainstream education in Egypt.
After giving birth to a child with Down Syndrome, Abdel Wahab was shocked to find a complete lack of awareness on how to deal with a child with special needs in Egypt. Abdel Wahab's defining moment came during a trip to Washington DC, where doctors strengthened her belief that, given the proper attention to develop their skills, children with Down Syndrome can lead normal, functional, comfortable public lives – something that, upon returning to Egypt, empowered her with will to help her child and other special needs children.
In 2000, Abdel Wahab founded Baby Academy; a preschool for normal and special needs children to learn with and from each other, while recruiting professional foreign staff to educate college graduates on how to get the best out of these children; a project that earned her the Ashoka award for Social Entrepreneurs in 2003.
"It quickly became clear how good it was for the normal children as well as the disabled ones to go to school together. Special children learn from normal children, who, in turn learn compassion, acceptance and helpfulness," Abdel Wahab told the Optimist magazine.
Today, Abdel Wahab is responsible for pioneering disabled children's integration in many international schools and she works closely with many schools who accept special needs children. She is the founder and Managing Director of the Egyptian Child Care Corporation (EC3), an education establishment under which operates the Baby Academy Chain of preschools, Camp-O-Mania, a seasonal camp for children between 4 and 14, and Indimaj, an edutainment program for children between 2 and 12.
Hind & Nadia Wassef
'It always seems impossible until it's done.' The idea of establishing a bookstore in a country with a small percentage of readership –where the average person reads a quarter page of a book a year- doesn't necessarily make for a good business model – but that didn't stand in the way of Nadia and Hind Wassef, the founders of Diwan.
Though the Wassef sisters took major interest in human rights and social reformation, but after earning Bachelors of Arts and Masters' degree in Political Science, English and Comparative Literature and Social Anthropology, they both realised they had a bigger passion for literature and culture and a dream to establish a platform that opened not only sold books, but encouraged open dialogue and communities based around the written word.
In 2002, with the availability of a warehouse in Zamalek, the Wassef sisters, with the help of three friends (Ziad Bahaa El-Din, Nihal Shawky and Ali Dessouki) founded Diwan; Egypt's first contemporary bookstore and café selling Eastern and Western literature, used books, films and music.
After almost 14 years later, Diwan has become Egypt's number one bookstore and a culturally influential one at that. Book-shopping aside, Diwan's many branches have come to be much more, hosting cultural events, workshops, book signings and many other activities.
What makes their achievement all the more remarkable is that they essentially had little-to-no entrepreneurial or marketing experience, but plenty of passion that led to other bookshops following suit.
"If you believe that what you have is right and that it's brilliant, then you need to go with it," Hind said during Rise Up Summit's inaugural event.
Mona El Erian
It's amazing what one bar of soap can do – at least that's what we learned from the story of Nefertari. Mona El Erian, a pharmacist on her way back from a business trip, brought her daughter a foreign brand of strawberry-flavoured-shampoo that she had requested; a product that prompted a massive allergic reaction infecting her daughter's skin and scalp. Reading the shampoo's labels, El Erian was shocked to find that there were no less than 17 different chemicals –including Sodium Lauryl Sulphate, a substance proven to be carcinogenic. She was stunned to discover that there wasn't a single shampoo or soap in the market that was devoid of chemicals.
Using her own kitchen, El Erian created an olive oil soap; a naturally produced bar that proved to be a hit among family and neighbours. El Erian's mission to see cosmetic products that are natural and healthy no longer became an aspiration, but rather a very achievable idea.
Today, in spite of all the setbacks she encountered in the business world, El Erian, together with her daughter, Shahira, runs Nefertari; one of the leading Egyptian chemical-free beauty care products and shops, with over 500 employees, selling scrubs, lotions, soaps and essential oils, in addition to handcrafted woollen blankets and embroideries that are 100% handmade, natural and Egyptian.
"I never envisioned myself establishing this company back when I used to be in my kitchen. There is no limit to what you can do, so do it," El Erian has said.
Forging a path for many Egyptians to give back to the community and proving that people can do extraordinary things if they work together, Ola Ghabour isn't exactly a household name – but her achievements in the field of healthcare, especially for children's health, are tremendous and all the more invaluable.
A philanthropist and a health advocate, Ghabbour is the co-founder and the primary catalyst behind Children's Cancer Hospital Egypt, also known as 57357. Ghabbour had a vision and that is to cure children with cancer and help them overcome their suffering; a dream and a campaign she kept advocating for, urging everyone – including friends, family, her networks, even underprivileged people-to donate for the cause of caring for children with cancer.
It was only in 1999 when her dream turned into reality, as the stepping stones of Egypt's first cancer hospital for children were established. Ghabbour served as the Secretary General of the 57357 Children's Cancer Hospital Foundation, the Chairman of the Board of the Association of Friends of the National Cancer Institute (AFNCI), not to mention one of the founders of the Breast Cancer Foundation of Egypt. In 2008, she received the prestigious World Health Award and was recognised for her achievements by the American Chamber of Commerce in the MENA region.
Sadly, while fighting the good fight, Ghabour lost her own brave battle with lung cancer in 2013, leaving behind a powerful legacy of giving and benevolence.
Today, with Ghabbour's efforts, hundreds of philanthropists and millions of donations by Egyptians, 57357 is a long-standing free of charge health facility, aspiring to 'prevent and combat cancer through research, smart education and quality healthcare'.
"It is amazing to be able to give sick children the opportunity to get better. The Children's Cancer Hospital was a dream that came true, thanks to the generous contributions of all Egyptians, the private sector, governmental authorities, and all loyal and faithful friends from all over the world," Ghabbour was quoted saying at 2008's World Health Organisation event.
If you work in Marketing, chances are you have come across the name Randa Abdou. An entrepreneur and veteran marketer with over 20 years of experience in the corporate world, Abdou has come to typify what a successful woman in a male-dominated field is.
With a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communication from the American University in Cairo in 1988 and a Masters' degree in International Marketing from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland in 1991 under her belt, Abdou first made her name as a Market Research Planning Manager at Procter & Gamble Egypt and the Marketing Manager of PepsiCo Foods Egypt.
It was only when she was offered a transfer from marketing to business development in PepsiCo, that Abdou realised her real passion for marketing, which gave a newfound yearning to establish her own firm; one that would be local marketing hub serving the unmet needs of companies that couldn't afford to have their own marketing department.
Abdou then took a leap of faith, quit her job at PepsiCo and what started off as a one-woman-start-up from home, developed into becoming Marketing Mix in 1996; Egypt's first private marketing consultancy business which takes pride in helping many local companies build their brand and become successful.
Today, after 20 years in the field along with two other partners, Abdou is the CEO and chief strategist of Creative Lab Group, a large marketing firm under which are three sister companies: Creative Lab Advertising, ICE Branding and Change4Good, all working to providing creative marketing solutions in fast moving consumer goods (FMCGs), telecommunications, financial services and many others.
"You may encounter many pitfalls. What matters is how you pick yourself up and how you have the will to move forward as well as the confidence in yourself and in God," Abdou said during Rise Up Summit.