It is time for women to become the biggest ally of women
July 8, 2023
By Camille Dupire
Sana Afouaiz is an award winning entrepreneur, gender expert and public speaker. Through her not-for-profit organisation, Womenpreneur, she aims to advance women’s place in the entrepreneurial scene, technology, innovation and society.
Jumping from one phone call to another, Sana Afaouaiz is a whirlwind, always on the go. From the management of her NPO Womenpreneur, to her writing career, Sana embodies the idea that you’ve got to keep pushing yourself, no matter how much you have achieved.
Despite having been named “Woman of Influence” by the World Bank, having garnered multiple international awards and securing a position within the 100 most influential innovators by “Social Enablers”, Sana feels like “she still has to prove herself”.
“As a young woman of immigrant background living in Europe, I have to admit that I still feel like I have to work more to be taken seriously,” she admits, noting that “even in the heart of Europe, it is still difficult for women entrepreneurs to be fully understood and appreciated.”
Catalysing women’s talent in the MENA region
But this did not deter her from her mission to uplift women’s talents, anywhere in the world. If anything, these obstacles served as the fuel for Sana’s determination to lend a hand to fellow entrepreneurs.
“There are a lot of talents in the MENA region that we do not have in Europe,” she points out, noting that “our region has the highest number of women studying STEM [Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] in the world while Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia have the highest number of women engineers in the world. The talent is there. We just need to help them turn their ideas into realities.”
With Womenpreneur, the NGO she founded in Brussels over seven years ago, Sana has reached and supported more than 19,000 women from the MENA region and Europe. Activities she led include mentorship sessions, leadership programmes and networking events, among many others.
“For me, every woman that is successful in her life is a role model for others. This can be anything from a large firm’s CEO to the neighbour who thrives in the store next door,” Sana explains, pointing out that “economic and financial independence is not freedom, but it is a tool, a basis, for achieving it, for being able to look at one’s environment differently.”
In November of last year, Womenpreneur partnered with the EU Union for the Mediterranean to organise the Mediterranean Tech Women Network (MTWN), an event connecting women across the Mediterranean for networking, learning and exchanging about talent, opportunities, support, and how to break new grounds to support thriving and sustainable innovation.
Despite the existence of various women in tech centered structures, there is currently no Mediterranean tech network for women. The aim of the MTWN event is to fill this gap. According to the European Commission, only 18% of Information and Communication Technology specialists are women and there is a considerable gender gap in the tech industry in Europe. Thus, an essential objective of the event was to showcase success stories of women in tech, with the hope of inspiring more women to join the innovation industry.
“For sure, I have faced criticism about women-only spaces and events that we organise, being told that opportunities should be for everyone. But that is exactly why I do this: I believe in all people accessing equal opportunities.”
Peeling the layers of women realities
A few years ago, Sana published a book, Invisible Women of The Middle East: True Stories, where she told the stories of women from all walks of life across the MENA region. A social book that examines the different taboos surrounding the female condition, Invisible Women of The Middle East is a raw and honest take on the uncomfortable discussions about sexuality, religion, hijab and politics in countries of the region. It is telling the real stories of women that Sana had the chance to meet, work with or even sit next to on the bus.
“I have encountered a myriad of feminine realities”. And whilst she does not deny “the sad and very difficult realities that women live in”, Sana stresses that “we should not underestimate the fact that their voice is overtaking the others in the MENA countries.”
“I met feminists, prostitutes, politicians, high ranking women,” the young writer recalls. “Because women in the MENA region do not represent a homogenous group: there are layers and layers of realities experienced on a daily basis.”
As an Arab woman living in the heart of Europe, Sana laments the fact that “there is still a tendency to think that it is a black and white reality back home and that women are just oppressed and marginalised. But the truth is, I couldn’t select a single word to describe the female condition in the region.”
Today, Sana is hopeful, as she genuinely believes that the new generation is bringing about a systemic change. “I am seeing a real turn within the younger generation, with a kind of solidarity developing between women, who are coming in strong with requests and demands.”
“I think that, despite the oppression that is still persisting in the Arab world towards women, there is resistance. There is a true fight for consciousness,” she adds.
Amongst these young women she has supported through Womenpreneur, there is Fatim-Zahra Biaz, an entrepreneur, startup adviser and founder of the New Work Lab. Her startup accelerator and innovation lab aims at developing and galvanising the Moroccan startup scene.
Fatim, too, says she is “highly convinced that entrepreneurs can bring innovative solutions to Morocco and contribute to the economic and social development of the country”.
Meanwhile, young social entrepreneur Lamia Bazir dedicated her work to women and youth in the rural region of Morocco’s Middle Atlas mountains. More than a decade ago, she founded ‘Empowering Women in the Atlas,’ a non-profit organisation aimed at advocating for the leadership of rural women as a means of combating poverty. Having benefited from the support of Womenpreneur, Lamia says: “I have chosen to focus a significant part of my energy and work on the cause of gender equality and women’s empowerment”.
Supporting projects like Fatim’s and Lamia’s is at the core of Sana’s mission, who launches one initiative per year in her home country. “My focus is to always give back to my country. I may have left physically but I am still there spiritually and through the impact driven work of Womenpreneur.”
Before returning to yet another work call, Sana concludes: “Today my origins are Moroccan, my heart is Belgian and my mindset is international.”
The Mediterranean Tech Women Network Festival (MTWNF) was established in 2020 and officially launched one year later. It aims to connect female leaders across borders to create and multiply opportunities in the technology field for women and to provide role models for girls interested in STEM careers. Encouraging dialogue amongst stakeholders and women representatives on common topics and concerns—but with different regional and cultural backgrounds—which shall contribute to bridging the considerable gap in knowledge and capacity between EU and non-EU countries and strengthen transnational economic collaboration.
The Union for the Mediterranean is an intergovernmental institution bringing together the European Union Member States and 16 countries from the Southern and Eastern shores of the Mediterranean to promote dialogue and cooperation. Its mission is to enhance regional cooperation, dialogue and the implementation of projects and initiatives with tangible impact on citizens, with an emphasis on young people and women, in order to address the three strategic objectives of the region: stability, human development and integration.