Guest post by Chéma Gargouri, Country Director, WES, Tunisia
I have never been an active blogger. Expressing my “intimate” thoughts about any subject with people that I don’t know is not what I prefer the most. While my role as Institute of International Education’s Country Director of the Women’s Enterprise for Sustainability (WES) program in Tunisia might look at first glance simply as a professional role which involves supporting centers for women’s entrepreneurship and leadership in partnership with eight local partner NGOs in six regions of Tunisia, I do consider that this exceptional experience is as intimate as a love story.
This story started almost a year ago when IIE announced the good news that the U.S. Department of State’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) decided to fund Women’s Enterprise for Sustainability (WES). At that time, I was ready and happy to start another new challenge since I am a person whose life has always been nourished by challenges. Over the months I have been discovering the other human and, also, at some moments, romantic side of the program. Often during the face-to-face meetings with the women who participated in WES training I was either sharing their untold, unrevealed dreams, or I realized that I was participating in fulfilling their vision, assuming some responsibility in making their hopes for a success in life come through. We did not know each other. But a few minutes after introducing myself and learning about why each one of them chose WES centers to accompany her through her path towards accomplishment we immediately start talking about our problems and challenges as women in a post revolution era. Whether graduated from university, or never been to school, or has a business, we all shared one common goal: making sure that we are providing a better life for our children in a country that is fighting for an equal society where boys and girls, men and women will enjoy the same rights and duties.
In business we are often advised to avoid emotions. To a certain extent this is true. However adding some feelings to what we try to do on the ground with our centers and their women entrepreneurs is something that could not be avoided. There were moments when I was hopeful for Tunisia working with young potential business leaders whose project ideas are fascinating and with a clear vision about where they want to stand in the future. However, I was also worried about other women, whose state of mind is expressed through a list of undermining adjectives, reflecting a complete absence of self esteem and a lot of doubts about whether or not they have the capacities to do what they want to do and live a life of their choice. While the WES centers are also there to sustain the transition from family- made to self-made women it is still difficult to inculcate the culture of “yes I can”. Thus the WES program is powerful in terms of its objectives which will lift the position of our women from serving to leading. This concept of women’s leadership has often been looked at as a “western concept”, accusing the western countries of trying to change women’s status in our countries from obedient individuals to simply human beings that make decisions for themselves. At a certain point this is culturally dangerous….and it is simply not true. Often we, women in our countries, forget that Khadija, the first wife of our Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him), was a very influential rich woman who successfully managed her father’s business’ interests and preserved the family’s fortune after her father’s death. Thus leadership for women is a concept that also belongs to our culture, something that we easily tend to forget.
The WES program is then not only a trip between realities and hopes, dreams and accomplishments, a difficult present and a possible future but also a process that is being put in place and already helping women take the lead in making their personal and professional journeys in life. The WES program became my personal love story.
Happy Saint Valentine’s Day.