Why do Arab economies and societies need more women like Ons Jabeur and Bassant Hemida?

Iris Boutros
14 Min Read

Ons Jabeur and Bassant Hemida gave Arabs tremendous joy, pride, and hope last week. The Tunisian professional tennis player and the Egyptian Olympic sprinter, respectively, did one of the most difficult things to do in Arab societies – translate hard work and talent into meaningful results despite overwhelming obstacles.

Arab economies and societies need more women like Ons Jabeur and Bassant Hemida because they demonstrate what could be, instead of what most often is. And that is desperately needed to drive things forward.

Opinion| Mohamed Salah, Serena Williams, and work environments by Dr Iris Boutros
Dr Iris Boutros

This week Jabeur became the first Arab and African to reach the Wimbledon or any other tennis Grand Slam final. At the Mediterranean Games, Hemida became the first Egyptian to ever win gold medals and set records for the 100-metre and 200-metrs sprints in the major international competition.

Talent and hard work can have very little to do with what you can achieve in Arab societies. Privileges enjoyed by a few continue to stifle and suffocate economies, robbing millions of people of opportunities.

Privilege is probably the most notable aspect of Arab economies. It stubbornly undermines the growth and productivity of economies and sectors. Therefore, there are less new companies and less new jobs.

Finding a job is not easy in the Arab countries. The region features high unemployment rates, especially among youth and women. Arab economies barely create new jobs. In addition, most women do not seek a job.

So, it is no surprise that Arabs have so much joy and pride about these two women. They are what so many Arabs hope for, not what people often experience, an opportunity to have hard work and talent mean something.

Arab economies need to become places where the economically marginalized can have more opportunities. Jabeur and Hemida are rare exceptions. Arab countries lose out on enormous potential benefits to economies and societies from better, including women, youth, people with less financial means, and the disabled.

For societies that take great pride in negotiating skills, there is a lot of value left on the table. Rather than having a bigger economy that includes more citizens, the few with privilege and the governments that favor them hold back growth and productivity so that a select group can have a bigger piece of a smaller pie.

Hany Ragy, a cardiologist at Egypt’s National Heart Institute (@Hrafy) tweeted, “Today is a historic day for Egypt! For the first time ever, one of us wins an international competition, and guess what? It’s a woman!! Bassant Hemeida makes history. Give women a chance, and everyone wins!”

Talking about Jabeur and Hemida, many expressed that same sentiment on social media this week and they are totally correct. 

Research shows removing barriers for female participation in the workforce could have a significant positive impact on the growth of sectors and the economies of Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Syria, and Tunisia. A lot is being lost.

The IMF estimated that Egypt’s GDP would be about one-third bigger with more equal inclusion of female labour not too long ago. Women’s economic power is key for growth, affecting output and productivity, and through higher domestic demand. It is also true that even the biggest and best companies perform better with more female labour and management.

Now more than ever, Arab economies need to find practical ways to include the economically marginalized because people are really suffering. The COVID pandemic had a bigger impact on women, youth, the low-skilled and migrant workers relative to men. Unlike past economic crises, informal workers were not as spared as before.

This past week, Jabeur and Hemida gave a lot of Arabs hope. After all, people love superheroes and role models because they can do what a person wishes or hopes to do. But these women are not just inspirational. Their stories are also informative.

At twelve years old, Jabeur moved from her hometown Sousse to the capital city of Tunis to attend a national sports high school for the country’s up-and-coming athletes, the Lycée Sportif El Menzah. Both she and Hemida showed great success at international junior competitions and have now repeated that success as young adults.

Identifying and championing talent from younger ages is key. And it can also be relatively easily operationalized.

A well-conceived and executed national strategy with the intentional goal of better capturing what is now being lost would produce results faster than most people think. Too often these strategies are toothless tokens. Sound strategies and operations will include more interventions that are already known to be effective.

Specialized high schools can develop and champion young talent for many economic sectors, for example. Jabeur no doubt benefited from attending a sports high school. If you look around the world you will see this is a common intervention, just not that common in Arab countries. High schools for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and the arts have direct benefits for sectors and economies.

Education and achievement are not the problem in Arab countries. While there are significant issues with the approach to, and quality of education in countries around the region, globally speaking, the economically marginalized in Arab countries are often better educated than their counterparts in other countries around the world.

Companies in key sectors in the region would benefit by better including the economically marginalized because of their talent. For instance, technology companies could really benefit because more of the STEM talent among the youth is now female. Notably, the Arab region leads the world in female founders of online-based companies. Interventions that help translate doing well in STEM to acquiring skills companies demand can be done in large numbers.

The more talent and knowhow can be tested and championed without regard to gender, age, financial means, or disability, the better. Technology companies with a need for a technical skill and knowhow-heavy workforce could provide a more level playing field. It would be a good reason to favor them, for instance, by providing them more government benefits if they could demonstrate that they do.

While Jabeur and Hemida are better off than most in the region because they face fair and objective measures of their performance, they are not exempt from Arab cultural attitudes and perceptions.

Egypt’s first professional squash player, Salma Shabana said, “It’s tough. It’s a man’s world and for the most part everyone is there to look at your legs. You have to do what [Hemida] did for people to start taking you seriously and that’s why she deserves all the praise and respect she’s getting.” And there certainly was a lot of talk about what Hemida was wearing when she won both her gold medals at the Mediterranean Games.

Focusing on irrelevant things like appearance is a common obstacle for the economically marginalized, not unique to the Arab world. The focus on what a woman is wearing or how nice the shoes of a job candidate with less financial means can reflect one assessing their own talent compared to the marginalized or an attempt to dismiss and exclude them.

Attitudes towards and perceptions about women, youth, people with less financial means, and the disabled in Arab countries is a problem. But these things change and can be changed. People often worry that things do not change, but how often has an event, a crisis, or new technology changed so much about what people think and do?

Mohamed Salah, an Egyptian professional and currently one of the world’s best football players, wrote to Hemida on Instagram after her wins, “Congrats our champ, we are all proud of you.” She replied, “you can’t imagine how I’m motivated right now because of your support, you are the idol for all the athlete[s] in Egypt. Thanks Mo.”

Role models can change attitudes, perceptions, and behavior both in and outside the household. Seeing someone that looks like you matters. It is important for Arabs living in societies where privilege too often dominates merit to see economically marginalized people have hard work and talent translate into something individually meaningful. Success does not necessarily make you a role model, especially because of privilege.

After her defeat in the Wimbledon final, Jabeur tweeted, “I hope to have inspired Tunisia, the African continent and the Arab world throughout my Wimbledon journey. I’ll be back on Centre Court! Keep dreaming young girl.” The tweet included two pictures, one of her hugging a Wimbledon silver plate and the other, a picture of a much younger Jabeur with a bunch of trophies and medals.

I asked a few young, Egyptian girls about Jabeur and Hemida. By chance two were athletes who have played in televised football matches. They found both women to be inspirational because they could translate hard work and talent into meaningful results despite overwhelming obstacles. In their young lives they were already well acquainted with obstacles. Serena Williams, the tennis superstar, also inspires them because she directly responds in public to the same obstacles they personally face.

These young, Egyptian girls expressed the importance of a person’s hard work and talent being supported, not just success, and obstacles acknowledged. They already had the experience of being praised when they won and demonized when they lost. They also faced having their appearance be a focus in a variety of places in their lives.

Better inclusion happens better and faster with role models and champions in and outside the household. Jabeur’s mother introduced her to tennis and encouraged her to move to attend the specialized sports high school. One of the young girls I spoke with was the niece of Egypt’s first female iron man athlete. Another who met Salah through playing football in Egypt expressed how supportive he was to young, female football players. Both had role models and champions and faced obstacles in and outside the household.

“If you can leave, you do,” one said to me. Arab societies and economies lose hard working, talented people of all kinds to much larger economies all the time. The mother of one young girl has encouraged her daughter to move abroad to better develop her career. Egypt is losing this young, promising talent, a thoughtful, well-spoken, impressive Egyptian.

Jabeur and Hemida give Arabs joy, pride and hope. They do what so many hope for – an opportunity to translate hard work and talent into what is individually meaningful despite overwhelming obstacles. To drive things forward, Arab economies and societies need to demonstrate more of this. Economic advice for Arab countries often focuses on stopping privilege by starting at the top, working with the government to tackle the ways privilege happens. This is important but addressing privilege is only a part of presenting opportunities. Smart strategies and interventions can help. Attitudes, perceptions, behaviors, and culture will change, especially when that is the intentional goal. So very much of what is important is being lost by never coming to be. At least this week, Arabs had two very good reasons to have hope. 

Dr Iris Boutros is an economist and strategist. She focuses on behavior, the brain, and the body. 

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Iris Boutros is an economist and strategist. She focuses on growth, impact investment, and decision-making. Follow her on Twitter @irisboutros