6 Activists and Social Entrepreneurs in the Forefront of Women’s Empowerment

Flickr/CC/Statsministerens kontor

By Minji Hong

To this day, gender inequality continues to plague the world with women still being at a disadvantage in many sectors of society. They constitute half of the world’s population, work two-thirds of the world’s working hours, whilst only earning 10 percent of the income. The Middle East and North Africa are no exceptions to this trend. In fact, research shows that in 2014, the region is furthest behind from the rest of the world in terms of the Global Gender Gap Index with its highest score below the regional averages for the other regions according to the World Economic Forum. But these female activists and social entrepreneurs are working to pave the way for women to break free from the shackles of traditionally male-dominant societies and realize their dormant potential. In the process, they themselves have become living manifestations of women’s empowerment.


Malala Yousafzai (Pakistan), Website, Blog, Instagram, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter

“I want to serve the people and I want every girl, every child, to be educated…”

You might think she is an average 18-year-old by the looks of her father’s tweet about being proud of her GCSE results. But of course, she is quite the opposite. Malala first gained worldwide prominence on October 2012 when the Taliban attempted to end her life for her heroic activism against the Islamic militants’ repression of female rights. It was the culmination of her advocacy for education for girls in Pakistan that began in 2009 as she wrote a blog for the BBC. Since then, she has earned countless titles, namely, Youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, Runner-up of Time’s “Person of the Year” in 2012, one of Time’s “100 Most Influential People In The World” in 2013, and in 2015, an asteroid was named after her! Now, Malala is also known as a co-founder of Malala Fund, a nonprofit organization geared towards empowering girls through education, initiating projects such as the opening of schools for Syrian refugee girls in Lebanon and Jordan.

Flickr/CC/Statsministerens kontor
Flickr/CC/Statsministerens kontor


Maysoun Odeh Gangat (Palestine), Website, Facebook, Twitter

“NISAA FM is all about inspiration and empowerment. Inspiration is very important in our society. Through airwaves we can share our experience and knowledge, and support women to realize themselves.”

Maysoun is the President of NISAA Radio Broadcasting Company and the founder and director of Radio NISAA FM, a women’s radio station based in Ramallah, Palestine. It is the first of its kind to be launched in the Middle East, run mostly by women, which aims to provide a platform to give voice to Palestinian women, as well as men, on issues that have an effect on their lives. Even the station’s name was specifically chosen as the word for women in Arabic. The discussions on the radio range from relatively innocuous questions like whether a man should help out more in the home, to more sensitive issues, such as honor killing and the culture of polygamy. To Gangat, the radio station, established in 2009,  is a way to break stereotypes of Arab women in a patriarchal society where women are still deemed as the subordinate gender. Starting with the honor she received from the Palestinian Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Gangat went on to achieve many recognitions for her innovative social entrepreneurship, namely being awarded as one of Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneurs of the Year 2015.


Haifaa al-Mansour (Saudi Arabia), Filmography, Facebook, Twitter

“I have a passion of telling stories, and I know that the stories of women in Saudi are untold.”


Haifaa al-Mansour is a film director with a unique background. She is from Saudi Arabia and the first female filmmaker in a country where public cinemas have been banned since the 1980s. After graduating from the film school at the University of Sydney, Haifaa received international recognition with the premiere of her documentary film “Women Without Shadows,” centered around the restrictive segregated lives of Arab women in Persian Gulf. Soon after in 2012, she made her feature film debut, “Wadjda,” which also revolves around a young Saudi girl dreaming of owning and riding a green bicycle. It entered for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards in 2014. Although at first, it was not intended for the 41-year-old filmmaker to focus her work on women’s issues, she found them too pressing an issue to address, and they continue to be the recurring theme in her films.

Flickr/CC/ Festival de Cine Africano de Córdoba
Festival de Cine Africano de Córdoba


Aysha Al Mudahka (Qatar), Website, Twitter, LinkedIn

“My whole career is about contributing to Qatar’s societal improvement. I want to make a difference to the people of Qatar. My position at QBIC is not only a job; it’s a cause.”

Aysha Al Mudahka is more than the CEO of Qatar Business Incubation Center, a national organization aimed to provide a long-term support system for startups in Qatar. She is also a young female Qatari social entrepreneur with an extensive leadership experience in the field. Aysha rose to prominence by co-founding the Roudha Center with the aim to foster innovative entrepreneurship among women. Her commitment to women’s empowerment essentially began at the Qatar Finance and Business Academy in 2009, where she oversaw the development of various programs such as “Women in Business.” In 2014, she represented QBIC and the State of Qatar during Women’s Entrepreneurship Day at the UN Headquarters in New York. Her efforts do not stop here. As one of the board members at INJAZ Qatar, Her contributions extend to her advocacy for youth development as a means to combat high youth unemployment in the Middle East, passion for which she cultivated through her study abroad experience at The Wharton School.


Maria Umar (Pakistan), Website, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn

“The glass ceiling is the ability to visualize getting to the top but not reaching there. In Pakistan for female entrepreneurs, you can neither see what it looks like nor aspire to be something you cannot imagine.”

Maria’s trials as one of the pioneers of a so-called female entrepreneurial revolution are indeed internationally recognized as she continues to manifest her passion for women’s empowerment in her exhaustive efforts to create work opportunities for Pakistani women. Her journey began when she was fired from her teaching position at a private school where she had worked for 3 years before giving birth to her child. Today, she is known as the founder and president of The Women’s Digital League, a company founded in 2009 that strives to train Pakistani women in remote areas of the country in various micro IT tasks, such as social media management. The issue in Pakistan is that not many women get to put the education they received into use in the job market. Now, the company has extended its area of focus to the world and to the other gender by renaming the company to The Digital League, whilst the Women’s Digital League remains an integral project of the company.


Lubna Olayan (Saudi Arabia), Website,


“You need two hands to clap. It is a natural progression and a natural fit of the building of a society.”

Trinity College, Dublin wasn’t wrong when it awarded the 60-year-old Saudi businesswoman an honorary law degree in 2011 for being a “role model for women in the Middle East.” Indeed, selected as one of Forbes’ top 100 most powerful women in the world in 2015, Lubna is famous for, in 2004, being the first woman in Saudi Arabia to give an opening keynote address at a major conference in the country. She is the CEO of the Olayan Financing Company (OFC), one of the largest investors in local and regional stock markets under Olayan Group, a family-run company founded in 1947. Her efforts to empower women began in 1983 when she joined the family business at a time where very few Saudi women had corporate positions. She set a striking path for other Saudi women when she became the first woman to be elected to a board position in the country in 2004. Moreover, she created the Olayan National Women’s Action for Recruitment and Development (ONWARD) the same year with an ambitious goal to have a total of 1000 female employees on board by 2016 in all 30 of the OFC’s companies. Her impressive achievements as a trailblazer at the trenches in the combat for women’s empowerment do not stop here. She was also previously an analyst at J.P. Morgan and is currently a member of the International Business Council of the World Economic Forum.