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How Womena is amplifying the voices of trailblazing Arab women

How Womena is amplifying the voices of trailblazing Arab women

“We are a purpose-driven organisation and so ‘People’ and ‘Purpose’ will always be above ‘Profit’,” says Womena’s Elissa Freiha

Neesha Salian
womena Elissa Freiha

Tell us about the inspiration behind founding Womena and the mission that drives your work.

The inspiration behind founding Womena was the obvious need to create a platform that supported the community that I was a part of and represent – Arab women. The community back then was already very underserved and disenfranchised, which as an Arab woman myself, I saw could be elevated by highlighting the many aspects of our lives that needed to be either supported or communicated in a way that was authentic, nuanced, and specifically tailored to our culture.

Womena’s platform focuses on amplifying the voices of trailblazing women and men. How do you select and curate stories that align with your mission of celebrating diversity and dismantling stereotypes?

Womena looks for stories that will not only inspire our current community but also the following generation of trailblazers. What we want to do is provide a platform that highlights the incredible work and stories which are often overlooked in favour of sensationalising stereotypes of the region.

In our selection process, we choose people who are ‘real’ and stories that have substance. We must choose people who have forged paths that tend to differ and deviate from the socially accepted and expected paths that we’re told we need to take. Ideally what Womena wants to do with its content is to expand the breadth of choices that our community sees are available and then empower them to make decisions that are authentic to their individuality.

We highlight and amplify voices to empower more authentic choices so that they can live a more fulfilling and satisfying life.

Womena produces a wide range of content, including documentaries, articles, podcasts, and photography. Can you share some notable examples of content that has had a significant impact in promoting social change and empowering your audience?

What’s remarkable at the core of the mission of Womena is that impact drives our decision-making.

We are a purpose-driven organisation and so ‘People’ and ‘Purpose’ will always be above ‘Profit’. We not only measure the impact that each piece of content has but also prove the positive overall impact it has on our entire community, the more they watch and consume our content.

Some great examples include our current podcast such as Eh El-E’laqa?, featuring Mint and Omar Samra, an amazing Egyptian married couple who are speaking in a way previously unheard of in our culture and region.

They speak about love, marriage, and their relationship; and the vulnerability and honesty that they bring to this content has inspired countless individuals to rethink their relationships and marriages to have a more healthy framework for choosing their right partner.

Another example would be a recurring series we have in Womena called Boo 3al Taboo, which is a commentary Youtube series hosted by UAE-based Lebanese influencer Stephanie Haddad, which aims to break down modern conventional taboos that our society tends to operate under.

Also, much simpler, are our photojournalism stories as well. Our audio photo series highlights disenfranchised communities that are often ignored or do not reach the eyes of mainstream media which includes stories of varied communities of women including niche groups of skateboarders, kite surfers, surfers, and scuba divers in our region.

What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered in your journey of creating compelling women-focused content, and how have you overcome them?

There are two main challenges that we’ve encountered as we have created this platform.

The first is that it’s very difficult in a society that prioritises, for lack of a better word, “fluff” and “feel good” or “fear-based” storytelling. It’s difficult to then tell more profound stories, that have more emotion, that are more complex and to convince sponsors and partners to financially support us along this journey.

It seems, at times, that supporting change-centered companies like ours, is not the priority of mainstream brands when choosing where to put their marketing budget. Secondly, the challenge that we’ve encountered is finding individuals who are willing to speak honestly and openly about their experiences to a wide audience as we come from a culture that holds family, honor, and privacy at a high value. A lot of women are intimidated or scared to speak on a public platform about their experiences.

As a platform, we are proud that after 10 years of being in this space, Womena now has the legitimacy and the unequivocal trust of its community to have their backs. This allows them to speak their most authentic truth, knowing that we are not there to profit or exploit them.

Share some success stories or instances where Womena’s content and initiatives have made a tangible difference in the lives of the women and men you aim to empower.

I wish I could publish an entire book of success stories that we feel have come from the direct consumption of our content. Not an exaggeration, we have tracked these stories directly as they were told to us by our community. Women who have been allowed to study outside of their country and sent to Ivy League schools because of the success stories that we feature on our platforms. The hope that those stories gave to families who were previously overprotective over their female members, resulted in note-worthy instances including one of a young woman who could pursue her education at MIT.

Other stories are about women who feel empowered to take leaps of faith in their careers and leave comfortable corporate or government jobs for a path of entrepreneurship. We have women who write to us, happy to finally feel that they are seen and heard because a story that we told resembles their own and now can find the support that they need to help them get out of a difficult situation or to address complicated situations with their friends, family and community in a more educated way.

Not only that but on a more quantitative aspect, Womena has been able to funnel hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars into women-led organisations and companies and we’ve been able to provide a level of support that was previously unheard of.

How can individuals and organisations collaborate with you to support and contribute to your efforts in amplifying diverse voices and narratives?

There are many ways to support Womena and its initiatives but the primary way of offering support is to help us produce and distribute the game-changing content that we are making.

As mentioned, brands, organisations, and governments will very often go towards traditional corporate or production companies to showcase their brand through traditional content types. It would help if brands would only look at us and see that not only are they able to elevate the visibility of their company in the eyes of their target audience but are also able to legitimately support Arab women in a tangible, measurable and positive way.

Potentially only a few platforms globally can offer the services that we do with the direct positive impact that we can see attached to it.
Other ways that brands can get involved include potentially pro bono and free spaces since we are an independent content and media platform, doing what we do to drive a positive change.

For individuals or organisations looking to make a positive impact in the field of gender diversity and empowerment through media and storytelling, what advice would you give them based on your experiences with Womena?

My advice would be to stay as authentic as possible. When we come to the table and are truthfully honest about our struggles, our insecurities, our accomplishments, and our experiences, we are laying the groundwork for others to do the same.

So when the narrative of our experiences has been written for us by others for such a long time, nothing is more powerful than taking ownership of our stories and publicly sharing them because people are listening and are desperate to feel seen and heard in their struggles.

Hence my advice would be to take ownership and share because no matter how unique our struggles seem, we are a community.

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