Iman Bibars: A Life Dedicated to Women Empowerment

Monday May 13, 2018        By: May Allam

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When you talk about strong independent women, Dr. Iman Bibars comes to mind. The daughter of renowned author and journalist, Diaa El Din Bibars, worked her way all through collage defying her social status and raising eye brows, then, to the reason why a girl of her stature sought employment, while still a student. With four years’ experience in hand, and a degree in political science from the AUC, Bibars became valuable in the Egyptian job market in the 80s. She could have easily landed a dream job in any multinational bank or corporation, but instead she traveled to Minya in Upper Egypt to work with the Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

32378532_1802793993092620_3338446597070520320_nThe marginalization and women inequality, were her driving force to co-found the Association for The Development & Enhancement of Women (ADEW). ADEW was founded to empower impoverished female heads of household (FFHs) in underprivileged communities, economically, legally and socially. Additionally, Bibars became its chair, a position she still holds until today.

Bibars dedicated more than 30 years of her life advocating for women’s development nationally and internationally, working with UNICEF, Catholic Relief Services, CARE-Egypt, and others. Today, the social development expert is Vice President of Ashoka Global and Regional Director of Ashoka Arab World (AAW), which she launched in 2003. Ashoka is the largest network of social entrepreneurs in the world.

Women of Egypt: As a leader in the developmental field, what is the most interesting project you helped finance?
IB: In 1999, ADEW launched the “Girls’ Dreams” project, after realizing through its field research that 50% of ADEW beneficiaries’ daughters have dropped out of school. Through this program, ADEW seeks to teach the girls how to dream and enjoy their lives through a set of activities and programs that also help them build their self-confidence. That include health awareness programs, visiting libraries, drawing, sports and handicrafts to enable them to start up their small and medium size enterprise SMEs.

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We opened classrooms for the dropouts, with a capacity of 15 girls per class, and enrolled them back to school. The classrooms were opened in the same streets where they lived, to guarantee the sustainability of the program until they graduated.

 The program also aims to teach girls useful skills and offers them a healthy environment to share their problems and help them solve them. The program provides health awareness sessions and discussions about early marriage and FGM/C. Girls who complete the curriculum are given the chance to join a vocational training, literacy classes or sports training depending on their interests and skills.

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The vocational training aims at empowering them economically by providing them with the necessary skills and knowledge to enter the labor market. The literacy classes are offered to girls who dropped out of school and want to continue their education. Sports help girls to build their self-confidence, in addition to working on their capabilities to achieve results individually or within a team.

WOE: Do you feel women in Egypt have benefitted from their empowerment over the years or do they still have more potential?
IB: ADEW was established in 1984 – it was officially registered in 1987 – to empower poor FHHs economically, socially and legally. We discovered the phenomenon in Egypt and we were the first NGO to work with these women. We work at the grassroots with more than 360,000 FHHs, and we were the first NGO in the Arab world do that. ADEW was the first NGO in the Arab world to start micro finance projects.

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To us, empowerment meant giving women the right to choose. Before we started, divorced and widowed FHHs were left without any economic support. They had to re-marry to survive, which meant they were forced to marry anyone who would take them. In many cases, they also abandoned their children from previous marriages. With no other alternatives, given that they were illiterate and had no skills for the labor market, many worked as house help or sex workers.

Providing FHHs with micro-loans gave them a way out and a choice to “not marry” if they didn’t want to.  It also protected them from being exploited by their employers if they sought employment. To us, this is empowerment even if they continue to be poor.

In addition, work gave women who are married to a sick man, “Orzouki” or a man who does not provide for the family, more decision-making power within the family, even when it came to issues such as buying a washing machine, fridge or oven; it is her decision that rules. However, on a more policy level, there is a lot that needs to be done- and women’s situation has deteriorated since the Arab spring.

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ADEW was also the NGO that spearheaded the change in the nationality law to allow children of Egyptian mothers to carry the Egyptian citizenship. It was heart breaking to see the sufferings of these marginalized women, divorced or abandoned by their non-Egyptian husbands. They periodically had to renew their children’s residency and pay huge tuition for their education, as non-Egyptian children receive no Free State education. This led the women to force their children to drop out of school at an early age and marry their daughters at an early age. In 2004 the law passed. It was a collaboration between our efforts, the government’s and the media’s.

We were also the first to address the ID issues. We helped thousands of men and women from villages, with no resources to travel to the city center to issue their IDs or birth certificates for their children.

WOE: Which social development areas in Egypt are you interested in but have not financed projects there yet? What benefit will women incur from such projects?
IB: ADEW would like to work further in areas regarding domestic gender-based violence; a violation of human rights that impedes women’s development and participation in public life. Through ADEW’s work, we witness the aftermath of domestic gender-based violence and we have heard women’s stories and their urgent calls for help.

ADEW’s vision is to offer these women a set of grassroots services to empower them socially, economically and legally, to become independent active citizens. These services will also include legal assistance and domestic violence awareness programs to empower the marginalized women legally.

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WOE: Why did you write a book about President Barak Obama?
IB: When Obama was elected, I was so touched; I felt that the world is fair, that a good man with real core values has won because the old, the poor and the youth chose him. I felt that my faith in democracy was restored. I also wanted to speak to the Arabs that they should not think he is coming to solve their problems. I wanted them to realize that they have to solve their own problems.

WOE: What are your dreams and aspirations for women in Egypt?
IB: I have many dreams. I hope to improve the personal status law to protect the children. I also wish that the government and the parliament would not submit to the “Salafi” pressures. I hope that we do not lose the small gains we won since 2000. I hope that society, men and women, more than the government, learns to respect women and to treat them equally. I hope that women representation in the parliament reaches 50%, women that are not there just to fill a quota, but who are educated, aware and real feminists. I hope for 50% of the judges in Egypt to be women.

WOE: Has the media in Egypt helped promote your work?
IB: ADEW works to raise awareness and promote change through its strategic use of media, producing marketing materials and its effective use of advocacy, sponsoring conferences and roundtable discussions.  ADEW’s advocacy strategy includes national conferences and roundtables, media campaigns and printed documentation. Since its establishment in 1987, ADEW has been lobbying key policy makers and encouraging the media to acknowledge the problems faced by poor FHHs and marginalized women in Egypt’s poorest areas.

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ADEW produces numerous publications documenting women’s issues. This includes a newsletter, Women’s Stories, a publication that records tales of life in Cairo’s squatter communities. ADEW also prints flyers, posters and cards that promote its causes and advocate for more gender-sensitive approaches to assist in the development of public policies.

WOE: Are you comfortable with the progress women in Egypt are making?
IB: In spite of the progress achieved regarding the status of women in Egypt over the past few years, Egyptian women still struggle in various aspects; the most notable is sexual and domestic gender-based violence. This is an issue I would love to witness progress in. We are proud to say that we have the only shelter in Egypt for abused women, House of Eve.

WOE: What areas do you feel Egyptian women need more empowerment?
IB: In Egypt’s most impoverished areas, traditions and the patriarchal structure of the society institutionalize male dominance. Males (fathers, brothers and/or husbands) exercise full control over women’s lives, dictating their activities and behaviors. Thus, society grants men the right to use whatever needed tools to attain women’s obedience.

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Many of the tools used violate women’s basic human rights. As per the “Economic Opportunity for Gender-based Violence” study conducted by the CAPMAS in 2015, 30.4% of Egyptian women have experienced violence, either by the husband, fiancé, a family member or in public spaces. Around 46% of women who have been married have been subject to psychological, physical and sexual violence perpetrated by their husbands. According to the same study, psychological violence is the most common type of violence in Egypt as 42.5% of women have experienced it domestically.

Factors such as economic conditions, family dysfunction, inadequate communication skills, economic dependency and lack of spirituality trigger gender-based violence. Women’s exposure to this domestic gender-based violence has many destructive consequences aside from the physical injuries, of which some are fatal. Women’s psychological injuries are severe and long lasting as they lose self-confidence, feel humiliated, feel worthless and live in constant exhaustion, fear, and isolation.  Aside from the housing and the economic independence problems, there is a lack of comprehensive integrated services for abused women and their children such as counseling and economic empowerment services.

Dr. Iman Bibars holds a PhD in Development Studies from Sussex University and a BA and MA in Political Science from American University in Cairo. She was a Peace Fellow at Georgetown University Center of Contemporary Arab Studies Program and a Parvin Fellow at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

 She is a member of the Clinton Global Initiative. She published the first book written in Arabic about President Barak Obama.

Check The Association for  Development and Enhancement of  Women Facebook page here 

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