This interview addressed Nashwa Habib’s long experience in supporting women entrepreneurs and helping them develop their skillset for more than two decades. Nashwa is particularly interested in gender and economic empowerment for Egyptian women. In addition, her experience went beyond Egypt, as she worked on the “Safe Cities for Women” program on three different continents, namely, Asia, Africa, and South America. Her focus, however, remains on Egypt, so she launched the first Egyptian network for entrepreneurs, called Women Entrepreneur Network (WEN) with support from the UNDP. This network undertook to become an information database for women entrepreneurs in Egypt. The network aspired to help women develop themselves, choose the right business environment for them, have access to all the relevant information, get in touch with the right people who support their businesses, secure financial and non-financial resources, and advocate for laws that would guarantee women’s economic success. Nashwa’s work also included awareness campaigns about women’s economic role in society in cooperation with entities like the Industries Union.
Nashwa believed in the importance of storytelling and documentation in changing women’s status quo. She gained experience in this area while working with creative women, in her interest in creative drama and the Women and Memory Forum itself twenty years ago. She started her work in development from Beni Suef in Upper Egypt, while studying for her degree at the Faculty of Commerce and Business Administration. While volunteering with World Vision, she met girls who help their families in their different activities, such as agriculture and fishing. She witnessed firsthand the discrimination that these girls face, which motivated her to continue working to support them. At the same time, she traveled to Cuba and Trinidad and Tobago with funding from the UN to be trained on supporting HIV+ women and sex workers, which, as she says, made her more well-acquainted with the power structures working against women in the world. When she was back in Egypt, she decided to continue developing herself, so she studied creative drama and psychodrama to help survivors of violence. She did a diploma on equality between the sexes from a Swiss university. When she returned to work at the Upper Egypt Association for Education and Development in the nineties, she found herself part of the alliance of Egyptian activist organizations who worked on training those interested in fighting all sorts of discrimination, thanks to support from the UNICEF. Nashwa then could see that women’s economic empowerment is one of the most paradigm-shifting aspects of women’s empowerment. Also, her study of gender at the American University in Cairo helped her devise a transformative approach to women’s economic empowerment, an approach she still follows to this day. Her approach tackles social problems as well as gender-based power structures that negatively impact women.
Nashwa worked on awareness campaigns that target men to draw their attention to the role they could play in helping women climb the corporate ladder in business. She also helped establish different initiatives for women entrepreneurs-to-be. She co-founded the first angel investment network in Egypt and the second in the Middle East, called Tia Angels, under the auspices of her WEN. Angel investors provide support and economic and psychological mentorship to new entrepreneurs. They also are a non-banking tool that could support women’s economic empowerment. With the scarcity of venture capitalists in Egypt and around the world, angel investors can affect change in the economy by deconstructing men’s hegemony over the economy. Entrepreneurship in general encourages innovation and creativity and works to find new solutions to increate productivity on the one hand, and to create new investment opportunities on the other.
In Nashwa’s opinion, Egyptian women are capable of innovation in different fields, unlike what is widely believed, that there are businesses where men excel, and others where women do. Women, however, are influenced by the nature of the economic activities in their governorates, so if commercial activities are more common, they tend to lean toward them. In some governorates, women increasingly work in businesses that require a simple skillset, like packaging. In addition, stereotypical ideas about other jobs that require a more complex skillset affect women’s opportunities of taking on these jobs. Traditions may prevent women from owning capital and investing it in projects, such as depriving women of their rightful inheritance, overburdening women with domestic work, and discouraging women from work after marriage. All these represent instances of masculine insecurity toward women having capital, thus, power. Nashwa also adds that there is no equal access to information among men and women, which affects women’s opportunities when owning capital. She says there is development in women’s status, but it is very slow. When considering initiatives like financial inclusion for instance, they have given women and young people a priority, but unwritten biases among bankers dictate the evaluation of economic feasibility of women’s projects in many cases. These biases can be seen among civil society organizations too, so men get twice or thrice the funding that women get.
Nashwa states that she did not face many of the impediments faced by her peers, as her family had always been supportive of her work. Her husband too, she says, was her greatest supporter. Her family always encouraged her to learn even during her summer vacations. They also supported her wish to travel and get to grips with other cultures. Church also played a role in Nashwa’s upbringing, as she realized early on the leading role of the church in development of Upper Egypt. Thanks to cooperation between Egyptian churches and the private sector, institutions like World Vision and Upper Egypt Development Associations were born. Nashwa met pioneers like Dr. Marie Asaad and Dr. Laila Iskandar. She says that she belongs to Dr. Laila Iskandar’s school of thought in development, where the private sector is engaged in the process of development.
Throughout her career, Nashwa’s husband always supported her. But her only impediment was perhaps not getting support from her work when she was trying to have children. Nashwa says this is a problem rooted in the fact that the law does not give women time off to try and expand their families in Egypt. Even time off taken to care for an elder parent is not taken easily, and the fact that women are mostly the ones who have to care for ailing parents is not taken into consideration.