Introduction

Amani El Tunsi is empowering women to overcome difficult life challenges by creating a safe space to talk about taboo subjects and providing women with tools and resources to make changes.

Amani is countering regressive ideologies that threaten women’s status in Egypt at a critical time. By creating a safe space for educated girls and women to discuss taboo subjects that is fully operated by and for women, she is providing them with a new channel to not only speak about silenced topics but to also receive guidance to specific challenges they are facing and tangible solutions to their problems. Further, she has created a powerful network of women that provide resources and opportunities for young women to be equipped with tools and confidence to make life-changing decisions.

Creating a program that empowers women personally, medically, and legally, Amani’s multi-faceted work responds to women’s fears, provides them with knowledge and refers them to specialized places for additional help. These pieces come together to provide women with the opportunity to overcome their problems and gain the confidence they need to feel empowered. Her work helps women change their predicaments by not accepting the traditions and norms that make them second-class citizens but provides them with a sense of self and responsibility for their actions. Further, her work is creating a new generation of girls in Egypt that are defined as having a strong locus of control. In turn, her work is re-defining the role of women in Egyptian society by allowing them to counter the deep rooted and outdated notions by expressing openly their liberal views.

Amani’s work is filling a large gap within the citizen sector that many other citizen sector organizations in Egypt that focus on women could not fill. As she helps women change their predicaments, she is creating a network of strong, capable women who have the tools and resources to empower the women around them. Her work is expanding to influence young girls in primary schools and is providing young girls with critical employment skills. Amani’s work has already spread beyond Egypt to other Arab nations including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. She has plans to expand to her operations at a global level.

Women in Egypt commonly face struggles related to marriage, divorce, sexual harassment, spinsterhood, drug addiction, etc. These taboo issues and are not openly discussed subjects nor are they deemed appropriate to discuss within the family. Without a space to talk about these issues or other sensitive challenges, women have to deal with and navigate these challenges isolated from help, feedback, and positive reinforcement. Further, in a society that still views women as unequal to their male counterparts, women lack the self-awareness and confidence to speak up and have their voices heard. Due to this environment, young girls—even educated girls—live in an atmosphere that crushes their needs, denies them of their rights, and refrains from offering solutions to their problems.

Unlike the popular phone/internet hotlines in Western countries available for young women to discuss issues they are uncomfortable discussing with their families or peers, Egypt and the Arab world have not adopted this approach. This is due in part to the lack of freedom for authors to publish content regarding sensitive subjects as publishers are unwilling to publish and distribute literature by authors that write about controversial issues, not wanting to jeopardize their business or be shut down by the government.

Another reason that women do not have the space to discuss the sensitive issues they face is due to the fact that the Arab media is a male dominated field and lacks women’s perspective. To date, the media still portrays females as sinners and subordinates. This translates into the public inequality of men and women in society. Disparities exist even between young children in the way girls and boys are raised in Egypt. From a very early age, girls encounter many discriminatory practices as they grow up, even ranking lower than their male siblings and treated as subordinates within the family. They are overburdened by household chores and the care of younger children and elderly family members. They have less freedom to be outside the house and are discouraged from being active in social services and employed in many male-dominated fields. It is difficult for girls and women in Egypt to get out of this cycle and have a sense of self or even pursue their own interests.

The core of Amani’s idea is to educate and empower young women so that they can prosper by providing them with the knowledge and resources to gain control over their lives. Amani’s model includes four components: (1) a website and radio station, (2) a rehabilitation center, (3) a publishing house, and (4) a program to prepare girls to enter the workforce in the media/communications sector. All four of these elements are essential pieces of her platform, Banat We Bas.

The first and primary component of Amani’s work is the website, which began as an online radio in April 2008. The radio station began as a space for girls and women to discuss sensitive subjects in their life which they have no other space to discuss. In the early stages of the platform, Amani found a team of 20 strong women who were also passionate about the future of Egypt. This team became some of her first volunteer reporters and program hosts on the station. The station airs programs that provide information that women cannot get elsewhere, such as “Mosh Kol Al-Teir” (Not all the Birds), a program that enablers listeners to talk about how men treat women and learn the latest tricks and strategies that men use to try to deceive women. Another program allows listeners to call in and specifically discuss their challenges regarding divorce, being a single mother, and unemployment. “Be Meet Ragel,” meaning Equivalent of 100 Men, is yet another program that focuses on helping women build self-confidence, anger management, and how to effectively communicate with others. Although the program is 100% catered for women, Amani does occasionally bring male guests on the show to provide their views. All programs that air on the radio are archived on the website so that viewers may return to the website and listen to a program at any time.

In addition to being cost effective, Amani decided to use an online radio because she knew that she would be able to reach a broader audience, including women who might shy away from calling in to a live program and women who are illiterate. Amani capitalized on the rising use of social media by creating tech-savvy ways of reaching her target group. The radio station allows young women to call in and ask questions, write to the website with their challenges, and engage in the programs anonymously as well as the option to speak personally after the program. For many, this is the only opportunity they have to seek advice and encouragement about the difficult challenges they are facing in their lives. In the first week, Amani’s page had 15,000 visitors, indicating a real, immediate demand for the information she was offering. In 4 years, Amani had 5 million people accessing her website and listening to her 25 radio programs from across the Arab region, with 80% of listeners located in Egypt. The content of all the programs on the radio is collected and presented entirely by women.

The radio programs have gained regional appeal and are starting to also accommodate international audiences. Amani’s programs aired internationally on BBC and CNN, as they approached her about offering translated versions of her programs. She has recently hired two foreign journalists who address the problems faced by foreigners and other issues in the Arab World in English.

After launching the online radio in 2008, Amani’s audience began to ask for a phone number to call in and ask personal questions after a show aired. Amani quickly realized that in addition to a website, she needed a live forum for her audience to discuss the issues that are hushed everywhere else. She created an online communication forum for her listeners to interact with staff and each other outside of the radio programs.

It was reading the comments by these women that inspired Amani to launch the second part of her platform, a rehabilitation center exclusively for females called, “U-Turn.” Through U-Turn, she offers various types of supporting services to the challenges discussed on the radio. Amani relies on a vast network of volunteer professionals to provide individual help for the women at the rehabilitation center. For example, she uses support from pro-bono lawyers who take up divorce cases for women who need special legal advice. Doctors and counselors work with women who call in asking questions about sensitive health problems including harassment and drug addiction cases.  All of these volunteer professionals are women, many whom have faced similar challenges in their own lives. Additionally, the rehabilitation center offers self-defense courses for young women to be able to protect themselves.

The third component of Banat We Bas is the publishing house. It was established to complement her efforts in addressing taboo subjects, questioning the fears of society and altering the prevailing norms related to young women in Egypt. Amani works with authors who want to publish books that will help women and girls in Egypt. To date, the publishing house has distributed 70,000 copies from 70 different books.  The boldest book, which addresses homosexuals in Egypt, was one of the first books she published.  After this book was printed, very few bookstores would buy it because they were worried about selling a book with this sensitive subject matter.  Amani was able to find bookstores that would purchase the book only after she had put an ad on her website about the book. She personally delivered 5,000 books to interested buyers all across Egypt and continues to use her website to advertise for other books she publishes.

The final component of Amani’s platform is a program for primary and secondary school girls that she designed to prepare them for careers in media and communications.  Amani created a curriculum that is currently used in seven public schools that allows girls to learn computer skills, writing, design, and other skills that help them gain the needed confidence to be successful in the workforce, specifically within media-related jobs. The curriculum even allows the girls to gain first-hand experience by presenting a broadcast at their school.  The curriculum starts by bringing in professionals who have pursued different career paths to speak to the students about their experiences, using that as an entry point to present girls with the opportunity to pursue a career in media.  Students are selected and then trained to write scripts and run the equipment for a basic, five-minute news program. Amani is in the process of selecting the most talented girls from the  current students who have already been trained to present a program on the Banat We Bas radio station for 3 months. The students came up with a program called “Still in School” in which they plan to discuss issues that young girls face in their daily interactions at school.

Amongst the numerous personal and professional challenges that Amani has successfully overcome, was the financial difficulty she faced to establish her radio in 2008.  All Government organizations along with international donors refused to support her idea, worried that it was too controversial or that there wouldn’t be a demand for it. Amani initially financed Banat We Bas through a personal loan but currently relies heavily on advertisements on the radio program as well as book sales from the publishing house for financial support.

Another crucial challenge that Amani faced was the way the National Security dealt with her to ensure that she abide with their regulations and avoid airing taboo subjects related to religion, politics and sex. During the revolution in early 2011, without orders from their superiors, officers from the National Security broke into the station and stole much of the equipment and arrested Amani for three days. After she was released, National Security officials denied that they had anything to do with the loss of her equipment and her alleged arrest. Although this was a difficult experience for Amani, it eventually led to more publicity and support for her work. Within just a few months, the radio station was re-launched and running all 25 programs. Since the Arab Spring, Amani has continued to gain support. She has expanded her program to cater to women across the Arab world and is currently working on publishing her programs in other languages, including English, so as to expand to other countries.

Since an early age, Amani knew that she would have to take a stand for what she believed in. When she was just nine years old, she decided to stop going to school because her teacher mandated that she wear a veil, which she objected. After confronting her parents about the issue and filing a complaint, the teacher was transferred and Amani returned to school—without a veil. Wanting to be an artist and have a life different from what society expected her to have, Amani started working at the age of 16 with her uncle, an interior designer. Shortly thereafter she began to prepare to go to college to study art. On the day she was to take an exam to qualify for the School of Art and Design, however, Amani was robbed and beaten by two women on the street, leaving her physically unable to attend her exams. This was a major turning point in Amani’s life. Not only was she not able to go to art school, she was also confined by her parents to stay close to home and stop working with her uncle in efforts to keep her safe.

Less than a year after the incident, Amani decided to make a change, knowing that she couldn’t let the experience keep her from the life she wanted. Against her family’s will, she decided to leave home and work full time in another city and save money for her education. Amani worked in the city of Sharm El Sheikh, a tourist destination along the Red Sea, at a hotel. Knowing that she needed to continue working in order to have the financial means to pursue an education, she created a distance learning tool for herself and negotiated with a nearby university to allow her to study and complete coursework remotely. After Amani demanded to study using distance learning tools which she created, the university started allowing other students to send in their work and communicate with their professors online for the first time.

Amani continued to study Computer Science but new she needed to follow her passion for art. The combination of her passion and technical skills helped her to land several Creative Artistic Director roles at renowned magazines. By this time she had finally gained the confidence to pursue something that she knew she needed to do. Worried about the future of women in Egypt and wanting to provide girls with the things she wished she had had and known during her formative years, Amani created the online radio, Banat We Bas, in 2008 as a means to provide knowledge, support, and encouragement to girl in Egypt.

Amani’s work received much acclaim and criticism within Egypt. Shortly after creating the platform, she appeared on television programs and radio shows, talking about her work. Despite setbacks and with the newfound feminism spirit after the Arab Spring, Amani’s work has continued to grow and impact girls and woman across Egypt and other Arab nations.