World and Media aims to support journalists to improve media coverage of global development issues. It should not be surprising that we are highly critical of the quantity and nature of media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In common with most war reporting, media convey a distorted image of both Palestinians and Israelis. Acts of violence are highlighted, while normal life is sidelined, as are its voices. Joseph O’Connor travelled to the West Bank where he met a number of inspiring female entrepreneurs, among them the co-founder of a start-up providing therapy to the Arab world.
'Making it' as a female entrepreneur in Palestine is no mean feat. In fact, merely existing as any kind of entrepreneur poses particular challenges due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For instance, there is currently no 3G network available in Palestine. The Government of Israel controls mobile networks there and has still to grant 3G licences to Palestinian operators. Businesses can invest in better connections inside their offices but they’re expensive, certainly for cash-strapped start-ups or SMEs.
There is also the challenge of restrictions on movement. It’s difficult for Palestinians to travel freely to and from the West Bank and Gaza, while receiving visitors can prove complicated too. There’s no airport in Palestine and without Israeli ID, Palestinians have to fly out of Jordan and then undertake an arduous three-hour journey through the Jordanian border to come home, and these are just the lucky ones that can obtain travel visas. Then there’s the various checkpoints scattered across Palestine that make the most basic journey feel like an eternity.
However, the situation in the Fatah-controlled West Bank is very different to that in Hamas-controlled Gaza; the latter is still recovering from its 50-day war with Israel in 2014.
It is to Ramallah in the West Bank, which serves as the de facto administrative capital of Palestine, where I focus my attention. It’s there that I meet a number of female entrepreneurs who seem undeterred by the social, political and cultural barriers that surround them.
One of those is Mays Attari, who could be described as half-entrepreneur, half-philosopher. Still a student at Birzeit University, the 23-year-old from Jenin is co-founder of Fadfid, an online psychotherapy platform that connects patients seeking expert psychological therapy to specialists across the Arab world.
Launched last year, the idea allowed Attari and her business partner, Mohammad Abuqrae, to enter Palestine’s first start-up incubator programme called Fastforward and receive funding of $50,000. Now approaching her final weeks in university where she is studying a major in computer engineering and a minor in philosophy, Attari tells me that when people are just coding and dealing with ones and zeros, they become machines. “We need to connect that with humanity,” she says. And that’s just what she has achieved with Fadfid.
We meet at Fastforward’s co-working space called e-zone, located in a bright, airy office where young Palestinians beaver away on their start-up projects. In a scene resembling one you’d discover among the cluster of tech enterprises in the Dublin Docklands, Attari tells me about the prevalence of stigma in Palestine when it comes to seeking professional help for mental health. “We face many problems but most never consider therapy as an option. This is something we considered. We believed we could create therapy services where you can keep your privacy, one where you talk to a professional therapist through an online portal. We started to experiment at university and found that there was a big demand for the service.”
So what’s in the name? The word 'Fadfid' is Arabic for 'to vent' and that’s precisely what Attari wants her clients to do. “You don’t have to have a big problem,” she says. “Just talk. We’re here to listen.” And with 13 therapists working for the start-up - all on a voluntary basis - Fadfid is equipped to cope with the initial demand. In 18 months of operation more than 500 sessions have been conducted. The budget for marketing has dried up and they are yet to profit from the business but it’s still early days and they’ve had plenty of interest from investors thus far (Attari and Abuqrae have already pitched to investors in Silicon Valley and Jordan).
While capital might be scarce, one thing Attari doesn’t lack is motivation. When she recalls what she deems the most significant moment so far for her start-up, it becomes clear that she is driven by altruism. “I received a phonecall at midnight from an Egyptian girl who told me that she needed a session immediately. I told her that it wasn’t possible but she pleaded with me. So I contacted one of the therapists in Jordan and asked her for a favour for me, not for Fadfid. I told her that we needed a session right away. She asked me to give her 10 minutes and she’d be online.
“And we made it happen! A Jordanian therapist provided a session for an Egyptian client and we connected them in Palestine. It was great. At that moment I called everyone I know and said, 'We made it!'”
The talent and determination of young female entrepreneurs like Attari is something recognised by Doa Wadi, Executive Director of the Business Women Forum-Palestine (BWF), an NGO that promotes the importance of women entrepreneurs in advancing sustainable economic development in Palestine. “Entrepreneurs are risk-takers,” she says. “They think big. They see opportunities that regular people don’t see and many women here are managing to step out from the crowd and push the challenges aside.
“Women in general, all over the world, face almost the same obstacles but with Palestine under occupation there are even more obstacles and burdens here. Business needs free movement and we don’t have that. Women suffer moving from one place to another, even if it’s not a regular checkpoint, just a pop-up one. It can turn a trip that usually takes 30 minutes into one that takes three hours. From Ramallah you might reach Jordan before you do Bethlehem.”
However, according to Wadi, significant progress has been made by women representative groups and co-operatives in recent years in highlighting the importance of education and business opportunities for women in Palestine. This, she says, has helped to counter some of the social pressures faced by women in terms of marrying young and starting a family. She also says that with women accounting for more than 50 per cent of university graduates in a society with a significantly high rate of unemployment, they need to be encouraged to start their own business, something the BWF continues to lobby the Government on. “We don’t want it to be tackled as a donor buzzword; a topic they talk about today but tomorrow they move on to something else. We don’t need to be a trend. We need more incentives for women.”
Wadi speaks with great passion when she shares the stories of some of the entrepreneurs that have come through BWF, like the woman who began producing olive oil soap from her kitchen table in Nablus and who now exports her products to Japan. Or the two entrepreneurs from Bethlehem and Ramallah who last year showcased their embroidered clothes and accessories at the UN headquarters in New York during Fashion Week. It proves that a good idea along with determination and a little support can truly break barriers.
“Palestinian women are survivors,” she declares. “Palestinian women are stubborn beyond all the obstacles and challenges they face, that they survive. And not just survive, they become stars. There are a lot of successful Palestinian female role models that travel across the globe and speak about what they’ve been through. How they started out with just 300 sheckels but now export to countries throughout the world.”
Three Other Palestinian Female Founders to Watch
Abeer Abu Ghaith
Abeer Abu Ghaith is the founder of StayLinked, an internet employment brokerage and software development firm which she runs from her home in Dura in the southern West Bank. Branded as Palestine’s first female high-tech entrepreneur, the 30-year-old was recently listed as one of the world's 100 Most Powerful Arab Women by CEO Middle East magazine. Last year she was named best technology enabler and facilitator at the Women in Technology Awards for the Middle East and Africa.
Maysa Alshaer is a social media specialist and designer based in Ramallah who is bringing her unique brand of greeting cards to the Arab world through her start-up, the Loz Greeting Cards Project. The 24-year-old is a multimedia graduate of Arab American University in Jenin. This year Alshaeer was part of a Bethlehem trade delegation visiting the UK, where she received entrepreneurial advice from mentors at the University of Bath’s Innovation Centre. The visit came as a result of winning the 2015 Young Palestinian Entrepreneur competition.
Alaa Shaheen is a software engineer from Nablus who is working on her third start-up, TravelOut, an app which aims to help people travelling from abroad to the Middle East and North Africa region. A computer engineering graduate from An-Najah National University, 23-year-old Shaheen identified a gap in the market, believing that more information is needed for tourists about the kind of activities available in the region.
Joseph O'Connor travelled to Palestine with support from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund, which is funded by Irish Aid. The fund was set up in memory of Irish journalist Simon Cumbers. In June 2004, at the age of 36, Cumbers was shot dead in Saudi Arabia while working with the BBC.