An advocate for the empowerment of Arab women and founder of ‘Challenge to Change’, Dina Bseisu

Despite the tides of change starting to reach the shores of the Middle East, obstacles remain in place in the region’s constitutions in terms of women’s status. To mention a few, issues such as citizenship rights of their children, divorce, inheritance and mental health matters are still prevalent these modern times.
Gender equity, which refers to the fairness of treatment for men and women, is perhaps what most women aspire to in the Arab world. But for many, this goal is not entirely possible, at least not yet. We interviewed Dina Bseisu, a woman entrepreneur driven with conviction, as she talks briefly about her career journey and the initiative to promote women empowerment and provide a support system for Arab women in need of assistance.
Where did you graduate from?

Duke University in the US with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Economics and I also acquired my Master of Science in Foreign Service from Georgetown University. 

You have quite an extensive experience in private banking, spanning more than two decades and have worked with various leading international banks from Geneva in Switzerland. Was it your dream to pursue a career in this industry?

I found myself in banking entirely by coincidence.  I completed my BA one semester earlier than planned, so I returned to Bahrain and worked as an intern for Citibank.  It was supposed to be a temporary job before resuming my higher studies in law at Duke University. That temporary job turned out to be a successful career for me.

In 2018, you established your company AWE Consult here in Bahrain. What is exactly its purpose?

AWE Consult is a Bahrain based, expert training and development consultancy and solutions provider. We deliver authentic, proven and diverse courses and programs to help individuals and organizations achieve excellence.

What have you observed on the aspect of women entrepreneurship in the Kingdom of Bahrain nowadays?

The Bahraini woman has always been a pioneer in the Gulf region.  We were among the first to take the lead in education, employment, entrepreneurship, and politics. Today is just a progression of what Bahraini women had started decades ago.

As a passionate advocate for the empowerment of Arab Women, you founded ‘Challenge to Change’ (C2C) in 2014, with a clear purpose to serve as the region’s enabling network for women. Tell us what motivated you to start this initiative?

I founded ‘Challenge to Change’ out of a deep conviction that the most significant challenges Arab women face are emotional, psychological, familial and social. C2C provides these women with support programs and the tools to embrace these challenges and turn them into growth opportunities.

A woman’s spinal cord is her emotional wellbeing, confidence, and faith in herself.  Most women’s support programs focus on academic, professional, and vocational development. These programs strengthen the limbs only, and not the backbone. We are here to enhance the backbone.

What were the challenges you faced during the early days of C2C?

Our biggest challenge is the stigma around emotional and psychological struggles.  Often, there is very little understanding from family and society, which makes women find it hard to open up and share their problems.  This makes them feel alienated, alone and ashamed, further exacerbating their struggle. The actual impact of our life-changing programs on our beneficiaries and the positive transformation in their lives are slowly, but surely, eradicating this stigma.

What are some of the notable milestones your organization has achieved?

To name a few, we have:

• Empowered over 2,000 women from 7 Arab countries with concrete and measurable impact on their lives

• Helped marginalized and disenfranchised young women

• Our workshops, mentoring and coaching programs  are now supported by 100+ influential mentors, coaches, and counselors

• Launched life-changing programs that include mentoring and coaching, employability and work-readiness, capacity building workshops

• About to start our most exciting program yet –  SheCodes – a program that aims to equip women with coding and programming so that they may keep up with the rapidly-changing digital world of  today

• Registered our association in Geneva, Switzerland and have grown to a 10-women team

Just last year, the Saudi Government made a bold move of granting women the privilege to take the wheels and drive cars – opening a new era of gender awareness within the conservative kingdom. What’s your opinion on this remarkable feat in the history of Arab women?

Every important journey starts with the first step. This endeavor by the Saudi leadership is indeed a remarkable step.  Saudi women are intelligent, strong and inspirational.  This move is just a stepping stone for them to realize their real potential.

From a development and foreign policy perspective, how would you define gender equality and empowerment?

I prefer to use the term “complementarity” rather than “equality.”  Women and men complement each other and what we see today is women playing a proactive role alongside men in all facets of life and on the international arena.  Both genders contribute in their respective areas of strength.  This is a formula for a better world.

In recent years, there’s been an aggressive push to increase access to education, capital, and other resources, generate new opportunities for women and raise awareness about the social, economic and political importance and impact of women in leadership. Do you think these policies and programs have been effective in general?

Yes – today there are more women leaders, CEOs and business owners across the globe. Their impact is changing the way politics is run, and business is conducted, leading to concrete and measurable positive results.

Shifting gears a bit, how might an increase in women leaders and empowered women in general impact the social constructs of society-at-large? 

Men’s genetics tend to make them more competitive and aggressive than women in the workplace. These are positive traits and foster a competitive and results-oriented environment. Women, on the other hand, bring empathy, intuition, and compassion to society as a whole, and the workplace in specific — their emotional intelligence, passion and caring nature help to create a healthier community and well-rounded workforce.

Expanding on the previous question, some believe that this focus on women’s empowerment and gender equality has had the effect of emasculating men and creating a shift in gender roles, responsibility, and identity. Some even go so far as to argue that this shift is actually to the detriment of women who wish to remain the primary caregivers for their families and to families themselves, as traditional structures give way to dual working households. Do you agree or disagree?

I totally and categorically disagree. An empowered woman would not emasculate the men around her. On the contrary, she would be a better wife and mother and foster a healthier family environment. It is ignorance that emasculates, empowerment empowers!

On your second point, being a primary caregiver is a choice women make, regardless of whether they work or not.  There are many working mothers who are dedicated primary caregivers and there are many non-working mothers who abdicate their role to housekeepers and maids.  

In areas of the world where opportunities for women and girls are severely restricted and social norms and values are deeply entrenched, do you think substantial progress is possible or even desirable?

We support women who are surrounded by an extremely restricted patriarchal society.  We encourage them to embrace their circumstances and work on themselves so that they can be catalysts of positive change in their society. Our motto in Challenge to Change is a saying by Gandhi; “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  If we want to change our circumstances, we must change ourselves first.

What advice do you give to women who are struggling with mental issues?

I would tell them that mental health challenges are ‘not’ their fault.  They are illnesses just like diabetes or cholesterol. There is no shame in treating these, so why should there be shame around treating mental health disorders?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) statistics, mental health disorders are ranked among the most debilitating diseases today, alongside cancer and cardiac arrests. Women are twice as likely to suffer from them than men. Mental illness carries massive costs to families, workplaces and society as a whole. It is high time that we remove the stigma and shame around mental illness and encourage those who suffer from it to come forward and seek help.

Of all the countries in the region, Bahrain has always been at the forefront of women empowerment ever since. From your knowledge, what are the programs or reforms the government is currently implementing in support of women interests in the country?

The main pillar of women empowerment in Bahrain is the unequivocal commitment of HRH Shaikha Sabeeka Bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa.  The establishment of the Supreme Council for Women has created an official structure that enforces and supervises women empowerment.  Consequently, it has been adopted by most institutions as a core value and is non-negotiable.

Is there a female leader in your own life or profession who has influenced and deepened your understanding of women’s empowerment?

I would say, J.K. Rowling, the author of the “Harry Potter” series. Rowling was a single mother with no financial means to care for her child.  She was jobless and lived on child benefits. She also struggled with severe mental health challenges. She was deeply affected by the loss of her mother, and she was in total despair. Then one day, she was on a train and decided to write a story about a boy and wizard – and the rest is history! It was when she was at her lowest point that her biggest success story was written.

You are an effective female leader. What drives you?

I worked in the ‘money world’ for over 20 years.  I felt that there wasn’t much ‘soul’ in what I was doing.  What drives me today is to make a positive impact on the lives of Arab women and what propels me is the idea of creating wealth through building a legacy.

As someone who has successfully combined family life and career advancement, what are the key lessons you have learned?

I have learned that there is nothing that is beyond one’s reach.  The only obstacles we have are the obstacles within us and the negative narrative we tell ourselves.

What is your favorite book?

I’m an avid reader so I wouldn’t know where to begin, but on top of my head, I’d say “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

What is your favorite travel destination?

I love to travel and travel extensively. I guess I would say Switzerland because I lived there for a long time and I love both the mountains and the snow.

What message of solidarity would you give to the younger generations, be it men or women?

1. Don’t wait for change to happen.

2. Start with yourselves.

3. Be the change you want to see in the world.

4. Do what you love.

5. Follow your passion.

6. Have fun along the way.

What do you like the most about the Capital Club?

The Capital Club is an exclusive place where intelligent, successful people meet to exchange ideas. The Capital Club global network gives me an office and conference rooms in various countries.  I find the quality of the talks, speakers, and panels exciting and enlightening.  It is a tranquil and comfortable place for me to work and have meetings.

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