Last month, at a conference in Beirut, I was fortunate to meet Eman AbdElRahman, founder of Kolena Laila (“We are all Laila”), an Egyptian initiative started in 2006 to devote a day, annually, to speak up about the problems facing oppressed women in the Arab region. In the past four years since Kolena Laila’s inception, it has grown to involve bloggers from most countries in the region, with around 150 participants in 2008.
I spoke to Eman about her hopes for Kolena Laila in the future.
Jillian York: What exactly prompted you to start Kolena Laila?
Eman AbdElRahman: I was talking to another blogger, Shaimaa Samir, and suddenly we found ourselves complaining about the same frustrations due to limitations applied by the society on us (as females). So I asked her, “What if the society woke up one day to find out that all females decided to speak up together.
and we decided that the first step can be in the blogosphere?” That night, we were in a virtual meeting with other 3 girls we’ve recommended.. and that was it, we put the plan and started working. Along with myself, the other founders are Mariam El Naqr, Zeinab Samir, Hagar el Tarabishy and Shaimaa Samir.
JY: You’re coming up on the fourth annual Kolena Laila day. What have you learned from the past 3 years and what do you hope to accomplish this year?
EA: I learnt that changes comes slowly.. and that the problems we suffer from now, are not just male-female struggle, but rather more of social issue that needs to be dealt with by the entire society.
I wish Kolena Laila to flourish more in the Arab world – so it can turn into linking efforts between similar organizations, campaigns, initiatives.. etc , advocating and encouraging women’s freedom of expression.
JY: How many women (and men) are involved in Kolena Laila each year?
In 2006, our main theme was speaking up! Five female bloggers from Egypt organized it, and about 70 female bloggers participated, with around 100 posts. We discussed topics from discrimination in upbringing to street harassment, and the initiative received reactions varying from sympathy and acknowledgment of problems to complete denial that such problems exist. In 2007, our main theme was Enabling Discussion, in 2008 it was to gather stories of women who don’t use the Internet. That year we grew to about 150 male and female participants, with about 350 posts published. I don’t have the statistics for 2009 yet, but instead of five organizers, we have 30+ from different countries in the region (instead of just Egypt), including Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya.
JY: What has been your experience in launching a project as large as this? Have you suffered any technical setbacks (filtering, DDoS attacks, hosting issues, etc)?
EA: Challenges we faced were mainly connected to synchronizing all volunteers’ work, as we’re each in a different country…also, trying to discuss all our different ideas and try to bring them closer.
JY: Do you have any advice for women in the Arab world in terms of getting started in building an online campaign or project?
EA: Just to be optimistic, and to keep going. There are frustrations they will face while working, but that should not affect their passion and dream. Networking is one of the most important things they should pay attention to. And should always have a list of close and “trusted” people, in different fields, to turn up to when they meet obstacles for advise. Always give credit to the ones who did something.. especially if it is volunteering work. To assign tasks to others, even small ones, but to make her team feel ownership of the campaign just like her.
Thanks to Eman for sharing her story. You can visit Kolena Laila online. The site is also available in Arabic.