Women and Environmental Leadership in Middle East – Rahilla Zafar

As an environmental student, often times I overlook the fact that not everyone is on the same page as me when it comes to environmental issues. I recently conducted a survey on student’s perspective on environmental sustainability and found that less than 30% of students at research institutes such as Penn actually understand what corporate sustainability means. It is often shocking to realize that like any professional fields, there are experts in the field and there is everyone else.

Today, I had the pleasure to sit in a talk by Rahilla Zafar, a graduate of Penn on her amazing journey through the Middle East and parts of Africa and her encounters with amazing women in these regions who are trying to bring about change. Change in terms of environmental perspective, women’s rights, conservation, business perspective, and social media.

Rahilla’s book, Arab Women Rising, in which she spotlights 32 women in various countries in these regions and how they are bringing about change. One example she pointed to is The Little Engineer, a education non-profit that started in Lebanon with the focus of teaching k-12 students the power of science and sustainability. Students learn about solar panels, robotics, energy and water grids and apply these learning into use through the various projects that the non-profit provides. Little Engineer is such as success that today it has become international in various countries such as Qatar and Egypt.

One key takeaway that I was surprised by during Rahilla’s conversation was the fact that she said that business man in the developed countries have a lot to learn from these Arab women. The fact that these women who often are from the middle class is able to learn not only the business issues but also the technology that is vital is something that is unique. Rahilla talks of how two stay at home mom in the Arab with the idea of turning plastic waste into fabric like materials to make goods was able to utilize social media and web design to beat out Harvard business grads, Wharton business grads, and other business proposals from Europe and Asia to win the endorsement of investors like the founder of LinkedIn.

As another person commented to Rahilla, the Chinese proverb that there is strength in lighting a dim candle in darkness. Often times, the media especially that outside of Arab would focus on the negatives of the region. Stories such as those that Rahilla highlights in her book are often ignored and this itself is unsustainable.


The Book Arab Women Rising which Rahilla co-write talks of a region on Earth that is often on the news but very little is known. The book features 32 women with a business perspective dealing with education, environmental issues, and conservation. One example is The Little Engineer which started in Lebanon but has today become international in countries such as Qatar and Egypt.


About t5huang

Masters in Environmental Science at UPenn Candidate
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