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Women

Egyptian entrepreneur challenges attitudes to women

Frustrated by the Egyptian media's portrayal of women as second-class citizens, Amani El Tunsi set up the 'Girls Only' radio station to challenge stereotypes about women. The station has now won a German prize.

Women protesting in Tahrir square, Cairo

Amani El Tunsi wants to improve attitudes towards women in Egypt

Creative and determined, Amani El Tunsi bubbles with energy and enthusiasm. Back in 2008, this enterprising computer science graduate hit upon the idea of launching a radio station to improve the situation of Egyptian women.

Three years later, after being sacked, losing sponsorship deals, having her studio ransacked and being arrested by President Hosni Mubarak's regime, she travelled to Munich to accept the Young Leaders Award from the carmaker-sponsored BMW foundation.

"This idea came to me when I found that whatever any girl in Egypt does, if she's not married, she's incomplete, she's not successful," she told Deutsche Welle.

"There's pressure for girls to marry even if she doesn't find her Mr. Right. Also, the percentage of girls is higher than the percentage of boys in Egypt so you're going to be the second wife or third or you won't get married. I found that we have to discuss this."

Photo of Amani El Tunsi

Amani El Tunsi's prize money will help her set her radio station to right

Uphill struggle

The 27-year-old explained that she grew tired of listening to Egyptian radio programs aimed at females because they covered trivial topics, and didn't challenge them to consider more complex subjects.

"Most of them talk about how to cover your head," she said. "There's no deep talk about what you're thinking, what you feel, what you think about your future, or how to develop yourself. I wanted to put all of that into the media."

But setting up a regular radio station was not an option back in 2008 due to the monopoly that Mubarak's regime held on all terrestrial broadcasting by law.

"Under Mubarak the licensing controls were very strict and it was almost impossible to have independent media," Naomi Sakr, Professor of Media Policy at the University of Westminster in London, explains. "Radio on the Internet gets around the regulatory controls on independent media."

Determined to make a difference

True to her motto - "I will resist and won't follow the others, I can make a change" - El Tunsi set about establishing an alternative Internet radio station run by girls for girls.

But her quest to challenge prevailing prejudices in Egypt was beset with difficulties - first, she was unable to find funding, then she was fired from her job as an art director for engaging in her own entrepreneurial activity.

Undeterred, El Tunsi took out a private loan before securing advertising contracts with multinational brands like Pepsi and Coca-Cola, proof of the success of her station.

When these sources of funding abandoned the station in the wake of the global financial crisis, El Tunsi set up a publishing house in 2009 to fund what had become known as "Girls Only."

"The money is a very big challenge," she said. "The money benefits are zero because it's a non-profit organization. But as the number of subscribers increases, I feel that I'm doing the right thing."

Girls Only radio became an immediate hit. Its website clocked up some 15,000 visits within the first week of broadcasting, without advertising.

Visitor numbers have soared since then and El Tunsi now has a database of six million subscribers. Motivated by the plight of Egyptian women, she now broadcasts four hours of programs from a small studio in Cairo every day.

"I have to do something to put women in a stable situation and improve the mentality," she explained.

"They have to know that they are a strong part of this community. They have to have their own personalities and know how to defend themselves."

Egyptian protesters hold banners at Tahrir Square

El Tunsi took part in the demonstrations at Tahrir Square earlier this year

Run-in with national security

The fledgling radio station now boasts a spectrum of some 25 programs, all of which target young, well-educated females in the Arab world.

El Tunsi said she hoped her listeners would one day pass the new ideas they hear in her broadcasts on to their children and so ultimately change attitudes towards women in Egypt.

But it wasn't easy. After setting up Girls Only, El Tunsi was contacted by Egypt's national security service and told to steer clear of discussing politics, religion and sex if she wanted to continue broadcasting.

She was, however, able to shed some of these shackles in the wake of the 2011 Egyptian revolution.

Now her listeners can tune in to programs like "After That," a talk show which acts as a platform to discuss Egypt's post-revolution future.

"Now, after January 25, I talk about everything," she explained. "Everything is free, we talk about political awareness, we talk about religious things. Every day we have a new situation - we talk about money and marriage, things like that."

Like many of her compatriots, El Tunsi took to the streets to depose Mubarak.

She sent her subscribers messages encouraging them to venture out into Tahrir Square, the uprising's iconic epicenter, and see the revolution with their own eyes.

New beginnings

But her messages also came to the attention of Egypt's national security service.

El Tunsi was arrested and forced to stand in a small room without a window for six hours. She apologized to the national security guard and came to a deal with him to be let go, which involved handing over her Facebook password.

Amani El Tunsi and her female volunteers

'Girls Only' is run by women for women

"He changed my profile picture to a Hosni Mubarak picture and my status to 'I'm so sorry, I love you my president,' " she recalled.

"All of my friends said 'What?' It was like a betrayal."

When El Tunsi was arrested, her studio was raided and stripped of everything, from its mixing boards to its chairs.

But her fortune took a turn for the better in May, when she was presented with the BMW award, worth 10,000 euros ($14,000).

"When I got a prize it was like a dream and now it's come true," she said, breaking into a broad smile.

"It means a lot to me because it gave me a chance to restart my work after the revolution. They gave me a new chance to start my life - because the radio is my life."

Stefan Quandt, a member of the prize jury, praised the "practical, true-to-life approach that the radio station takes in addressing listeners," and said the jury acknowledged "the courage and the persistence that it took to found Girls Only in an unfree society."

El Tunsi says she is now working to ensure that women get a prominent role to play in post-revolution Egyptian society and hopes to expand Girls Only into the Middle East.

Author: Michelle Martin
Editor: Ben Knight

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