“What is life but a stance of glory” is a famous quote in Arabic sung by Julia Boutros that inspires Maha Jouini’s life choices. Maha is a Tunisian entrepreneur and author who fought against all odds that face North African women. She is the youngest of seven children and was raised by a mother who showed her the true meaning of struggling as a woman in the Arab region, bearing all social constructs. Her various interests pushed her to lead a life of a multi-skilled woman whose ambitions have no limits as long as hard work is put into achieving them. Maha’s diverse background did not make her choices easy but nothing stopped her growth.
Maha’s story began when she was volunteering in Addis Ababa as a young African woman at the Office of Youth Volunteer. Although she was taking part in community-changing work, Maha felt that she wanted to do more and break the boundaries that society imposed on her growing up. As a first step, she applied to Tianjin University of Technology and Education in China where she received a scholarship to pursue a degree in artificial intelligence. This bold decision, coupled with discriminatory accusations that Maha heard from boys in Tianjin about being Arab in the sciences, changed her life.
Maha sensed that leaving Tunisia to go study in China at 29 years old was going to be difficult, knowing that it was the age when women in Tunisia had to get married and start a family. She received encouragement from her feminist comrades and activists in the feminist movement but was highly discouraged by members of her society and her family who did not accept successful, multiskilled women. To cope with this immense pressure and discouragement, Maha decided that writing was the main coping mechanism that helped her let out her stress and frustration. She recently published a book titled “A Lover from Africa” in Arabic, proving that she can be an entrepreneur, author, and scientist all at once. Maha takes her motivation from successful women in the Arab world, especially Lebanese women who have proved to rise amidst all difficult socio-economic challenges.
All this distress did not influence Maha’s decision on pursuing a fruitful life and successful career. Being from Tunisia where socioeconomic support is not present, Maha never thought of quitting because her work is her only means of survival and the only way for her to lead the life that she wanted. She does not think of work as an ultimate goal and prefers to take small milestones that would both be of financial benefit for her and direct impact on society. After her journey in China, Maha moved to Mauritania to launch her start-up business in digital transformation. She chose Mauritania as a destination for her as a way to give back to her region and out of acknowledgment that this country needed support in transition into the digital world that we currently live in.
Maha has gotten her fair share of discrimination, criticism, and harassment. She had received negative comments about being a woman pursuing a scientific field and handling a business. When reaching a dead-end, people commented superficially on her appearance. Maha did not let any of this get in her way. She described herself as a brave woman who stood up for herself in times when she did not find anyone supporting her. Her challenging experiences are what led her to advise girls to always be brave and show the bravery that they lack. Maha hopes that girls can build up the courage to say no and to have faith in what they do, or else they would never achieve anything. In her career, Maha considers that what has led her to reach where she is now is her ability to take risks which is why business owners had trust in her and let her handle the growth of their business. Another motive that shaped Maha’s life was the economic structure of Tunisia.
Raised in Tunisia, living in Mauritania, and having visited many countries in the Arab world, Maha believes that the governments are the main obstacle that limits the flourishing of industries that open opportunities for women. As a start-up entrepreneur, Maha struggled in finding investors who are willing to make her business grow. Thinking that governments would be looking more into startups that offer e-solutions, Maha states that governments and wealthy investors are only interested in investing in properties rather than capital that might grow over the years. She also discusses the issue of having certain women succeed due to power dynamics, making other women feel underappreciated and unsupported.
Maha acknowledges the fact that many organizations and institutions are now supporting girls in finding themselves. However, she points out how many of those organizations have no impact at all and are governed by their social surroundings. Maha does not believe in the great impact of those centers since she believes that power comes from within, and a girl should support and find herself because she will not always be supported by others. For this reason, Maha urges schools to let girls have the liberty to choose what they want. To her, she is positive that girls already know what they want as they have personal interests that they built up through socializing and learning.
Maha feels proud when young girls approach her and tell her that they want to go into the sciences and technology. These situations make her realize that girls are well aware of their options and can determine their future when allowed to explore. Maha is a great supporter of women and believes that her motivation comes from women as well, as she directly contacts her mother, sisters, or friends when she wants to talk about any new occurrences. She wants girls to have this safe space and to find their solace within a social group of other women whom they see as role models who can influence their lives positively and support their decisions.
This story was written by Tamara Sleiman
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