Zeina Abdel Khalik: Philanthropy can respond to real needs and bring structural changes to complex social problems

Zeina Abdel Khalik (first on the right) on The Women Deliver 2023 Conference (WD2023), 17-20 July 2023, Kigali, Rwanda.

Zeina Abdel Khalik is a feminist and human rights advocate. She has a BS in Biology (2002) and Masters in Public Health (2004) from The American University of Beirut. She is a certified gender trainer from KIT University- Amsterdam (2020) and has been working in the field of women’s rights and gender equality for the past 15 years. She is a development and gender expert with solid experience in programming, policy work, research and organizational development in critical areas related to gender mainstreaming, GBV, promoting women’s participation in the decision-making spheres and strengthening feminist movements. She is currently the Executive of Doria Feminist Fund, the first feminist fund in the MENA region and the Co-Chair of the NGOCSW Arab States Caucus.

1. Doria Fund is a jewel in the Middle East and North African region (MENA). The fund advances core support and special projects. However, you are one of the rare funds that insist on knowledge production. Why do you find it important?

The Knowledge Production grants support projects on feminism and gender issues by on-ground feminist activists and engaged scholars in the MENA region. The key significance of these grants is that they allow feminist activists to experiment with diverse media and to welcome new tools into their work as they create spaces for learning and knowledge exchange within their movements. It also invites feminist activists, groups and scholars to join the conversation on feminism and gender in the region, but finally on their own terms and in ways that privilege their knowledge, narratives and experiences.

Beyond this, the identity of the intellectual was often masculinized, creating a perception that women did not have the mental acumen to be engaged in the male-dominated world of knowledge production. These grants along with Doria’s own knowledge production form a critical aspect of showcasing the levels of representation, empowerment, and influence of feminist activists in politics and other relevant areas, while drawing attention to critical gaps hindering gender equity.

2. What is it like to do philanthropy in the MENA region? And what is feminist philanthropy on the public image?

The past 25 years have seen an evolution of philanthropy globally, with several funders moving from seeking quick wins for investments to long-term commitments geared towards structural change. This shift wouldn’t have happened without the influence of feminist philanthropy. Doria’s role is to understand how we can better connect global philanthropy with feminist movements in the MENA region.

The MENA region presents both challenges and opportunities for philanthropy. Many countries in the region are characterized by authoritarian regimes, political instability, and conflicts, which can make it difficult for philanthropic organizations to operate effectively. Also, the region faces unique cultural and religious factors that impact the development and implementation of feminist philanthropy initiatives. However, and at the same time, there is a growing recognition of the importance of gender equality and women’s empowerment where women are acknowledging their rights, organizing and raising their voices.

While there are certainly obstacles to overcome, feminist and philanthropic organizations are able to navigate the complex social and political landscape towards a meaningful impact and help to drive positive change in the region. Women’s active involvement in the protests of the Arab Spring has engendered new understandings of their role in the process of political and social reform. women’s organizations and networks are emerging across the region, providing spaces for women to come together, share experiences, and advocate for their rights. Doria Feminist Fund is one of the feminist Philanthropic organizations that strives to support these groups by providing funding and technical assistance, as well as by helping to build networks and coalitions that can advance feminist agendas within national contexts.

Doria Feminist Fund is demonstrating how philanthropy can respond to real needs and bring structural changes to complex social problems.

3.    We think about solidarity a lot, but what are the challenges and gains on working in such diverse communities as Doria Fund? Is solidarity something that is valued or is it still work to be done?

Diverse communities can bring a range of benefits, including exposure to different perspectives and ideas, women stories, small and not so small changes and celebrations. Yet, it can be challenging, as individuals and organizations from different backgrounds may have varying cultural norms, communication styles, and expectations, however, they are all striving to fight intersectional inequalities.

Achieving solidarity in diverse communities is an ongoing process that requires continuing effort and attention. It involves building relationships of trust, acknowledging and addressing power imbalances, and actively promoting inclusivity and diversity in access to resources or decision-making processes.

Interview: Djurdja Trajkovic