“ASILA” (“authentic” in Arabic) is a social enterprise that nurtures the leadership potential of Moroccan women and girls and encourages them to create positive change in their communities.
Women in Morocco are fearless social warriors and economic leaders, and Manal Elattir, the founder of ASILA, wants more people to know it. “ASILA” (“authentic” in Arabic) is a social enterprise that nurtures the leadership potential of Moroccan women and girls and encourages them to create positive change in their communities. For over a decade, Elattir has championed sustainable growth, as well as youth and women empowerment in Morocco. However, her passion for advocacy was ignited in a different context.
The Spark that Ignited the Fire
Elattir was born in Agadir, in the south of Morocco. At age 13, her family moved to the capital, Rabat. Elattir’s father loved the U.S. educational system, having completed his doctorate at the University of Minnesota. He dreamed that his daughter would move to the U.S. to pursue an education and a professional career. So, at the age of 16, he sent Elattir to Minnesota to live with an American host family until she finished high school.
Elattir began her first semester of higher education at Gustavus Adolphus College, a small liberal arts college in Minnesota, just after the 9/11 attacks. Elattir told Inside Arabia that, in high school, she was not the “activist type.” However, an Islamophobic experience at her university ignited Elattir’s passion for championing change. “You can’t wait for something to happen, you need to do it yourself and you need to mobilize people,” Elattir emphasized.
After graduating from college, Elattir moved to Washington D.C., where she worked in business-to-business sales. Several months into her job, she started questioning the values of the sales world and her place in it.When she failed to find meaning in the work she was doing, Elattir decided to return to Morocco and search for a new purpose.
A New Chapter
For months, Elattir felt lost because she did not know what to do next. She wanted to use her business education, but she also wanted to pursue her passion for social development. As it turned out, Elattir would not remain lost for long. The Moroccan branch of AMIDEAST, an American nonprofit organization engaged in international education, training, and development in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), offered Elattir a position she could not refuse, in February 2007.
In her new job, as coordinator of the Alumni Network for the U.S. State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), Elattir was responsible for bringing together different stakeholders in Moroccan society. The goal was to empower youth and women with the support of entrepreneurs and civil society actors already operating in the country.
Not only did Elattir learn to connect people with different backgrounds and perspectives at AMIDEAST, she also discovered her homeland all over again. Towards the end of her time at AMIDEAST, Elattir organized one notable women’s empowerment initiative that completely shook her world.
The Key to Women’s Empowerment
During a trip to a MEPI-sponsored training in Rabat, Elattir overheard Khadija, one of ten women from a poor southern rural province, telling her peers that she was preparing herself for a beating. “I didn’t tell my husband I’m going to Rabat,” Khadija laughed, while the other women giggled. Elattir was shocked and questioned Khadija why she had not asked her to speak to her husband on her behalf.
“I know that he will hit me anyway,” Khadija answered. “But you said we’re going to learn something to make money, right?” She went on to explain that her husband wanted to send their daughter to the city to make money as a housemaid. Khadija wanted her to stay in school instead. The woman’s earnest admission moved Elattir to tears.
“Two things horrified me about that incident,” Elattir told Inside Arabia. “The fact that the woman didn’t care that her husband was going to beat her and that violence was so normalized that Khadija and her fellow participants could laugh about it.” Although anyone can be a victim of violence, Elattir said, Moroccan women in rural areas are often unable to escape it because they are financially dependent on their husbands or families.
This experience prompted Elattir to attend various development-focused exchange programs. In 2011, she participated in the Fortune-U.S. Department of State Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership program which “connects talented, emerging women leaders from all over the world with members of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Leaders.” For a month, prominent women entrepreneurs, such as Susan Wojcicki, CEO of Youtube, and Megan Smith, former vice president of Google, mentored Elattir. The event gave her the motivation she needed to quit her job and start a social enterprise.
In August 2012, Elattir set up “Anarouz” (“hope” in Amazigh), an organization that invested in women and girls’ social and economic empowerment in Morocco.
In August 2012, Elattir set up “Anarouz” (“hope” in Amazigh), an organization that invested in women and girls’ social and economic empowerment in Morocco. Four years later, in 2016, Elattir changed the name of her venture to “ASILA,” which includes both ASILASHOP and ASILADEV.
ASILASHOP is an ethical luxury brand. It partners with women-led businesses and artisans to produce high-end clothing and accessories. In addition to promoting responsible fashion, ASILA also strives to preserve Morocco’s artistic heritage.
ASILADEV, on the other hand, focuses on capacity building, mentoring, and networking to help women and girls across Morocco develop the self-confidence, credibility, and leadership they need to thrive.
“The most important part of the puzzle is building a woman’s self-confidence and helping her understand her worth,” Elattir told Inside Arabia. To cultivate this self-worth, Elattir takes her women recruits through the five different phases of ASILA’s unique Empowerment Caravan initiative:
First, ASILA takes its recruits out of their daily routines and encourages them to let loose and be themselves.
Second, it creates a “network of solidarity” to encourage women to share their life stories and give them positive energy.
Third, ASILA tries to change the power dynamics of women’s rural communities, which are dominated by men who control them through fear.
Fourth, Elattir accompanies the women to Rabat, where she introduces them to ministers and other influential individuals who reaffirm their rights as full-fledged citizens.
Lastly, she introduces the women to other successful Moroccan women entrepreneurs and cooperatives to inspire them to excel.
At the end of the program, ASILA hosts a conference in the women’s rural community to give them an opportunity to talk about their experience and share what they learned. This final event is a key part of the empowerment process. It confirms that the women know their rights and are not afraid to stand up for themselves.
“What I want the American public to know is that women in Morocco, and the MENA region, are very strong, and they make things happen,” Elattir concludes.
However, they cannot do it alone. Women in the Arab region need more experienced social entrepreneurs like Elattir to help them build the self-esteem and skills that they need to develop their communities. Because a confident woman armed with knowledge is a powerful social, political, and economic force.