Joelle Rizkallah’s work is fundamental for women empowerment. She is Founder and Managing Director of JO Branding & Advertising, and Co-Founder of both FiftyFiftylb, an NGO dedicated to instating equality in the political and public life, and Women in Front, an association which aims to increase Lebanese women’s participation in the political and public life. Her work to increase women’s representation in politics is truly inspiring. We speak to her about her work, her journey, and the progress she achieved.
Your work in communications and advertising started in 1990. How have things changed in the past 30 years?
The introduction of Social Media has been a huge turning point in the advertising and marketing sphere. Moreover, the advancement of technology has allowed more creativity and innovation in terms of designs. Therefore, today any Internet user can create a great design in less than 15 minutes. It’s true that the Internet and Social Media have shrunk the advertising turnover across the world. However, it has opened the door for more promotion and marketing at low-cost.
Are Middle-Eastern communities more open to conversations about gender balance than they used to be?
Of course. The implementation of the gender quota that allowed more women in politics, and the measures that have been taken – reforms of many personal status laws in several Arab countries – have helped women reach decision-making positions. Hence, Arab societies are more open towards equality today. I would like to mention that the revolutions that happened and are still happening in many Arab countries have accelerated breaking the barriers of fear, and hence advancing women’s causes.
What were the biggest obstacles you faced when you first started out? And how did you overcome them?
In business, many obstacles hinder women from reaching their goals. However, I always tried to find a solution, and I never accepted to retract from reaching a goal, even if it took me more time. On the public and political levels, the lack of will in advancing women, the patriarchal societies, the socio-cultural barriers that relate women’s progress to religion, and the resistance of political parties to take serious measures to advance women, all these represent real challenges in our work in trying to get more women in politics. We always strive to find solutions and we are used to creating a plan B for every situation. The fight to get more women in decision-making positions is harder but we believe that we will reach 50/50 at some point.
Being the Managing Director of JO Branding & Advertising, and Co-Founder of both FiftyFiftylb and Women in Front, does it ever get too overwhelming? If so, how do you decompress?
This is an amazing question! I believe we, women, get used to multi-tasking. But what I do actually is, I use the natural healers that have been offered to us by the universe to maintain a fulfilling life: sport, love and being loved, smile as much as I can, walk in the nature.
Tell us about the progress made in Lebanon through Women in Front and FiftyFiftylb.
After eight years of continuous work, and more than 30 years of long fights by female activists, we have been able to increase the number of parliament candidates from 12 female candidates in 2009 to 113 candidates in 2018. We worked very closely with all candidates. This was an unprecedented success in Lebanon. Yet, this is not enough, we need to get more women to be elected as we only have six female MPs out of 128 seats (less than 5%).
How can powerful female figures in the Middle East join forces and support each other in your opinion?
We must create specialized networks and coalitions and try to get sponsorship to make things happen.
Do you believe there is a responsibility on female entrepreneurs in the Middle East to encourage young girls to follow their dreams? How can that be accomplished?
If every achieved woman mentors two girls per year, we can achieve great results.
If you had to choose, which part of your work do you enjoy the most?
Supporting women in politics.
What are your plans for the future?
Grow my business to include more solutions and services for women. In political life, I want to see at least 40 women (30%) in the Lebanese parliament, and reach 50/50 in all appointed or elected councils in private or public sectors.