Within minutes of posting about her newest campaign on Facebook, female entrepreneur, Karen Long, was shut down. And no, she wasn’t talking about drugs or terrorism, she was talking about the female body.
“I did not think we were living in the 1880’s and we couldn’t talk about a woman’s anatomy,” says Long, the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Nuelle, a female-focused health company which addresses sexual wellness. Nuelle’s star product, Fiera, which is sold online, has proved incredibly difficult to market, says Long, who despite raising 23 million in funding, has been unable to secure advertisements online, in print and on billboards alike.
“We need to find the women who are looking for solutions to things like vaginal dryness or emotional sexual health, and when we try to advertise we get immediately shut down,” said Long, adding that she's been unable to even purchase a "obscenity"-free Facebook ad, due to the fact that the URL included in the ad linked back to a page that had the word “vagina” on it.
To take a stand against the censorship, Long has created and rolled out a new social movement called Legalize V, which was not surprisingly blocked from audience view by Facebook within days of launch.
“Facebook in particular is the biggest offender because they shut us down the fastest when we’re trying to talk about female sexuality,” says Long, adding that she has been equally rebuffed by Google Display Networks, and magazines like Vanity Fair, People Magazine, Vogue and In Style, which are ironically struggling to maintain print advertisers. “We are considered obscene and vulgar because we are talking in very direct language about a woman’s anatomy, and so we can't advertise anywhere.”
We haven't talked about women's health, period. Pun intended.Long, of course, has the option to side-step the word vagina, as decoy words—including “pussy”—are permissible, but she refuses to “make up a language” that in her opinion, ultimately degrades and undermines women.
“You make up words for [vagina] and herein lies the issue that we have in this country. We put such shame and such taboo around women’s sexuality in particular, but all sexuality in general,” says Long.
“We say things like 'down-there' or ‘vajajay’ or “hoo-ha,” and we think it’s cute and funny but we don’t recognize the reason behind why we’re doing it or about the ramifications of using that language.
Why should we put women or any other human being in a place of shame in order to comply?”
Long’s campaign, which rolled out last week, is meant as a way for women entrepreneurs, specifically those in healthcare, “to take a stand against the media who don’t allow us to educate in the way we want to.” The campaign, which features a “power squad” of thought leaders including Alexandra Fine, CEO and Co-Founder of Dame Products; Cindy Whitehead, Founder of The Pink Ceiling; Jordana Kier, Co-Founder of LOLA; Amanda LaFleur, Founder and Executive Director of NAPMDD; Colette Courtion, CEO of Joylux Products; and Michelle King Robson, Founder of HER Inc., is meant to change the minds, and rules surrounding female sexual health.
"Vagina" is a metaphor for the bigger issue.
“The initial video we created is basically just people saying vagina a bunch of times and having it bleeped out,” says Long. “I want people to watch and share the video, and sign our petition so we can get a meeting with Facebook to just explain the issue. I am positive that a human being on the other side, and hopefully Sheryl Sandberg, would hear our story and say 'that’s crazy.'”
“We are considered obscene and vulgar because we are talking in very direct language about a woman’s anatomy.”
The use of the word vagina has been headline news in recent years. Just seven months ago a teacher in Michigan was fired for using the word in an art history class while describing the reproductions of flower paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe. Similarly, back in 2012, a female legislator was banned from the House of Representatives for the same infraction.
"It's insane," says Long. "This is 2016 and unless people get mad-and it takes bravery to get mad-it won't change. We've created a culture of embarrassment surrounding this issue."
THE BIG PICTURE
“We say things like down-there or ‘vajajay’ or “hoo-ha,” and we think it’s cute and funny but we don’t recognize the reason behind why we’re doing that or about the ramifications of using that language."
“'Vagina' is a metaphor for the bigger issue, says Long. “We can’t talk about sexuality in this country. We’ve created such taboos around periods, and such a problem around sex. It’s the pinnacle of taboo and it absolutely shouldn’t be.”
While sex in general is a difficult topic for Americans to deal with, Long says it's even worse for women, which only further cements the need for a new conversation to emerge.
“We educated the world on male sexuality when Viagra launched and that was 17 or 18 years ago,” she says. “I think Viagra helped pave the way for the conversation about male sexuality and we haven’t had that with women. We haven’t talked about women’s health, period. Pun intended.”
Why should we put women in a place of shame in order to comply?
Despite the discrepancy, Long is focused on the future. She hopes to create a movement that will change the way we teach about female health, and most importantly, the way we address it.
“Ultimately, the goal of the campaign is to grow from a small group of entrepreneurs saying 'enough is enough' to include all of humanity,” she says. “It’s a human issue. We’re talking about sexual health and it’s no different than talking about the skin on our face. I really want to engage people in this dialogue, because if nobody starts talking about it, it’s going to be 1873 all over again.”
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.