Afnan Al Zayani: A role model for Arab women working to balance business, family and community

Vital Voices 2010 Awards - Afnan Al ZayaniThe Vital Voices' 2010 Awards, Leadership in Public Life category went to Afnan Al Zayani. Wife, mother, television cooking show star, activist and multi-million dollar company CEO, Afnan Al Zayani is transcending categories.

Born and raised in Manama, Bahrain, Afnan grew up in a tightly knit family bound by tradition and grounded in faith. In this tiny Gulf Kingdom, expectations for women run high — academic achievement, marriage and family, career and community — but many women fall back to traditional roles in society when faced with competing obligations.

Afnan, faced those same expectations — then exceeded them — far beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. She’s proving to a new generation of women in the region how they, too, can balance family, thrive in business and make real contributions to their communities.

It all began when Afnan first maneuvered her way into the family business, where she quickly climbed the corporate ladder, then bought Al Zayani Commercial Services outright from the family in 1999.

It wasn’t long before Afnan became involved with a flourishing network of women business owners. From 2002-2004, she took on leadership in the Bahrain Businesswomen’s Society (BBS) and crafted a far-reaching agenda that catered to all women in business. Today, she is educating Bahraini businesswomen on mastering the benefits of the U.S.-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement and lobbying for greater support for small and medium-sized businesses.

When the Middle East and North Africa Businesswomen’s Network (MENA BWN), a collection of businesswomen’s associations, formed in 2006 with support from the U.S. Department of State’s Middle East Partnership Initiative, Afnan was a natural choice to lead the Network through the start-up phase to independence. Elected chair of the board of directors, she went right to work creating a vision for success.

But Afnan knew there was more to empowering women in business than increasing the bottom line. She recognized that progress in her country depended on full participation from men and women. If women were fully protected within the judicial system, the payoff would be immediate — secure, stable families, and lasting contributions to the development of Bahraini society. Afnan engaged various sectors of the community, including civil society and government agencies, to ensure the passing of the first written personal status law which protects the rights of Sunni Muslim women in cases of divorce and child custody.

Truly the modern everywoman, Afnan still manages to find time for a passion very close to her heart — food. A Bahraini Barefoot Contessa, Afnan was the first woman to publish bestselling cookbooks on Bahraini and Gulf cuisine, and she hosted eight popular cooking shows on television, including Al Soofrah Al Khaleejiah in 1986, Eat Smart in 1996, Ramadan Atyab in 2007, and Afnaniyat in 2008. In 2009, she received the Gourmand World Cookbook Award for best Arab cuisine.

Afnan Al Zayani is a pioneer and an inspiration to all men and women. Her list of distinctions is extensive — twice elected to the board of the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry, elected to the board of the Bahrain National Competitiveness Council and recognized by the World Confederation of Business. She was also listed among the most powerful women by Forbes and Arabian Business magazines.

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Vital Voices 2010 Global Leadership Awards