The status of women varies from one society to another; however, everywhere disability poses additional challenges for women and this is doubled further if you happen to live in the MENA region. Arab Adults with disabilities (and especially women with disabilities) have less access to employment opportunities than their peers without disabilities (ESCWA 2014). This is partly due to the wider issue of limited access to education, employment, medical facilities, social life and marriage in particular conservative societies where the status of women is relatively low, creating more challenges in their daily life.
In the past few years, things have slowly started to change and improve within the region’s disability field, with numerous NGOs, organisations, charities and as individuals all working towards raising awareness and integrating people living with disability into every aspect of life.
The Four Biscuits is one of those individualised efforts that aims to empower young people with Down’s Syndrome (a cognitive disability) by providing them with training on baking skills – then selling their products at local markets and online.
The Egyptian initiative began when a group of young women with Down’s Syndrome and their parents got together for social activities – going to the cinema, the swimming pool, and restaurants – as the families believed that their daughters had the right to have social lives like anyone else.
The families wanted to start a community project – but knew for it to be empowering, it had to be undertaken by the youngsters themselves. The project had to be both for them and by them. Initially they thought about opening a café where they would be the employees, aiming to integrate into society by direct interaction with the public.
But such a project needs great financial investment, and the families decided to start small with a home-based bakery business and selling the products via social media, including Facebook and Instagram.
“The Four Biscuits” is run by four friends. They all attended a special needs school, and the first bazaar where they sold their biscuits was also held at a local school.
The biscuits they sell are based on a special Swiss recipe from Irene Salem, the mother of one of the founders, and it proved so popular that the bakers and their families decided to turn up the temperature on the business.
After the parents of one of the founders opted to send her to a special needs education centre, the remaining three running the business are Sherihane Salem, 20, who loves handicraft and socialising with friends, Heidi Adel who is 20 and loves singing, putting on make-up and doing housework and 21-year-old Seba Ahmed, who is very passionate about swimming and photography.
The Four Biscuits was officially launched in August 2017 via their Facebook page and they soon started to receive orders. People loved the idea instantly and encouraged the team to carry on and expand their operations.
Nada Ahmed, the PR of The Four Biscuits, explained that the project was only made possible after an application that the team submitted to Idea Camp; an idea development circle organised by the European Cultural Foundation.
The team’s idea was chosen among 600 others that had applied. A member of the team travelled to Spain in March 2016 to attend four days’ training there, and eventually they were chosen among 50 ideas to receive both technical and financial support from the foundation for the research and development phase of the project.
While the secret recipe remains closely guarded, their most popular product are their plain biscuits – though they have recently started to produce them with a sugar fondant topping.
There are between 8.5 million to 12 million people with disability in Egypt alone, according to research conducted for Plan International by Elshami in 2012, and they are often stigmatised, hidden away by their families and denied work opportunities.
These are all factors that contribute to an attitude held by society of people living with disability which ultimately makes it harder to progress and succeed in Arab society – not just in Egypt.
Nada Ahmed, not just the group’s PR representative but also a sister of one of the bakers, agrees. “It is hard to accept any differences of any kind, and no progress can be achieved unless Arabs learn to accept each and every citizen regardless of gender, religion, appearance, colour, race, disability or not,” she told The New Arab.
“People with special needs have a great potential that can push any society forward. They can, if empowered, bring so much innovation and success to their nations.
When asked if the girls endured any discrimination or bullying living in the Arab region we were told that it’s “more discreet and indirect discrimination like judgemental looks but never amounting to bullying”.
The message the team wants to convey is that “disability is an illusion”.
“We all have certain limitations, obstacles and challenges to overcome, but that is because we are simply human; these obstacles gives us the energy to struggle and to fight back reaching our dreams,” they said.
They believe that disability is the creation of society because “we all lack something, so we are all disabled in some way. A chromosome less is just like any other human vulnerability”.
As for their future plan, The Four Biscuits are aiming to expand their team and recruit other young people with Down’s Syndrome. In the longer term, they wish to have teams all across Egypt.
By Raya Al-Jadir