Zina Bencheikh is not your average Moroccan woman.
For one, she is the General Manager of Intrepid Travel’s Morocco office, which is responsible for operating Intrepid’s trips across Europe and North Africa. For another, she’s highly educated, having studied abroad and previously lived in the UK, Canada and France, thanks to her travel-loving parents. And finally – and perhaps most uniquely of all – she’s recently taken on the Moroccan government, lobbying them to provide tour guide licenses to more women, in a bid to combat the current female unemployment rate of 75 per cent.
Talking to Zina over Skype recently, her passion for unapologetically supporting other women in her country is evident.
“I think Western women don’t often realise that to be a woman in Morocco is already a challenge. It’s a challenge on a daily basis. I don’t think things have changed much in the past 30 years,” says Zina.
A huge challenge for Moroccan women is the lack of quality education available, which leads to little or no employment opportunities. Even today, more than 80 per cent of women who live in rural Morocco can’t read or write.
“This is why I often make parallels with some of the problems that women have in Western countries. They’re very, very different because in Morocco it’s a lack of very basic rights that we’re talking about,” Zina explains.
Zina has a master’s degree in finance and previously worked as a senior auditor in a top-tier accounting firm in Paris. She met her Moroccan husband in the French capital, but it wasn’t long before they realised they wanted to move back to Morocco.
“There were opportunities for us because it’s a developing country, but it’s also good for the country because if people like us don’t come back and try to make a little bit of difference, then who will?” says Zina passionately.
“In Marrakech, you often find that general managers of companies are French or British – when I started in this office I was the only Moroccan manager. When Intrepid found me, I had this feeling that they were like, ‘Oh finally we have found a Moroccan who is able to be a manager’,” laughs Zina.
“I would have waited another five or ten years to become a manager in France because I was really young.”
Zina explains that as a 27-year-old woman when she returned to Morocco, it was really only foreign-owned companies like Intrepid that considered her as a potential employee.
In 2017, Intrepid set themselves a goal to double the number of female leaders they have worldwide by 2020. This is easier said than done in countries like Morocco, but that hasn’t stopped Zina.
In Morocco, tour leaders need to obtain a tourism guide license from the government by passing a test. Zina explains that one of the biggest challenges has actually been pressuring the government to offer the tests to citizens.
“Between September 2017 and February 2018, we lobbied the Minister of Tourism to deliver more licenses. I even got the Ambassador of Australia involved. Finally, the government agreed to offer another test and deliver licenses to some of those who passed, which is a huge achievement because the last test was 10 years before that.
“I think the government realised it was a real issue, and in February this year, they announced they would run more regular tests for the next six years until there are enough guides in Morocco. That means it will open more job opportunities for women, so we are making a lot of noise about it to spread the word and get women who are passionate about travelling to apply – we will even sponsor them to take the test.
“For me, it’s not just about getting more guides in our Intrepid team; it’s getting more female guides in the whole country.”
It’s not just the government who are listening to Zina. The United Nation’s 2019 gender equality report, which will be released at this year’s ITB Travel Show, mentions the work Intrepid are doing in this space.
Having garnered a fair amount of international press for her work, Zina said she regards herself as a role model for all young girls, Moroccan or not.
“I have seen other young women in the business see what has happened to me and it’s actually beneficial for them to have a role model. One of these girls could be the next General Manager of Morocco, you know, and I’m happy about that. Even some of the female leaders in Europe, they see their manager who has been able to achieve all of this and they realise they can do it too.”
Under Zina, the Marrakech office has grown from eight staff to 45.
Zina firmly believes a huge reason Morocco as a destination for Intrepid is performing so well is because of the culture and values of the business she has built.
“The Marrakech office has B Corp certification and is the only travel business in the whole of Morocco to be certified. So, now I want to work towards our other North Africa and European offices all being certified and having more female managers. I really believe in the purpose-beyond-profit side of our business, because that is what I think has made Morocco what it is.
“When I first started working with Intrepid, it was such a good surprise to find myself in a company that believes in people’s abilities and doesn’t care about the rest. It didn’t matter how old I was or where I was from. In fact, they have policies against discriminating against harassment – I think that was the best part, and because of that I am still being given so many opportunities to grow all the time.”
Learn more about what Intrepid Travel are doing to support the fight for gender equality.