By: Mehrunisa Qayyum
Not all the political and economic policy action on gender has completely escaped to New York for this week’s United Nation’s General Assembly meetings. Yesterday in Washington, DC, September 20, 2011, the Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP) collaborated with The Middle East Program at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars to concentrate on “Women & Democratic Transition in the Middle East.” The Middle East Program’s Director, Haleh Esfandiari, journalist and Irani cultural intellectual, opened the program by welcoming WLP’s founder, Mahnaz Afkhami, who served as Minister for Women’s Affairs in Iran. Esfandiari and Afkhami facilitated the larger Middle East & North Africa dialogue by focusing the discussion on issues, rather than ideologies, to address two themes: (1) perspectives from the region; and (2) Arab Spring’s influences and outcomes. (Follow WLP’s ongoing work to leverage women’s social capital @WLP1.)
WLP and WWICS invited representatives from Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, and Turkey. Leading women in journalism, grassroots activism, and government, represented the women’s movement in the larger scope of improving socio-economic and socio-political opportunities for both genders—a more encompassing and inclusive approach. National Public Radio veteran, Jacki Lyden, moderated the first panel; Jacqueline Pitanguy, Brazilian founder and director of CEPIA (NGO focusing on public policy research and development in Brazil), facilitated the public policy discussion for the second panel, which contrasted the Arab Spring experiences with non-Arab countries comprising the MENA region.
The following representatives presented at the two panels:
• Yakin Erturk commented on democracy and gender as a leading Turkish scholar and as the UN Rapporteur on Violence Against Women. Erturk also served as the director of the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women. She conducted research in Saudi Arabia.
• Farida Naqash serves as the Chairperson of Forum for Women in Development and is the first female Egyptian Editor-in-Chief of a political newspaper. As such Naqash provided both political and media analysis regarding Egypt’s revolution/evolution before and after Mubarak’s demise.
• Asma Khader represented Jordan in her work as a human rights activist. Recently, she served on the UN Human Rights Council’s inquiry into human rights abuses in Libya as well as served as the Minister of Culture in Jordan. Also, she is the Secretary General for the Jordanian national Commission for Women. Asma Khader highlighted how the women in the MENA region are succeeding in obtaining higher levels of education and literacy rates but the pace of employment opportunities does not match. National Public Radio interviewed Asma Khader regarding the Arab Spring and its potential impact to improve women’s lives.
• Rabea Naciri exemplified the regional NGO perspective since she is a founding member of the Association Democratique des Femmes du Maroc, which is a leading Moroccan NGO advocating for women’s rights. Her work extends further into the Maghreb region in dealing with poverty reduction strategies by partnering with researchers from Algeria and Tunisia.
• Massouma Hassan represented Pakistan as a former Cabinet level leader who specified that Pakistan has made progress as women hold positions in the army, law enforcement and government. This is crucial since Pakistan faces both economic and security crises.
Also, discussion tackled controversial solutions, such as implementing quotas for women in the political realm. Keen observers pointed out how quotas sometimes limit the “glass-ceiling” for women. Gender equality does not mean women simply focus on women’s issues. As Erturk stated, women may partner with others on “all issues rather than binary ideologies” to more successfully build civil society coalitions. Moreover, WLP and WWICS designed the forum to showcase best practices and “South-South” experiences, the exchange of resources, technology, and knowledge between developing countries.
In a related note, Monday night showcased an exciting moment for the Woodrow Wilson Center because they will now house the esteemed Council of Women World Leaders, a global network of 46 female political leaders. The Council of Women Leaders used to be housed at the Aspen Institute. MENA is represented in this elite group by Reem Al-Hashimy, Minister of State in the United Arab Emirates.