When the Women in the World Summit in New York opened with Meryl Streep’s daughter reading a message from a little girl living in a camp for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, we thought that the humanitarian gesture was meant to ease the organizers’ conscience, though blurring the girl’s face to protect her was a commendable act. When Tina Brown, the chairwoman of the conference, followed this by hosting two young Syrian women to speak about the situation in Syria, and was then followed in turn by David Milliband, the head of the International Rescue Committee, we said that it was truly striking for the international women’s conference to kick off with a focus on the Syrian conflict. Then when Ukrainian pop star Ruslana Lyzhychko took the podium, carrying her country’s flag, and sang the Ukrainian national anthem, she prompted the audience to wave along their mobile phones in support of what is now a Ukrainian uprising against Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the audience became more closely engaged with what was happening at the women’s event at the Lincoln Center in the heart of Manhattan. After Lyzhychko, two Russian singers-dissenters from the band Pussy Riot came, to protest against Putin’s brand of narcissistic ultra-nationalism, determined to direct another blow to Putin, this time under the aegis of leading women from all around the world. The summit also revived discussions about the Arab Spring, recalling its fundamental values and the roles of Arab women in it. Through art, and by recalling the massacres in Rwanda, and through the tears of a mother whose son had joined the terrorists, as well as through the participation of the likes of Hillary Clinton, Queen Rania, Christine Lagarde, and many other luminaries, the conference tackled women’s political role in decision making. Thus, Tina Brown leapt like a tigress on what is usually wrapped with care and fear between the folds. She spoke clearly and loudly about women’s place in politics, with authority and without apology.
This is exactly what the Arab region lacks: the boldness of the narrative and the daring thrust to break traditional restrictions against women’s ascent to political positions, and their growth beyond consolation posts and jobs, and half-baked measures.
Claiming that traditions must be respected and that change should be slow and gradual is only an excuse that harms the goal of developing the Arab nations. It is an intuitive fact that development, growth, and economic progress in the Arab region would require employing half of the population, i.e. women.
The exclusion of women from political decision-making is not a marginal issue. It is a decision to exclude them from drafting laws and constitutions, a decision that was taken intentionally, not accidentally. One of the main reasons is the say the clerics have over the position of Arab women in the local community and the fate of the country.
During the Women in the World summit, there were young headscarf-donning Arab women present. Their faces were covered with makeup, and many of them wore revealing clothing. If their decision has to do with faith, then no one has the right to admonish them for it. But if they were wearing the headscarf to get attention, or because doing so is desirable in international forums, or because it is a means for pleasing and enticing some, then it is a different matter. Once again, if their dress code is linked to traditions they believe in, then this is their right. But if it is a way for them to assert, “This is my right, and this is my personality,” then it is time for these young women to go back to history and examine the reasons women took off the headscarf in the last century. They must quit narcissism and self-promotion, because the headscarf is not supposed to be “cool” or “hip.” It is a message that hurts women’s prospect for rising to decision-making positions, because the clerics who control decision-making have decided to exclude women, and it is them who sometimes use the headscarf and the burka to discipline and repress women.
Of course, we have to celebrate the fact that about three-quarters of civil society organizations in the Arab region, as we are told – are headed by women. This is an important development that has immense worth and an actual impact on the evolution and development of Arab societies, without a doubt. But what is missing is women’s participation in politics in the Arab region, as candidates for parliament, presidential posts, and as judges, on what would be the desired scale.
Women in Afghanistan – who certainly live in a more conservative society than Arab societies, and under the dictates of the Taliban – astounded the world last week. Three hundred Afghan women contested the historic election that has transformed Afghanistan from a failed state and a haven for terrorism, extremism, and the oppression of women, to a country on the path to recovery and one that is fighting for democracy. Congratulations to the women of Afghanistan for standing up for themselves and fighting the electoral battle where the shadows of the Taliban chase them and threaten them.
Arab women live in a more tolerant environment and one that is more prepared for change. Certainly, a significant change has come in the march of Saudi women, who can now become members of the Shura Council. Certainly, women in Tunisia played a radical role in preventing the Muslim Brotherhood there from dominating the constitution and deeming women a “complementary supplement” to men. And certainly, women in Egypt have helped topple two presidents in the scope of one year, and are at the forefront of protests in the squares. Meanwhile, no one can deny the resistance of Syria’s women, as they bury their loved ones, and let us not forget Palestinian, Libyan, and Yemeni women, as their roles in revolutions cannot be ignored.
But what happened throughout history and now, is that there was often a quick effort to exclude women from political decision-making during and after revolutions. A striking example is the dominance of men in the Syrian opposition and its political decision-making, while shamefully excluding women from posts and decision-making positions.
What is more shameful is the status of Lebanese women. Those liberal women, who compete with Western women in their liberated clothing, are hostages to the men in power and to their own narrow ambitions. The women in parliament might have been wives or sisters before attaining their posts, but they have proven to be more competent than their male peers. Bahia Hariri has everything it takes to ....
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