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Queen Rania, Future of the Arab World and Myths about Women Highlight Mideast Conference

May 21, 2007


AMMAN, JORDAN, May 16 – I think the Muslim world is on the verge of an intellectual revolution regarding women.” 

Those are the visionary words of Dr. Leila Ahmed, an internationally respected scholar from the Harvard Divinity School, who was part of an impressive panel asked to address the compelling topic: Arab Women: Myths, Misperceptions & Realities before an audience of women leaders from 45 countries.  

This is the third and final day of an unprecedented gathering in the Arab World of the International Women’s Forum (www.iwforum.org), a global organization committed to advancing leadership and opportunities for women across careers and continents. 

I have been privileged to join over 500 highly accomplished women who have come to the Mideast from all over the globe to meet face-to-face, to listen and to learn from one another in the cause of a better world.    

Gender inequity was singled out as one of the major obstacles to development in the Arab world.  But we were also reminded that misperceptions between East and West abound, that the quest for equality for U.S. and European women is only a few decades ahead of progress in the Mideast, and stereotypes about Arab and Muslim women have grown dramatically in the last ten years.  

Today’s highlights also included remarks by Queen Rania Al Abdullah (covered in the The Jordan Times http://www.jordantimes.com/thu/homenews/homenews3.htm).) and a discussion on The Future of the Arab World. 

Here are comments and insights that resonated with me from each session:

»    THE FUTURE OF THE ARAB WORLD: Panel of outstanding young leaders from Jordan, Lebanon and the West Bank.  Comments were insightful, but also unnerving at times.  With more than 50% of Jordan’s population under 26, youth are the hope for the future of Jordan and the entire world.  


·        Young woman lawyer who fled Iraq:

o      “We lived under Saddam’s regime for 35 years and knew how to stay out of his way.  Now we have lost our country, we have orphaned children, poverty and an annihilated people.  I ask you to help Iraqis in the sectarian war to get the intruders out.  Without the world’s help, we cannot do it ourselves.”


·        Palestinian male business student from the West Bank:

o      “This is not just an issue between Israel and Palestine – it is an issue between the entire Arab world and Israel.”

o      "The wall – 780 kilometers and 12 meters high – is devastating the people.  The Palestinian youth living there are a wreck.”

o      “Ninety percent of the youth in Palestine are against normalization of relations with Israel.”


·        Female electronics engineer from Jordan: 

o      “Youth doesn’t want to listen to the news or politics; we’re sick of fit and we are tuning it out.” 


·        Male lawyer from Jordan:

o      "It is time to see an international community that accepts differences between faiths, cultures, gender and adopts policies that reflect that acceptance."

o      "I hope people who attend this conference will tell people that there are many Arabs who want peace …. That we are proud people, educated, cultured and peaceful."

  »    COMMENTS BY JORDAN QUEEN RANIA --  Before the arrival of Queen Rania Al Abdullah, security was tightened up several notches, with dogs and police sweeping the ballroom and all attendees required to pass through metal detectors. But her majesty’s message was progressive and forward looking. 

A Palestinian by birth, the Queen thanked the IWF members for coming to the Mideast in search of understanding and cross-cultural friendships.  She called the Jordanian women who hosted the historic conference “. . . some of the leading lights of the Jordanian workforce, lighting the way for future generations.”  And she praised the courage and character of Arab women for “… increasing refusal to accept obstacles to their emergence as full participants in society.” For more complete coverage on her comments:  http://www.jordantimes.com/thu/homenews/homenews3.htm 


  • There is great simplification of Arab and Islamic women.  We need to stop putting people in boxes before we know them.” 
  •   “Millions of Muslim women choose freely to wear hijab.  The veil is a symbol of oppression of women only to those who oppose Islam.” 
  •  "Arab women also have misperceptions of western women, including:   they have loose morals, are not interested in the family and have achieved full equality with men.”

A major report published on gender in the Arab world identified recent progress in four critical areas:  

◊         Education – opportunities for girls and women has increased dramatically in the last three decades in early all Arab countries.

         Political Participation – women can now vote in nearly all Arab countries and are beginning to hold significant – not just token – parliamentary and cabinet positions.

◊         Economic Participation – over the past 15 years, women’s participation in the workforce has increase by 19%.  One of every three women (33%) over the age of 15 is in the labor force.

      Legal Rights – there is still widespread discrimination, including inheritance (males inherit double what females receive) and birth rights (only a father can pass nationality on to children).  But women have finally achieved the right to divorce in nearly all Arab countries.  

But times are changing dramatically and quickly. According to one panel discussion, nearly one-third of male academics in the Arab world actively support women’s rights. The difference is the growing numbers of academics being educated at top western schools, before they continue their studies of the Koran at Islamic centers. As one panelist put it, “With that context underway, I expect that we will soon begin to see very new interpretation and insight about the Islamic principles in the modern world.”

 As this remarkable gathering came to an end, I was struck by the spirit of willingness to reach out, to understand and connect at the grassroots level that defined this three-day conference.  It is the basis for great hope for a safer and closer human society.     

When you remember that nearly all of the landmark accomplishments for women’s equality occurred in the 20th Century, it is easy to see that women will play an increasingly significant role in the major role in the advancement of civilization. 


The best is yet to come.


Open Mikes, Tough Questions and Brave Answers Characterize Day One of IWF Jordan Conference

May 20, 2007


AMMAN, JORDAN, May 15 -- The winds of change are beginning to blow across the Arab World.  I felt them swirling all around me as the working sessions began here for an extraordinary and largest-ever global gathering of the International Women’s Forum (IWF) www.iwforum.org.



“Building Bridges, Breaking Walls” was the name the leading women of Jordan selected for the 2007 IWF Cornerstone Conference, which was held for the first time ever in the Mideast, May 14-16, 2007.   


“We were hoping for up to 150 women leaders from around the world to accept our invitation,” Reem Abu Hassan, president of IWF Jordan said as she opened the session in Amman. “Not even in our wildest dreams did we dare imagine that nearly 600 women from 45 countries would travel here to open their minds and hearts to this unique opportunity.”  


“This is an historic exchange in historic times,” said Gay Cook, president of the International Women’s Forum, a Washington, D.C. based organization formed 25 years ago to connect accomplished women and advance leadership opportunities for women across careers and continents.


As the working sessions began, Cook challenged the assembled women to “. . . lay down pre-conceived notions, learn from our collective experience, and make the leaps of faith for open discussion on important issues facing women and the world.”    


The conference sessions were compelling and panelists included some of the leading and experts and voices for progress from all over the Arab world.  First day topics included:


  •  Islam, Democracy and Modernization --  are they compatible?  And why do Arab women continue to be the source of so much misunderstanding?


  • Arab Women Political Leaders -- Where do Arab women stand in their future prospects for greater roles in public influence?


  •  Education, Culture and Competitiveness – What are the educational and technical challenges facing women in Arab societies?
  • Faith, Identity and Co-Existence – Religion is increasingly portrayed as a force that divides East and West.  What are the challenges and opportunities for peaceful co-existence in today’s world?   

Jordan is one of the most progressive countries in the Arab World and I was repeatedly struck by the willingness of our hosts to tackle sensitive issues and tough questions with courage.  There was an open mike and questions were uncensored from an audience without a shy bone in it, including from the contingent of Israeli women.


There was little small talk, but plenty of business cards being handed around during opportunities for global networking.  Surrounded by an astonishing gathering of some of the brightest lights of the most accomplished generation of women in the history of the world, I felt like a kid in a candy shop. 


I sought out Jordanians, Egyptians, Israelis, South Americans, Russians and Europeans.  All spoke nearly flawless English and were eager to build personal connections with other women from all corners of the world.   In the age of the internet, email and personal websites, building global personal networks and sowing the seeds of lasting inter-continental friendships have never held more promise.   


Here are key themes and comments from the first day’s session that stood out for me.


On Islam, Democracy and Modernization: 

»      We want to create something of our own in the Islamic world; we don’t have to duplicate and be measured by western standards.”  Muslim woman panelist. 

On Islam and Women’s Rights: 

»      "Islam believes in equality and human rights.  The Islamic world is being asked to 'catch up' and so is constantly being compared to western standards.” Alees Samaan, Bahrain, first woman to chair a Parliament in the Middle East.  

»     The laws are made by men for men.  God gave us all they have taken from us . . . When it began, Islam freed women and baby girls from being killed.  All the problems today are from misinterpretations by men of the Koran.” Dr. Farkhonda Hassan, Member of Parliament and leading women’s rights advocate. 

»     There is no equality for women in all religions.”  Comment from Israeli IWF member.   

On Achievement of Equal Rights for Arab Women: 

»     “We still live in a male dominated societies and world; men still control most of the power and decision making.  However, in the last decade, Arab women have emerged as an educated, cultured and increasingly influential force.”  Alees Samaan, Bahrain, Member of Parliament.   


»     “We need more leaders who don’t get in the way of other leaders.”  Comment from IWF member, Ecuador. 

 »     "It has been only five years since Egyptian women achieved the right to divorce, after 50 years of struggle. One of the obstacles in the drive to equality is that women don’t know their rights.  They only know what they are told by their husbands, fathers, brothers and Shia priests.  And it is rarely in the best interests of the women.”   Dr. Farkhouda Hassan, Egypt

 On Misunderstanding Between East and West:  

»     Why are you allowing the extremists to hijack the political and media process on development in the Mideast?  There is not enough public and media attention focused on the many other constructive efforts that are going on.”  Comment by Israeli IWF member

»     “I have seen incredible tolerance here in the Arab world, much more than in the western world shown toward the East. Men and women are cared for in their old age; the treatment of people one to another; I have been welcomed with universal hospitality.”  Comment from American IWF member living in Jordan for past 27 years

Final Thoughts on First Day’s Working Session  

I am struck by the power of personal, human connection and dialogue to speed human progress.  Today’s session was filled with context, insight and critical missing threads from the fabric of the evolving Muslim world, particularly from the perspective of women.  There is a growing sense among the fully-engaged leaders at this conference of the important role each of us can play as ambassadors.  I am one of many here who feel a growing sense of responsibility to return to our own countries, not just intellectually richer for this experience, but compelled to share the insight we gained today, with all of our circles of influence. 


Key Messages.  Echoing throughout today’s dialogue were two principles that are as true for leaders in the U.S. as they are for those in the Mideast and other parts of our amazing world. 


»   We must put emphasis on people to people interaction because this is the way forward.


»   Constituencies cannot be lax.  It is essential to stand up and make a difference for positive social change. 


Stay Tuned.  Jordan Queen Rania Al Abdullah addresses tomorrow's final session of the IWF conference.  Tomorrow's working sessions include: The Future of the Arab World, with a panel of young leaders and  Arab Women:  Myths, Misperceptions and Realities. 


Anne Doyle


First Ever Gathering in the Arab World of the International Women's Forum Draws Record Attendance

May 15, 2007

AMMAN, JORDAN, May 14  -- On a high hill overlooking the lights of one of the most progressive cities of today's Arab World and surrounded by the 1300 year old ruins of the Palace of the Citadel, women leaders from 45 countries made history last night.  


I am privileged to be one of the 500 women from business, academics, the professions and the arts who are gathering here for the 2007 Cornerstone Conference of the International Women’s Forum (IWF), “Building Bridges and Breaking Walls.”   The opening ceremonies were held last night under the stars and beside an open Bedouin tent, where the leading women of Jordan welcomed their guests for the first ever such gathering in the Mideast.  

The three-day event is being covered by media throughout the region, including The Jordan Times and the Turkish Daily News. 



Before the opening ceremonies, IWF Jordan president and lawyer Reem Abu Hassan told journalists the event will pave the way for a venue for women worldwide to engage in a dialogue and put their challenges on the table for debate.  “We have a responsibility of conveying the true image of the conflicts and challenges facing us in our part of the world,” she said.  “This conference is an opportunity for honest and in-depth dialogues to discuss these conflicts and reach a better understanding for all the issues that concern us as women.”


Gay Cook, president of the Washington-based global IWF described the three-day event as an ". . . opportunity to dispel deepening misconceptions between the East and the West." 


Over the next few days, I will post short reports on this site, including insights, personal observations and any breaking news from the three-day event, which is being held under the sponsorship of Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan.


A few personal observations about my experience since arriving in Jordan three days ago:

  • First, I find it hopeful and deeply moving to see women coming together in one of the most troubled places in the world.  The front pages of The Jordan Times, the nations English newspaper, have been filled these past few days with news of more than 60 new bombing deaths in Iraq, vice-president Cheney’s visit to the region, the abduction of 15 in Gaza and Jordan King Abdullah’s planned visit to Ramallah.


  •  Second, contrary to the concerns of my family and many friends who questioned the sanity and safety of my visiting Jordan at this time, I have found the country to be an oasis of hope and possibility.  Amman, a city that has grown from only 3,000 in 1921 to nearly three million people today is very clean with most buildings made from white limestone.  Women, children and men are welcoming to visitors and eager to show off their country and practice their English.   


  • Third, I have the incredible fortune of having one of the Forums long-time leaders, Marjorie O’Connell, as my roommate. O’Connell, of Washington, D.C. based O’Connell & Associates is one of the top international tax lawyers in the world. Before last night’s opening ceremonies, O’Connell and I traveled together to The Dead Sea and Petra, sharing our thoughts on the forces that brought us to this historic gathering. 


“I am struck by the potential of the power gathered together at this meeting,” she told me last night as we shared a bottle of wine and lavosh. “Not just in so-called 'women’s circles,' if there is such a limiting thing anymore,” she added, “but in the halls of government and business decision makers all over the world.  With this gathering, we have an opportunity to begin to bring sustainable calm to this tinderbox.”


We’re off now to today’s plenary sessions, which include discussions on:  “Faith, Identity and Co-Existence” and growing efforts to strengthen women’s political participation in Arab nations.  Security is extremely tight, with Queen Rania Al Abdullah to address the conference tomorrow.


Stay tuned.

Women Leaders Gathering in the Mideast

May 5, 2007

This month, I will be heading to the Mideast for a Cornerstone  Conference of the International Women’s Forum (http://iwforum.browsermedia.com, which will be held in Amman, Jordan. 

 Nearly 500 women leaders from 30 countries are gathering in an ancient and biblical land for a conversation unlike any other.  Entitled, “Building Bridges – Breaking Walls,” the conference has been put together by the leading women (business, political, cultural, academic) of Jordan, under the patronage of Queen Rania Al Abdullah (http://www.queenrania.jo/)

Can you imagine the compelling dialogue that will occur as women from around the globe gather to discuss shared and differentiating experiences? 

Conference topics include:  The Complexity of Relationships East to West; Faith, Identity and Co-Existence , and Arab Women: Myths, Misperceptions & Realities.  
At my core, I am a journalist. So, I go with open eyes and full of anticipation. 

Most of all I wonder:  What will be the major themes that will emerge as accomplished, globally engaged women gather to ponder, discuss and challenge one another on the role women will play in moving our world forward?  

I will post observations and insights from the conference in the On Anne’s Mind section of my website.

In preparation for this trip, I have been reading voraciously.  Here are two favorite discoveries: 

» Website of Queen Rania Al Abdullah (I was surprised by her focus on the empowerment of women in Jordan.  She appeared on NBC’s Today Show the first week in May, talking about “village banking” or micro loans to help lift people out of poverty.  
»Fascinating book:  Nine Parts of Desire:  The Hidden Life of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks.  A graduate of Columbia University’s School of Journalism, the author was the U.N. correspondent for the Wall Street Journal when she wrote the book in 1995.  

When I return, I will be interested in opportunities to share what I know will be a spectacular wealth of fresh information. 

If you have any ideas for speaking and discussion forums or topics of particular interest to you related to this global forum of women leaders, I’d love to hear from you.

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