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)



“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


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