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.


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