Stereotypes Under Fire

At a Recent Conference in Vienna, Arab Women Challenged Many of the Common Assumptions Of Submission, Isolation and Low Political Participation

Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr. Ursula Plassnik and Dr. May Al-Jaser at the DAW Forum: Arab women today have reasons for optimism | Photo: Creative Commons

At a first-ever symposium organized by the Vienna-based Diplomatic Arab Women’s (DAW) Forum, the stereotype of the typical Arab woman “imprisoned behind a veil of powerlessness” was, if not put to rest, at least challenged.

Held in late march at the Radisson SAS Hotel in Vienna, under the patronage of Princess Loulwa Al-Faisal Al-Saoud of the Saudi royal family and vice chairman of the board of Effat College for Women in Jeddah, the country’s first college for women, the conference was entitled “A Glimpse at Women in the Arab World: Achievements and Aspirations:”

Women in the Arab world have often been perceived as having no say in their lives, silent, mysterious and obedient, on each and every issue always allowing the men to decide.  In many cases though, this picture could not be farther from the truth.  The DAW Forum was set up to address these misperceptions, and confront them by changing main stream assumptions.

The challenges women in the Arab world face are great.

“Illiteracy or, more exactly, the lack of proper education, disease and lack of proper medical care, poverty or lack of means to sustain a dignified life, are all major problems confronting Arab women’s lives” said DAW Forum president Dr. May Al-Jaser in her opening statement.

But does this situation differ from experiences of women globally? Yes. And it is in understanding these differences, she suggested, that change will be possible for Arab women.

According to Al-Jaser, it is “misinformation on one side and a lack of awareness from the other side” that causes such stereotypes. “There is little understanding of the status of women and the total context of their lives,” she said.

Many Arab women are highly educated, professional, cosmopolitan women, who pursue careers in various professions. Al-Jaser cited examples offered by Princess Al-Saoud of Sheikha Lubna Al-Qasimi, Minister of Economy and Trade for the United Arab Emirates and Dr. Thoraya Obaid, the first Saudi under-secretary general and executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), among others.

Other traditional village women have always been actively involved in agriculture. There are Arab women who are members of parliaments, work in government agencies, and attend universities all over the Arab world.

“The full participation of women as citizens and contributors is a source of strength in any society,” said Dr. Ursula Plassnik, the Austrian Federal Minister for European and International Affairs. “No economy and no society can afford to do without the contribution of women.” She went on to give examples of  “Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia where women have doubled, or even tripled their representation in parliament.”

However changes do not happen immediately, as the Princess emphasized. “For women to become meaningfully empowered, both men and women have to be part of a deeper process of social change that goes from the household to school to government,” she pointed out.

And the degree of change varies according to the Arab country in question.  According to UNESCO, only 30% of women in Yemen can read, compared to 87% in Jordan.  About 90% of girls are enrolled in primary school in all Arab States except the Comoros, Morocco and Yemen, and more women than men are registered for higher education in Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Yet, in spite of this progress, Arab women’s economic participation rate still remains low at 33%, compared to the world average 56%.  However, the number of Arab women entrepreneurs is steadily on the rise, according to the Arab Human Development Report 2005.  In Bahrain, for example, the number of women employers rose more than 322% in the last 15 years. In Saudi Arabia, estimates of the number of businesses owned by women range between 20,000 and 40,000 and in Tunisia, the number of woman-owned businesses increased from 2,000 in 1998 to 5,000 in 2005.

The two-day symposium brought together a spectrum of distinguished professional women from various parts of the Arab world to share their experiences in their respected fields of expertise – ranging from education, medicine, health care, arts and literature.

Two sessions in particular captivated the audience: Dr. Alia Arasoughly, a Palestinian film maker and the Director General of Shashat, a cinema NGO in Palestine whose name means “many screens” in Arabic, uses her films to expresses different realities in Palestine. She showed a short video clip from her powerful 2006 documentary, After the Last Sky,  about three women, two Israeli and one Palestinian, who had signed a peace agreement among themselves.

She is convinced of the importance of film as a tool for stimulating social change.

“Cinema is a non-threatening tool and a very dynamic media,” she said, “that can confront and transform assumptions and images.”  Arasoughly’s work, distributed primarily through private showings in refugee camps, schools, universities or homes, has led her into extremely dangerous situations, in particular when filming close to the Palestinian-Israeli border. The obstacles she faces are “plentiful and scary,” she said, “especially as we do not wear any bullet proof vests nor drive bullet-proof cars.”

Nidal Al Achkar, a Lebanese artist who has been a pioneer in re-shaping the theatre movement in the Middle East, founded the Masrah Al Madina theatre, in 1994, which quickly became the centre for all things cultural and artistic in Beirut.

“The theatre is a platform of free speech, a space for free expression,” she said. This belief is demonstrated by her own actions – at times very provocative, using her  plays and theatre productions as a means to tackle controversial social or political issues in the Middle East.

During the Lebanon 2006 July war, she enabled more than 600 people who had become homeless to stay in the theatre and launched a program called “Dreams under Fire,” that engaged all children housed in the theatre in creative activities.

“The theatre is an art of change,” she said, “and change is certainly what we need in the Arab world.”

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