ABU DHABI // Arab women need to step out from the shadow of men in all spheres of life if they want to truly progress. This is the view of Ayesha Sultan, one of the Emirati delegates attending the second annual New Arab Woman Forum, opening today in Beirut. Mrs Sultan, a prominent Emirati writer and head of political programmes for Dubai TV, said progress would be made "if women try to strengthen themselves beside men, not remain behind them". "Why should there be a strong woman behind every man? She should be in front or beside him." She even went so far as to suggest that the Arab world might see a female prime minister elected "maybe in the next 15 to 20 years". She said Emirati women had broken the traditional patriarchy in the business world. "We are a special kind of conservative; we are conservative in special points in our relations with religion, but we are very open in other ways about business and education and women," she said. "I am very proud of this aspect." Nadine Hani, a news presenter on Al Arabiya who will be mediating the panel on women and business, said her opening address will highlight the disparity between the high number of educated women and unemployment levels among females in the Arab world. "Education does not necessarily translate into women in the workplace," she said. "This is for reasons including family and social issues and also because of the patriarchal society where some men do not encourage women into the workforce. Women also underestimate their potential and can be underpaid. We need to look at the solutions." Despite this, 40 per cent of the wealth in the Gulf is held by women, a large number of whom are entrepreneurs, according to Mrs Hani. In the Levant countries, most women are generally employed in the private sector, she said, with a large proportion of the Lebanese banking sector staffed by women. According to the organisers of the forum, in 2007 women in the GCC controlled an estimated US$346 billion (Dh1,270bn), a figure that is projected to rise to US$385 billion by 2011. However, Katty Marmenout, a research fellow in the Women and Leadership in the Middle East programme at Insead, a centre for executive education and research in Abu Dhabi, said that more needs to be done to translate the high proportion of women in higher education into women in the workforce. "We are seeing increasing numbers of women joining higher education - 75 per cent of university students in the UAE are women," she said. "[But] there seems to be a problem when it comes to transferring the knowledge at university and getting them into the workplace." Mrs Marmenout, who will be speaking on the panel on Women in Business, cited the World Economic Forum's 2007 Global Gender Gap report, saying that the GCC countries were placed high in terms of the proportion of women in education, but lagged behind when it came to economic opportunities. Mrs Marmenout also pointed to the unusually high voluntary turnover rate in the UAE, where women are leaving the workforce, not by being forced out, but for a variety of reasons which she is currently addressing through her research. The pull between work and family has been identified as one of the main problems and the challenge lies in finding the "tools to cope". Mrs Marmenout, who is involved with research into gender stereotypes and why women drop out of the workforce, described women in the UAE as occupying a "very special status". As more Arab women assume roles in public life, work needs to be done to "to break the traditional cycle that is limiting the role of women," said Mazen Hayek, director of marketing and PR with Dubai-based broadcaster MBC, who will be addressing the forum's opening session. "A year ago we partnered with the New Arab Woman Forum in Dubai when we called for all to look for the best possible means for Arab women to address pressing needs and reform," Mr Hayek said. "Now the call is even more pressing for women to play a full and active role in the socio-political sphere and to take greater initiatives and foster gradual change." Since the launch of MBC in 1991, the group has "fostered a greater role for Arab women in society and media affairs", Mr Hayek said. This was achieved in part, he said, by putting forward strong examples of female Arab actors and television presenters. "[These women] ended up in millions of homes through television on dramas, TV shows, news broadcasts. Think how many of these programmes are dealing with women's issues," he said, citing examples of home-grown shows like Sabah al Khair Ya Arab (Good Morning Arabs), as well as imported programmes, such as Oprah. "The media has the power to positively put the spotlight on issues and also to demystify the role of women in the public sphere, such as TV anchors," he said. Mr Hayek described it as a "fait accompli" that issues such as women in politics and in leadership roles are now widely accepted and debated in public. "The media has a big role in shining a light on women and their role in society," he said. A recent example, Mr Hayek said, was Noor, the hugely popular Turkish soap-opera which was dubbed into Arabic and broadcast across the Arab world. The final episode drew a remarkable 85 million viewers, 50 million of them women, he said. "Noor managed to trigger more debate on social issues and issues relating to women and power, women in business," he said. "TV can act as a catalyst or a trigger for debate when done in a sensitive and non-sensationalist manner. TV belongs to the public domain and we have a responsibility not to be overly sensational." firstname.lastname@example.org
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