ABU DHABI // Arab women should be judged on their abilities rather than their gender, the first lady of Syria said yesterday. Asma al Assad said that while she wanted more women to be involved in politics, culture, medicine and the business world, it had to be on individual merit, not because they were women. "I don't see a difference between Arab men and women," she said. "I believe that we should look at women based on their abilities more than gender."
Mrs Assad is in the capital to take part in the second Arab Women's Conference, being held under the patronage of Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, president of the Arab Women Organization. Female academics, political and community figures from across the Arab world are attending the three-day conference to discuss the effects of globalisation on the security of women in the region. Hope and opportunity are inextricable from peace and stability, said Mrs Assad, who was one of several first ladies at the Emirates Palace hotel on the first day of the conference.
"My desire is to see greater participation from everybody in the Middle East, regardless of gender, age or social background," she said. "For development and change to be successful it has to happen with us and by us, rather from somebody else and by somebody else." Developing the potential of young people in Syria, where 60 per cent of the population is under the age of 25, is the one of the keys to progress, she said.
"We are very proud of the significant achievements Arab women have accomplished in recent years, but we can only build on them if we base our evaluation of them on practical realities." Mrs Assad cited the achievements of women, including a Syrian vice president, Najah al Attar - the first and only female deputy leader in the Arab world - as proof of progress in her country. But one of the main challenges remaining is something that affects people regardless of gender or nationality: how to balance career and family.
As countries across the region take a more inclusive view of women, Mrs Assad said that in some cases legislation was not enough, unless political will led to tangible changes. "Among the changes that I would like to see are words translating into actions across the Arab region, because without the political aspect it will not be possible to change the woman's role," she said. "Politics needs to take a lead on this. No matter what you add in legislation, if we don't change the mindset this will not help."
In Syria, women have been in the parliament for three decades and hold 13 per cent of seats. That is still "not enough", she said. Mrs Assad said the question should not necessarily be one of equal rights, but more of equal opportunities. For example, women should have the opportunity to join the armed forces but not be required to do so, she said. Before misconceptions about women in the Arab world can be confronted, the major achievements of women across the region should "become the norm".
One area that is commonly misunderstood is the role of Islam, which should not be seen as "stopping the development of women", she said. Born in Britain to Syrian parents, the former Asma Akhras was an investment banker before she married Bashar al Assad, the Syrian president, in 2000. While she is known for her humanitarian work, she said the people who work behind the scenes in the humanitarian field are her role models.
"Everybody who doesn't accept that there is impossibility in life is a leader for me," she said. Mrs Assad described Sheikha Fatima as a "very, very special lady" with an ability to "reach out to people to remove barriers, to create connections". "In public life it is all too easy to lose sight of the big picture, of what really counts and the real issues facing people in day to day life," she said.
"It is so important to continue to engage on an active basis with people from all walks of life, listening to their concerns and aspirations. In that way, the resulting change is more successful and tangible." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org