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Talk of change for women needs male voices, Dubai seminar told

Men should be included in the discussion on empowering women, but how to draw them in was one of the challenges faced by a seminar this week.

DUBAI // Men should be included in the discussion on empowering women, but how to draw them in was one of the challenges faced by a seminar this week.

The topic must involve men as women's issues affect everyone and enlightened men can be key allies, the seminar heard.

"I think a critical component of women's empowerment is the inclusion of men in the dialogue, for strategic reasons and moral reasons," said Dr Sylvia Maier, clinical assistant professor in New York University's Centre for Global Affairs.

"We need to find creative ways of how we can make men part of this conversation, short of bribing people to come to these meetings."

Fadwa Al Qasem, a writer and artist, asked whether "women's empowerment" could be rephrased to avoid alienating men.

"Why can't we say social empowerment?" she asked. "Shouldn't [men] also be empowered? Men have issues and they feel threatened, and because of the way they feel threatened they affect women as well."

Stereotypes hurt men too, Dr Maier said, giving the example of a new father who wants to take time off work and is ridiculed by his colleagues.

"This notion of binary gender roles also disempowers men," she said.

Dr Maier began Wednesday's seminar at Dubai School of Government with a lecture on how to turn women's success in higher education into greater workforce participation.

About two-thirds of university students in the UAE are women, yet across the Middle East and North Africa, only about a fifth of women are in the workforce, she said, citing World Bank statistics.

"These are numbers that are worrisome," Dr Maier said.

"My question is, why is that and how can we increase the numbers?"

M Baquer Namazi, a development consultant who was one of the few male participants in the seminar, said male ignorance played a role.

Men should be made aware of the economic, social and political benefits of empowering the women in a society, Mr Namazi said.

To educate them, issues relevant to women should be incorporated into university courses outside of women's studies departments, said Dr Rana Raddawi, associate professor of English at the American University of Sharjah.

"Let me ask the ladies here, if you had a course or an event called men's empowerment or men's issues, would you be interested?" she asked.

Dr Raddawi said she teaches a mixed-gender course on intercultural communication that included readings and discussions about women's empowerment.

"I think if we include women's studies, women's issues in the curriculum, in our reading - in our language courses, our sociology, psychology, cultural, political sciences - then maybe we can achieve better results," she said.

Such a method could be very effective, Dr Maier said.

"I really like your approach, because it takes away this notion that women are a special category of human beings," she said.

Culture also matters, said Alia Meftah, a senior studying mathematics at Zayed University.

"As an Emirati woman, yes we are restricted by the cultural beliefs and by the cultural perspective of how women should live their lives and stay at home with their kids," Ms Meftah said.

"I think building confidence is really important. And I'm hoping for change also."

Dr Raddawi reassured the seminar participants: "Luckily the culture is dynamic. It's not static. Culture changes."

vnereim@thenational.ae

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