x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

How will you change the world? An Arab woman wonders

The time is ripe for women to take the lead in their various roles as professionals, artists, mothers and wives.

When I was 10 years old, I was drawn fully into world events unfolding in front of me.

I remember the First Gulf War and the sight of tanks on the streets of Kuwait city. I remember the first Palestinian Intifada and the much-watched video of an Israeli soldier breaking the elbows of a stone-throwing Palestinian boy. I remember images of starving children in Africa and the bedraggled Bosnian women and children fleeing their home villages and the prospect of ending up in mass graves.

And I remember thinking that there must be a way to make all this wrong right again, a way to alleviate suffering and injustice, and a way I could be part of that.

I grew up thinking of myself as a human being, rather than a man or woman. But as the teenage years approached, I realised how naive that idea was, in a society that would so thoroughly make clear the boundaries for females.

So I rebelled, making up my mind to be a woman of the world, hopeful, determined to leave a mark.

I started university at age 16 in Canada, 11,000 kilometres from home. I graduated at the age of 20, held my first managerial position at 23, joined a consultancy firm at 24 and at 30 became director at a top-tier company.

And an overwhelming number of Arab women have stories far more fulfilling than mine.

The Arab women I know are truly inspiring. Their dreams, their passion to be better human beings, their drive to pursue their dreams and the success they reap every day in every aspect of life are truly remarkable.

But with all the change sweeping through the Arab world, it's important to ask a question: where do Arab women stand in all this? What future will we build for our nations? What role will we claim for ourselves?

Men have their own ideas. As gender experts told a conference in Dubai on Wednesday, the most important thing is to include men in any discussion on how to empower women.

But women may see things differently. So trying to answer these questions, I approached a sample of 70 Arab women to ask them what they thought. What they told me was fascinating.

The overwhelming majority spoke of self-improvement as their number one priority, far exceeding raising a family, finding a partner or anything else our society deems most important for women.

These 70 said self-development, financial independence and a career are their top priorities.

Asked what they spend most of their time doing, many put taking care of family first.

Finally, asked how satisfied they are with their lives, around 75 per cent spoke of a need for change.

My survey, while not exactly scientific, nonetheless says something about female priorities. If Arab women spend more time taking care of family and less time on themselves, is this because of societal expectations, or a lack of support networks to let them rise beyond their traditional roles?

The case for empowering women is not just a matter of answering personal dreams. It is also about building thriving economies and fulfilled societies.

Governments and institutions have a critical role in increasing female empowerment - at work, in schools. Quotas and decrees are needed. But these are not enough.

Arab women need to claim a new position in society, finding a way to live in harmony with their own priorities.

But are Arab women willing to do that? How hard are we willing to work towards building a model in which women support women in the workplace, at home and beyond? How much time and effort are we willing to commit to reaching our self-development goals rather than just writing them down?

When will we be able to release ourselves from self-imposed guilt if we go out there and be all that we can be?

The time is ripe for Arab women to take the lead. I look around and see talented Arab women all over in their various roles as professionals, artists, mothers and wives; it is a renaissance time for Arab women just waiting to happen.

"You must be the change you wish to see in the world", as Mahatma Gandhi said. So what's your change today?


Rana Askoul is a Dubai-based writer and leadership development consultant with a focus on the Middle East