x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Activist talks about women's empowerment on UAE tour

US author 'cautiously optimistic' about events in region

DUBAI // The powerful "paradigm shift" unfolding in the Middle East could lead to disappointment and heartbreak without the right support, a women's activist and conflict resolution expert warned this week.

No "Mandela or Gandhi" figures were going to bring about change, but it was the collective that was pushing for reforms in the Arab world, said the American author Manal Omar, director of Iraq Programmes at the US Institute of Peace's Centre for Post-conflict Peace and Stability Operations.

"I had always been waiting for the Mandela to emerge or the Gandhi to bring about change," said Omar, who is on an official US government tour to the UAE. "But when I looked at the events of Tahrir Square, I realised it was not going be to an individual but it was going to be the collective. It was us. We are the people to bring about change."

An American of Palestinian descent, Omar is in the Emirates to interact with Emirati women as part of International Women's Day celebrations. She has visited more than six government colleges to talk about women's empowerment and her experiences with women in post-conflict situations, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq.

She described herself as being "cautiously optimistic" about events in the region. "I have two competing emotions," she said. One emotion is incredible excitement and joy. I've been working for 15 years in the region on development and women's rights, and never thought I'd witness a point in time in the region where you had people holding themselves, their communities and leaders accountable.

"I think that is a powerful paradigm shift that I am excited about and I am eager to be part of. However, the cynic in me, having been through the Afghanistan and Iraq experience, understands that developing new social contracts is a difficult process. I worry that all of this excitement and energies will be met with disappointment and heart-break, which wouldn't be new to the region."

She will next visit Egypt to work with civil society organisations, women's groups and the community to provide technical assistance, if necessary, in pushing for constitutional reforms. "This is essentially a listening tour. We are not coming with a prescription. However, if people want to know how to negotiate, work on constitutional reforms, drafting a constitution - we want to be responsive and provide technical assistance," she said.

Omar, who recently released her book Barefoot in Baghdad: A Story of Identity - My Own and What It Means to Be a Woman in Chaos, said Emirati youth should take advantage of the multicultural environment to learn more about other cultures.

pkannan@thenational.ae