Women call for greater involvement of women in efforts to tackle the social, economic and political challenges they face.
Arab first ladies call for empowerment
ABU DHABI // Arab first ladies appealed yesterday for the greater empowerment of Arab women, saying it was a fundamental requirement for the social development of the region. They called for the speeding up of the pace of women's participation in politics and greater involvement of women in efforts to tackle the social, economic and political challenges they face. Women leaders and high-profile women from across the Arab world, including at least 11 first ladies, gathered in Abu Dhabi at the opening ceremony of the second Conference of the Arab Women's Organisation, presided over by Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak. Sheikha Fatima, widow of Sheikh Zayed, the late founder of the nation, reiterated the UAE's commitment to supporting women's causes, saying it was vital "to achieve comprehensive Arab progress". Leila ben Ali, Tunisia's first lady, said promoting the role of women in Arab societies and offering them the means to exercise their rights and accomplish their duties was "a key component of the notion of Arab national security". Asmaa al Assad, the first lady of Syria, said: "The objective is not to carve out a new or different role for women, rather to ensure that their contribution is recognised and optimised. For our societies in the Arab world, this must result in a commitment to our nations' security, stability and prosperity." Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan said conditions for Arab women had been improving since 2000 but the pace of change was too slow. "Yes, the number of Arab women has doubled in the parliaments in the past eight years, but if we stay at this pace, it will take us 20 more years to reach a 30 per cent quota," she said. Women constitute 23 per cent of the UAE's Federal National Council, a higher proportion than in any Arab parliament. There are nine women members. "Yes, the road is long, but our steps are fast towards a clear goal," said Queen Rania. "All Arab women should decide ... how much education they need, what career they lead, who will they be married to." The Egyptian first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, spoke of the need to empower women by promoting human security. "Women are the most vulnerable to violence, cruel practices and human trafficking," she said. "They suffer the most in armed conflicts and refugee camps. And in the time of peace, they are poor and on the margins." Mrs Mubarak urged conference participants to agree on clear positions and messages about human security and to promote them in their home countries. Wafa Suleiman of Lebanon said she hoped the conference would focus on empowering the role of Arab women in areas of conflict: "The destructive effects of wars and conflicts harm women the most." Sheikha Fatima yesterday launched two major initiatives to enhance the role of Arab women and facilitate access to talented expatriate Arab women: a media strategy for Arab women to run between 2010 and 2015; and online network for immigrant Arab women. The network would hold a comprehensive database of professional Arab women living outside the region. The idea of the media strategy was developed at a Women and Media Forum in 2002. The initiative is aimed at lobbying media organisations to project a positive image of Arab women and their role in society. It also aims to have journalists "actively engage with women's issues". The three-day conference is being attended by women's rights activists, academics and political and community leaders from the Arab world. Its theme is Women and Human Security: An Arab and International Perspective. "Human security is one of the newest concepts used with regards to the principles of freedom, security and development," said Sheikha Fatima, who is the chairwoman of the UAE General Women's Union. "It is an evolving concept that focuses on transforming those principles into commitments and applicable mechanisms." She said human security was a broad concept that encompassed issues such as human rights, good governance, access to education and health care and a clean environment, the eradication of poverty and the guaranteeing of equal opportunities for individuals. "These are necessary ingredients for a decent and equitable human life," Sheikha Fatima said. "It is important ... to tackle them [security issues] in a highly co-ordinated manner and through openness and a positive dialogue that takes into consideration cultural peculiarities and seeks to bridge differences." The first lady of Sudan, Widad Babiker, also spoke of the need to redefine the role of women in relation to human security. "We have to set a strategy that could be implemented and [be] workable so that our children live in a future which enjoys social, economic, environmental and cultural security," she said. Panels will discuss issues such as whether globalisation has enhanced women's economic security, and education as a starting point for women's security. Speakers include women activists and specialists and academics from Arab and international universities, including the US and Britain. Leila Bel Khaeir, of the National Association of Algerian Women, said on the sidelines of the conference that empowering Arab women should entail freeing the Arab mindset of stereotypes about what professions women can pursue. "Women should be given the chance to move and take up any positions they can. They shouldn't be confined to certain professions," she said. firstname.lastname@example.org