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Women in the Arab World

Women leaders in modern Syria, the Arab world and international community

Elisabeth Lang, eTN  Jun 01, 2010

“Political empowerment of women in [the] Arab World sets new signs, and women will make the most powerful changes to the econmic crisis," said HE Dr. Diala Al Haij Aref, Minister of Social Affairs and Labor, the Syrian Arab Republic, in her opening speech of the Arab International Women’s Forum held in Damascus for the very first time.

The program on Enhancing Women’s Economic Empowerment and Poverty Alleveiation brought delegations of Arab, European, and international leaders together to meet with their counterparts in Syria, a country where women ministers are well established.

The AIWF Forum was hosted last year in Paris under the patronage of HE Christine Lagarde, Minister for Economy, Industry, and Employment in France.

Chaired by Haifa Fahoum Al Kaylani and president of AIWF (Arab International
Women’s Forum), over 220 delegates from all over world gathered in Damascus
and attended the conference, Partnership and Prosperity, held at the Four Season Hotel in Damascus.

“AIWF is showcasing the areas in the world in order to achive progress and advance and gain a gender equilibrium to activate the rule of women [making] up 50 percent of leadership in gender dimension as basic of human rights," said Mrs. Haifa Al Kahlani. She continued, “The question is not if women can do better than men, or men can do better than women; we have simply [to] acknowledge the fact that 52 percent of world['s] humanity are women.

"I believe the woman is not discorrupt, but [she also] has [a] strong economic sense of feasibilty. This country is in full business; the shares of women who are running their own business lays by 20 percent, but also in politics, Syria deliver[ed] the first Arab woman to become vice pesident and 45 women in the Syrian parliament."

She also see strong roles in Syria's private schools opening up. In all sectors of the Syrian economy and society, the role of women is well-supported, and it was amazing to see so many open-minded women in high heels in very powerful positions in this part of the world.

But the real achievement is the fast-growing amount of women who are ready for changes in the Middle East, including women in academia. Business equality in earnings is not an issue for Syrian women, who are getting paid the same salary as men. Employers will be taken straight to court if they try to pay less to a woman than to a man. In Germany, women generally earn 20 percent less than the men, in the same job position.

Keynote speaker, John Edwin Mroz, president and CEO of EastWest Institute, USA, said: “Powerful men should attend this debate. ... I wished there were far more men here; they can learn a lot. I have learned more in these 2 days than in all [my] years back. I also generated new business in IT fields and cyber securtiy with Saudi Arabian IT women. This is incredible ... This would not be possible in our normal conferences."

Mrs. Raja Easa Al Gurg, CEO of EASA SALEH AL Gurg Group UAE – with 23 companies and 5000 employees in Dubai - makes a clear commitment of sustainibilty; she said, "Women should stay women and not become men when running companies."

One of the Plenary sessions looked across the region regarding what is required of leading women in business and public life to ensure that opportunities for women are enhanced in these times of economic growth.

Italy's former vice president of the senate, Emma Bonio, said: "What we are lacking is the power; [we are] not lacking the skill. We need power and must learn that ambition is not a crime, but normal."

"Women should play an important role in the economy, and we are not victims of [the] media. The Western world underestimates us, and that is mainly because awe are wearing a veil," said HE Dr. Bouthania Shaaban, adviser at the Syrian presidency for media and political affairs. She continued,"We should not be men, we should look good, and go [to] the hairdresser, and not follow the Western trends ... we are equal! I [would] rather wear our traditional dress - it goes with [our] climate. The West goes to Iraq, and we all see what came out of it. We need partnership but [not] to act as guardian."

Minister for Social Development, Jordania, HE Mrs. Hala Bsaiso Latouf, thinks that Arab women should no longer be measured by whether or not they are wearing veils nor should they be criticized by the Western World.

She said the important issue is: "Women need education and financial independece to set them free." She stated an example: “If a business woman brings her children to school, people will say she is not [a] good business woman. If the man takes the children to school, they say: "Oh, what a nice father he is.”

The two-day conference has not only changed the minds of attending particiapants - among them investment bankers from Paris and New York - but it has also added a great deal of warmth and humanity.

It has taught us that we can learn from each other and have to do away with prejudices. Syria was a surprise and is far more advanced in many fields than we may think, and the great hospitalty received was truly something unique.

The Arab International Women’s Forum (AIWF), launched in 2001, is a non-profit organization based in London, UK.

Women leaders in modern Syria, the Arab world and international community
Photo from Elisabeth Lang

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