Women in the Arab World - Do They Matter?

Tara Sonenshine
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
Brookings Institution
Washington, DC
April 4, 2013

Thank you, Tamara, for hosting me here at Brookings. I have had the privilege of working with you in so many incarnations and I must say you remain a terrific role model for women and men in foreign policy.

I am glad to see that spring has finally arrived. I only wish we could say the same for women in the Middle East and North Africa. As we meet, 50 percent of the region’s population that were on the frontlines of democratic change – in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya – are denied equal – or even remotely equal – roles after the revolution.

But, okay, rather than deliver a speech you have heard a million times before about the importance of women, I want to lead off with some provocative questions.

Should we really care about increasing the role of women in the Arab world—beyond just feeling good about ourselves? If so, why should we? Will the full inclusion of women – practically speaking, politically speaking, economically speaking make a difference amid this uncertain, even chaotic transition? And how will we know what success looks like?

On the first issue – why care? Let me start by saying, fairness and human dignity are universal values. We tend to embrace those values, easily when it comes to talking about the global economy – level playing fields, fairness and transparency are essential, so men and women can compete on the basis of their talent and drive.

As First Lady, former Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton put it so simply yet so memorably: “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”

And when it comes to human rights, there is a common set of liberties to which all human beings are entitled. Governments must enshrine, protect and enforce those liberties, so everyone is represented and all citizens are treated equally under law, regardless of creed, color or gender.

But let’s move a step beyond fairness and human rights. There is also an evidence-based reality. Study after study has confirmed that any country or region that ignores half its population undercuts its chances of success, politically, economically and certainly democratically.

And there are demographic realities in the Arab world. Young people—including girls – are a disproportionate majority, with youth unemployment being among the highest numbers globally. This youth bulge will continue at least until 2030. These facts put empowering young people of both genders at the top of any agenda.

Another fact: Young women are the largest cohort in higher education in many countries in the region and represent the next generation of human capital. If we limit that pool of emerging problem solvers, we will limit their unique perspectives and experiences, skills, and solutions.

According to a World Bank study, women in the Arab world have the lowest rates of employment of any region. The economies of the Middle East will never reach their potential without women playing a significantly more active role in the work force.

But let’s go beyond economics. Women are frequently the ones most intimately connected in their communities and with their families – and thus uniquely positioned to prevent extremist ideology creeping in. They are the community’s most frequent teachers of respect and tolerance. But they can also bring their attributes to more than so-called “women’s issues,” including conflict resolution, economic policy, and political leadership.

All across the region, women are already taking the initiative – women like Tawakkul Karman, now a 34-year-old mother of three from Yemen, a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her nonviolent efforts to enhance women’s safety and human rights, and peacebuilding. Or in the UAE, Minister of Development and International Cooperation, Lubna Al Qassemi. Or scientists like Dr. Ansam Sawalha, whose science camp “GO Girls” is bringing educational opportunities and scholarships to girls and women in the Palestinian Territories.

Imagine the effect on the entire region, if the Tawakkuls, Lubnas, and Ansams are no longer individual exceptions, but regular citizens – building infrastructures of democracy, freedom, dignity, prosperity, and innovation in their countries.

It is essential in today’s Arab world that women actually govern. In Yemen, you could say that 28 percent of the delegates at the National Dialogue are women. But the truth is: Women hold very few seats in decision making circles. Women only have three out of 72 seats in the new Syrian Opposition Coalition.

And in Egypt, where the abuse of women has violated not only their bodies, but also their right to free expression and their right to take part in their country’s transition, only nine women legislators won seats in the parliamentary elections.

It has been left to women in civil society – such as the National Council of Women – to stand up against recent official pronouncements that distort religion to deny rights to women.

There is an inherent conundrum here: Women are needed in decision making circles to bring about political change. But, until there is change, women will have difficulty in attaining influential political positions.

I am building for you a solid case. The evidence couldn’t be more clear-cut: Women are the bellwether, the barometer and the building bricks of greater economies, democracies and countries. So, yes, we should care – because when we stop talking about women in the Arab World, governments and economies backslide. Women are sidelined. And there is a retreat.

With retreat come failed expectations, violence, and suppression of rights—everyone’s rights. The cost of this systemic discrimination – and failure to harness women’s contributions – has consequences for prosperity, stability and even violent extremism.

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hear from 16 young women from the Middle East and Northern Africa, who were participating in one of the State Department’s International Visitor Programs. We invited them to the United States – as we do through our Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs – to experience our culture, meet with American counterparts, get training in their fields, and build networks that can enhance their futures.

They were parliamentarians, members of civil society, professors, and election monitors. They were fighting in the trenches of pushback, hostility, and institutionalized resistance – and they did not believe in retreat.

The women from Egypt were particularly moving when discussing their challenges. They talked about the tear gas they face every single day. It comes in different colors. Sometimes, it’s the kind that burns your skin. Or takes your breath away. One woman joked: We’re addicted to it.

What they didn’t joke about was the horrific rape and sexual violence in their country. They described how – during demonstrations – men surround women like a pack of football players in a huddle. Then one by one, they take their turns. Raping.

We are following these developments in Egypt very closely. And none more so than Secretary Kerry – who has shown his commitment to women throughout his 30 years in the Senate – and who vowed at his confirmation hearings to carry forward Secretary Clinton’s work to institutionalize women and girls at the center of American foreign policy.

As Secretary Kerry said this week – and I quote: “President Obama and the Administration share real concerns about the direction that Egypt appears to be moving in. It is our hope that there is still time to be able to turn the corner. But the recent arrests, the violence in the streets, the lack of inclusivity with respect to the opposition in public ways that make a difference to the people of Egypt, are all of concern today.”

As we condemn the attacks and urge the government to prosecute those responsible, we also recognize that sexual violence is endemic across society – and not only in Egypt, but across the region.

I’m pleased to note: The 16 women also shared positive stories. One Moroccan woman told me she was the youngest female parliamentarian in Morocco. She was the first girl in her village to go to school, to attend university, and to become elected to public office. She said she was determined to make sure her exceptional story would become every Moroccan girl’s normal story.

Another woman from Iran escaped from her country during the Green Movement demonstrations and the subsequent regime-led crackdown. Since then, she said, she has been working to reach out to other women – to produce democratic change.

Those are the stories that transform societies. And they were echoed in other ways by the other women who were there – a minister of social affairs in Sudan working to protect children and women. A legislator from Iraq fighting for women widowed or disabled by three decades of conflict. A Palestinian woman working to support higher education in her community.  They were unanimous about what they are fighting for: Freedom and dignity. And as I found out, certain words are more than abstractions to them. When I told them that – I preferred to say the “gender space” instead of  “women’s space,” one women said: “In my world, you can’t say the word ‘women’ enough times.”

Their message was clear: They want the world to pay attention. And they refuse to be sidelined, abused, and marginalized.

Because we know women are the keys to prosperous economies and robust democracies, we promote free, fair, and transparent economies, enhanced security, human rights – and we make sure women and girls are central to those policies.

We work with civil society and the private sector to promote women’s social and economic development, integrate women into peace and security building, address and prevent gender-based violence, and ensure women’s full participation in civic and political life.

I am focused on making sure we do a better job of stitching together the work of the U.S. Government into a comprehensive tapestry. We must continue to work to support democratic, peaceful and prosperous outcomes for women everywhere. The key is—how?

We work regionally: In the Middle East and Northern Africa, we joined with G8 Ministers and representatives from the region at the Forum for the Future in Tunisia, where all governments committed to supporting progress in gender equality. And through our Middle East Partnership Initiative’s Arab Women's Leadership Institute, we train women elected officials and civil society leaders in order to strengthen women’s political and economic participation across the region.

We work locally: Our embassy officers are our first points of contact for many women in the region. They work to identify and reach out to critical audiences and key actors, whether it’s supporting internally displaced persons in Iraq; mentoring Libyans about the democratic process; or training emerging political leaders from Rabat to Riyadh.

We also work globally: For example, through the Office of the Special Representative to Muslim Communities, which creates networks of young change makers like Generation Change; or our Office of Global Women’s Issues, which is particularly active through agencies like the Community of Democracies, or our Women in Public Service Project.

The Women in Public Service Project, which mentors emerging leaders in public policy and politics, has seen powerful results in personal ways: A young woman from Morocco now spearheads human rights for a Swiss civil society organization in her country;  another has been appointed as a political adviser in the Iraqi Government; a Libyan woman has joined the Education Ministry and is working to build support for higher female representation in parliament.

In the public diplomacy realm, which I head, we promote women’s empowerment and participation in conflict resolution and decision-making. We conduct leadership seminars for foreign women Fulbright students in the U.S. And we encourage women’s leadership and confidence through a number of exchange programs, such as our Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership and our Empowering Women and Girls through Sports Initiative.

Through our TechWomen and TechGirls programs, we foster connections between women in the region and their counterparts working in technology and social media—two sectors traditionally closed to women. Graduates of those programs pass along their experience – including two women to whom I’ll refer as Fatma and Nadia, who are now teaching technology to poor students in Yemen.

Stories like these give us the confidence and the evidence that our work matters – and underscores our commitment to supporting civil society, media, political parties, and academic institutions that understand and work to empower women.

We see incremental progress all over the region. Thanks to the efforts of women in civil society, Tunisia removed its objections to CEDAW – also known as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. And we’re encouraged by language we’ve seen in Tunisia’s draft constitution that affirms women as equal rather than complementary citizens.

In Syria, where challenges are enormous, women are making their presence felt. Despite being underrepresented in resistance leadership, they have organized the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) to mobilize nonviolent opposition to the regime. We are providing programs, training and tools to civil service organizations to help them further, as they advance a democratic, pluralistic free Syria, and organize responses to community needs.

These aren’t gains so much as footholds. And it helps us to remember that this kind of progress was unimaginable as recently as three years ago; and that our own history teaches us that the struggle for women’s rights is not easy.

The American suffragette Susan B. Anthony once wrote – quote: “The women of this nation in 1876, have greater cause for discontent, rebellion, and revolution than the men of 1776.”

That was 100 years after our democratic revolution, and almost 50 years before women got the vote. And we still had decades of work before we secured votes for people of every creed, color, and gender.

While it is inevitable that building a democracy takes time, we can never stop talking, never stop pushing, and never stop working for women in the region. Women’s rights aren’t just right, they’re necessary – because countries are stronger when everyone has a stake in the system. It’s about success – and that is something we need to plant deep into the soil, if we want this Arab Spring to really bloom.

Thank you, and I look forward to your questions.