If last month’s Arab Women Summit in Cairo was any indication of what’s ahead, Arab women are between a rock and a hard place. Their rally to improve women’s rights through social harmony is competing for attention with Palestine’s ongoing battles with Israel. And it isn’t too difficult to see which fight will take priority.
The very men Arab women are hoping will recognize their value in society are the same men they are uniting with in their solidarity against Israel.
It’s not an uncommon predicament. Women all over the world, including various groups within our own country, have had to choose between standing with their men and standing with women outside their culture or ethnic group. If they choose to unite with men, they are accused of betraying the fight for equal rights for women. If they choose to wage the war of gender equality, they stand to be shunned by their own people and families.
Perhaps it’s too soon to say what long-term impact the summit will have on Arab women’s pursuit of a better life. The conference drew more than 2,000 people from 19 countries, including ten of the Arab world’s first ladies, among them Queen Rania of Jordan and Egypt’s Suzanne Mubarak.
Their goals aren’t equal pay or pursuing anti-harassment laws in the workplace. They want things such as voting rights, the freedom to travel without having to seek a husband’s permission and an end to so-called "honor killings" of women suspected of sexual transgressions.
Political persuasions aside, the conference turned sour when it was decided to change the theme from a debate of the condition of women in Arab societies to, as an Arab League official put it, showing "solidarity with the Al-Aqsa intifida which has become the Arab world’s most important event." That’s tough for Arab women to argue with. Political violence or war is definitely an important event that affects the lives of everyone within a country or region. But it seems almost certain that a healthy discussion of Arab women’s issues by Arab women will always take a backseat to "the Arab world’s most important event," unless they decide to pursue it. Until they get serious about it, their speeches will continue to ring with "unrealistic rhetoric," as Haifa Ezzi, a Saudi researcher interested in women’s rights said at the conference.
Arab women, especially those few in a position of leadership or influence, might consider pursuing that desired equality by looking beyond social harmony and dipping their toes into the pool of political harmony. A show of solidarity with Arab men ought to be combined with the offering of peaceful, realistic options to a critical Middle East problem that continues to plague the people there. This might be one way for Arab women to show their male counterparts just how important they are to their families and societies.
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