Saudi Arabia: Arab women can power peace, progress

Arab View
Politicians have failed to bring about peace in many parts of the world. The Arab world in particular has suffered the most. There are many reasons behind the failed diplomacy. One of them is the absence of women in negotiations for peace.
The Jeddah Economic Forum this year focused more on the global role of women and their contributions to economic change. Women delegates presented the future vision of women and emphasized the importance of engaging women as builders of society and promoters of peace.
One of the most interesting lectures was delivered by Haifa Al-Kaylani, founder and chairman of the UK-based Arab International Women’s Forum. She stressed the need for Arab women to assume the role of peacemakers and work across borders to connect with other societies and benefit from the successes of others to foster economic and social development. According to her, we must build bridges and build businesses, which requires collaboration between government and civil society as well as policies to regulate the social, political and economic environment.

Al-Kaylani said when women prosper, families and communities prosper. Educational attainment is the key to empowerment, and women can be the engines of change and development. She said we live in a world without borders, and the Arab world is at the heart of the globalized economy. Arabs are expected to work hard and strive to negotiate with partners across borders to establish their role in the global village. For women to take part in this transformation, they need to master business and information technology to speak to the world.

Arab women have a lot to offer, Al-Kaylani said. They possess a rich culture and heritage unknown to the rest of the world, which prompt a need to create greater public awareness about Arab women’s successes and achievements. Arab women can play a greater role building bridges of understanding to connect with other cultures. They need to network within the region and beyond to the international community and both contribute to and benefit from that cross-cultural enrichment.

The region has suffered from civil and regional wars. Women always suffer the most, and they strive to keep the families together and maintain a healthy spirit in their homes.

After her speech, I asked her how can Arab women play a more active role as peacemakers and work across borders, to which she replied that empowerment is the key and that they need educational access and a voice in governance.

Women so empowered can take an active role in ending hostilities, first and foremost by raising the next generation. If educated and enlightened they will be able to teach their children the importance of dialogue, opening channels to present their positions — but not in a combative manner.

Peaceful ways and means can be the weapons to end wars. Educated mothers can do that. Instead of having men negotiate settlements, why not allow those who suffer the most to resolve these conflicts?

Al-Kaylani mentioned UN Resolution 1335, which stipulates that women should be involved in peace processes and participate in peace negotiations next to men. Women should no longer be viewed as victims but as promoters of peace instead.

The launch of this initiative in the Arab world in 2002 by Suzan Mubarak of the Geneva- and Cairo-based International Women for Peace was designed to find ways to empower women across the Arab region and women in war-ravaged areas, such as Palestine, Iraq, Sudan and Algeria, all of which have endured civil strife. Even in wars between nations women can teach the culture of peace and build bridges of understanding.

She added that conferences, seminars and the media can be used to promote these ideas, noting that her next stop after Jeddah would be Alexandria, Egypt, for the launch of the first institute for peace studies in the Middle East under the umbrella of the Suzan Mubarak International Women for Peace.

An equally inspiring Arab woman who I met during the forum was Farah Daghustani who attended all three days and shared her views on this worldwide initiative to engage women as builders of society and promoters of peace.

Educated in Amman, Jordan, she earned a bachelor’s degree in modern Middle Eastern studies and Islamic history at Oxford; later she completed a master’s degree in public administration at the Kennedy School of Government. She now serves as executive director of the Jordanian Hashemite Fund for Human Development. As impressive as her credentials are her eloquence and sophistication and peaceful manner.

Daghustani praised the Saudi women who are assuming leadership roles in society and hoped for more cooperation and networking between Jordanian and Saudi women. She said sharing and learning from the experiences of other Arab women would be very rewarding. She said such interactions were often overlooked as people tend to look to the West for models of reform and progress.

“Of course, there is a lot that we can learn from the Western experience,” Daghustani said, “but we have to develop our own methodology that caters to our traditional values and way of life.” She added that we need to generate new ideas and strategies to allow Arab women to connect and come up with programs to benefit all.

One such program, she said, is the cooperation between the Jordanian Hashemite Fund for Human Development and the Khadija bint Khuwailed Center to build home businesses for enterprising Saudi women.

Daghustani said her organization was established in the late 1970s. It focuses on community development and includes programs ranging from health care to political participation. The objectives are to reach women in remote areas and to communicate with women across borders to find the best method to assist those in dire need. She said Arab women can work together to dispel stereotypes and achieve tangible results as more active promoters of peace.

Al-Kaylani’s words and Daghustani’s comments were very instructive. The challenges facing the Arab world are many, and the impediments facing Arab women remain. However, with such initiatives and a clear vision for peace, the future looks more promising. Empowering Arab women today could spare the region a lot of pain tomorrow.

Will Arab women be given the opportunity to be active promoters of peace? And will Saudi women find their place at the negotiating table? Those two questions remain to be answered.

Samar Fatany
Saudi radio journalist based in Jeddah
Arab View © 2006