Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Rallying cry for women’s rights

Kareem Shaheen

A Nobel Peace Prize winner yesterday called on women in the UAE and wider Arab world to fight for “economic independence” and equal political rights.

Dr Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel laureate and human rights activist, said a key first step was raising “the awareness of women in the Arab world, and then they have to encourage women to go in search of work and leave their homes to work”.

That would better enable women to venture into the marketplace, she told The National.

“Then [comes] the economic independence of women. And I’m saying economic independence that they get from working, not from inheriting some money from their fathers.”

Dr Ebadi was in Abu Dhabi for the Festival of Thinkers, organised by the Higher Colleges of Technology and in which The National is a partner. She delivered the keynote address at the Emirates Palace hotel on Monday. The event ends today.

In the UAE, Dr Ebadi said, “women are allowed to have an education. They go to school and even university, but it’s a very low percentage of these women who enter the work market and become active. Therefore the situation is discriminatory”. She said the lack of female empowerment in the Middle East was evident in the low number of women holding key leadership posts.

“Polygamy still exists,” said Dr Ebadi. “The political rights of women are not equal to the political rights of men.

“You don’t see any women who are holding senior positions, political or economic.

“In Saudi Arabia, women aren’t even allowed to drive their own cars, let alone be engaged in political and cultural activities, whereas in other Islamic states, such as Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, for many years women have been able to work in political fields and even become prime ministers.

“Behind all this thinking, ideology, it is not Islam, because Islam respects the rights of women.”

The differences between Islamic countries were the result of different degrees of patriarchal culture, Dr Ebadi said. “So this culture gives an interpretation of Islam which suits their patriarchal culture. And that is why we see how the situation of women is different from one Islamic culture to the other.”

But the blame laid with both genders, she said. “Although the women are victims of this culture, they’re also the carriers and promoters of this culture. Don’t forget that any man who is a bully has been raised by a woman, and it’s only women who can stop this wrong culture, that does not believe in the equality of mankind, from being carried on and promoted.”

The UAE and the Arab world could learn from Iran’s growing feminist tradition, Dr Ebadi said, where women actively engaged in the post-election protests.

In addition, “many of our women are professors and lecturers, we have many women who are engineers, doctors, and have senior administrative positions”, she said, pointing out that even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, appointed a female adviser and a female minister.

“There is a saying, ‘Modernity is born in the streets’. And a woman who leaves her home for work gradually becomes modernised.”

Source: The National

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