Friday, May 18, 2007

Dialogue and Confrontation Continue

The next conference session will be the best, I think, because Leila Ahmed will speak. Among the books on the conference reading list, I have learned the most from Dr. Ahmed's, both her scholarly work Women and Gender in Islam and her memoir A Border Passage, about growing up in Egypt in the 1940's. The session is primed because Queen Rania decides to stay for it. Again we ladies crowd behind the cordon of security guards, holding a path through the ballroom. Flash, flash, flash! the digital cameras click. The fireworks have just begun.

This session is called Myths, Misperceptions, and Realities. The Irish moderator is Gemma Hussey, director of the European Women's Foundation. The four women panelists: Dr. Laila Abu Hassan, chairperson, department of physics, University of Jordan; Dr. Katerina Dalacoura, expert on international relations and the Middle East, from the London School of Economics; Dr. Rima Khalaf Huaidi, chairperson, Advisory Board of the Arab Human Development Report, chairperson of the UN Global Democracy Fund Advisory Board; trustee of the American University of Beirut; Dr. Leila Ahmed, Victor S. Thomas professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School.

Briskly, Gemma begins with a question to Dr. Abu Hassan on Arab women in science. Dr. Hassan's reply isn't much different from what an American academic might say: the number of women as students and as faculty in physics is growing but still men predominate. Gemma next asks Rima Huaidi about gender ineqality in the Middle East--again a broad question, and really I feel I could answer it myself after all the reading I have done. Referring us to the Towards the Rise of Women in the Arab World report, Rima Huaidi says that the number one achievement for Arab women has been in education. She adds that "Arab girls are the better learners [than boys]." A murmur passes among the ballroom's round tables, for the same thing is true in the U.S. Rima goes on to say that Arab countries still have the highest illiteracy rates in the world.

After a few minutes of such general comments, Rima moves to specifics, and at this point the conference session grabs our full attention. There are two kinds of discrimination against women in the Arab world: personal status laws and the fact that nationality can be passed to a child only through the father. Then Rima lists what she calls "some special problems:" the under-utilization of women's capabilities; genital mutilation among African Arabs; no labor laws for foreign domestic workers; and, finally, foreign occupation--by which she means the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Like Nour the young Palestinian earlier, Rima Huaidi zooms in on the Israeli checkpoints. Palestinian women are forced to wait so long at checkpoints that they are delivering babies there. In addition to this humiliation for the mothers, two-thirds of the babies are stillborn, Rima says.

Rima ends with the generalization that "there can be no Renaissance in the Arab world without equality for women." However, she has lost us, for we are back at the checkpoints with the women giving birth.

Trying to move along, Gemma poses a question to Katerina Dalacoura. "What are the biggest misconceptions?"

"I assume you mean in the West," Katerina replies. She goes on to say that there is a strengthening of stereotypes about Arab women. This stereotype is part of the current belief that there is a clash of civilizations going on. "This is a simplistic and pernicious view that only creates tensions," she says. Women--and in particular the matter of the veil--have become the center of the battle of values and norms. "But the stereotyping is not just one way," she adds. "Women in the West have loose morals." "Women in the West have full equality with men." Among the tables, IWF-ers nod. "We are putting people in a box before we know anything about them. . . . but we need an unpacking of reality to see what is really going on, rather than the glossing and embellishing that usually occurs." Unpacking of reality. Dr. Dalacoura is settling into academo-speak, where previous panelists at the conference have lost their non-American listeners, I have learned. (More on that in a later blog.) Nevertheless, she is much easier to follow in person than in her writing. Several of the conferees have mentioned that they could not get into her book on Islam and democracy.

Gemma now poses a question to Leila Ahmed. "What are the prevailing myths about Arab women?"

Leila Ahmed: "Let me begin with a few facts. 1917. Women get the right to vote in the U.K. 1920. USA. 1926. Turkey. 1946. France. 1947. Pakistan. 1963. Afghanistan. 1971. Switzerland. Women prime ministers: '69. Israel. '79. India. '90. Ireland. '91. Bangladesh. '93 Turkey. 2001. Indonesia. 2006. Germany." Dr. Ahmed speaks quickly, and her staccato has me scribbling as fast as I can. (These dates may not be quite right, and I will review them when I return home.)

"Current research does not bear out women being better off in the West than in the East. . . . violence against women, for example, is endemic everywhere." I sense that, for the first time, an academic on a panel discussion here has the audience's full attention.

"In Afghanistan, where the situation is such a product of the Cold War, the suffering burka-clad women pictures in the media, presented without context or explanation, have led westerners to the wrong conclusion that it is Islam that is at fault here. . . . in fact, there has been a rhetorical tsunami on the subject of Islam that has led to the noble goal of rescuing women from Islam. In this way, war on Muslims can come to seem morally right, when westerners think that they are rescuing women. . . . This is part of a revival of the old colonial myths, and like the old colonialism very manipulative."

Dr. Ahmed shakes her head. "It is so hard now [for Arabs]. Arabs are having to cope with hard new realities. But I do have hope. I place my hope--one--in the Arab and Muslim young--and two--in ordinary people in America, who have a receptiveness, not found in the media, despite the media, to hear the Arab side. After 9/11, for example, so many churches welcomed Muslims and churches were packed."

Gemma takes over from Leila Ahmed. Prefacing her question with a brief reference to the peace in northern Ireland, just as Paula did earlier in the morning, Gemma asks, "Can women in this region work for peace?"

"Already!" Rima says. But Katerina Dalacoura disagrees. "I am sceptical of any particular role women can play. It is not initiative [from women] that will make the difference. Women have a more indirect role. A small contribution." Leila Ahmed agrees, and this is not the first time we have heard (1) American academics tell it like it is, in contrast to the quintessential Arab response, in which good manners prevail; (2) the view that the solution is political, from the top down, rather than societal, from the masses up.

Gemma now opens the discussion to questions, with the brisk reminder that we should limit ourselves to questions only. "We can tell our own opinions in other forums."

A Canadian IWF-er rises to ask Dr. Abu Hassan how government and academia can help to get more women into science. As part of her reply, Dr. Hassan says that there are no advanced industries in Jordan, so science graduates must be teachers. (From reading The Jordan Times, I know that King Abdullah has been working on this problem, and, for example, as we women are meeting with the Queen, her husband is hosting the Petra III Conference, with fifty Nobel laureates in attendance at Petra, to oversee grants for scientific research and endeavor in the Middle East.)

An Israeli IWF-er takes the mike and, addressing herself to Dr. Abu Hassan as well, launches into a description of a regional sharing program in high energy physics that she thinks should interest Dr. Hassan. As the woman continues, describing her country's part in the program, Gemma interrupts, telling her to "finish the question."

Despite the condescending tone of the questioner, Dr. Hassan responds politely, even gently, as she says "I am aware." In fact, she is one of the chairs of the acceleration program. She adds, "I am willing to sit down and discuss this with you afterwards."

Now the feisty Nissreen Haram, the young Arab woman we have heard from several times before, takes the mike. (Later I discover that she graduated from Mount Holyoke before returning to Jordan to practice law.) She addresses her question to Leila Ahmed. "What do you say about the fact that Muslim women now are often dismissed as apologists for their faith and culture?"

Leila Ahmed: "You young [Arab] women are taking my ideas far further than I ever did. You are coming up with ideas I never could come up with." Dr. Ahmed is presenting Nissreen Haram with the positive to her negative. "You are going to school in the West, like I did, but then back to school in the East [as my generation did not]. One-fourth to one-third of young Arab women are deeply feminist even though they don't like the term. They are re-interpreting the old texts, re-translating sharia."

An Israeli IWF-er takes the mike. She tells us that she is a physician from Jerusalem, and she wants to respond to the comment about "women giving birth at checkpoints." Perhaps without so intending, she gives us a statement rather than a question, as she avers that "we have babies from the West Bank in our neo-natal ward . . . and [I believe that] medicine and politics don't mix."

Rima Hunaidi waves the physician's comment aside. "Of course. Of course. But that is very different from the way women are treated at checkpoints." As the physician tries to say that such things do not happen, Rima speaks over her, with a firmness I have not heard from a Jordanian before. "I have my information from an Israeli source, and from Human Rights Watch."

After yet another exchange about the media--in this instance an open-ended question about why the media is doing such a poor job in covering what is really going on in the Arab world--Gemma says that the session can take one final question.

An IWF-er from Seattle says that she is "curious about definitions." She goes on to explain that "religion was never discussed in my upbringing." She asks, "How important is religion in daily life?" I take it that she is asking about religion in the Arab world. She goes on to say, "Arab, Muslim, I'm not sure what you mean."

With that Arab politesse I have come to expect, Rima Hunaidi explains, as if this has not been conversational groundwork at the conference for two days, that in fact most Muslims are not Arabs and indeed live outside the Middle East. That not all Arabs are Muslims--that some are Christians--Copts, Orthodox, Catholic, Maronite. (And Protestant, I might add. But that will be a subject for another blog.)

The final question shows me once again that it is easy to sit and attend but hard to absorb what we hear. But I suppose we have to keep at it. As Nissreen Haram told her friend Mohamed, "dialogue is the best way for people to learn." Dialogue is the beginning.