First Summit of the “first ladies of Arab countries": A Voice from Gaza

Maria Holt

Published: CAABU Focus Vol 6 Issue 5, December 2000

The status of women in the Arab world is a hotly contested and contentious area. Everyone, it seems, from the most ill-informed member of the non-Arab public to professors in prestigious universities, has a view on the “oppressed”, “invisible” and “powerless” Arab woman. The reality, of course, is far more complex and considerably more interesting, which is why the recent conference on women in the Arab world, organized by the Arab League in Cairo, promised a host of possibilities.

This event was more than just another meeting to talk about Arab women. It was described as the “first summit” of the “first ladies of Arab countries” and, as such, gave the impression that a somewhat higher profile would be given to women’s concerns. As there are no female heads of state in the Arab world, some of the women attending were the wives of Arab leaders, including the wives of the King of Jordan, the Presidents of Palestine, Sudan and Lebanon, the Emir of Bahrain and the Crown Prince of Kuwait.

The meeting, which was intended to address social prejudices blocking the development of Arab women, opened with a call of support for the “mothers of Palestinian martyrs”. It then moved on to address issues such as equal opportunities for women and legal protection against violence. The problems of female illiteracy in the Arab world, negative media stereotyping of women, and what were described as “outmoded traditions” were also tackled. As women’s status and experiences vary so widely throughout the Arab world, it would be difficult to arrive at a final declaration which would adequately do justice to the concerns of all women. However, those present called for another special summit next year.

There is no doubt that some of the women taking part in the summit, for example Suzanne Mubarak, wife of the Egyptian President, and Queen Rania, the young wife of the King of Jordan, are positive role models to the female citizens of their countries and are committed to undertaking work which benefits other women. The three-day summit in Cairo was a positive first step towards ensuring that women’s issues are placed on national agendas and, as such, it made an important contribution to the ongoing and crucially important debate on the status of women in the Arab world.

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