International leaders talk about women and the Middle East

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The mobilization of women, youth and others in the “Arab Spring” movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other parts of the Arab world was a focus of the panel discussion “Elections, Revolutions, Empowerment: The Role of Women in Tomorrow’s Middle East.”

The Sept. 5 event, part of the 49er Democracy Experience, was held in partnership with the National Security Network. Panelists were Tamara Wittes, Brookings Senior Fellow and director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, and Franziska Brantner, member of the European Parliament. Gregory Starrett, professor of anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, moderated the talk. Starrett’s research focuses on cultural politics of Islam in the Middle East.

According to Wittes, who was deputy assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs from November 2009 to January 2012, the unrest was driven by some deep, underlying changes in Arab society. These included demographic changes, a youth “bulge,” increased literacy and education for women and a delay in the age at which women have children.

The changes saw a rise of a young generation with aspirations, who looked around and saw political repression and other issues. “They found the reality was very, very far from what they hoped to achieve,” said Wittes.

Protests occurred outside the normal constructs of these societies, Wittes noted. To illustrate the impact of social media on the movements, she cited an example of an Egyptian worker who organized a strike through the use of Facebook and became a leader in the broader movement.

Brantner, spokesperson for foreign affairs of the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament, stated women have played critical roles in the uprisings. Now, women’s rights over their own bodies, who they marry, how they dress and other rights are threatened, such as in Tunisia’s draft constitution that describes women as “complementary to men.”

She noted that supporters must consider women’s personal decisions on how they will participate, such as in labor movements. “We have to be careful to support women in whatever struggle they have chosen.”

Asked why a focus is centered on women, the speakers said issues of equality offer fundamental insights into prospects for stability.  “If the women lose out in these countries, democracy won’t stand for long,” Brantner said.

International studies major Cole Garde said he gained insights from the panel into how policies and priorities are established by the United States and other governments.

For international studies and philosophy major Charles Williamson, the discussion brought home the need to continue to address women’s rights in the United States. He said he felt like it’s going to impossible to promote women’s rights in the Middle East or internationally, otherwise.

More than 100 students, faculty, staff and community members attended the discussion in the Cone University Center.