|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
7 - 13 March 2002
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Women of the worldFollowing a busy schedule in Washington this week, Suzanne Mubarak promoted the cause of Arab women at numerous events, reports Nevine Khalil
In a packed two days in Washington, Suzanne Mubarak met with leading female figures in the US political establishment. She spent time with First Lady Laura Bush, the vice-president's wife Lynn Chenney and at the Congressional Women's Caucus. She spoke at several forums and received two awards for her work and commitment to development and education in her country.
American First Lady Laura Bush met Suzanne Mubarak during the visit
The most elaborate event was a speech she gave at a luncheon hosted by the Middle East Institute on Monday.
Mrs Mubarak's words addressed the situation of women in Egypt as representatives of women in the Arab and Islamic worlds. She also discussed how Arab and Muslim women are dealing with emerging global challenges, and detailed their accomplishments over the past few years.
"It is imperative that women are given a full chance to develop their creative capabilities and skills if we are to realise the collective advancement of society," she said. "But many of those challenges and ambitions transcend our national and regional sphere... and cannot be met without a concerted global response."
She extended a hand of partnership to the US, "the world's leading power," to work towards global understanding, especially between the West and the Arab and Muslim worlds.
"Enlightened Arab and Western men and women are called upon to work together to achieve the cherished goal of making our global village a better place. We each have our part to play," said Mrs Mubarak.
At the beginning of her address, she noted that "in contrast to the images which prevail in the West" many Arab women are educated, deeply involved in family and community decisions and increasingly active in political, professional and economic life."
In Egypt, women account for 53 per cent of academic staff in Universities, 44 per cent staff in scientific and research organisations and 26 per cent of civil servants. There are two female cabinet ministers, and 33 female ambassadors.
Mrs Mubarak said that in order for the Arab nation to advance further in this time of rapid globalisation, Arabs have to reinforce national strengths and develop a common vision for the future.
"We want a new Middle East to pass on to our children, [one] that offers the promise of peace, development and stability," she said. This cannot be achieved unless all sectors of society participate, in order to achieve sustainable and equitable development, she said.
"It is time for Arab women, side by side with men, to assume an effective and positive role in planning and implementing these vast developmental tasks," she said. Development should "continue with a human face," she added.
Mrs Mubarak told her audience about the first Arab Women's summit, which brought first ladies and leading women activists from 19 Arab countries to Cairo in November 2000. The summit was held because of the need to find new approaches to old problems, she told them.
"That so many Arab first ladies came together to press for the improved status of women in their societies was unprecedented," she said. "And it shows that there is a political commitment at the highest level."
The summit resulted in the Cairo Declaration, a plan of action for organising and mobilising Arab women in 2001, which was declared the year of Arab women. The summit was followed by four themed forums, and another summit in Cairo in 2001 to review each country's work in implementing the first summit's resolutions regarding women and the media, migrant rights, the law and political participation.
Moreover, the 2001 summit resulted in the creation of the Arab Women's Organisation (AWO), a specialised Arab League agency aiming at advancing the status of Arab women. The AWO should help "demystify" Arab women, redress incorrect and stereotypical images, and contribute to greater knowledge of Islam. "Now, more than ever, we need to reach out to one another to promote knowledge and awareness," she added.
Arab women are building on the work of the 1994 UN-sponsored Beijing Women's Conference "which was a great mobilising force for countries worldwide to improve women's status," according to Mrs Mubarak. Inspired by the Beijing conference, Egypt created the National Council for Women (NCW) in 2000, to serve as a policy bridge between government bodies and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) involved in women's issues.
NCW also aims at enhancing the status of all Egyptian women and maximising women's contribution to growth and development of the country.
As head of the NCW, Mrs Mubarak reported that it has "proven most effective as a coordinating body and a catalyst for turning our national aspirations for women into action on the ground." She added that gender equality, enshrined in the Egyptian constitution and Islamic Shari'a, has facilitated the process of amending a number of decrees and laws which were deemed unfair for women.
With the help of NCW, two new pieces of legislation have already been enacted. The first of these simplifies the litigation process in the Personal Status Law and the second is the introduction of Khul', a relatively uncomplicated divorce procedure. Furthermore, a right for Egyptian women married to foreigners to pass their nationality on to their children is also being contemplated.
Mrs Mubarak said that Egypt has placed poverty alleviation at the centre of its national development strategy: the result is that when it implemented its economic reform programme, it kept an eye on the social aspects of reform. The social aspect emphasised job creation, strengthening social welfare programmes and human resource development. Other steps towards development, continued Mrs Mubarak, included the educational reform programme which began in 1990 -- but continues to be challenged by rapid population growth.
On the health front, efforts to address women's health concerns are being redoubled because "motherhood concerns are pivotal to the nurturing, caring and bonding role that mothers play within the family," said Mrs Mubarak. The economic empowerment of women will continue, she added, through government policies, NCW projects and the Social Fund for Development (SFD).
At the same time, the education of girls is a top priority for Egypt because it will determine "the well-being and future prospects of coming generations," noted Mrs Mubarak. The numbers show that the gender gap in basic education has halved, from 33.1 per cent in 1995 to 14.3 per cent in 2002. This was achieved through a joint effort by the government and NGOs to deliver literacy programmes across the country.
"The rising education levels of Arab girls and women has been one of the most profound forces of change in our region," said Mubarak at the luncheon.
Her efforts in this field earned Mrs Mubarak the Institute of International Education's (IIE) Stephen P Duggan Award for International Understanding on Monday evening. The award was given in recognition of Mrs Mubarak's "personal commitment to education in Egypt" at a reception in the visiting president's residence, Blair House. The award is given to world leaders in the fields of education, business and diplomacy in recognition of their lifetime accomplishments. Recent recipients of IIE awards include UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, former US President George Bush and France's former President Giscard D'Estaing.
In her acceptance speech at the reception, which was attended by distinguished leaders from the field of education in Egypt and the US, Mrs Mubarak described the award as "very special" to her since she has dedicated the past 20 years of her life promoting education for all.
Egypt currently has 19 million students in schools and universities, which account for nearly one third of the population. The nation continues to face a number of challenges in this field, including school drop-outs, adult illiteracy and raising the figures of female enrollment.
The IIE, established in 1919, is no stranger to Egypt. It has promoted international exchange and development in Egypt through long-standing programmes such as the Fulbright Student and Scholar Program and the Humphrey Fellows Program. Over 30,000 Egyptians have benefited from these exchanges, which also include the USAID-funded Development Training II (DT2) which offers a comprehensive package of training in the field of sustainable development.
The institute believes that "the world can be made a better and safer place through educational exchange and an understanding and appreciation of other peoples and cultures." Mrs Mubarak said she agreed with its sentiments, saying that Egypt too has hosted thousands of Arab, African and Western students to study Arabic, Islam, Eastern Christianity and Middle Eastern studies. She added that exchange programmes are a "tool for international understanding" because they allow foreigners to experience new environments, and return home with personal experiences which enrich them and their society. She added that IIE was "a valuable partner working in countless education institutions in both countries to expand educational exchange."
In a meeting with several leading congresswomen on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Mrs Mubarak gave an overview of women's rights and achievements in Egypt, their status in society and legislation which promotes the rights of women. She also noted that despite the rise of female participation in public life and political processes, there is a dire need to increase on current levels of female representatives representation -- from a meagre 2.4 per cent in parliament and 5.7 per cent in the Shura Council.
Later on Tuesday, Mrs Mubarak attended a gathering hosted by the People to People Foundation, which aims at promoting interaction between societies, away from politics and diplomacy. Created in 1956 by then-US President Ike Eisenhower, the foundation focuses on exchanges in the fields of health, child care, education and community development.
Mrs Mubarak's hosts included the foundation's CEO Mary Eisenhower, the former president's daughter, who presented Mrs Mubarak with the People to People Globe award in recognition of her efforts to support the objectives of the foundation in Egypt. Other recipients of the Globe have included England's Queen Elizabeth II, King Hussein of Jordan and former USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev.
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