'Women can make peace a reality'
In an exclusive interview, Mrs Suzanne Mubarak speaks to Dina Ezzat about women's empowerment as a prerequisite to peace, development and justice across the Arab world
On Sunday, Mrs Suzanne Mubarak will arrive in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, for three days of meetings and events, all of which are focussed on one main issue: women's rights.
Mrs Mubarak will be a key participant at both the Forum of Arab Women in Armed Conflicts, as well as the first- ever meeting of the Higher Council of the Arab Women Organisation. Her fundamental message is that Arab women have the right to live in dignity and peace, and that only by doing so can they help promote the best interests of their communities, and gain better access to their legitimate political rights.
Mrs Mubarak elaborated on this and other themes in an exclusive interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, excerpts of which appear below.
As founder and chair of the Suzanne Mubarak Women's International Peace Movement, Mrs Mubarak will also be promoting the new and ambitious movement during her Lebanese tour, where she will also meet several Arab first ladies, as well as representatives of governmental and non-governmental women's organisations.
The agenda of your upcoming Lebanese trip seems especially appropriate considering International Women's Day is only four days away, and Egyptian National Women's Day is in less than two weeks. How will the high-level meetings being held in Lebanon help to serve the interests of Arab women?
I am arriving in Beirut on Sunday for three consecutive days of meetings that will focus on one clear issue -- the role and rights of Arab women, especially in relation to promoting peace and development.
First, on Sunday, I will take part in the Forum of Arab Women in Armed Conflicts. I believe that this is an important event because it addresses a central issue in the daily lives of women in the Arab world, namely peace.
It is very important to stress that peace is not just about the absence of military conflicts, although this is an especially important factor for a region that has suffered the negative consequences of too many armed conflicts.
Peace is also about the absence of poverty and illiteracy; it is about the eradication of all forms of violence and all violations of human rights. Obviously, when we talk about women and peace we are also talking about the absence of all forms of gender-based discrimination against women.
In Egypt, like in other parts of the Arab world, there has been a serious effort to stress this concept. I believe that the Beirut forum, which will bring together representatives of governmental and non-governmental women's organisations from across the Arab world, can help establish a coordinated strategy -- taking into account individual nation's sensitivities and concerns of course -- on promoting the role of Arab women in making peace and development possible.
The suffering of women due to armed conflicts and under-development could be significantly reduced if women were empowered to play their natural role as advocates of peace and developments. Women can make peace a reality; they can also help make development easier for our communities. Arab women can help bring about a better life for all, so why not encourage them to do so?
This is what we are going to be looking at during our forum. The Egyptian delegation is going to be presenting a paper that offers our perspective on how the issue of Arab women in armed conflicts can be approached collectively. We are also going to be presenting the forum with a paper on the issue of women's physical and psychological safety during armed conflicts.
What are the goals of the newly formed Higher Council of the Arab Women Organisation? This organisation has not opted for a highly political agenda. So when we address issues related to our sisters in Iraq and Palestine, we will be doing so from the social perspective.
At this first meeting of the Higher Council, we plan to draft a plan of action based on the common interests of all participating countries, which so far include, in addition to Egypt -- Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Sudan, Djibouti, Bahrain and Kuwait.
We plan to address different socio-economic problems that confront women in our societies -- including the issue of physical and psychological safety that I just mentioned -- in an attempt to find a coordinated way to rectify these problems. We want to have a general framework that will help us move towards the achievement of both our common socio-economic and cultural objectives.
The timing of these meetings is particularly interesting, with all the talk in the Western world about the need for Arab countries to adopt reform measures, particularly in relation to women's role and rights in society.
We are not reacting to anyone or anything. This is neither what we are doing, nor what we have been doing for some time now.
The first summit of the Arab Women Organisation was held in Cairo in 2000. From that day forward, there has been a very serious and dedicated effort to address women's rights, in accordance with different national priorities, in order to help Arab women assume their legitimate status as full-fledged partners in shaping both the present and future of their societies.
Since November 2000, six forums have been organised at the summit level to address a wide range of issues, including women's legal and political rights, the image and role of women in the media, and the growing role of women in national economic empowerment.
These forums adopted several substantial resolutions that ask Arab states to take all necessary measures to rectify all forms of legal inequities -- something we obviously do with an eye on our rich and inspiring social and religious heritage as well. There were also resolutions adopted calling on Arab governments to refrain from spreading negative stereotypes about women in the national media, and increase women's roles in decision- making processes.
The forum that will be taking place in Beirut is actually the seventh meeting in less than four years, which means that we have been working hard for quite some time.
But it hasn't only been a matter of meetings -- progress has also been made on the ground. When it comes to our own experiences in Egypt, I could refer to many things. For instance, there was the legal amendment that allowed children of Egyptian women and foreign fathers to become Egyptian citizens, thus ameliorating a situation that was causing heart-breaking agony for mothers and children who had previously been denied this essential right.
There have also been dedicated efforts towards combating gender-based illiteracy and unemployment, as well as a concerted national campaign against early marriages and female genital mutilation. There was also the new family court and the personal status laws, both of which should help to resolve issues that were negatively affecting thousands of women's lives.
We know that we have to tackle the problems related to women's status and role in our society, and we are working on doing just that.
Are you satisfied with the pace and scope of the overall achievements related to women's rights in the Arab world?
Allow me to establish one thing first: we know that we have a lot of work ahead of us. Yes, there has been progress. In Egypt, as I just mentioned, there has been considerable progress in the realms of women's legal, educational and physical rights.
Yet having been said, we are not at all oblivious to the fact that our job is far from over. I always like to recognise the efforts that have taken place, but this never diverts my attention from the work still to come.
The important thing, I believe, is that we are on the right track. Arab women are moving forward and I think that further progress is bound to take place, because there seems to be a growing sense of awareness in our societies that the development we are all aspiring to achieve can only be fully and promptly attained if society as a whole joins hands when embarking on such a major task. It has become clear, or at least I hope it has, that if half the society is excluded, the entire development process slows down.
What kind of input do you expect the Suzanne Mubarak Women's International Peace Movement to offer to the Beirut meetings?
A women's peace movement is particularly relevant when we talk about women in armed conflicts. Our relatively new anti-war organisation, the Suzanne Mubarak Women's International Peace Movement (SMWIPM), has a very simple but daunting task: promoting peace and establishing a culture of peace.
Obviously, we will have much to share, as well as gain, from participating in this forum.
We are the Middle East's first international women's peace initiative, and as such we seek to empower women in this part of the world to participate in efforts leading to peace and security. I would like to share some of the horrifying figures released by international organisations like the United Nations with you -- 90 per cent of all those killed and wounded in armed conflicts are civilians. Of the nearly 50 million people who have been uprooted around the world, 80 per cent are women and children. Around two million children have been killed in armed conflicts, and some six million seriously injured or permanently disabled.
Needless to say, women in the Middle East have suffered, and in fact are still suffering as a result of armed conflict and other forms of encroachment on their rights. Women are definitely the most affected victims of armed conflicts. They are also, many sociologists would argue, the most capable peace advocates.
Could you tell us something about how the movement originated
It was certainly a promising beginning. A September 2002 meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh sponsored by the National Council for Women and the United Nations in Egypt initiated our movement. I brought together first ladies and high-ranking female officials from different parts of the world, as well as public figures, parliamentarians, intellectuals, and leaders of other peace movements.
It is important to note that despite the very high- profile nature of the meeting, this was a non- governmental conference dedicated to the cause of peace.
Looking back, I really think it was quite a unique gathering where a host of peace-related issues were discussed constructively and openly with the objective of finding a common ground on which all the participants could come together to serve the cause.
It was then and there that the foundations for the Suzanne Mubarak peace movement's work were set.
And what now?
Since then, we have been working hard to draw up an action plan. We have held a number of workshops over the past few weeks which have brought together pioneering women's rights advocates and peace activists from both within and outside the region, along with women in their 20s and 30s who will be pursuing peace and development advocacy in the future.
These workshops allowed us to discuss our movement's mandate and modes of operation. We brainstormed about the things we could do, and how we would best go about doing them.
Can you provide us with any details?
Well, we are not done yet. Our fourth and final workshop takes place this Saturday. So far, however, we have agreed that one of our main objectives would involve pursuing the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, about the role and rights of women in relation to peace and development.
Adopted in October 2000, this resolution encourages the increasing participation of women at decision-making levels in conflict resolutions and peace processes, urging UN member states to increase their voluntary financial, technical and logistical support for gender-sensitive training efforts.
Above all, it calls for the UN and all concerned bodies to ensure that women and girls are not forced to put up with the horrors of war, and are not denied the right to full participation in efforts undertaken to bring about peace.
How will you go about implementing this resolution?
This is what we have been discussing. We know, for example, that we will have to work with the media to ensure that they project proper images of women, and play a role in spreading the culture of peace. We also know that we have to work with parliamentarians and executive bodies.
In Egypt, the National Council for Women has been playing a pivotal role in promoting the role and rights of women. I am sure that, in tandem with this council and other governmental and non-governmental bodies, we can work to get the message across.
Obviously, there are similar institutions in the Arab world that can also provide help. It is a long process, but I think we have taken more than just one step towards achieving our goals.
As the movement goes about mobilising its efforts and resources in the weeks ahead, it will be attempting to transform relevant commitments and instruments made by the UN and other international, regional and national organisations into credible accomplishments.
We will not only be lobbying for the inclusion of women in the peace-building process, but will also be ensuring that the issues that affect women and their families, especially the root causes of insecurity and violence in their communities, will be given adequate attention and consideration in policy-making so that peace is made more possible and more sustainable.
We are also planning to host a regional conference in May to assess the situation and plan our next move. An international conference is being planned for the fall. These conferences will help us emphasise our message and garner more support.
What about actual engagement in conflict areas?
We have to take things one step at a time to make sure that we are doing our job properly. We also need to pinpoint both the area of intervention and the nature of the intervention itself.
These issues are still being discussed. At the same time, we see peace as being not just about the absence of war, but about freedom from want and freedom from fear.
Women around the world will be celebrating International Women's Day in just a few days. Is there a message that you would like to deliver on that occasion?
My message is simple: let us work for peace. Nobody wants to see people affected by the horrors of war, or the agonies of poverty and disease.
We must all agree that peace is a priority for women all over the world. After all, women suffer the most in armed conflicts, and it is women who are usually burdened with picking up the pieces.
And for Egyptian National Women's Day?
We will be holding a special event on 16 March to take stock of what we have achieved over the past year, and discuss what we need to achieve next year.
We have plenty of ideas and goals, and I am certain that we can work to make them happen, so that Egyptian women will attain both their due status and legitimate rights.