Posted by Neveen Hammad on July 01, 2015 in Blog

A lively crowd of young interns and experienced professionals convened earlier this month for the Middle East Institute’s presentation, “Increasing Women’s Participation in Today’s Middle East.” The event featured a panel discussion on attempts to enhance and empower women in the Middle East in recent years. Foreign and domestic issues were highlighted to explain the struggles Middle Eastern women endured when the minor advancements they made during the beginning stages of the Arab revolutions reverted in the region’s post-revolutionary era.

The panel featured international development advisor, Nadereh Chamlou; author, feminist, and former co-chair of the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative, May Rihani; Vice President of Education for Employment, Taleb Salhab; and senior correspondent of Al-Arabiya TV, Nadia Bilbassy.

The collective message from the panelists was that education for women is key, and a lack of progress has been a huge impediment to Middle Eastern societies and economies within the post-revolutionary paradigm. Opening the discussion, Bilbassy said that social progress she and many others strive for will take immense effort and time, “It might take us a generation – and I’m not being pessimistic here – to go where we want this go to.” Radical Islamist groups such as ISIL and the Muslim Brotherhood not only exclude women from government and social affairs, but they also coerce them into staying at home. In Egypt, for example, a law was passed that prohibited girls under eighteen from getting married. When the Muslim Brotherhood took power, however, they repealed this law. The panel argued that this reversal combined with women’s social isolation lead to deterioration in women’s health (due to limited medical access), as well as stunted educational, economic, and social advancements.

Security threats, the rise of extremism, deeply embedded patriarchal norms, and the failure by regimes to more equal and just societies are all factors that impede women’s equality in the Middle East. Despite the dire picture, the panelists maintain that there is hope in education for women. Educated women are essential for a fair, empowered, and civil society.

Although the panelists all agreed that education would increase women’s participation in today's Middle East, which in turn could lead to a society’s economic and social progress – something most people agree upon – they neglected to offer suggestions for how these women were to access certain means of education. It is important to move beyond aspirational statements of how things should be and to present practical steps that could lead to women in the Middle East having far greater access to education and the expanded opportunities that go along with it.

Neveen Hammad is an intern with the Arab American Institute