Day: April 4, 2017

Women’s rights in MENA

Last Wednesday, March 29th, the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies hosted the inaugural Haleh Esfandiari Forum event. Henri J. Barkey, Director of the Middle East Program (MEP) at the Wilson Center introduced keynote speaker, Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State. Jane Harman, Director, President and CEO at the Wilson Center, moderated the subsequent conversation.

The Haleh Esfandiari Forum is a series of public events focused on women’s empowerment in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), named to honor Haleh Esfandiari’s commitment to promoting women’s empowerment and her leadership of MEP from its inception in 1998 through 2015. Barkey praised Esfandiari, Albright and Harman for their resolute leadership as women at the top of their fields. The attitude on stage was friendly as both Barkey and Harman worked closely with Albright during her time at the Wilson Center and beyond.

Albright praised the Wilson Center for committing resources to promoting women’s rights at a time when many experts focused on big power politics consider the subject of marginal importance. She attributes the Wilson Center’s contribution to Haleh Esfandari’s leadership as a force for change, and as resource for others who strive to make a difference. Albright emphasized that women’s rights are human rights and pointed to the violent treatment of women under Taliban rule in Afghanistan as a poignant reminder of this fact. She condemned groups who ignore the safety and rights of one portion of the population as ignoring the rights of all people. The issues that plague women impact the health of the economy and society as a whole.

Albright spoke about her work with Stephen Hadley at the Atlantic Council developing a plan to promote women’s rights in the MENA region. The team approached the task in a manner atypical of many DC think-tanks by going beyond the District and visiting with people on the ground in the region, including activists, refugees, politicians and monarchs. Calls for change are growing stronger. Civil society and activists are stirring progress; entrepreneurs are creating career opportunities for women outside the reach of government, and in some places authorities are starting to realize that their best resource is not their oil, but rather their people. These “green shoots of progress” need to be cultivated with sustained engagement on the part of the US.

Historically the US is the foremost supporter of women’s rights abroad, but Albright expressed doubt that the new administration will continue the tradition. Asked by Harman about the biggest changes in Congress since her time working for Senator Muskie, Albright highlighted the death of bipartisan solutions. Friendship and partnership across the aisle was a key part of her early experience. Harman concurred, citing the bipartisan House Judiciary Committee vote to impeach Nixon and the cooperation that ensued in the transition period after Nixon’s resignation.

The new administration’s proposed budget cuts directly decrease America’s limited soft-power influence in the region; Albright feels strongly that foreign assistance is one of the most effective tools for promoting US interests abroad and she appeals to Congress to reject cuts on diplomacy and for women’s empowerment around the world.

Albright was prudent to delineate the difference between promoting women’s rights and pushing Western values on the Middle East. She does not advocate for feminist reforms that are carbon copies of those in the US, recognizing that there are different concerns for different cultures. At the same time, she highlights the universal right for women’s voices to be heard, and the strength in solidarity.

Despite setbacks in the US and abroad, Albright remains optimistic. She said that feminist movements have endured across generations and coastlines, united by the idea that each individual life is valuable. She dreams of the day when every girl wakes up and feels that her life is cherished and her rights protected, that she is an individual and her future is determined by her character alone.

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