The "Women Making Democracy" conference held by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study on March 29th and 30th attempted to examine the role of women in the Arab Spring from a variety of angles. Its panelists drew from a refreshingly diverse variety of fields; though the majority of speakers were academics, a Gallup pollster, a UN official, and the playwright Ibrahim El-Husseini--whose play "Comedia Al-Ahzaan" (Comedy of Sorrows) attempted to offer an aesthetic nuance to an otherwise conventional discussion--also took part.
Individually, a number of speakers made poignant claims. Dalia Mogahed, the Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, argued that views toward employment of women in the Arab World do not correlate with opinions of Islam's role in government but rather with levels of male employment and the Human Development Index. Other speakers focused on the visual aspect of the revolution, exploring the images that it has produced and their ramifications for feminism.
Yet the conference as a whole suffered from a number of fundamental flaws. One such flaw was overall coherence, exemplified by the dramatic reading of "Comedia al-Ahzaan." While there was certainly artistic merit to the production, many of the metaphors were left unexplained. Although the play could very well have been more comprehensible in its original Arabic, the translation process seemed to rob it of a large portion of its clarity. Despite this, the audience was attentive and nodded along in solemn acceptance throughout the performance, even when scenes were unintelligible.
The message that the Radcliffe Institute and the participants of the conference worked to convey is undeniably valuable. Its potency, however, was somewhat undermined by the attendants of the conference, a group primarily composed of upper-middle class, middle-aged women. Although this is not a failing in and of itself, in the context of a conference about the Arab Spring--a movement led primarily by youth, particularly among women--the demographics of the audience created a fundamental divide that the panelists seemed to find difficult to breach. They were attentive and polite, to be sure. However, they did not demonstrate the fervor or the inspiration necessary to relay the message to a broader audience where it might take root and ultimately bring about change. This lack of passion was illustrated by the fact that some audience members were knitting.
A question and answer session at the end of the last panel of the day was shockingly illustrative of the disconnect between the panelists and observers. For example, one audience member asked whether it was damaging to political movements to include feminism in their goals, since so many men joined movements to meet attractive girls. …