Feminists Brave Blizzard to Attend Conference on Arab American Women

By Metres, Katherine M. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Feminists Brave Blizzard to Attend Conference on Arab American Women


Metres, Katherine M., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Feminists Brave Blizzard to Attend Conference on Arab American Women

By Katherine M. Metres

Mother Nature's powerful display seemed an appropriate backdrop for a feminist conference. On Jan. 12 and 13, just as a second wave of Blizzard '96 hit, the elite of New York City's Arab-American community met at the Inter-Continental Hotel to discuss the "Empowerment of Women for the Year 2000: Women in Leadership Roles in the United States and the Arab World."

The third annual conference was sponsored by the Institute of Arab-American Women, Inc. (For Research & Development), Arab Women and the World magazine, and the National Organization of Arab-American Women, Inc. Conference participants received complimentary copies of Arab Women and the World's second issue. The New York-and Beirut-based glossy quarterly is the first Arab feminist magazine since World War II. Published in Arabic and English versions, it is distributed in the Arab world, North America and Europe. All three organizations were founded by Dr. Raja'a Mustafa Mukaddam, a United Nations consultant.

Like many such events, the conference opened with a celebrity-studded banquet that drew a larger crowd (nearly 200) than the sparsely attended but intellectually substantial panel discussions (around 50). Inclement weather prevented many out-of-towners from attending.

The banquet honored Mouna Elias Hrawi, the First Lady of Lebanon, with an award for the development of permanent child health and welfare services. Mrs. Hrawi is the founder of a host of charitable organizations, most notably the Chronic Care Center in Beirut, which provides free treatment for 850 children with diabetes and thalassemia, a severe anemia that is unique to the Mediterranean region. As a tribute to Mrs. Hrawi's work, artist Silvio Russo donated his sculpture "Song of Hope for the Children of Lebanon," valued at $35,000, to the Center. Conference speakers lauded the outstanding role Mrs. Hrawi played at the Beijing Conference, where she achieved a prominence comparable to that of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In her keynote address, Mrs. Hrawi called efforts to promote the status of women "an integral part of [Lebanon's] reconstruction." She applauded the recent removal of clauses in the Lebanese civil law that undermined women's legal status. For example, in 1994 Lebanon established for the first time the right of a woman to carry on commercial activities without the consent of her husband.

Mrs. Hrawi cited cultural dynamics as interfering with women's achievement outside the home. "Women's employment and career are seen as a potential threat to the values and norms defining the female role in Arab societies, causing conflict and marital tensions," she said. For these reasons, she asserted, Arab women's high level of education has not translated into equal employment or power.

To conclude, Mrs. Hrawi said, "The next phase of the struggle for gender equality, as James Gustave Speth puts it, `lies in equalizing access to economic and political opportunities.' For this to take place, men will have to go along with the change. Let us hope they will be up to the task." The audience, which contained as many men as women, jumped to its feet in assent.

Conversation around the dinner table proved even more provocative. A World Bank employee told the Washington Report about her employer's discriminatory practices. She charged that the World Bank "never promotes Arab women, or women from developing countries, to decisionmaking positions. And if you're Muslim it's worse." Asserting that promotion decisions are "very political," she offered as an example her supervisor's suggestion that she give up her citizenship in an Arab country and become a U.S. citizen in order to advance.

The conference proper opened on Saturday. Attendees were disappointed by the absence of the keynote speaker, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala. Secretary Shalala, a Lebanese American who co-chaired the U. …

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