“We are bringing together some of the most extraordinary and accomplished women in the Arab world—women who are at the forefront of finance, health care, literature, film, and nonprofits. Their willingness to share their stories creates a dialogue that will benefit young women worldwide, and that promises an ongoing exchange of ideas,” said Barnard College President Debora L. Spar to approximately 300 accomplished and successful women from the United Arab Emirates and other parts of the Middle East as she opened the College’s second annual global symposium, “Women in the Arab World.” The audience included trustees, alumnae from around the world, and students’ parents. Held on March 15 in Dubai, the half-day program began with a luncheon and introductory remarks from Jolyne Caruso-FitzGerald ’81, incoming chair of Barnard’s Board of Trustees and president of Platinum Gate Capital Management. In her remarks, Spar affirmed to all, “I can imagine no better way to inspire young women to think expansively than to give them the opportunity to hear from successful women everywhere. This global symposium is one such moment.”
Soha Nashaat ’88, managing director of Barclays Wealth, Middle East, introduced keynote speaker Her Excellency Sheikha Lubna Khalid bin Sultan Al Qasimi, the UAE minister for foreign trade. As she opened her remarks, she pointed to the fact that in the UAE today women occupy around 30 percent of all management positions, outnumber men in the government sector, handle around 50 percent of the UAE’s small-to-medium enterprises, and manage investments of over 4 billion U.S. dollars. Sheikha Lubna added, “I am proud to say that the UAE is looked up to as a model Arab state in terms of affording more opportunities for its female citizens.”
But, she continued, “there are still many challenges that we as Arab women have to address and overcome. In many parts of the Middle East, family, cultural, business, and political structures still limit the full development of women’s potential. We need [these] forums ... to erase the popular stereotype of women as the ‘weaker’ sex with limited social roles. We need to encourage young Arab girls to believe more in themselves and have confidence in their ability to achieve and excel.”
In response to questions from the audience, Sheikha Lubna, one of four women serving as ministers in the UAE government, told how, as the economics minister, she had attended a World Trade Organization meeting in Hong Kong to deliver a speech on behalf of the UAE. She was repeatedly asked, “Where is your minister?” They thought, she explained, “I was his secretary or his office manager.” Others thought she was in the conference room merely to hold his seat. The questions continued even as she arose and began giving her speech.
Sheikha Lubna said, “My team was sitting right behind, I think, ... the U.S. delegation. And these delegates asked again, ‘Why is she speaking? Where is your minister?’” The Sheikha’s team members said, “She is our minister.” In the face of such stereotyping, she believes women must keep a sense of humor, “If you bring humor, people would remember you, would remember you actually are overcoming a stereotype.”
Sheikha Lubna emphasized the importance of education and family to Arab women. Referring to the decision to work or to stay home caring for children, she allowed, “At the end of the day, it really depends on the individual ... or the family. Here, we have extended family that helps a great deal with raising children. In some societies, you don’t.... But I want to remind women, if you choose to stay home and look after [children], that is the greatest job. It is not a job that tells you that you are less than another woman who is in a corporate [position within] an organization.... I don’t want women to feel that they are less than others. It’s a choice—you do what you want. And that choice is ... a belief in yourself, a belief in your family.”
Barnard College’s long history of excellence in leadership, and the literary output by its alumnae, were the inspirations for the other panels that afternoon. “Voices of the Region” tackled issues facing women in the Arab world through the arts: film, literature, and literary criticism. The discussion, moderated by President Spar, featured scholar and critic Samia Mehrez, filmmaker Moufida Tlatli, and novelist Ahdaf Soueif. The panelists explored how the arts and literature expanded women’s voices and experiences.
Professor Samia Mehrez emphasized that gender is embedded in everything we read and write. Arab writers continually use language that reflects their experience; for example, their history of colonization or discrimination and thus, she concluded, gender studies and translation studies go hand in hand.
Tunisian filmmaker Moufida Tlatli, speaking in both French and English, told stories of how she continually had to “combat” her family, to go to school and university, and to become a filmmaker. “My father said ‘no’ at each stage,” she declared. Hard work, the experience she had gained as a film editor, and the grief she felt after the death of her mother helped her complete her second film, La Saison des Hommes, which has met critical acclaim across the globe. When asked what’s next, she replied, “I’m not looking to plan the next film. When things come from my heart, the next film will come.”
Award-winning Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, author of The Map of Love (shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999 and translated into more than 20 languages), attributed her great success to the influence of her mother, an English professor who moved the family to England, when as a woman she was unable to obtain a position teaching at a university in Egypt. The result was that Soueif spoke Arabic, but first learned to read in English. Her other strong influence came from her nanny, Azita, who told wonderful stories that taught the young girl to imagine and believe, and to understand the power of words and the importance of vivid characters.
As the director of The Athena Center for Leadership Studies, I moderated the second and final panel, “Conversations on Leadership,” which examined the changing face of women’s leadership across the region, and the great strides that Arab women have made in this part of the world. The panel included extraordinary women—all trailblazers in their fields. Each talked personally about how they achieved their success.
Investment banker Loulwa Bakr, who has held a number of investment banking positions in Saudi Arabia, explained that as the first woman trader in Saudi Arabia, she was often met with hostility and silence when she entered the trading floor. But now, said Bakr, women’s participation has been normalized. Today she walks inside the trading floor and sees both women and men working side by side. She did caution that it is important for us not to make generalizations about women in the Arab world. Depending on their country or community, women have remarkably different experiences. Saudi Arabia is not the same as Dubai, Oman, or Qatar, she added.
Dr. Houriya Kazim, the first female surgeon in the UAE, left it to study in England and the United States, returning to England for additional medical training when she realized the need for surgeons in the UAE. Starting a medical clinic for women in Dubai, Kazim continues to specialize in breast and reconstructive surgery for women with cancer. It took more hard work to achieve her goals than she ever imagined. And her journey was not without personal sacrifice. Since marriages are generally arranged, if one does not marry young, it is virtually impossible for a woman to marry an Emirati. Dr. Kazim did marry an American when she was almost 40, and was older than most of her peers when she started her family.
Federal National Council member Najla Al-Awadhi, one of the first women in the UAE parliament, its youngest member, and CEO of Dubai’s government-run cable-television channels, eloquently reiterated Kazim’s observation that success comes in part from hard work. According to Al- Awadhi, families may be both a source of personal support and an impediment to success. She spoke about one of her employees whom she wanted to promote to be an on-air reporter. This young woman’s mother didn’t want her daughter to be on television because the only women the mother saw on TV were not culturally acceptable. To overcome this resistance, Al-Awadhi met the mother to convince her to allow her daughter to appear on TV. “Think about that,” she said. “I bet Katie Couric’s boss never had to meet with [her] mom, before Katie accepted a position on television.”
Rabia Zargarpur, known as “Rabia Z.,” followed her passion for fashion design and trained in both the U.S. and France. A video presentation of her award-winning designs all incorporated the hajib and other traditional Muslim dress. She emphasized that she could stretch the cultural limits of her faith, but only so far. She believes Arab women needed ways to express themselves consistent with their conservative culture. As moderator, I was delighted and impressed with the open exchange of personal histories, and how these ideas sparked enthusiastic responses from the audience, particularly the younger women who had attended.
This symposium was the second in what has become an annual Barnard event, enabling the College to become better known around the globe, to attract international students, and to advance our understanding of women’s leadership in differing cultures. Barnard’s first global symposium, honoring Kang Tongbi, the first Chinese woman to study at Barnard early in the twentieth century, took place in Beijing, China, in March 2009 (barnard. edu/womenchangingchina). It brought together four renowned Chinese women leaders—a media mogul, an acclaimed author, an award-winning filmmaker, and an advocate for women’s rights—to share their inspirational stories with young women of the region. The success of that event inspired Barnard to continue examining the role of women and women leaders in other regions of the world.
The Dubai Symposium was presented in partnership with Barclays Wealth, Platinum Gate, Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank, Economic Zones World, Aramex, the University of Southern Maine, and Higher Education in Development in association with The Columbia University Middle East Research Center and DIFC Centre of Excellence. The Barnard Global Symposia will continue in spring 2011 in Africa.
Watch symposium highlights, see photos, and read more coverage at alum.barnard.edu/magazine.
-by Kathryn Kolbert, photographs courtesy of Ogilvy and Mather