Thursday, September 6, 2012

Discussion: Women’s Role in Middle East Elections, Revolutions, Empowerment

By Lynn Roberson

International leaders spoke on Sept. 5 to over 100 students, faculty, staff and community members at UNC Charlotte’s Cone University Center on “Elections, Revolutions, Empowerment: The Role of Women in Tomorrow’s Middle East.”

The event was part of the 49er Democracy Experience, in partnership with the National Security Network. Panelists were Dr. Tamara Wittes, Brookings Senior Fellow and Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and Dr. Franziska Brantner, Member of the European Parliament. Dr. Gregory Starrett, Professor of Anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, moderated. Starrett’s research focuses on cultural politics of Islam in the Middle East.

Dr. Franzisk Brantner (left); Dr. Tamara Wittes
During the discussion, the panelists addressed the mobilization of women, youth and others in the Arab Spring movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other parts of the Arab world.

“This unrest was driven by some deep, underlying changes in Arab society,” Wittes said. These included demographic changes, a youth “bulge,” increased literacy and education for women and a delay in the age at which women have children, she said.

The changes saw a rise of a young generation with aspirations, who looked around and saw political repression and other issues. “They found the reality was very, very far from what they hoped to achieve,” she said.

Protests occurred outside the normal constructs of these societies, Wittes said. She noted the impact of social media on the movements, citing as an example an Egyptian worker who organized a strike through the use of Facebook and became a leader in the broader movement.

A challenge now is transforming these past actions into permanent and meaningful change, requiring the formalizing of equality and inclusion efforts, she said. The United States can play a role in helping women learn how to participate in government and to operate businesses, and by creating models of what women’s leadership looks like, she said.

Wittes served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs from November of 2009 to January 2012, coordinating U.S. policy on democracy and human rights in the Middle East for the State Department.

Brantner is spokeswoman for foreign affairs of the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament and Parliament’s standing rapporteur for the Instrument for Stability. This is a strategic tool designed to address a number of global security and development challenges.
In the past, “it was not about democracy or human rights; it was about stability,” she said. Policy priorities have now shifted as a result of the movements, she said.

Women have played critical roles in the uprisings, she said. Now, women’s rights over their own bodies, who they marry, how they dress and other rights are threatened, such as in Tunisia’s draft constitution that describes women as “complementary to men.”

Brantner noted that supporters must consider women’s personal decisions on how they will participate, such as in labor movements. “We have to be careful to support women in whatever struggle they have chosen,” she said.

Asked why a focus is centered on women, the speakers said issues of equality offer fundamental insights into prospects for stability.  “If the women lose out in these countries, democracy won’t stand for long,” Brantner said.

International studies major Cole Garde said he gained insights from the panel into how policies and priorities are established by the U.S. and other governments. For international studies and philosophy major Charles Williamson, the discussion brought home the need to continue to address women’s rights in the U.S. “I feel like it’s going to impossible to promote women’s rights in the Middle East or internationally,” otherwise, he said.

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Lynn Roberson is director of communication for the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences

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