PITAPOLICY Observations: US Senate Holds “Women and the Arab Spring” Hearing

By: Mehrunisa Qayyum

Note: On Wednesday, November 2nd, the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations subcommittee on “International Operations and Organizations, Human Rights, Democracy, Women’s Global Issues held a hearing to discuss the role of women in the Arab Spring and evaluate current efforts of US support. PITAPOLICY is happy to share its observations and welcomes comments and counterarguments responding to this month’s PITAPOLICY Observations.

The US Emphasizes Female Social Entrepreneurs Over Business Entrepreneurs
Nobel laureate, Tawakkul Karman, represents how arab women aspire to lead in social entrepreneurial ventures. The Arab Spring has gained momentum because of women leaders, as observers and other Arab women entrepreneurs attest to as well. Even if Rubin’s reasoning for recognizing Karman is an attempt to “assuage concerns about women’s fate” politically, what about assuaging concerns about women’s fate economically? On November 2nd, Manal Omar, US Institute for Peace Director of Iraq, Iran, and North Africa; Mahnaz Afkhami, Former Minister of Women’s Affairs in Iran; each attested to the organizational potential of Arab female leaders in front of the US Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on International Operations & Organizations, Human Rights, Democracy, and the Global Women’s Issues. The hearing follows a trend of other powerhouses interest in examining the role of Arab women activists and those spearheading civic engagement–also nicknamed “social entrepreneurs.”

The American public and non-profit sectors continue to assert their watchdog role regarding Arab women’s issues. Similarly, the larger global organizations, persistently address women’s issues via social entrepreneurial opportunities. For example, Amnesty International and over 37 women’s and human rights entities, organized under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), submitted testimony calling for support of Arab women.

The government voice was not far behind: Ambassador Melanne Verveer for Global Women’s Issues asserted, “The empowerment of women is inextricably linked to the potential of nations to generate economic growth and sustainable democracy” Tamara Wittes, Deputy Special Coordinator for Middle East Transitions. The hearing highlights how the public sector is reviewing women’s social and civil rights and exploring venues for public space. However, the civic engagement discussions overshadow two elements: 1) the technical outlets and challenges for nascent businesses to access public sector funds in transitional Arab economies; and 2) the role of the private sector in supporting Arab female business entrepreneurs. Just because the political rights of women are under scrutiny for electoral participation does not mean that political rights for women in accessing financial and social capital are safeguarded.

Leading in Development Indicators Is Not Enough to Leverage Female Entrepreneurs: Pitfalls of “Top Movers” Status
Earlier in June 2011, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization reviewed the role of women, in not just the Arab Spring context, but in the nation’s Human Development Index by citing its 2002 Arab Human Development Report’s findings:
“…lack of independence for women among the three main factors holding Arab countries back from regaining the heights of world rankings for dialogue, education and culture…”
Arab countries reported higher than average HDIs compared to developing nations in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. Since 1970, at least five Arab nations demonstrated remarkable improvements in terms of attaining “top movers” status, according to UN analysis. As recently as 2010, Oman ranked first out of 135 countries, followed by Saudi Arabia (5th), Tunisia (7th), Algeria (9th) and Morocco (10th).

“Top Mover” status would presume that women are included in that progress. However, upon further scrutiny, Arab nations’ HDIs composite score did not reflect the missed opportunities for Arab women in civic engagement or employment in the private sector. Take a resource-rich, educated Arab nation that is not classified as a “country in transition”, such as Oman. Oman also ranked first as a “top mover” but does not represent the bulk of Arab female entrepreneurs–in social innovation or business. For example, Sharifa Albarami, a former government employee in Oman, spearheads AMIDEAST’s training center. AMIDEAST is an American nonprofit focusing on the MENA region. Albarami emphasizes that many Gulf Cooperation Council women are educated but linking the education with opportunities to innovate in enterprise is a MENA challenge–not just particular to the(GCC) nations. Specifically Barami articulates, “First let’s establish entrepreneurship as an industry. And cultivate SMEs in Oman and the GCC.”

On the other hand, Omar’s and the Women’s Learning Partnership’s Congressional statements pinpoint the positive development among Arab women engagement in social entrepreneurship. As Omar elucidated, one of the more “conservative” cities in Libya, Benghazi, where 40 percent of its lawyers are female. Based on their testimonies, one may forecast that increasing female social entrepreneurship may be promising in Libya and Tunisia–and may be followed by increasing business entrepreneurship.

Omar offered the Libyan case study from her USIP work to identify civic leaders and women who utilize social capital to lead. Omar identified Libyan women like Najla Elmangoush and Amina Mogherbi who founded a humanitarian organization during the time of conflict to effectively provide aid to inter ally displace persons. If Libyan women, like Najla Elmangoush, could lead the Public Engagement Unit to liaise between the National Transitional Council and civil society organizations, then the public space might have room for Arab women to advance in other entrepreneurial roles, including opening small businesses and, hopefully, leading larger ones.

What would jumpstart female entrepreneurship in the Arab world? OpenDemocracy writers, Foulath Hadid & Mishana Hosseinioun argue that the middle class operated as important “agents of change” in the backdrop of the Arab Spring. Considering Hadid’s and Hosseinioun’s analysis, the middle class includes both business and social entrepreneurs. Perhaps, the middle class that jumpstarted Arab Spring activities through women’s social entrepreneurial efforts will lead to jumpstarting the business entrepreneurial efforts.


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Filed under Analysis, Interests, PIDE (Policy, International Development & Economics), Politics

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