Global Female Empowerment: Why we should be looking to the Middle East for inspiration.

Protestors Demand End to Lawlessness in Tripoli

UN population fund (UNPFA ) Senior Advisor, Azza Karam and Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Isobel Coleman, spoke last month about female empowerment and gender equality in relation to the Middle East. Their testimonies advocated that women, the youth and civil society are paramount in a resurging Arab political consciousness, the ‘Arab Spring’, which has been steadily growing. Beginning on the 17th December 2010 in Tunisia and on-going in other Middle Eastern countries such as Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, mass public protests concerning transparency, civil liberties and violence have taken place. Notably, there has been increased female participation in the Middle East with women standing alongside men in the front lines of protest. Ms Karam insisted that higher literacy rates, higher education, participation in the work place and the liberation of freedom via social media has contributed to the progression of female agency – asserting their own power. Both Ms Karam and Ms Coleman made it clear that the UN should utilise these mechanisms in their approach toward global female empowerment, closing gendered disparities in education while also contributing toward social and political stability in the Middle East.

The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia saw social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, as especially significant in rallying the masses in their political uprisings that began in late 2010. Social networking has opened a window of political insight to those, such as women or the youth, who previously may not have been exposed to opposing political opinions. This has invoked a new kind of political consciousness has been transposed into political activism. However, it is important to note that social media should not be entirely credited with the achievement of growing female assertion and participation. Ms Karam stressed that most importantly; rising educational and economic opportunities has been the primary contributor to political consciousness and personal freedom of women in the Middle East.

From this observation, Ms Karam stated that the UN has an obligation to support and form partnerships with these kinds of disparate voices in order to positively transform the wider Middle Eastern regions and other parts of the world. She advocates that women are “critical agents of change” for themselves and in surrounding socio-political issues. Ms Karam and Ms Coleman pairs these observations with criticism of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set to expire in 2015. Two of the goals, universal education and promotion of gender equality with empowerment of women, have been criticised by Ms Karam in its approach as “inadequate”. She has, therefore, urged a program of development promoting educational and economic opportunities for women that sits under a blanket that encompasses culture and religion which has been previously neglected.

The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, praised the assertion displayed in the ‘Arab Spring’, particularly recognising the role of women, in their passion and drive for democracy. However, Ms Coleman advocated that the UN is currently supporting women in the Middle East most positively through its research mechanisms and dissemination of its findings. She states, “We are experiencing an arc of history that will take a long time to play itself out. Overthrowing dictatorships is easy. Building something new in its place – creating – is the hard part.”

The UN has recognised that closing gender disparities are essential for women in enabling political and economic participation within their home nations. Priorities include ending violence, bias and stereotype toward women on corporate, political and domestic platforms. This was made clear by Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, at the 5th Annual Women’s Empowerment Principles Event in New York on March 6, 2013. In addition to this the UN has not been shy in displaying its commitment to female empowerment through several mechanisms.
There are two UN Bodies:

  • Comission on the Status of Woman
  • Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women

Two Global Programmes:

  • Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women
  • Gender and the Environment

As well as five Regional Programmes:

  • Gender and Social Development
    Economic Commission for Africa
  • Gender Equality and Empowerment
    Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific
  • Gender Activities
    Economic Commission for Europe
  • Gender Affairs
    Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean
  • Centre for Women
    Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia

It will be interesting in the post-2015, MDG period whether these bodies will adapt to the recommendations of Ms Karam and Ms Coleman or resume a continuation of normative approach toward gender equality in the Middle East and the rest of the world.


Jamie-Lee Cole