From March 14-16, 2005, about 1,000 students, educators, and leadership professionals from 36 countries gathered together in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) to attend Zayed University’s inaugural conference: “Women as Global Leaders: Educating the Next Generation.” The mission of the conference was to highlight “women’s leadership roles while also examining how one educates for and about leadership in an increasingly complex world.” This was the first student leadership conference of its kind in the United Arab Emirates and the Persian Gulf region.
Thanks to generous funding from the Woodrow Wilson School and the WWS Gender and Policy Network, I found myself packing my bags over spring break to head to Dubai. I didn’t know much about Dubai beyond stereotypes of sand, oil, and gold so I was excited to learn and explore. For those of you unfamiliar with the region, the UAE is a union of seven sovereign sheikhdoms located on the “boot” of the Persian Gulf on the Arabian Sea, next to Saudi Arabia and Oman. It’s a relatively new country, formed in 1971 when the British withdrew from the Gulf. While the Emirates are relatively small and new, they boast two of the most modern cities in the world: Abu Dhabi, the capital, and Dubai. The UAE has strong ties to the West, is a world-class business center, and is a Sunni Muslim country. The other major fact you have to know about the UAE is that is a magnet for expatriates. Less than 30% of the population is comprised of local Emiratis; the remaining 70% come from the South Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere.
Making new friends from Oman, South Africa, and Canada
Given this background, it’s safe to say that Dubai stands on the crossroads of East and West, North and South. Its prime location helped draw 1,000 conference delegates from all around the world (including 200 from the U.S.), ready to explore issues of women’s global leadership. The conference opened with speeches from HE Sheikh Nahayan, UAE Minister of Education and President of Zayed University, and prominent female leaders in the West: Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway and former Director General of the World Health Organization; Tipper Gore, former Advisor to President Bill Clinton; and Kim Campbell, former Prime Minister of Canada. The women focused on finding ways to culturally navigate female involvement in politics. Given prevailing gender roles that predisposed men to positions of power and influence, Brundtland talked about the important role fathers and husbands play in supporting women’s rise to power. She mentioned how all of the most prominent women in the United Nations had supportive fathers, and how her own husband signed all of his emails as “Secretary to Gro Harlem Brundtland.” She summed up her message by saying that “You get in life what you have the courage to ask for.”
Meeting Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway and former Director General of the World Health Organization
Meeting Tipper Gore, former advisor to President Bill Clinton
Although I was surprised to see that the conference opened with presentations from Western leaders, other panels focused on the role of women in the Middle East and the Muslim world. Rowaida al-Ma’aitah, a member of the Jordanian Senate, discussed the quota system countries like Jordan (and even Afghanistan) have for ensuring women have a voice in government. Raja Al-Gurg, President of the Dubai and UAE Businesswomen’s Council and CEO of the Eissa Al-Gurg Group, talked personally about how to juggle leadership at work and raising a large family. This theme of balancing family life and the workplace was carried throughout the conference; it highlighted the importance of not having to sacrifice one for the other. It also raised interesting cultural questions for how to change structures so as to give men more opportunities to participate in family life. While many European countries such as Norway are taking the lead on such issues, other countries lag far behind.
The conference took place at the 5 star resort of Madinat Jumeirah with the famous Burj Al Arab in the background.
Among the myriad of workshops and breakout sessions the conference offered, a few stood out in my mind. One on gender and peace dissected the “women and peace hypothesis,” which states that women are predisposed to peace (more then men). Another on “the leadership bind” focused on oppositional consciousness, which argues that women only organize when they realize that their government is not representing their views. Personally, my two favorite panels were “Supporting Women’s Leadership in Afghanistan,” and “Dispelling the Myth of UAE Women Oppression.”
The conference opened with a procession of distinguished guests.
First, Lina Abirafeh, a PhD researcher who also heads a women’s NGO in Afghanistan, talked about the realities and challenges facing Afghani women. While the Western press was quick to cover the dramatic rise in female political participation following the fall of Taliban, Abirafeh stressed the challenges that many of these women still face. For instance, while women comprised 1/3 of the Loya Jirga and were present during discussions of the new constitution, many of the women felt harassed and were uncomfortable publicly speaking during the process. This raises questions about their effectiveness and contributions to the political process. Parliamentary elections were supposed to be held in April 2005, and women are supposed to hold 25% of the seats according to the quota system. But again, even when women are statistically present, does it mean that they have an active voice in shaping their new government?
The UAE panel fielded dozens of questions about Islam, the veil, and women’s roles as mothers and wives from the point of view of Emirati students. Since most of the audience was unfamiliar with Islam, it was an interesting clash of cultures and religions. Most of the Western women were focused on why Emirati women wore the traditional hijab (black head scarf) and abaya (long black dress). The students explained that they were not pressured to veil from either their families or their friends. Many chose to veil in high school, around the same time many of their friends started to veil. The session also discussed a common Muslim practice of arranged marriages and the social advantages of this system such as ensuring family support in the marriage. Juxtaposed against this conversation was talk of the high divorce rate in Gulf countries (one audience member guessed it was as high as 60%) and the potential causes of rapid development and the high ratio of foreigners that contribute to such social issues. Some of the women I met at the conference from the Gulf were divorced, and it was interesting to hear their stories on how they fought for divorce and child custody and the challenges of carving out a new life for themselves. Overall, what struck me most in this panel was how active, assertive, and confident these women were about their culture, heritage, and religion; it’s hard to find such a parallel in the West where we pride ourselves on blending towards the mean.
International guests attended a nighttime desert safari complete with camel rides and musicians.
All in all, the conference stimulated many interesting discussions on advancing women’s leadership on the global stage. Whether we were at the lush conference location (right on the beach!) or swept away on a nighttime desert safari (complete with camel rides!), having cross-cultural conversations with students and practioners from around the world was an amazing way to spend spring break. To learn more about the conference or see additional pictures, visit the conference’s website at http://www.zu.ac.ae/leadership2005/