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How Women Are Transforming the Middle East

Speaker: Isobel Coleman, Author, "Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming The Middle East", Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy, CFR
Presider: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
May 6, 2010, New York
Council on Foreign Relations

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RICHARD N. HAASS: Well, good -- I guess it's good evening. Good evening. It's after 6:00. The polls have closed in Britain. And here we are doing one of my favorite things, which is to celebrate the publication not just of a book, or not just any book, but this book stands out in several ways.

Isobel will get angry with me in the next minute, but it's an -- it's a very -- it's a rare species. It is a positive book about the Middle East. What makes it even rarer: It's a positive book about the role and potential for and of women in the Middle East. So on the bookshelves of books about positive things about women in the Middle East, there will be a lot of space for this book. It will not be -- it will not be lost.

Thank you for coming to the Council. It's truly important, I believe, to rally round and be here when people produce books. Books are the basis of what we do here. We do many other things, whether it's writing articles for Foreign Affairs or other magazines, or putting things on the website, or op-eds, or speaking on radio or TV or speaking at meetings here and elsewhere. But books, again, are the foundation. They require years of work and the most serious and sustained thought, and they become the intellectual foundation that -- to switch metaphors -- get mined for much of what we do.

And this one has the added advantage of not just being positive but also being readable. (Laughter.) Also on a -- well, you laugh. I don't laugh. Readable books are as welcome as they are rare. This is readable, it's interesting, it's positive, and it's important. Because as goes the Middle East, a lot else follows. And as go the situation of women in the Middle East, a lot flows from that.

The fact that you're so many, there are so many of you here tonight, is a real tribute and a testament to Isobel Coleman. It's great to see so many people to celebrate the author and to celebrate the book. The name of the book is "Paradise Beneath Her Feet." The subtitle is "How Women are Transforming the Middle East."

What we're going to do tonight is Isobel's going to speak for a few minutes about her book. She will then take a few questions. And then afterwards there will be lots of time for people to drink, to eat and, most important, to buy books. And Isobel, as any author, is thrilled to sign books, because there's a prerequisite that comes to the signing of the books, and that's what truly makes her thrilled. And if you read the book, that's a bonus. (Laughter.)

Let me also just take the occasion to welcome back to the Council my predecessor, Les Gelb. It's great to see him here again. (Applause.) And I can't take the credit for bringing Isobel to the Council. That's all Les's. And I am one of the many who have benefited from her -- from her being here.

So with that, Dr. Coleman, the microphone is yours. (Applause.)

ISOBEL COLEMAN: Thank you so much, Richard. And thank you for everyone here at the Council who has been just terrific in helping me get this book finished, out the door, and putting on this terrific party.

And Irina Faskianos is putting on a terrific book tour, and I just really appreciate it. There are a couple other people I'd like to thank, too: Kate Medina, who I saw here, who's my fabulous editor at Random House, and Melissa Bennett (sp), and Charlotte Sheedy, who is my terrific agent, who's over here, and various family members, including my dad, who's here, and Edie (sp), his wife, and my husband, Struan, and three of my kids. So thank you all.

And really an incredibly thank you to Les Gelb, because I walked in his office to get some career advice many years ago, and when I came to see him, there was always a whole bevy of very attractive women outside of Les's office. And they all said to me, "Oh, Isobel, we hear you're coming to join us at the council." And I said, "No, no, I'm just here to have lunch with Les." (Laughter.) But here I am eight years later.

Les is very convincing. And Les said to me, when I came here, he said, you know, I want you to work -- I want you to do something about women, particularly women in the Middle East. I don't know what, but I just sense it's a big problem and I want you to focus on it.

And here I am with a book about that particular subject. So, Les, again, kudos to you for setting me on this path.

And the reason I think the book is important, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you don't invest in half your population, you're going to fall behind -- economically, politically, socially. And all studies show that the Middle East has not invested in half its population and it has fallen behind woefully in many different ways.

And the book is a positive book, because it talks about how women -- and men, importantly -- are pushing back on a conservative interpretation of Islam that has been used over the centuries, and in particular with the rise of a very political Islam in recent decades, to fight tooth and nail women's progress in that part of the world. And men and women are engaging in an unprecedented fashion with the religion to push back on that.

And there are a umber of things that are driving this. The first, frankly, is just rising levels of literacy. Although the Middle East has lagged on female literacy, it's catching up. And now you have, in countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Iran -- Iran especially -- you have women outnumbering men at the college level. Seventy percent of college graduates in Iran are women. Sixty-three percent of college graduates in Saudi Arabia are women.

And so when you have this much more educated generation of women, they are reading the texts for themselves, they're listening to media, they're engaging in a much more profound way than they ever have before, and they're questioning. And they're asking, "Why is it that we can't own our own business? And why is it that we can't have more rights in the family?" And in Saudi Arabia, "Why is it that we can't drive and can't vote?"

So these questions are becoming much more open in society, and they're being pushed along by men and women. So rising levels of literacy and education.

You also have the role of the media, which is bringing discussion about all of these issues through Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya and NBC and all of the satellite television networks into people's homes. And you have formats that are familiar to American formats, like "The View," a women's show, where you have women talking about all of these issues, very sensitive issues about child marriage, about polygamy, all of these things, in people's living rooms.

You also have formats like "Arabic Idol," which is like "American Idol." And recently there was a sensation -- and I recommend all of you to watch it on YouTube, where a Saudi poetess -- it's not really "Arabic Idol" in the sense that we would know. They come on and do poetry recitation.

And a woman, fully covered in her black abayah, came on -- (pretending to speak in Arabic) -- and what she was saying -- and it's translated -- is, "You clerics, you're issuing fatwas that are destroying our life, and you are a bunch of losers, and we women know it." (Laughter.) And it has been a sensation across the Middle East. (Laughter.) So I recommend that you go on YouTube and look at this.

Another driver has been frankly terrorism and extremism. Leaders around that part of the world understand that extremist views on women lead to generally extremist views in society.

And you have people like King Mohammed in Morocco who are starting programs to train women as mourchidats, as preachers, to actually do everything a male preacher does in the Muslim faith, other than lead the Friday prayers.

And he talks about it specifically as a way to counter extremism in society. Turkey has a similar program. Egypt has started something like this. Qatar has started a program like this. Why? They are concerned about extremism in their own society. And they understand the linkage between extremist views on women and extremist views in general.

And then lastly it's economics. They understand that they will be economic losers in the 21st century if they don't invest in half their population. And they are investing in education. And women in particular are really driving the changes.

So it is a hopeful and optimistic book. I hope you'll read it, because there's lots of interesting anecdotes in there. People have told me they particularly like the bit about Heba Kotb, who is a sexpert in the Middle East who is introducing all sorts of innovations in that field, to say the least. (Laughter.)

So there is some juicy stuff in here, to make it a little bit more interesting reading. (Laughter.) So thank you. (Applause.)

HAASS: The last bit makes me think this might be one of the few books coming out of the council that sells. (Laughter.)

COLEMAN: I'm working it, Richard. I'm working it. (Laughter.)

HAASS: Whatever it takes.

Isobel has kindly agreed to take a few questions. And so let's just do that. And I'll do my best to find people who want to ask them. Let's get a few in. Again it's a rich topic. It's broad, it's deep. And sure, just -- we have three microphones. We do.

Just let us know who you are, and we'll --

QUESTIONER: Good evening. I'm Angelie (sp). (Inaudible.) I am a friend of one of your members, Alice Dear, who invited me and is at home, though she was supposed to be here. But I decided I wanted to come anyway, because I've had very nice experiences here.

Just today, I read an article about a class offered at the American university -- I don't remember if it was Egypt. I really don't remember. But it was about, who am I? A very costly class at this American university in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, I really don't remember.

I'm wondering with that said that they have to have a class or feel there's a need for a class on, who am I? What -- how will the women that you interviewed or that you are portraying, in your book, respond to that question?

And then the next level, given that they spoke about the range, the class costing -- I can't remember, but it's a very costly class. And there's these people, a lot of people who can't afford it.

So what are the women doing, to help those women answer that same question -- who am I? -- empowering them, given that it's obviously a very important question to talk about, for economic literacy?

COLEMAN: Thank you. Thank you.

Yeah, you know, the -- this idea of questioning identity is very prevalent throughout the region. And the Internet and Facebook in particular has allowed whole interactions that haven't been happening before, particularly for women, who have less access to the public sphere, and they -- from the privacy of their own home and sometimes with anonymous identities, they have blogs and they have Facebook accounts. And they are exploring questions like this and really questioning so many of the restrictions that are imposed on them in society.

So thank you.

HAASS: Here.

QUESTIONER: Carol Sakoian, Scholastic --

HAASS: (Off mike) -- hear your topic, then.

QUESTIONER: Carol Sakoian from Scholastic. Given what you're saying about the progress of women, how do you explain this incredible increase in the number of women wearing hijab everywhere?

COLEMAN: That is a very important question, and I hope that you'll understand it better if you read the book. But the wearing of hijab is as much of a political statement as it is a religious statement in so much of that part of the world. And in Egypt today, with an authoritarian secular government that really discourages the wearing of hijab, you have around 85 to 90 percent of women wearing it.

In Iran, with a theocracy that imposes the hijab, you have demonstrations in the street of women trying to take it off.

In Turkey you've had a very -- you know, upswell of women wearing hijab, again, with a secular government, and now you have an Islamist government in power, and the incidence of hijab-wearing is receding.

So it's very much related to politics as much as it is to religion, and that's true in the West. And this whole issue of the niqab in the West is as much -- much more of a political issue than it is by a religious issue.

HAASS: Why don't you say something about women and religious observance now, since you just mentioned that? Like what are the trends there?

COLEMAN: Well, there has been an Islamic revival. People are much more religious, and today's young generation in the Middle East is much more religious than their parents' generation. And so the theme of the book is that given the realities of this increasing religiosity, plus the constraints of political Islam, which equate women and women's rights with feminism, Westernism, materialism, all sorts of bad -isms in that part of the world, that unless they can figure out a way to work with religion for change, as opposed to against it, they're going to be butting their heads against a wall.

So what you have now is many, many millions of women wearing the hijab, but saying, "We wear the hijab, but we want our rights." So the two are not necessarily antithetical.

HAASS: Susan.

QUESTIONER: Susan Woodward, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

COLEMAN: Hi, Susan.

QUESTIONER: It's a little embarrassing to ask the question before you've -- we've read the book -- (chuckles) -- but I've also been hearing about the Iranian case a lot lately. Can you go further? It's not just 70 percent of the universities, but it's also professional positions and government positions that women dominate. Is there any way of projecting the consequences over the next 10 to 20 years?

COLEMAN: Yeah, it's -- I think it's a very serious issue for the country. The women are increasingly so much better educated than the men. And when I was there -- in the Iran chapter, I have stories about these young women who are completely dismissive of men, and you know, they want nothing to do with them, because they're not educated, they don't speak three languages, they haven't traveled outside Iran.

And so what are these men doing? They sit at home and play PlayStation. They have no interest in them. (Laughter.) It's incredible. I mean, there's -- there is a gender friction there like I've really never seen in any other country.

And, you know, the Iranian government has a terrible problem on its hands, because it has this very educated class of women, who do make up 70 percent of college graduates. They're constantly talking about putting quotas in place to reduce the number of women in university.

And they know they'd have a revolution on their hands if they do. I hope that they'll do it. It's one of those, you know, soft revolution things. "Put in a quota at the university," I keep, you know, whispering it into the mullahs' ears. (Soft laughter.)

But, you know, the women are incredibly determined, and they won't back down. And you see from the demonstrations in the streets that, you know, the women outnumber the men. And they're not -- these are not secular women. You know, these are women wearing the full chador. These are religious, conservative women, too.

HAASS: Other than providing Iranians and others then with lots of Playstations -- (laughter) -- what is it -- people in this room who are interested in this issue, is there any role for outsiders in furthering the role of women in the Middle East?

COLEMAN: Iran is a particularly tricky issue because of the sanctions, because of the backlash in Iran, the -- you know, the danger of being labeled, you know, a tool of the west. But, you know, the west already has played, I think, an important role by bringing these issues out into the open, talking about them quite openly.

You know, the U.N. did a series of Arab human-development reports and boiled down the problems in that part of the world to three things: a lack of freedom, a lack of knowledge and a lack of women's rights.

Well, the governments aren't particularly interested in addressing the freedom issue. The knowledge issue and the women's issue, they understand the economic consequences. And they are interested in that, and I get a lot of questions about that.

Rankings: You know, they're very conscious of their international rankings and how badly they play on this whole women's rights and women's issue. And they seem to care about that.

And bringing it up, encouraging the women, a lot of groups here in the west support women's organizations. The United States government has recognized and valued the contributions of women, which gives them a big platform. Someone like Shirin Ebadi in Iran: You know, she has such a huge profile because of the Nobel Peace Prize. That has really managed to, you know, amplify her message in a way that never would have without.

HAASS: We've only got time for one more. I see a hand all the way in the back. I -- (inaudible) -- going to be able -- by the way, to those we can't get to, forgive me, but we will -- she's going to hang around and will answer as many questions as she can.

COLEMAN: I'm going to give a little shout-out, too, to Nadia Malik, who's here someplace, who runs something called the Muslim Women's Fund, which is really trying to fund organizations, use donor money from the west to fund organizations that are supporting women in Muslim countries. So she's here some place.

HAASS: I wanted to give a man to chance to ask a question. (Laughter.)

COLEMAN: Yeah.

HAASS: Yes, sir.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. This is Lane Greene from The Economist. I'm thrilled that there's a good-news book on the Middle East out there. I will buy it just -- if only to help me sleep peacefully at night. (Soft laughter.)

HAASS: (Off mike.) (Laughs.)

QUESTIONER: I guess I understand, as a journalist, that it's easy to find a lot of pieces of information that will support almost anything. And so I guess I'd like you to sharpen a little bit how you will convince us that women are and definitely will -- are changing and definitely will change the Middle East, and not just that there are little points of light out there that will be -- will never really add up to a true revolution. I'm really looking forward to hearing this.

COLEMAN: You know, in 1962, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia came to the United States. He wanted an arms deal through Congress. And President Kennedy at the time said to him, Faisal, I want to sell you the arms, because we make a lot of money off of them, but I'm having some problems with my Congress. I need two things from you. I want you to abolish slavery -- 1962; the king owned hundreds of slaves himself -- and I want you to allow girls to go to school. So there was no girls in school in Saudi Arabia, in 1962.

Faisal agreed to both. He opened the first girls' schools. And today, two generations later, you have now 80 percent of young Saudi girls are literate, and now you have almost a hundred-percent enrollment in school.

And I don't think that that's, you know, just a random point. I think all of this is driving some pretty profound changes. In -- just in two generations in that one country, you've seen to go from 0 percent to almost universal at this point. And it's not just Saudi; it's countries across the region.

I mean, there are clearly laggards. Yemen is one of the great laggards. Morocco is a laggard. But Jordan -- you have girls outnumbering boys at the secondary level. And in Iran, you know, we've talked about it, it's overwhelming.

And the Mullahs, the clerics in Saudi really fought the king, because he said it's a slippery slope; if we allow girls to go to school, you know, it's all downhill. And they were absolutely right. (Laughter.)

And now, you know, you have changes going on in the region. Women are owning, you know, many more businesses. They're working -- you know, their levels in the workplace are going way up. They're participating in government. I mean, it's not overnight, but I think that there's some fundamental drivers here which -- you know, King Canute cannot hold back this tide.

And you know, a lot -- The Economist has been writing so much about this. And there's a big article in The Economist this week about how mixing in Saudi Arabia is now on the table, and this whole gender segregation is falling by the wayside. The king has opened a huge $10 billion university, with men and women enrolled together for the first time. A senior cleric came out and issued a fatwa saying it's against Islam, and the king fired him. (Laughter.)

So I think what you're beginning to see is these points adding up. And I hope I'm right -- because God help us all if I'm wrong. (Laughter.)

HAASS: As Mel Brooks said, it's good to be king. (Laughter.)

As you can see, this is a sensational book. It's important because at stake here is -- as important as the question of women in the Middle East, it actually has a lot to do with the future of what has been and is the least successful part of the world. And if the Middle East doesn't get straightened out, to use my familiar line, it ain't Las Vegas, and what happens there doesn't stay there; it comes here. And if bad things happen there, they will happen here. And this is one of the few dynamics that increases the chances that less bad things will happen there, and even some good things will happen there.

It's a sensational book. You've heard the sensational author. Thanks very much.

COLEMAN: Thank you. (Applause.)

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