Dialogue among nations can facilitate wide-ranging discussions to erase misconceptions that divide people and lead to conflicts and wars. Dialogue can be a tool that presents a more accurate description of the current conditions that influence societies and govern policies in different parts of the world. This is why the Australian Arab Women’s Dialogue under the theme “Talking the world to a better place” which took place in Australia between 15-27 March 2013 was an opportunity to foster better relations between Australia and the Arab world.
Australian and Arab women engaged in dialogue to raise women’s voices and to address their challenges and concerns. Not many people in Australia understand Arab and Muslim cultures. Many of the Arab immigrants in Australia remain marginalized and are viewed with suspicion. The eight Arab women from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates were invited to speak to the media and hold public debates in universities, civil society organizations and government departments to address these challenges and present Arab culture, societies and the evolving role of women in their respective countries.
The women delegates included Minoush Abdul Meguid founder and managing director of Union Capital in Egypt, who eloquently explained the challenges of the Arab Spring and the aspirations of young Egyptian women who confronted the uprisings that have undermined their role and have put them at risk because of violence and instability. Minoush outlined the role of women in Tahrir Square and the social media campaigns that provide support for women activists in their fight against discrimination and their defense of justice and human rights.
Hanaa Edwar, founder and secretary general of Al-Amal Association in Iraq spoke about the network of women’s organizations working to preserve the constitution and promote human rights in Iraq. Rana Husseini, the award-winning journalist of the Jordan Times talked about her coverage of the brutality of honor crimes which raised public awareness and was instrumental in introducing new policies imposing tougher laws against such crimes.
Zeina Daccache, founder of Catharsis, a Lebanese center for drama therapy, the first organization of its kind in the Middle East, outlined her role in influencing more humane attitudes toward prisoners and enacting new policies for reduced sentences for good behavior and less serious crimes. Her work as a drama therapist supports the rehabilitation of prison inmates and brings attention to the unjust conditions in Lebanese jails. Manal Elattir, the founder and managing director of Anarouz social enterprise, described the role of her organization in empowering women and alleviating poverty through entrepreneurship and market access. Women in rural areas were able to benefit from such programs and were able to maintain their own businesses to support themselves and their families.
Wafa Abdul Rahman — the founder of “Filastiniyat,” the NGO committed to the empowerment of women and youth in Palestine — outlined her role as a member of the Palestinian female journalists club in Gaza and the West Bank in exposing Israeli injustices and defending the rights of women and children in the Palestinian territories and the occupied lands.
Dr. Houriya Kazim, the UAE’s first female surgeon, eloquently explained her role in raising awareness among women in the UAE about preventive measures to address the prevalence of cancer. She founded an NGO for breast cancer awareness and charity to support underprivileged cancer patients.
Finally, as a member of the Saudi women’s online writers group, I outlined the role of Saudi women writers in raising awareness about the importance of the empowerment of women in Saudi Arabia who constitute 50 percent of the population and include highly qualified professionals in all sectors of society.
The Dialogue created an opportunity for Arab women to talk about their experiences and portray a more positive picture of their constructive role in the building of their nations. Australian women were provided firsthand information about Arab women who do not fit the image of oppressed or uneducated women that Western media often portrays in its coverage of the region. The Arab women talked about their role in making their world a better place.
The Australian Arab Women’s Dialogue is the brainchild of Libby Lloyd, one of Australia’s 100 women of influence, who was nominated as “ACT Australian of the year”. Libby is a member of the Council for Australian Arab relations and a member of the ministerial Council for Asylum Seekers and Detention. She has lived in Egypt and Iraq and has a deep understanding of Arab culture and people. She has recruited three outstanding women to form the organizing committee: Dr. Victoria Mason, co-convener and professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, College of Arts and Social Sciences, ANU, whose research focuses on conflict resolution in Israel-Palestine and Iraq, particularly on the occupied Palestinian territories; Fatima Ali, the project manager who is of Lebanese origin and has a wealth of experience in international and community organizations focusing on cultural diversity and refugees and asylum seekers; and Amy Ward, who has experience as a lawyer in the Emirates, Palestine and Syria.
Libby and her team worked hard to introduce the project to the major sponsors who supported the initiative and believed in her cause, namely AusAid, the Australian National University (School Of Politics and International Relations), Etihad Airlines and the Council for Australian Arab Relations, (DFAT). The team used their connections and contacts to put together a comprehensive program to introduce the Dialogue to the Australian government, civil society, the media and the public.
The initiative succeeded in promoting people-to-people relations, and it is to be hoped that the public debates and media coverage will influence lawmakers and affect the political stance of Australia which is currently a member of the Security Council and an emerging power in the global arena. The positive exposure of Arab societies highlighting the concerns, hopes and aspirations of women and the large youth population may also affect future political and economic relations. Hopefully, the noble initiative of these few women can create far-reaching consequences that can impact relations between Australia and Arab societies as well as promote harmony among people of different cultures and faiths in Australia and the Arab world.
— Samar Fatany is a radio broadcaster and writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.