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Today’s girls, tomorrow’s leaders: Young women share their ambitions with Al Arabiya

Bridging differences, honor killing, the Arab Spring, and overcoming prejudices were just some of the issues young women from 40 countries talked about at a panel discussion hosted by Al Arabiya TV in Boston on Thursday.

For the second year in a row Al Arabiya TV aired “Girl Talk”, a discussion about the aspirations and concerns of the young female participants of the Empower Peace Program, an initiative by an institute that specializes in training women in becoming leaders in their communities.

Participants this year were largely from the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and South Asia. Young women were paired with roommates, usually from another country or culture, and shared their stories about their experiences and lessons learned in front of a five-member panel.

The discussions focused largely on women rights in light of the massive changes occurring in the Arab World; the forum was an attempt to bridge differences between people from different cultures and religions.

Sara, an Egyptian student at the American University in Cairo, who roomed with an Albanian woman, Alyada, was surprised to learn that there are Muslims in the Balkan state. “They do not look like Muslims; they are not veiled or covered and do not pray,” she said.

Another Albanian named Wardai, who had as her roommate a headscarf-wearing Algerian, said that, “She [her roommate] wears the veil and I can kiss my boyfriend, and we both respect our differences.”

Wardai, who is half Muslim and half Christian, said her country’s Muslims may not practice the religion in the same manner as other Muslims but they do celebrate important occasions such as Eid and Ramadan.

“We did not appear weird to one other,” she said of her roommate. “I feel I have known her all my life,” she said, adding that she hoped their friendship would continue after the program.

Palenlist Dalia Ziada, the regional director of the American Islamic Congress, encourages a dialogue between Muslims and the non-Muslims and said that her organization has been working for years to break barriers between the two groups.

Ziada who held a leadership position in the Egyptian revolution said that “From what I saw in Tahrir Square, people never thought that she is a woman so we will never follow her. There were no differences between men and women,” she said.

She said the Arab Spring cemented a strong relationship in breaking the barriers between the Muslim world and the West.

She [her roommate] wears the veil and I can kiss my boyfriend, and we both respect our differences

Wardai, an Albanian girl

A learning experience

Mariam from Tunisia, who was filled with pride to hail from a country that sparked the Arab Spring revolution that spread to other countries, expressed her dismay about many people not knowing about her country.

“In my country many people were killed, and we lived many sad days yet people in the U.S. did know about it.”

Mariams’ roommate, an African American, said she knew about Egypt and Libya but had to look up Tunisia on the map.

The exchange of personal experiences proved to be a rewarding experience as participants shared their stories.

Dr. Kerry Healey, former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, said finding the commonality between women and realizing the shared problems can give women strength.

Although she was fortunate to have the rights she did as an American, Dr. Healey said that it did not mean that American women have nothing further to achieve in terms of equality.

“I know as a female politician that we have very far to go. Congress has only 16 percent women in it and six out of 50 of our governors are female.”

I know as a female politician that we have very far to go. Congress has only 16 percent women in it and six out of 50 of our governors are female

Dr. Kerry Healey, former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts

Young women from different countries talked about their experiences of life in conflicted societies marred by political violence or war.

“In southern Iraq, Basra, is a closed society; it is very difficult to talk about rights and freedom as a woman,” said Mays, a young Iraqi woman.

“But I learned that I must be a leader, and must talk about what I want.”
Mays’s roommate was from Kosovo and she talked about her country being in transition and that she came to be the change that she wants to see in Kosovo.

Overcoming prejudices was also an important aspect to being able to bridge differences.

Lorraine, a Nigerian woman sharing a room with Kajo, an Iraqi girl, spoke about having apprehensions of having an Iraqi as a roommate.

“I was really scared of Iraq, I thought I should never be with an Iraqi person,” she said, adding that her only exposure of Iraq was the violence that was reported in the media.

When asked about Nigeria also being afflicted with violence, she replied “But in Iraq it is so rampant!”

“But did you manage to sleep in the first day knowing that you have an Iraqi roommate?” asked Najwa Kassem, the Al Arabiya news presenter, much to the audience’s laughter.

“Yes, I did,” replied Lorraine.

I was really scared of Iraq, I thought I should never be with an Iraqi person

Lorraine, a Nigerian woman

The events in the Arab world this year put several issues into the spotlight as the panelists pointed out.

Dr. Elizabeth Cafferty, an assistant director at a Massachusetts general hospital, who had the opportunity to spend time with the young participants at an event prior to the taping of the TV show, spoke about how all the women were asking the right questions.

They asked how marginalized women in their perspective countries could get access to healthcare, how to fight the glass ceiling in multilateral organizations, and how to challenge honor killing.

Not everyone was moved by the changes in the region and some felt that priorities had to be redefined.

One Saudi young woman said that 90 percent of the participants did not support her views of abandoning Saudi women’s right to drive in favor of striving for higher positions.

The young women were aware of the challenges they faced, be it sexual harassment or violence against women.

“Sexual harassment has been a big issue for so many years and it is not an easy fight, as society considers talking about anything relating to women’s body as a taboo,” said Ziada.

Citing the inability of women not being able to speak, a girl named Muna from Algeria said that “women suffer violence but they cannot speak.”

Charley Clement, Executive Director at the Carr Center of Human Rights Policy said that “We have heard for decades that human rights are a Western imposition, and not universal. But I don’t think the young people in Tunisia and Egypt came out onto the streets because the West wanted them do to so, but they came because human rights are indeed are universal.”

Sexual harassment has been a big issue for so many years and it is not an easy fight, as society considers talking about anything relating to women’s body as a taboo

Dalia Ziada, the regional director of the American Islamic Congress