Director Ambassador Birgitta Holst-Alani’s speech at the Arab International Women’s Forum Conference 15-17 May, 2012


Your Excellencies, Mrs Haifa Al Kaylani, Chair of the Arab International Women’s Forum,  Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have been engaged in or with the Arab part of the world during several decades. The country in which I have spent most years outside my home country Sweden is Iraq followed by Egypt where I presently am Director of the Swedish Institute in Alexandria. The Institute is an integral part of the Swedish Foreign Office and its mandate is to work towards enhanced understanding between the peoples of Europe on one hand and the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa on the other through dialogue.  The main focus of the Institute is on  issues related to democracy and human rights.

It is a pleasure to participate in this distinguished gathering of Arab and foreign women who share so much and at the same time have much to learn from each other.  Even inside the region there are differences between women who have reached positions in public life while women from other parts of the region face great difficulties.

The uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have until now led to one result: the fall of four dictators – the presidents of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. This is the beginning of a new situation which will affect not only the MENA region itself but its relationship with the West. The uprisings that swept the Arab world are historic, as are the opportunities that will present themselves as the era of dictatorships draws to an end. That is what we all hope for. However, nothing is yet certain since the outcome is unclear; the uprisings are not yet revolutions. Nothing can be taken for granted: democratic processes are only beginning to emerge, security is shaky while armies remain fully armed and on alert. More time will be needed before the past can be overcome and open, pluralistic, democratic societies can emerge.

The uprisings have created new perspectives. The dichotomy or barrier between Islam and the West will probably change character and especially the young generations will stay much more connected to each other in the West and the Arab world. The “we” and “them”, or “the others” will probably not be “the others” anymore.  The dynamics of the new situation is very interesting and whether the MENA region will be able to develop its own socio-political model remains to be seen. Issues related to economy, culture and religion, the rights and duties of the citizens, the position of women in the societies and many other issues will have to be decided upon in all these countries.

The democratization and emancipation of MENA societies will depend on the mobilization of civil society.  I have noticed how unknown the essence of democracy is among people in this region.  Getting rid of a dictator is not enough: a broad-based social and political movement must come to the fore. The active participation of the citizens – men and women, of non-governmental organizations, of intellectuals and of the media is the precondition for ensuring that the dynamic of democratization preserves its independence.  Attention must now be turned to the role of civil society, of institutions and intellectuals. Demands must be raised for political commitment to reform women’s place in public life, of their rights and their autonomy.

Education, empowerment and involvement of women in public life are important factors for the development of any society.  As former UNSG Kofi Annan has said: “There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women”. If the question of women’s rights is only used for political ends, or formal reforms that change only the legal structure, then the women’s situation in public life will hardly improve any time soon. That would mean an artificial improvement which does not go deeply into the minds of the citizens. What must be changed are mindsets, perceptions, behaviours. We can argue that women must participate in public life, laws must be changed etc but if the mindset is not changed laws will either not be created or not lived up to.  Supporting respect for women’s rights and their participation in politics is a priority for Swedish development cooperation in the MENA region. Gender equality is both an end in itself and a prerequisite for democratic development.

We should not forget that the women we have been watching demonstrating in the streets are – relatively speaking – a small, often well educated, outspoken elite of young women in large cities who also had the consent of their parents to demonstrate or even to stay overnight in the squares. In the societies of the MENA region the majority of women are themselves probably still skeptical to change of women’s position in the society and do not realize that the societies need them in public life in order to develop. They will need to be persuaded.  It is therefore of high importance to take this opportunity in time to present new ideas, propositions,  clarifications, explanations, comparisons, experiences  etc  which can form a basis for the debate on how to create new Arab, majority Muslim societies which are in conformity with democratic ideals which at the same time are palatable and acceptable to the people. The demonstrators in the streets of the Arab capitals kept chanting “justice, freedom and dignity”. This is what the Arabs have expressed after decades, or even longer, of foreign domination and domestic oppression.

I would like to touch upon one of the three concepts which were part of the slogan during the demonstrations which is the concept of dignity. Of course dignity is something that concerns everybody – old and young, women and men, rich and poor. At this Forum I would like to touch upon the relationship between women and dignity. Women, dignity and public life.

There can be no ambiguity about the ethical orientation that Islam provides. The Holy Quran, Sura 17, verse 70 says: “We have conferred dignity on human beings” وَلَقَدْ كَرَّمْنَا بَنِي آدَمَ وَحَمَلْنَاهُمْ فِي الْبَرِّ وَالْبَحْرِ وَرَزَقْنَاهُمْ مِنَ الطَّيِّبَاتِ وَفَضَّلْنَاهُمْ عَلَى كَثِيرٍ مِمَّنْ خَلَقْنَا تَفْضِيل      – a principle that applies to all humans, women and men, rich and poor, black and white, Muslim or not. It is the primary, fundamental principle of social justice that, in practice, rests on two prerequisites: equal rights and equal opportunities.  The first steps along this path to this goal are education, social equality between women and men, i.e. equal rights, equal opportunities, equal pay for equal skill, etc.  The reference to religion should remain an ethical orientation, one that sets out a framework and objectives, but without intervening in the work of regulation that defines state authority, itself granted and legitimized by the delegation of power from a country’s citizens.

Women’s (and men’s) dignity is an important trait in the Arab world. Traditionalists consider the female sphere of life to be in the homes and woman’s main responsibilities are to keep the family together and see to the wellbeing of its members. She should not be tarnished by appearing in public life where men are struggling with each other on issues of e.g. politics and economy.

However, time has changed and it is now – at least in the cities but not so in the countryside – taken for granted that girls receive the same education as boys from primary school to university. The graduates who are young women and men enter their adult life having similar prerequisites to participate in and influence the socio-political dialogue. The need for women to work outside the family institution should be emphasized.  Society as a whole – thus even the men – will gain from it. The participation of men and women in decision-making and an equitable representation in leadership positions in both formal and informal sectors are necessary.

To avoid debating the future of the well-being of one’s children is not dignity. The education system, the health care system, social justice are some examples of issues which are in real need of change and development. Dignity is not to stay home while the others – the men – are deciding what is right and wrong for all citizens without consulting the women. Dignity is not to be passive in public life. Women must stand side by side with the men in public life in order to channel their energy into concrete action in support of public education, women’s rights, social justice, the fight against corruption and much more. Unfortunately women politicians in the region do not yet enjoy the same privileges and logistic support as their male colleagues. This has to change but the women will be the ones who have to fight for it because the men will not.

I agree with Professor Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss Muslim philosopher and debater when he states that “the Arab world and Muslim-majority societies need not only political uprisings; they need a thoroughgoing intellectual revolution that will open the door to economic change, and to spiritual, religious, cultural and artistic liberation – and to the empowerment of women”.

Women must take their responsibility in public life and overcome their status of being victims. It is a tough task that lies ahead of the women but they need to fight the battle. Emancipation is not for free, it is costly. Much work, much wisdom and planning lye ahead of women in the Middle East and North Africa. They may want assistance from others and I am convinced that at least my country – Sweden – stands ready to contribute to a better future for the Arab women.