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Changing Role of Women in Politics in the Middle East

Aired November 3, 2009 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, political women in the Persian Gulf forging new roles in traditional Arab societies. What is a woman's place in public life?

Good evening. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the program.

We've come to Abu Dhabi this week to explore a range of issues facing the Persian Gulf states, oil wealth and new energy, geopolitics, dynamic modern cities rising from the desert. But no issue raises as much passion and exposes so many fault lines coursing through Arab societies as the role of women.

A recent study by the World Economic Forum found women in the Middle East lagging far behind other regions in terms of political empowerment and economic opportunity, and that is what's choking the pace of development in the Arab world, a subject for both our guests, pioneers in the Persian Gulf.

Rola Dashti, a U.S.-trained economist, recently was among the first women elected to the Kuwaiti parliament. And also, Sheikha Lubna, minister of foreign trade here in the United Arab Emirates, she's the first female cabinet member in the UAE.

And they join me now. Welcome to you both.

Let me start with you, Sheikha Lubna, since we are in the UAE. You are the first ever female minister of an oil-rich province, of an oil-rich state. How did this come about? How did you become the first female minister here?

SHEIKHA LUBNA, UAE MINISTER OF FOREIGN TRADE: It was in November 2004, and I got a call from the government. I was in Tunisia at that time. And the question came about, which, you know, the government asks through a call upon you to join the cabinet. And I responded, "Let me call my mother."

AMANPOUR: "Let me call my mother"?

LUBNA: My mother, and ask her. And there was silence on the other side.

AMANPOUR: I bet there was.

LUBNA: To me, it was a shock, the thought was, but to lead a ministry such as economy was quite frightening. It's not the typical mandate or portfolio for a woman minister usually.

AMANPOUR: Why did they give it to you?

LUBNA: I have a good record track -- track record when it comes to working in technology and development with any government, as well as in the port operation in Dubai. So the idea was to give it someone who's accountable in terms of delivery and has a mandate, but it's also a role model to push further for the women here.

AMANPOUR: And now you're foreign trade minister?

LUBNA: Minister of foreign trade, yes.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you, Rola. You are amongst a very, very small group of women in the Kuwaiti parliament.


AMANPOUR: How was that? I mean, we know that women got their vote only about four years ago, right, 2005, but it was only this last May that you actually entered parliament. There was a big struggle to get in.

DASHTI: No question about it. It's a big struggle. The Kuwaiti society is on a transformational stage. And people are frustrated, and they wanted a change to a better life. And every time you speak about change, but they don't act towards change.

And election of 2009, they thought, "We need to act on a change, and change will come about with women." And women, we -- the society decided that women should contribute to the change process, should be partner in the future of the country and make a say in the future of the country.

AMANPOUR: Well, we have some pictures. We have one on your victory night, when you actually won -- won your seat in parliament. Tell me about how difficult it was. There you are, being embraced and...

DASHTI: It's a joy of life.


DASHTI: It's a joy of a lifetime.

AMANPOUR: Joy of your lifetime?


AMANPOUR: How difficult was it, though? Because it took four years for them to actually agree to let women from getting the vote to actually join the political process.

DASHTI: It's not -- it wasn't easy. It was -- we went through -- I - - I ran three times. And we wanted to tell society that we are ready, we can contribute, we can be part of the decision and politics. And we had to do a platform.

But our platform was the future. We were hopeful to the people. We brought an agenda that is realistic, but we are determinist, and we -- we spoke about the future, not about the past. The past, we kept telling them, was all this frustration, was all the problems we had with it. We learned from it. But let's move the past -- the future, and we can work it together for a better future.

And this is where it triggered to the people, because we -- we went and give them the hope, and we had the track record of accomplishing things. As Lubna was just saying, just like people want to deliver -- to hear a positive message, but also that people are accountable and they have a track record of accountability and deliverability for a better future, and women was part of this.


AMANPOUR: Let me -- I'll get -- I'll get to accountability in a moment, but the whole idea of -- of making it in this, of all-male- dominated societies, perhaps the last bastion where it's so difficult for women to break through, and you were promoted, particularly during the time of the ports authority, when you -- and -- and the men, I understand, were very, very negative about your promotion.

LUBNA: Promotion in terms of the position itself, not really, because I had worked as a technologist before. You would -- very typical structure or culture within the emirates that you see the government itself driving the movement of women by seating them in particular jobs or positions. And the idea of that is really to give an example, and then, once you work out the delivery (ph) itself, it reinstates the -- the government's understanding for their -- it gives the confidence for the people that this is the right thing to do.

AMANPOUR: Yes. And -- and one of your big international events was just a few years ago when you were head of the Dubai ports and there was this whole issue of -- of -- of buying into the U.S. ports.

LUBNA: The U.S. ports, yes.

AMANPOUR: And the post-9/11 sentiments in the United States were not very conducive to that. Tell us what happened then.

LUBNA: What it was is -- the -- the background of working as a technologist in Dubai ports helped a great deal in going back to the U.S. post-Dubai -- Dubai ports furor. The idea was -- from our side, was actually to put a face to the UAE in -- in -- in some prospects.

What we had learned from that -- most people think it was a lost battle for us, but it's not. We actually learned a great deal from it. One, we didn't realize how much we were known as a brand, the United Arab Emirates, or Dubai per se. And the idea of understanding that meant that we really have to promote the country itself and the work -- and the work that we do.

United Arab Emirates is the largest trading partner for the U.S. in the Middle East, passing $14 billion U.S. dollars, yet we don't have a face of the UAE in the states. So the idea was more of a -- a diplomacy envoy to meet with people to speak, to be on -- and programs, and to say that this is a country that's quite liberal, it's very open, and we are towards an open economy.

So the idea of having a woman to speak in the U.S. at that time...

AMANPOUR: Was a great selling point for -- for the UAE.

LUBNA: Absolutely. Absolutely.

AMANPOUR: In terms of sort of a similar situation in -- in Kuwait, you also -- and your -- the three other women MPs -- had quite a lot of resistance from the more hard-line, the more conservative Islamists in the Kuwaiti parliament.

DASHTI: No question about it.

AMANPOUR: And you've just, I think, had to battle the whole idea of whether you should wear a head scarf in parliament or not.

DASHTI: No question about it. You see, we -- by us getting to the parliament, it's a social change that happened to the society.

AMANPOUR: As we watch you there in -- in parliament, and some of your other -- other members there. Go ahead.

DASHTI: And so that social change is deep-rooted. And some people felt, you know, this is too fast, and women should -- they didn't (inaudible) role of women in public life and private life. So a lot of some of the MPs, conservative, radical Islamists, they think that the role of women should be in the private sphere and that's it, and contributing to the public life is something not her business of it.

And we did the transformational change when we were campaigning, because at the beginning, said how women can go and campaign, because, as you know, in Kuwait, we do have like what we call Dewaniyas, and these are men gatherings, purely men, only men goes in there, and this is where the candidates go to see the voters and speak. And they are very influential, the Dewaniyas.

And now, when we were running, we were going to these Dewaniyas as candidates. And this is what's the beauty about it, because the -- the society, the male Dewaniyas were welcoming women to come as a candidate and hear from them as a candidate and discussing with them. They were shocked, and we were invited.

And sometimes I used to get phone calls, because there are lots of Dewaniyas, thousands of Dewaniyas, and you cannot get to them, and people will call you and say, "You didn't pass by us. You didn't pass by us." And...

AMANPOUR: So there was a sense that they wanted to see the women candidates, the women MPs?

DASHTI: They wanted to see women candidates, and this is to tell society, yes, we are a conservative society, but we are open. We are open to that. And this is what frightened the radical Islamists, because they wanted to take the role of women just in the public life. And we said, listen, we are accepted by society. The society is not like this. And we can move forward in developing our nation.

AMANPOUR: One of the visuals of conservativism or moderate -- or moderate or liberal is the -- is the veil. Now, you don't wear it, and, in fact, you got a ruling from the court that you didn't have to wear it in parliament.

You, on the other hand, do wear a hijab, and yet the UAE is -- is considered a lot more liberal and moderate than even Kuwait.


LUBNA: Because the veil itself is more of a stigma in the stereotyping in the states or in the Western countries, but in general, it's not.

AMANPOUR: Are you wearing it by choice?

LUBNA: Yes. And for us, it's a choice for women to wear it or not to wear it, so we see a lot of young women wearing it or not wearing it. But what I'm saying is, this doesn't block my thinking. It doesn't block my future. It's the same as you go to India. They have women astronauts that went to -- to space, and yet they wore saris.

So the idea is the -- whatever you have on as clothes has got nothing to do with what you're actually striving for in your life. But -- but like you said, there should be more of a choice given, rather than imposed. For us, it makes no difference.

On the contrary, I do believe culturally in the emirates, starting a movement of women in the late '70s, early '80s, being covered encouraged the position of women to be OK, because you were not changing what you look like or what your dress is all about. You are actually making (inaudible) to change how the society looks at you for your achievements.

AMANPOUR: And we will be right back after a break. Stay with us. We'll be right back. And we're going to talk also and have a look about a controversial TV program that's shedding new light on women in this region. Stay with us.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): He used to beat me up and burn me with the iron. My whole body is disfigured. He used to lock me up in the bathroom for days without food. He was a monster, but I didn't dare complain.


AMANPOUR: And Arab woman describing abuse at the hands of her husband, in that scene from a controversial new program called "The Thick Red Line" on LBC, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation. We'll talk about all this with Rola Dashti and Sheikha Lubna, who join us once again.

Now, that program, first of all, what it said was pretty outrageous about how some women are treated. But also, as you know, it's a program, a different one, that created a huge amount of controversy with a Saudi Arabian journalist being threatened with 60 lashes, then King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia pardoned her, and that hasn't happened.

But how prevalent is this abuse of women in all levels of society in this region, Rola?

DASHTI: No question about it. Domestic violence is on the rise. It's unfortunate...

AMANPOUR: On the rise?

DASHTI: It's unfortunate.

AMANPOUR: Why is that?

DASHTI: And I'm not going to talk about only domestic violence. We have also economic violence on women. It's unfortunate. Maybe the closeness to (ph) the society. Societies are becoming more enclosed.

AMANPOUR: More closed?

DASHTI: The societies are becoming more enclosed. That's what we're talking about, opening the society for tolerance, for -- for the accepting in different ideas, for dialoguing is -- is the path forward. And we're reflecting it in our -- unfortunately, in our small society units, where -- where husband thinks (ph) they are over-controlling.

There's countries, because their legislations are not solid, also, which gives more right and power for husbands, and they don't get punished for it. And with the traditional society that women don't speak out frequently, also, you get so much abuses, which are not reported. Domestic violence all over the world is -- is a problem.


It's an issue for all the regions of the world. But we think, because of our religion that treats women very good, we shouldn't have these types of things into it. Unfortunately, that type -- respecting the religion and what it says regarding treating women is not -- has been adopted. But we start to restrain the role of women by...


AMANPOUR: And are you trying to -- are you trying to make sure that that is -- is stopped by being in parliament?

DASHTI: Yes, for sure, no question about it. And I just want to just make a point about the veil, because we -- we missed it. Our lawsuits against the veil is not (inaudible) wears the veil or (inaudible) wears the veil. It's an issue where the country is heading. Are we going to have a religious doctrine ruling the country with radical ideology, or are we going to have a constitutional country which respects civil liberties? So the veil was...

AMANPOUR: So what do you think? Which one are you going to have?

DASHTI: The veil was -- the veil was symbolic on where we're heading. And we're lucky that we set the standard for the future of the country. It's a constitutional country that respects civil liberties, and this is what symbolizes it. Our will is not I want not wearing the veil. We want a case where our country is heading for a better future, and this is what the Kuwaiti people want it to be.

AMANPOUR: So do you think it's heading in that direction?

DASHTI: For sure. And we're working towards it.

AMANPOUR: Well, we'll see.

And what about here, Lubna? Because, look, to be frank, there is no meaningful democratic process in the UAE. There are no meaningful elections. There's no minimum wage. There's no political activity. And, indeed, there is a huge amount of female abuse, particularly amongst domestic workers here. I mean, that -- that scene could be replicated anywhere. Is anything being done to protect the women here?

LUBNA: Domestic violence exists everywhere. But the most important part is, are the legislation existing or not? And, second, exercising the rule of the law, because you could have -- you could have a particular law to protect women, but if you're not exercising it, then it's meaningless.

AMANPOUR: So is it here?

LUBNA: In here, it is. And what is -- we've -- we've seen shelters being developed for women to take them away from abuse. It's been quite public that's been talked about. There has been even high level of government officials who are saying that we have no tolerance for this. And as Rola said, when it comes to religion, when it comes to culture, it is actually considered something that it's abhorring. People do not accept this.

But the problem is, is when you have it -- if you bring it out to the limelight and make sure that you actually do -- do exercise a form of punishment, then you are heading toward the right direction.

We've seen judges here who actually would vote and support women in their divorces if they actually come up with valid cases of abuse at home. So it's -- the emirates...

AMANPOUR: So things are moving?

LUBNA: And the emirates are just a little bit different. It's not -- the most important part is if you bring it outside. And as Rola has said...

AMANPOUR: So raise these issues?

LUBNA: If you raise it, if it's public, and there has been incidents where you see people talking about and communities supporting...


AMANPOUR: Let me talk about the political landscape, and you talked about accountability, not just in these criminal cases and issues, but also in -- in the political landscape. In Kuwait, for instance, we hear a lot of frustration with the political process. And you articulated some of it. The leader can dissolve parliament when and -- when he wants, right, the -- the -- the prime minister?

DASHTI: No, not the prime minister.

AMANPOUR: Sorry, the emir.

DASHTI: The emir can by constitution.


DASHTI: We just govern by constitution. The emir has the right to dissolve the parliament.

AMANPOUR: So is there meaningful activity in parliament?

DASHTI: Yes, for sure, because currently the emir cannot -- when we have our parliament, the emir cannot come and say, "This is a doctrine. This is a decree. I want to implement it." It has to go through the democratic process, where the parliament has to approve every law.

And in the event that there is a dissolution of parliament and the emir puts a decree, it has to be voted again with a -- within the parliament. So the dissolution of parliament does not mean taking away the -- the sharing of power within the -- the ruling family and the people of it.

And this is what happened in 1999, when the head of the state, the late emir, gave the -- grant the women the political rights. When it went and voted upon, it -- the parliament refused it and rejected it. And so it's not...

AMANPOUR: Automatic?

DASHTI: ... an automatic thing, you can think. This is the democratic process. It has its ups and downs, but, no, there is a very hard saying with the people representative on how the future of the country goes, and this is where we get this tension and sometimes the frustrations of the people, the system is not going in the way they wanted it.

AMANPOUR: What about the whole notion of progress in this part of the world? Look, this is one of the richest parts of the world, and yet it's one of the least developed, in terms of women's rights, in terms of GDP, in terms of all sorts of things. One of the leaders here, the -- the -- the prime minister of the UAE said, in a book that he wrote, a report that he wrote, I want our Arab brothers and sisters to be as educated as those people in the developing world.


And you're nowhere near that right now. How do you take that forward?

LUBNA: If you look at the United Arab Emirates, 70 percent of university enrollment are women, 90 percent in terms of literacy for women, 90 percent -- it's computed one of the highest among the Arab world. Today, we have four women ministers, not one. I sat in 2004. Within a year or two, we've actually accomplished to be four in the cabinet. Twenty-three percent of women participate in our parliament, the national council. If you look at women entrepreneurs, 50 percent of the SMEs are actually women.

So either you lead by example or you take role, if you look at women in sports, or you leave it where you have to create a certain law that actually would encourage or empower women. In the emirates, there's no gender discrimination in terms of regulation or law, per se. However, there are women leading almost in every part. If you look at maybe women investments...

AMANPOUR: But just in general -- but just in general, for the future...

LUBNA: ... and -- yes. Yes.

AMANPOUR: ... there's something like 60 million illiterates in the Arab world and 9 million children who don't go to school, and this is one of the richest places in the world. How can that change?

DASHTI: I'll tell you, I do share with you -- I went and talked to women in our region. More than 40 percent are illiterate in the region. Yes, we do have a lot of challenges, no question about it. We are progressing. We are progressing in terms of the education and health attainment, where life expectancy has been increasing in our region, illiteracy rate has been dropping.

But there's a lot of more than education and health. You need to gain the benefit of these types of investments, where women plays a big role in the labor market. We have the lowest female labor participation in the labor market among the whole region. We have the lowest in female representations in -- in -- in -- compared to the rest of the world. Nine percent of -- in the region are represented by -- in parliaments, where the average of the world is 18 percent.

There is a lot of challenges, no question about it. We know about it. We are moving forward to -- and this is where activism comes, and we are moving forward to have a better life. We're saying that women is a partner in the developing of this society.


DASHTI: And we're going to move forward towards.

AMANPOUR: I want to end on a personal note. Two accomplished, professional women, I notice that neither of you are wearing wedding rings. None, neither of you are married.

LUBNA: We married our jobs.

AMANPOUR: You married your jobs?

LUBNA: I married the port people.

AMANPOUR: And before that, the Dubai ports.

LUBNA: The ports.

AMANPOUR: Unmarried and happy or unmarried and want to be?

DASHTI: Single and happy. Marriage is -- is a phase, a destiny. When it comes, it comes. It's not something you put your life for -- to put it, that I have to get married to become happy. We're happy. We're contributing to our society, and that's fine.

AMANPOUR: And you? Do you see a day when your job might take second place?

LUBNA: It could, if I...


LUBNA: But it's a choice. At the end -- at the end of the day, it's really -- it's about choice. But if I was given a second chance of terms of reliving, I'll do it exactly the same, what I did, because I think changing mandates -- to be a change agent for a whole youth. And on my part -- and I'm very proud to say this, but it's not about women. It's about all youth.

Being a technologist before makes me a cool minister for a lot of kids, and that in itself is the highest accomplishment. You can't change that. And to me, if I don't have any kids, I'll have the growth of my daughters.

AMANPOUR: A lovely way to end. Thank you both very much. Sheikha Lubna, Rola Dashti, thank you very much, indeed, for joining us.

And we will be back with an update on a story that we reported a few weeks ago on the fate of the first elected leader, a woman in Burma, Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi. Stay with us.



AMANPOUR: Tonight, in our "Post-Script," we have an update on a story that we've been following about Burma, or Myanmar, and the fate of the pro- democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Two U.S. State Department officials are now there. They plan to meet not just with the military junta, but also with Aung San Suu Kyi. And they're the most senior U.S. diplomats to visit in 14 years, since Madeleine Albright traveled there as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

The visit comes after a lengthy review of U.S. policy towards Myanmar. The Obama administration said just last month that it would deal directly with the military leadership in an effort to push for reform, continuing its new policy of engaging adversaries, rather than isolating them.

And this conversation will continue online on and on our Web site,, so join us there. And that's it for now. Thanks for watching. We'll be back tomorrow with a look back at the Iranian hostage crisis 30 years later. What does it mean for future U.S. relations? For all of us here, goodbye from the new CNN bureau in Abu Dhabi.