Cairo, Egypt — Ten of the Arab world's first ladies joined activists in an unusual gathering Saturday to push for the improved status of women in their male-dominated societies.
Queen Rania of Jordan, Egypt's Suzanne Mubarak and others were using their charisma and influence to campaign on behalf of women in this three-day meeting of women leaders and campaigners for equality of the sexes.
"Development will not achieve its goals unless women participate in it as complete and effective partners in all fields," Queen Rania told an audience of more than 2,000 from 19 countries. She called for "legal and legislative reforms that achieve equality and justice for women."
Mubarak, wife of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and one of the conference organizers, said they must find ways to respect the social differences that distinguish Arab countries while still cooperating to attain the summit's main goal: creating a better life for Arab women.
The status of women varies among countries in the Arab world. Although women in some parts of the Persian Gulf, such as conservative Saudi Arabia, are required to be covered from head-to-toe and are not allowed to drive, their counterparts in more liberal countries, including Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon, enjoy more freedom and richer public lives.
However, illiteracy, marginalized decision-making roles and under-representation in politics are problems Arab women share.
Many women, though, are struggling to change the status quo and have achieved some gains. This year in Egypt, for example, avid campaigning helped women reverse laws that prevented them from obtaining divorce and traveling abroad without their husbands' permission.
Many of the speakers underlined the importance of meeting the demands of the modern society while still preserving Arab identity, traditions and beliefs. Others talked of the challenge of presenting a more positive, well-rounded image of Arab women in the face of negative stereotypes.
Some attendees, however, were skeptical the gathering would reach any strong proposals. Haifa Ezzi, a Saudi researcher interested in women's issues, said some of the speeches "were full of unrealistic rhetoric."
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Algeria were the only Arab League countries that did not send delegates to the summit. The meeting was attended by the first ladies of Bahrain, Comoros, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian territories, Sudan and Tunisia.