Oxfam Leader Stresses Equality

Women’s organizations, rather than democratic regimes, will best enable Arab women to achieve greater gender equality, a leader of Oxfam International said at a lecture on Tuesday.

Magda Mohammed El Sanousi Omer, the Oxfam Great Britain country director in Beirut, Lebanon, provided context for her argument by citing the strategies of women’s movements for equality in the Middle East.

Omer said that in the past, rights-based organizations have made strides, especially in changing legislation to provide more rights for women, such as enabling paid maternity leaves in some countries.

But due to the recent group of uprisings in the Middle East known as the Arab Spring, Omer proposed that women now need to find different strategies to effect change.

Political instability would offer new opportunities, Omer said, but also new hurdles.

“Every day there is a new change and we don’t know for how long,” she said at the event, pointing to the growing number of political parties in the Middle East.

“Nothing is institutionalized. Government changes all the time,” she added.

Omer credits media outlets for making women’s involvement in the Arab Spring protests more visible on the international front.

“That was so inspiring for the whole world,” she said. “There’s a new young generation emerging and beginning to demand more.”

Omer then suggested ways that women today could achieve greater equality.

She said that Arab women should open up their movements, becoming more inclusive to other groups.

One challenge to the success of gender equality, Omer said, was that Arab women were not settled on one common agenda for change, which hindered the potential for results.

Omer recommended bridging the gender gap by educating women on “new skills and ideas, such as social justice, monitoring budgets, and policy statements, in order to enhance their voices and [give them] the capacity to demand for change.”

Omer said that by increasing political participation, women would gain more rights.

She also said she remains hopeful that women will gain more influence in the Middle East.

The Arab Spring provided a window of opportunity, Omer said, but Arab women must take action before the window closes.

“If you want to get a share of the cake, don’t wait,” Omer said, “If you wait, you will lose.”

“I’m thrilled with what she said about what women can do to keep the momentum going following the Arab Spring,” said Susan M. Kahn, the associate director for Middle Eastern studies.

“I’m delighted that she discussed it in such a concrete way.”