04/11/2014 01:49 am ET Updated Jun 10, 2014

A Distinguished Breakthrough for World Women

When the Women in the World Summit in New York opened with Meryl Streep's daughter reading a message from a little girl living in a camp for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, we thought that the humanitarian gesture was meant to ease the organizers' conscience, though blurring the girl's face to protect her was a commendable act. When Tina Brown, the chairwoman of the conference, followed this by hosting two young Syrian women to speak about the situation in Syria, and was then followed in turn by David Milliband, the head of the International Rescue Committee, we said that it was truly striking for the international women's conference to kick off with a focus on the Syrian conflict. Then when Ukrainian pop star Ruslana Lyzhychko took the podium, carrying her country's flag, and sang the Ukrainian national anthem, she prompted the audience to wave along their mobile phones in support of what is now a Ukrainian uprising against Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the audience became more closely engaged with what was happening at the women's event at the Lincoln Center in the heart of Manhattan. After Lyzhychko, two Russian singers-dissenters from the band Pussy Riot came, to protest against Putin's brand of narcissistic ultra-nationalism, determined to direct another blow to Putin, this time under the aegis of leading women from all around the world. The summit also revived discussions about the Arab Spring, recalling its fundamental values and the roles of Arab women in it. Through art, and by recalling the massacres in Rwanda, and through the tears of a mother whose son had joined the terrorists, as well as through the participation of the likes of Hillary Clinton, Queen Rania, Christine Lagarde, and many other luminaries, the conference tackled women's political role in decision making. Thus, Tina Brown leapt like a tigress on what is usually wrapped with care and fear between the folds. She spoke clearly and loudly about women's place in politics, with authority and without apology.

This is exactly what the Arab region lacks: the boldness of the narrative and the daring thrust to break traditional restrictions against women's ascent to political positions, and their growth beyond consolation posts and jobs, and half-baked measures.

Claiming that traditions must be respected and that change should be slow and gradual is only an excuse that harms the goal of developing the Arab nations. It is an intuitive fact that development, growth, and economic progress in the Arab region would require employing half of the population, i.e. women.

The exclusion of women from political decision-making is not a marginal issue. It is a decision to exclude them from drafting laws and constitutions, a decision that was taken intentionally, not accidentally. One of the main reasons is the say the clerics have over the position of Arab women in the local community and the fate of the country.

During the Women in the World summit, there were young headscarf-donning Arab women present. Their faces were covered with makeup, and many of them wore revealing clothing. If their decision has to do with faith, then no one has the right to admonish them for it. But if they were wearing the headscarf to get attention, or because doing so is desirable in international forums, or because it is a means for pleasing and enticing some, then it is a different matter. Once again, if their dress code is linked to traditions they believe in, then this is their right. But if it is a way for them to assert, "This is my right, and this is my personality," then it is time for these young women to go back to history and examine the reasons women took off the headscarf in the last century. They must quit narcissism and self-promotion, because the headscarf is not supposed to be "cool" or "hip." It is a message that hurts women's prospect for rising to decision-making positions, because the clerics who control decision-making have decided to exclude women, and it is them who sometimes use the headscarf and the burka to discipline and repress women.

Of course, we have to celebrate the fact that about three-quarters of civil society organizations in the Arab region, as we are told - are headed by women. This is an important development that has immense worth and an actual impact on the evolution and development of Arab societies, without a doubt. But what is missing is women's participation in politics in the Arab region, as candidates for parliament, presidential posts, and as judges, on what would be the desired scale.

Women in Afghanistan - who certainly live in a more conservative society than Arab societies, and under the dictates of the Taliban - astounded the world last week. Three hundred Afghan women contested the historic election that has transformed Afghanistan from a failed state and a haven for terrorism, extremism, and the oppression of women, to a country on the path to recovery and one that is fighting for democracy. Congratulations to the women of Afghanistan for standing up for themselves and fighting the electoral battle where the shadows of the Taliban chase them and threaten them.

Arab women live in a more tolerant environment and one that is more prepared for change. Certainly, a significant change has come in the march of Saudi women, who can now become members of the Shura Council. Certainly, women in Tunisia played a radical role in preventing the Muslim Brotherhood there from dominating the constitution and deeming women a "complementary supplement" to men. And certainly, women in Egypt have helped topple two presidents in the scope of one year, and are at the forefront of protests in the squares. Meanwhile, no one can deny the resistance of Syria's women, as they bury their loved ones, and let us not forget Palestinian, Libyan, and Yemeni women, as their roles in revolutions cannot be ignored.

But what happened throughout history and now, is that there was often a quick effort to exclude women from political decision-making during and after revolutions. A striking example is the dominance of men in the Syrian opposition and its political decision-making, while shamefully excluding women from posts and decision-making positions.

What is more shameful is the status of Lebanese women. Those liberal women, who compete with Western women in their liberated clothing, are hostages to the men in power and to their own narrow ambitions. The women in parliament might have been wives or sisters before attaining their posts, but they have proven to be more competent than their male peers. Bahia Hariri has everything it takes to be prime minister. Nayla Moawad and Strida Geagea have all the qualities to become president. In the Shiite community, the Druze community, the Greek Orthodox community, and among the Armenians and all communities in Lebanon, there are many extraordinary women too.

They are all excluded from major political posts by a decision from men - including feudal leaders and those who interpret religion according to their whim. But women in Lebanon are also partly responsible. Most women content themselves with being complements or supplements. But young women, and a significant number of older ones, have started rebelling against the dictates of the feudal lords and the clerics throughout civil society. Yet this is not enough. It is time for them to take the political arena by storm, in its various segments and across different areas.

It is not logical for this country to accept having only one minister in its current government, while the previous government was completely devoid of women. No less than a third of the total number of MPs should be women. And please let us stop opposing the quota system, with the pretext that a bigger number is needed, and that the quota undermines women's right to equality. The quota system has a practical purpose, namely, empowering women to take posts in this proportion as a guaranteed first step on the path to equality. The competencies are there and the one-third quota is an interim goal not the end game.

No Arab woman has risen to become a head of state, although women have become prime ministers in many Islamic nations and other third-world countries. From India to Bangladesh, from Afghanistan to Liberia, and from Chile to the Philippines, women entered political decision-making positions with the support of men and women.

Today, a number of women assume positions of global influence. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the most powerful leader in Europe, and is the key to either an accord with Vladimir Putin or to Europe's break with him. Christine Lagarde, a Frenchwoman, heads the International Monetary Fund, which is another crucial determinant of the fate of Ukraine and its relationship with Vladimir Putin. Hillary Clinton is not just a former first lady, and former Secretary of State, but also the most prominent candidate for the U.S. presidency. Janet Yellen is the chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve. Susan Rice occupies the post of national security adviser in Washington. The most important advocate of political and human rights in Myanmar is a woman named Aung San Suu Kyi. And the woman who heads the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is a woman named Navi Pillay.

It is a rare sight to have women in positions of power in the Arab region, and if they exist then it is probably the result of their capacity as wives. Sheikha Mozah, wife of the former Emir of Qatar and the mother of the current Emir, has an indisputable political impact, but hers is not an elected office. The wives of kings, princes, and presidents play positive roles in various local and regional areas. Queen Rania sits on the boards of directors of some of the most important international bodies and organizations, including the World Economic Forum, a post that some of the world's most powerful men compete to get.

Many women and girls in the Arab region are competent and excellent at what they do, but they do not dare break the wall of their exclusion from politics. It's time to change these trends and introduce non- conventional ideas in the heads of men and women alike. For example, why did it not occur to Samir Geagea to put forward MP Strida Geagea as a presidential candidate instead of himself? Why does he not consider this now? Why do women not get involved in forming political parties, instead of deferring to the dictates of male party leaders and leading politicians from all faiths and communities in Lebanon?

Women in Libya have been marginalized, as the men leading the revolution that turned against its own goals there like to believe. But Libyan women are not going to surrender, even as they face security threats meant to keep them away from decision-making and political participation. They are closely watching the situation, resisting, and developing strategies.

From Egypt to Yemen, there is a women's uprising, of which one instrument is documentary filmmaking, with works like the Oscar-nominated The Square by Jehane Noujaim. From Lebanon, director Nadine Labaki makes her masterpieces, narrating in her own way the problems of her country and engaging in indirect politics. There are women editors of political newspapers, rare as they may be, and many women journalists who practice political journalism in no less competence than their male peers.

Arianna Huffington, founder of the electronic newspaper The Huffington Post, has distinguished herself in political influence and commentary in the media. Tina Brown was the editor of The Daily Beast, and today, she has established a media group bearing her name. The former is of Greek origin and the second is British, but today, they are at the forefront of American political decision, as well as globally.

Women in the World was not just a women's gathering, but a political rally for women. A cry of courage and forthrightness came out of it. The summit celebrated a Palestinian woman, Nuha al-Khatib, and an Israeli woman, Liron Peleg Hadomi, who are both working on a new approach to peacemaking. At the conference, a mother blamed herself because she did not pick up the signs for her son's slide into terrorism. Of course there was more than one celebration of creativity and invention, and there was a lot of singing and embraces.

But what distinguished Women in the World was that it launched a qualitatively new political breakthrough that has made many of the men in power in various spots of the world feel that they are under monitoring, accountability, and competition, par excellence.

Translated from Arabic by Karim Traboulsi