President of the United Nations General Assembly, Her Excellency Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa of Bahrain, said Friday night that women in the Arab world must correct their self-image through education in order to gain greater equality with men.
“The education of women in the Arab world is the most powerful weapon for improving their status and the most potent force in promoting social change,” said Al Khalifa, who spoke in the Elliott School of International Affairs’ City View room.
Al Khalifa said women in Arab countries lack the organizational skills necessary to fight for their legal rights. Certain realities exist in the Arab world that shape the way women are perceived in society and the way legal texts are understood. Because of this, many citizens of these countries, including women, are resistant to social change.
“Society as a whole needs to recognize that the voices of women are on par with those of men,” she said.
Family affairs in the Arab world are often viewed as private matters. Al Khalifa said many believe the decision-making process should remain a family issue. This tendency causes countless cases of domestic violence and child abuse to go unreported.
“Women are viewed as symbols of tradition, and therefore exercising control over them ensures the continuation of the status quo,” Al Khalifa said.
Rights for women in countries such as Egypt, Morocco and Bahrain differ greatly from those of men. In these countries, the consent of women to enter into marriage is not required. Women are entitled to judicial divorces in a minimal number of cases, while men have complete freedom to divorce.
Al Khalifa actively works to influence the legal system, advocating a liberal interpretation of the Islamic texts that regard women. She became one of the first female lawyers of her native country in the early 1980s and, by the mid-1980s, she and another female partner had founded their own law firm.
She said she established trust with her clients and crossed gender boundaries through hard work and legal talent. Once she had cemented her success in the legal profession, she crossed over into the diplomatic realm, becoming Bahrain’s ambassador to France and then the president of the General Assembly of the United Nations.
Senior Anna Phillips introduced Al Khalifa to the audience and said, “Al Khalifa’s list of accomplishments is inspiring. She’s a champion of women’s rights and a wonderful role model.”
Phillips founded the group “Students Taking Action Now in Darfur” and spent the first semester of her junior year in Uganda. Upon graduation in December, she hopes to return to East Africa.