Monday 24 November 2008 (27 Dhul Qa`dah 1429)

      Ensuring women get their say
      Samar Fatany | [EMAIL PROTECTED]
      The first ladies of several Arab countries recently called for greater 
empowerment of women in the Arab world, so that women could play a role in 
building their countries and communities. They also stressed the need for 
promoting dialogue, between Arab countries on the one hand and Arabs and the 
international community on the other, to boost cooperation in the service of 

      Urging the empowerment of women is crucial to our region. We need to work 
harder to create a consensus in the Arab world to support women in leadership 
positions. The more we see women in power, the more people will get used to the 
fact that women are capable leaders. However, recruiting women to run for a 
local office is still a real challenge for our region. In the United States, 
there are many organizations that give women the support they need to reach 
decision-making positions. Emily's List, Emerge, The White House Project and 
The League of Women Voters are among the national organizations that pursue 
this goal. Emily's List is a group that helps young women to become successful 
candidates for political office. It trains women so they improve eligibility 
and qualification for public office. There is a lot that we can learn from 
these organizations, and there are a lot of strategies that we can adopt in 
order to succeed in empowering women to run for public office.

      The early concept of Emily's List was to raise money to gain political 
clout. They have come a long way from the 1960s when they witnessed the women's 
social movement and in the 1970s when they supported the women's political 
movement. The idea began with the intention to form an organization for women 
by collecting checks of $100 from intending members. Indeed, Emily is an 
acronym for "Early Money Is Like Yeast," which implies that chances for success 
improve with proper initial funding. Contributors were provided with the names 
of leading women, and they would decide on whom to give the check. Eventually, 
the group became prestigious, and it was a sign of support for other women.

      Members then were asked to send a letter to other women they know across 
the country and ask them to join. It was an outreach to all women. The founders 
traveled across the country to identify potential women leaders and invited 
them to join and learn more about the concept. This is how the network began to 
identify candidates.

      In 1986, Emily supported the only two women running for the US Senate. 
People began to take notice and the victory of one was a ground-breaking 
achievement. Obviously money was not enough, so Emily began to create campaign 
managers and media training when sufficient money was raised to hire staff. The 
plan was to help women at the local level, so when opportunities arose at the 
state level they would be ready. Over the years, the organization became more 
popular, and it is now a prestigious political action committee. The Emerge 
Foundation too works on empowering women and getting them elected to office. 
The role of the foundation is to create a diverse constituency of women who are 
under-represented in the country. It studies the demographic and geographic 
situation of citizens. The foundation's strategy is to recruit young women to 
run for office at the local level, for city councils and for judicial positions.

      The foundation identifies women who have potential and asks them if they 
would like to take up positions. It reaches out to teachers interested in 
playing a greater role in shaping public education in the state. Potential 
candidates would pay a $250 fee to train and qualify. In the first class, women 
are asked to choose a position they would like to hold. They are then asked to 
research the positions they seek. They also are taught how to develop a 
campaign, how to raise the money, how to deal with the media and how to shape a 
message. The participants attend classes and discuss relevant issues. The 
course ends with a graduation in the Senate chambers with an assignment on how 
to move a bill and how to deal with lobbying. They then debate the bill and are 
guided by members of the state legislatures. Family members are invited to 
attend the Senate training, and they also are given lessons on how to deal with 
the pleasures and difficulties of being family members of senators and 
government officials. This year, a woman suffering from hearing loss plans to 
run for office to address the needs of the disabled.

      Another equally effective organization is The League of Women Voters. The 
role of the league is to educate women on issues that affect their lives and to 
provide training on how to lobby for legislation. The league's goal is to 
create an informed and active voting public to increase the understanding of 
policy issues. The league formulates positions on the election process, state 
and local government level and social policy issues, such as health care, 
education, family, the environment and fiscal matters. It also can adopt 
positions on foreign policy, such as arms control or military advocacy. In this 
way it plays a role in shaping the agendas and in providing information to help 
women voters make intelligent decisions.

      The White House Project is another initiative that can provide Arab 
women's organizations with many tips on ways to train women to run for office. 
The project focuses on researching and identifying women with potential as well 
as building a network of support to allow women reach decision-making 
positions. The project is a means to bring women into full participation in 
policymaking, from serving as chief executives to legislators, judges and 
leaders of NGOs. It also prepares them for active roles in development 
enterprises and social movements. There is a lot that we can learn from the 
experience of such organizations. Arab women need to reach out to international 
organizations and work together to build a better future for their children. 
Studies have shown that women tend to identify more with the social needs of 
the community, and they bond together for the common good. Even women who do 
not plan to run for office are inspired to support the ones who run. The 
concerns of health care, education and the economy are some of modern-day 
issues that affect all women, and they need to have a say on the way government 
addresses these concerns. Speaking at the Second Arab Women's conference, under 
the theme: "Women and Human Security: An Arab and International Perspective," 
Queen Rania of Jordon said: "Though the future is bright in the Arab world as 
women's presence has increased in Parliaments over the last eight years, we 
need 20 more years to bring this to 30 percent and another 20 years to reach 
the percentage recommended by the Beijing conference. The road is long but we 
are moving toward realizing our goals."

      I wonder if this statement describing the future of Arab women includes 
Saudi women, or are we to remain bystanders in the progress of our region?

      - Samar Fatany is a Saudi radio journalist. 

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