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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > Office of International Women's Issues > Remarks > 2001-2005 International Women's Issues Remarks

U.S. Outreach to Muslims on Women's Issues

Charlotte M. Ponticelli, Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues
Remarks to Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy
Washington, DC
May 16, 2003

Thank you. I’m delighted to be here today.  I congratulate the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy [CSID] for its work to foster a greater understanding of democracy and democratic values within Islam.  We look forward to a very productive relationship with you and other key groups who have important contributions to make to our policy dialogue.

The Office of International Women’s Issues in the Department of State serves as the focal point for U.S. Government policies and programs to benefit women.  A top priority of ours has been, and will continue to be, outreach to Muslim-majority countries on women’s rights. We warmly welcome efforts to interpret Islam in a way that advances the status of women and addresses their needs.  Our own emphasis, however, is less on theory than on concrete, cooperative projects to improve women’s lives, particularly in education, economic opportunity, and political participation.  We are working to address the same deficit in women’s rights decried by Arab experts in the recent, and justly acclaimed, UN Arab Human Development Report.

In countries around the Muslim world, from Morocco to Yemen to Egypt, Jordan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and beyond, the U.S. Government is engaged in extensive projects to promote the advancement of women and the well being of their families and communities at large.  The list includes: literacy courses for girls and women; computer, and vocational training programs; maternal and child health care clinics and education; micro-credit facilities and networking workshops for aspiring businesswomen; exchange programs in civic leadership and public advocacy, and much more.

To do all this requires both an understanding of culture and a commitment to the ideal of women’s full participation in social, economic, and political life.  That combination, in turn, requires us to delve into intensive dialogue with a wide spectrum of the Muslim-American, community, or "ummah" –  which is why I am so pleased to be here at this important conference today.  We know we have some things to learn.  We also know that our efforts have been too limited in some Muslim-majority countries, such as those in Sub-Saharan Africa or in Central Asia.

More specifically, though, I would like to offer you three key examples of our current efforts, ones that I consider major works in progress.  These examples of our practical approach to democratic transitions and women’s rights in the Muslim world are all very timely ones, though they are also quite different.  One is the women’s empowerment dimension of the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative, or MEPI for short. A second example is Iraq, an individual Arab and in some ways a relatively developed country.  And my third example will be Afghanistan, a very undeveloped country from the non-Arab majority of the Muslim world.

I know these two countries have been on the minds of many Americans, including of course Muslim-Americans, and of Muslims all over the world, during the past 18 months.  I must emphasize that we do not choose to use force as the way to promote either democracy or women’s rights.  In Iraq and in Afghanistan, and in every other case, we do not even consider using force except as a last resort, in self-defense, and in accord with international principles of legitimacy.

Indeed, the broad principles underlying our approach to democratic transitions are truly global in scope.  As President Bush said in his first State of the Union Address: "America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the power of the state; respect for women; private property; free speech; equal justice; and religious tolerance."  These values are a vital part of our interaction with the whole world – and their scope includes both women and men, always and everywhere. Indeed, as the President delivered those words, one of his invited guests of honor in the Chamber was the first Minister of Woman’s Affairs in liberated Afghanistan, Dr. Sima Samar.

That leads me directly back to Iraq.  As the President said two months ago, a key coalition objective was "to free the Iraqi people from the clutches of a brutal dictator" – and that includes Iraqi women and children as well as men.  We are committed to help all Iraqis transition rapidly to a sovereign, representative form of government that respects human rights, rejects terrorism, and maintains Iraq’s territorial integrity without threatening its neighbors.  We are determined to achieve these objectives, and we have made significant progress.  And we believe the women of Iraq have a critical role to play in the future revival of their society.  After all, they bring skills and knowledge that will be vital to restoring Iraq to its rightful place in the region and in the world.

Clearly, Saddam’s regime brutalized all Iraqis.  Men died in the hundreds of thousands, in wars of aggression and internal repression, leaving women and children without husbands or fathers.  Men, women, and children were indiscriminately slaughtered in gas and other deliberate attacks on civilian populations.  People were tortured in front of their families, leaving all scarred for life.  That is why we saw scenes of jubilation in Basra, Baghdad and Kirkuk, as the statues of Saddam were toppled by the people of Iraq. Now they can build a future in which all Iraqis, men and women, can participate in full.  Working to promote women’s human rights will provide both solid support and a strong signal for this desired democratic destiny.  As one Iraqi-American woman deeply involved in this process memorably put it, in a recent meeting at the State Department, "In all societies, women are a bastion of democracy.  In Muslim societies, they are also a bellwether."

As events in Iraq unfold, we will continue our efforts to work with Iraqi women and men to ensure their participation in a free and open Iraq.  And there is plenty of work to be done, in every area where we typically support women’s issues: from human rights, to political participation, to economic opportunity, to education. We’ve heard the specious claim that Iraqi women actually had it pretty good compared to others in the Muslim world.  To be sure, most Iraqi women have not been secluded at home, as were women under the rule of the Taliban and some other backward regimes.  Yet in reality, when you look at international standards, Iraqi women have not fared well at all, whether in education, employment, or health care, under the brutal Ba’ath regime.  According to UNESCO, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization,  figures, only one-quarter of Iraqi women can read and write; even the World Bank’s figure, while substantially higher, is nevertheless under half.  Just one out of every five Iraqi women has found paid employment of any kind.

Today, we are already well into the planning and initial implementation of Iraq’s reconstruction.  And I don’t mean just bridges and buildings – I also mean the human needs of education and employment, for the women and men of Iraq.  For example, we are supporting Iraqi efforts to prepare school materials that will help teach the country’s youth about tolerance and individual freedoms, rather than the belligerent, totalitarian content that has been standard in Saddam’s textbooks for an entire generation. Another Iraqi-American woman we’ve met with, one very active in Islamic outreach, is a senior expert in this multimillion-dollar USAID-sponsored project.  On the economic front, we are also thinking about how to help Iraqi women overcome the legacy of dependence on government rations and handouts.  For example, we hope to invite a representative group of aspiring Iraqi businesswomen to a major, NGO-sponsored Arab Women’s Summit, planned for Marrakesh in the last three days of June.

On the political front, we ensured that at least some women participated in both the Baghdad and the Nasiriyah conventions, designed to get Iraq started on the path to democracy.  We have just proposed a significant program of women’s civic education, leadership training, and voter registration activities in Iraq.  And we are brainstorming with NGOs and others about how to identify Iraqi women qualified for public service and leadership positions – and how to set up a structure for contact and cooperation with supporters in the U.S. and around the world.  This is a beginning, but clearly just that. Deputy Secretary Armitage put it very plainly in a BBC interview on May 7: "If there is one area where I feel that’s probably fallen short, it is in the representation of women".   He said, "We need to have even higher levels of participation of women in this process.  We’ve realized that we haven’t done as well thus far in this area, and we are redoubling our efforts."

Despite the difficulties – and they are very real –  the Iraqi women I have met lately, like the Afghan women we work with, have shown their gratitude for our support.  As one Iraqi woman told the press a few weeks ago, "We want to thank President Bush and the troops that are there in the desert … Thank you for helping my people and for going to liberate my country."

Iraq is obviously a huge effort, but it should not obscure, and will not obstruct, the work we are doing in other Muslim societies.   When it comes to women’s human rights, in particular, I can cite the very different case of Afghanistan.  Our commitment to that cause, and to broad humanitarian and reconstruction assistance there, will not change, despite other events around the world.   As President Bush has said, we are committed to Afghanistan for the long term.   And in January, when my immediate boss, Under Secretary Paula Dobriansky, led a high-level delegation to Kabul, the President sent a personal message to President Karzai and to the Afghan people reaffirming that commitment.

In Afghanistan – and elsewhere around the globe –  in addition to providing assistance on a national level, we support and encourage public-private partnerships in a range of humanitarian and economic development ventures.  The U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, inaugurated by Presidents Bush and Karzai at their very first meeting, in January 2002, promotes private-public partnerships between U.S. and Afghan institutions.  The Council has mobilized the private sector in the U.S. to support Afghan women, including a program of computer education and leadership training for women working in government ministries.

The situation has changed considerably in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. As you know, one mark of the Taliban was their refusal to allow girls to go to school.  This year, the new Afghan Ministry of Education estimates that nearly 5 million children are in school, and 42% of these students are girls.  This means around 2 million schoolgirls – compared to the previous, pre-Taliban all-time Afghan record of just 350,000. USAID is providing over $60 million in a 3-year package to help Afghan education, including school construction, textbook production and teacher training. Our work in Afghanistan is far from finished. But we can take some pride in what we have already accomplished there.

Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, we are working in other countries around the world, including many Muslim-majority ones, to encourage the participation of women in transitions to a more democratic way of life.   Let me conclude with one brief example of this cooperative approach to encouraging women’s political and economic participation: The U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative, which I mentioned previously.

Last December, Secretary Powell announced this initiative to provide funding and a framework for the U.S. to work together with governments and people in the Arab world to expand economic, political and educational opportunities for all. An important focus of the initiative is equality of opportunity for women. The projects are still in the early stages.  The general idea, however, is to extend to a new part of the world, with appropriate allowances for local cultures and conditions, some of the work that we continue to pursue successfully in other regions of the world.   We intend to do this through a genuine partnership with governments, individual activists, and non-government organizations, including the private sector.   Partnership will be the hallmark of our approach – and it offers the best guarantee of achieving real results on the ground that meet the critical needs of people and their governments.

This will not happen overnight, nor can the United States bear sole responsibility for this global transition to democracy.  But doing our share is an effort well worth our dedication and our perseverance.  Ultimately, it promises to fulfill the President’s vision, which I know you so many others share, of a world in which humanity’s most basic values are respected, so that free individuals -- men and women alike -– can live in free societies that no longer threaten each other.  As President Bush said about the region just last week, "Making the most of economic opportunities will require broader and better education, especially among women, who have faced the greatest disadvantages. We will work to improve literacy among girls and women.  As trade expands and knowledge spreads in the Middle East, as women gain a place of equality and respect, as the rule of law takes hold, all peoples of that region will see a new day of justice and a new day of prosperity."   While we work to find realistic, practical measures that will help translate this bold vision into reality, we welcome your suggestions and we value your support.  Thank you.

Released on May 16, 2003

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