Blood pressures are rising in the Middle East and North Africa and they show little sign of cooling down. They began simmering over shishas in el kahawi (coffeehouses) in Tahrir Square, Eqypt; steaming over fried malsouka snacks in Habib Bourguiba Street, Tunisia; and bubbling over smoke filled debates at Pearl Roundabout, Bahrain. People from all classes and walks of life are equally affected.
Everyday more than 4,000 trucks carrying goods out of the ports of Djibouti-city head west towards Ethiopia. The route passes through a barren, austere landscape where temperatures can soar to 50c. The road is poor and the going laborious. About an hour out of the city, after miles of heat and emptiness, the road turns and a small schoolhouse appears.
The Middle East and North Africa Transition Fund held its second steering committee meeting in the Moroccan capital, Rabat last month. Four new grants were awarded at the meeting in support of the ongoing reform process in Morocco. Jonathan Walters, World Bank coordinator for the Transition Fund was in Rabat and provided us with some background on what the Fund hopes to achieve both in Morocco and the region.
“If we are able to say that a poor, majority Muslim, and conservative society is capable of making a democracy of international standard, other countries in the region will have no excuse not to follow us,” says Amira Yahyaoui. “But Tunisia won’t succeed unless we continue to be bold. We must be audacious in our ambitions.”
Recently I attended a health strategy meeting, where indicators of health risks showed depression to be the top disease affecting women in the Middle East and North Africa but not men (where it was on average 7th place). In one sense, this is not too surprising because depression affects women more than men everywhere. On average, globally, depression ranks 6th for women and 16th for men. Still, MENA is unique.
I had never dreamed of getting the chance to pose a question to a president, but I got my chance a few months ago. In September 2012, Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansur al-Hadi paid a visit to Washington DC. Having grown up in Yemen, I was intrigued by his arrival. And as a woman, I wanted to hear about his vision for women’s role in the new Yemen.
What has impressed me the most has been the impassioned voices of men not only speaking out against violence towards women, but also taking action to prevent it. As I've listened to interviews from the region, I've come to understand the tremendous power that men's voices bring to what is viewed as "women's issues".
For defenders of women’s rights in Tunisia, the figure of Tahar Haddad looms large. For generations of women’s rights activists in Tunisia, he has been seen as the brains and heart behind the country’s progressive legal status of women. Houda Bouriel, director of the Cultural Center of Tahar Haddad in Tunis, notes that for Haddad, “a society in which women are not liberated is not truly free.”
As I write from Sana’a, I am thinking “ten percent is not enough.” Few would disagree that more women should be represented in legislatures across the Middle East and North Africa. Yet the best ways to achieve improved outcomes is still being debated.