Former U.S. Ambassador David Mack: Searching for heroes in the Arab world

Guest Commentary

Even after the wave of profound transformations that have swept the Middle East/North Africa region, the lack of galvanizing “heroes” — men and women of virtue and courage who can serve as role models for the region’s youth — should be a cause for concern to all those who seek peace and stability.

There are too few willing to defy a tide of hatred and violence. There are too few willing to challenge corrupt institutions and sclerotic customs that breed cynicism and injustice. There are too few symbols of peaceful change who promote a positive vision that appeals to the highest aspirations of the people rather than to their basest instincts.

The absence of heroes makes for anti-heroes, and for too long, men and women who sacrifice themselves to slaughter innocents have filled this role. These “martyrs” are the embodiment of such anti-heroes: they are Johnny Rottens in a suicide vest. They offer no vision for justice. No program for the peaceful coexistence of peoples. No solutions for the dire economic situation facing millions.

Heroes must rise up against staggering political, social, economic and legal odds. And they have, from the most unlikely place: among women. According to recent World Bank and United Nations studies (and as anyone who has spent more than five minutes in this part of the world can attest), women remain profoundly marginalized and underutilized in society, in the economy and in public life. Yet certain heroes, working from the tops and bottoms of their societies, have helped initiate positive change.

Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak of the United Arab Emirates is one such hero. The quiet widow of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, founder of the UAE, she has fought for women’s access to education since the 1970s. She not only has built schools and provided scholarships for girls all over the region, she has challenged gender stereotypes and raised their expectations for what girls can achieve in a traditionally male-dominated society. 

It was Sheikha Fatima who pushed for the appointment of the UAE’s first female Cabinet minister, Sheikha Lubna al Qasimi, who now serves as minister of development and international cooperation and as an example to countless other women with dreams of taking their rightful place in public decision-making. It was Sheikha Fatima who was willing to help open positions for women in the police force, and who created an award recognizing the top female athletes in her country. 

Malala Yousafzai, the young girl who barely survived an assassination attempt in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, is another. Her campaign to educate girls flies in the face of the most violent misogyny. She embodies the courage, determination and the potential of girls everywhere. With the kind of optimism only a child can summon, her Malala Fund aims to educate the 600 million adolescent girls living in the developing world.

With an unemployment rate double that of men — and an even lower public participation rate in governance and voting — the region is ignoring a powerful resource in its women. I do not believe this is due in any way to religious restrictions; all three of the great Abrahamic faiths can point to numerous examples of heroic women. No, I believe it is due to the fact that poverty, misogyny and lack of economic opportunity are a pervasive, toxic cocktail. This makes women like Sheikha Fatima and Malala heroes whose moment has yet to come. It is one thing to raise expectations and another to meet them.

Education is inarguably one of the keys to peace in this region. Education and literacy are a condition for people’s effective participation in the democratic process. Education promotes tolerance of other opinions. Education promotes critical thinking and informed decision-making. Education is also a key factor when it comes to alleviating poverty and fostering development. That is why the work of Sheikha Fatima and Malala to address education gaps is so crucial. Thanks in large part to the decades of work by Sheikha Fatima, the UAE today has among the highest ratio of girls to boys receiving education in the world.

However, education alone is not a panacea; without economic opportunities for the educated, rebellion and conflict will remain. Anti-heroes love to fish in troubled waters, and so the vicious cycle continues. The urgent challenge at hand is for government, business and civil society leaders to continue working together to initiate serious and meaningful reforms that help enable women to succeed in the workplace, where they still face barriers and discrimination.

If such economic development efforts can link up with the efforts of women like Sheikha Fatima and Malala to create needed legal reforms and give women the appropriate skills for work and leadership, then the region will be able to begin to undo the savage inequities that women face.  Gender equality is among the great unfinished work of the Arab and Muslim world, and we who seek a more peaceful, secure and just neighborhood all have a stake in its success.

Mack is a fellow at the Middle East Institute, former deputy assistant secretary of State for near east affairs (1990-1993) and former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (1986-1989).