Modest victory for Palestinian women a critical step for Arab society

As a troubled world moves into 2005, there are glimmers of hope.

One was tucked away in last week's news reports: the surprising success of women in local Palestinian elections. Despite traditional pressures discouraging women from political activity in Arab states, they won 51 seats in 26 localities in elections seen as a warm-up for Sunday's Palestinian presidential election to replace Yasser Arafat.

One cannot read too much into this. But it is a small step in the direction of a cultural revolution that must take place in critical countries of the Arab world if they are to shed their backwardness and poverty and move into modern society.

A 2002 United Nations report on human development in 22 Arab countries found that women there have the world's lowest rate of participation in the workforce and in politics. More than half of the women in these countries could not read or write. Women occupied only 3.5 percent of all seats in their parliaments. "Sadly," the report concluded, "the Arab world is largely depriving itself of the creativity and productivity of half its citizens."

I do not think I would be in danger of making a politically incorrect statement if I suggested the world might be a better place if more women occupied positions of political office and prominence. They can be as strong as any male in leadership positions. Take, for example, Golda Meir or Margaret Thatcher. They can, unfortunately, be as murderous as males - for example, the young women who have carried out suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. But by and large, women have a sensitivity that offers hope of a gentler approach to politics and international affairs.

While some Arab countries, such as Jordan and Egypt, have made progress in the advancement of women, many have not. Women in such lands are relegated to inferior status, discriminated against legally, and barred from equal citizenship with men. In some countries with elected national assemblies, women are still denied the right to vote or hold office.

Let us hope that the modest triumph of Palestinian women in last week's local elections is the forerunner of progress and moderation in the coming Palestinian presidential elections. Mahmoud Abbas, the front-runner, is a moderate who has called for an end to the suicide attacks against Israel by extremist Palestinian elements. But he has also, in his election campaign, sought to induce these elements to support him, come in under his political umbrella, and pursue their goals for a Palestinian state by orthodox political means.

The Bush administration, which found Mr. Arafat impossible to work with, is cautiously optimistic about Mr. Abbas, but insists that the new Palestinian regime must actively "develop the structures necessary for a democracy to emerge." Should Abbas become the new president of the Palestinian Authority, he will of course make similarly strenuous demands on President Bush to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for concessions that would move the peace process between Palestinians and Israelis forward. Mr. Sharon, whose own conservative principles are fairly impeccable, nevertheless is under fire from his own hard-liners for his plan to remove Israeli settlements in Gaza and part of the West Bank.

The search for peace in the Middle East has been bedeviled by many false starts and disappointments. A dreadful legacy of violence must be put to rest. But a new moment of opportunity seems to have arrived with the departure of Arafat. Many on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict seem exhausted by the killing. There are small signs of conciliation from both the likely new Palestinian leader and a conservative Israeli leader with the credentials to carry Israeli public opinion. Resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and the ultimate emergence of a Palestinian state on the road to democracy and economic progress, would be a great fillip for freedom elsewhere. It is already on the march.

The Islamic state of Afghanistan has cast off the Taliban, is freeing its women from the imprisonment of the burqa, and is limping along the road to democracy. In Iraq, elections will apparently take place this month, despite a brutal campaign of murder by terrorists striving to halt the movement toward democracy.

The emancipation of women in the lands of Islam will not alone produce a democratic revolution throughout the Arab world. But it is a necessary part of the process, including education and economic development, that will bring that prospect nearer.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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