Rep. Gene Ward is pictured here with a
Saudi academic at the Baku conference
This first-ever high level conference on “Expanding the Role of Women in Cross-Cultural Dialogue” was sponsored by Azerbaijan’s Heydar Aliyeh Foundation and the UN’s Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) as well as UNESCO. Representative Gene ward was asked to attend at the expense of the United Nations.
As tensions increase between Israel and Iran in the Middle East, the world is looking for good news between Muslim and non-Muslim countries and there are many reasons to find it in Azerbaijan.
Not only do Muslims, Jews, and Christians live in peace here, they actually like each other. Situated just 2 hours north of Baghdad and Tehran, Azerbaijan sits on the path of the ancient “Silk Road” and is becoming a new crossroad as one of the safest places in the world for dialogue between Muslim and non-Muslim nations. It’s ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity is rivaled by few places in the world and is a showcase of progressive Muslim women’s rights.
This is why over 50 countries sent 250 diplomats, scholars, and elected officials (comprised mostly of Muslim women) to the capitol city of Baku to take stock of where they were and where they want to be while the world is becoming increasingly described as a ‘clash of civilizations’ between Muslim and non-Muslim nations.
Contrary to stereo-typed expectations, women from Saudi Arabia wore only head scarves while their counterparts from Pakistan were totally covered from head to toe. The Saudi women spoke with enthusiasm about their soon to be acquired right to drive a car, though were much quieter about ever getting the right to vote. The first-ever elected female mayor of a Moroccan city however felt Muslim women’s right were changing and changing fast all over the world.
A few American academics were invited but Hawaii had the single largest delegation from the US. Representative Ward sat on the International Relations Committee in the State Legislature, and the head of the University of Hawaii’s International Education Program Ass’t Vice Chancellor, Dr. Jenny Samaan, and Representative Ward were invited to represent Hawaii’s cultural and ethnic diversity. (But, Representative Ward had bragging rights over women’s political participation in Hawaii as many delegates were surprised to learn that my Republican Caucus was 85% female!)
The Office of the President and First Lady of Azerbaijan, Mehriban Aliyeva spoke of how Muslim women in her country were free to dress as cosmopolitan as they wished, and were becoming educated and sophisticated leaders at home and abroad. She reinforced her points by a surprise panel of five other First Ladies, though mostly from countries without substantial Muslims populations.
The First Lady of Poland, Maria Kaczynska, for example, stressed that her country’s women were always role models of tolerance and cultural diversity even under the trying times of the many wars in Europe. South Africa’s First Lady, Zanele Mbeki said the strength of her female role models stood out while living under the suppressive system of apartheid. Testimonies of the perseverance and potential of women were mentioned by the First Ladies of Latvia, Angola, Argentina, but it was the speech of the First Lady of Texas, Anita Perry, that connected most with the crowd when she said as a young nurse she was the first to report sexual abuse that was widespread in her small Texas town but nobody would every talk about or admit existed.
Azerbaijan clearly had bragging rights for its Muslim women who could chose their own husbands, be free from female circumcision, travel alone to wherever they want, drive a car, and most importantly vote. Azerbaijan after all was the first Muslim country to allow women to vote (1918), and was ahead of the US’s women suffrage (1920).
Diplomacy aside, a chorus of Muslim women stressed time and again that there was nothing wrong with their religion but there was something wrong with their male-dominated traditions and misinterpretations of the Koran that allowed such practices to exist. Outmoded interpretations for the education of women in Saudi Arabia was a case in point. Sixty percent of its college graduates were women but only 5% of the Saudi workforce was female. Compared to Hawaii, where over 65-70% of women have joined the workforce, the brainpower lost by Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia is incalculable.
The event ended with a “Baku Declaration” setting forth a call to all of the world’s governments to provide education and dialogue as the major ingredients for increasing understanding between East and West, Male and Female, Muslim and non-Muslim.
The war on terror is not about a war between civilizations, but an internal war taking place in both the Muslim and non-Muslim nations of the world, especially where the command and control of one gender refuses to be equal with the other. The identity of Muslim men rather than Islam is a pivotal question for the future.
Hawaii‘s Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities along with the East-West Center and University of Hawaii clearly can play a role in these on-going dialogues in a world that is eager to understand each other.