When I was a child, we had to live in our grandmother's house. My mother, a lone parent, couldn't get a mortgage simply because she was a woman, even though she had a well-paid job. When I qualified as a lawyer in the U.K. three decades ago, women in the legal profession still had to overcome open prejudice and discrimination. So when we examine the position of women across the Middle East, it's important not to despair or forget our own past.
In fact, when I chat with women in the region, I can tell them from personal experience that life does change and that once progress starts, it can develop much more quickly than they might expect. No one would claim, of course, that the position of women in the Middle East in general is one that inspires confidence. But across the region and often defying Western preconceptions the battle for equality is making gains.
Few would guess, for example, that the states with the world's highest ratio of women to men in higher education are in the gulf. In Kuwait, women were elected to parliament for the first time this year. And women have been appointed to important ministerial posts in neighboring countries; Jordan has four women in its Cabinet, including Hala Latouf, the Minister for Social Development. There are women judges, too, in Palestine, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates something that would have been hard to imagine a generation ago. And women are taking an increasingly prominent role in the economy; in the West Bank recently I met female lawyers, architects and even a lift engineer. Of course, we can't get carried away. In some Middle Eastern countries, the progress of women can appear desperately slow. And in none have women attained anything like the opportunities we take for granted in Western Europe or North America. Women still have to contend daily with male-dominated societies and culture, often underpinned by discriminatory laws. They may have more opportunities to study, but even well-educated women struggle to find jobs and when they do, career progression is difficult. The expectations that men stay in control and women at home remain strong.
But for me, the thing that is striking about the Middle East is that women are no longer prepared to accept a subservient role. Meeting female entrepreneurs in the West Bank, I was struck by their determination to remove the obstacles designed to keep them in their place. In northern Israel as well, I chatted with women business students, drawn from all communities but sharing a common goal to become financially independent.
Indeed that search for independence, and the power that would come from establishing their own businesses, was a dominant theme in my conversations. As women in Europe and the U.S. have discovered, having your own salary or company isn't just a matter of raising living standards for your family. It also gives you more control over your own life, more say in your society and more opportunities. All of us whatever our gender have a stake in helping women in the Middle East achieve this ambition. Societies will be healthier and stronger if women and men work together to address their problems. I believe the prospects for peace will be greater, too.
So creating and supporting female entrepreneurs is absolutely critical, which is why it is the main focus of the foundation I have set up. In Ramallah, in the West Bank, we have already joined with local partners to establish a business center to tackle the shortfall in training, skills and business networks for women. In northern Israel, we help support a business course for women from the Muslim, Druze, Jewish and Christian communities.
The prosperity of countries depends on their success in harnessing the talents of women. There is compelling evidence that they will be the driving force behind the economic growth of the coming decades. Ignore the potential of one half of your population and exam results seem to suggest the smarter half and you are going to be left behind.
Helping women in the Middle East and other areas of the world to achieve equality does something else: it reminds the rest of us how much there is still to do. In many Western countries, strong equality laws are in place, but the pay gap between men and women is widening, while the glass ceiling remains as resilient as ever. Today, we may be looking to the positive role that women can play in regions such as the Middle East. But the fight for true equality is a global one, and it is far from won.
Cherie Blair is a human-rights lawyer and founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women