The insight of this article is magnified through a lens of the practices and first-hand experience of the author, and will focus on the potential of implementing the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region. The Fall of 2020, will highlight the twentieth anniversary of the adaptation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000), that recognizes the “urgent need to mainstream” a gender perspective into peacekeeping operations, and in multidimensional peace support operations. The 1325 resolution sheds light on the impact of armed conflict on women and girls. It urges member states to increase representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management and resolution of conflict.
While there have been a series of UN resolutions, 1820 (2008), 1889 (2009), 2122 (2013), 2242 (2015), and 2493 (2019), to name a few, all of which called for implementation of the 1325 resolution. However, it was the United States who stepped up on October 6, 2017 as President Trump signed the WPS Act into a law. This measure makes the U.S. the first country that requires key Departments including, Defense, State, Homeland Security and USAID to implement the WPS initiatives. The fever of the WPS has spread rapidly among agencies, and contractors to offer their expertise and capacities to support the implementation. The following notes point to some assumptions and practices of companies work in Arab countries with a culture and a mindset that are very different from the western ones.
The first question that may occur, is it possible for the MENA countries to accept new roles of women in regard to peace negotiations and conflict prevention and other national, regional and global security matters? In general, the perceptions about women in conflict areas are being victims of violence, vulnerable, yet they are not involved in the decision-making processes. Therefore, when the U.S. government and its implementing partners (contractors and NGOs), implement large scale programs during conflicts and post-conflicts, they come with inaccurate assumptions. These organizations are required to incorporate professional females into their program design. They select women with experience and are considered being “tough” to carry out the tasks. A flash back on the Iraq experience on reconstruction programs; the Iraqi officials would meet with American women and they would not challenge their opinions, approaches, and would not question their decisions. One would think that was a successful meeting and that both sides reached into agreement. However, this was far from success. The local officials would act as “nice” and agreeable as a matter of courtesy not agreement. They do not need to follow through.
In contrast, local officials would consult and discuss programs and other important decisions with professional Iraqi women who have two key elements: First, women who have excellent reputation, second, have expertise and the knowledge needed. For example, at the Iraqi railways company, there was a female chief engineer, who was constantly consulted, not only on matters of transportation strategies and reconstructions, but rather on various types of disputes internally and externally. That female engineer was senior in her career but most important, she had integrity, kindness and a soft tone to resolve problems. In an environment of stress, conflicts, and different types of pressure, the calmer voice with sound judgement and wisdom was a treasure.
Another example of a professional female leader in a conflict area was in Tripoli, Libya. In 2014, the Ministry of Justice had a female Assistant Deputy Minister for Human Rights. I had the opportunity to work closely with her on strategic planning for decentralization of services. As being a native Arabic speaker with significant understanding of the Libyan culture, the Assistant Deputy shared with me the challenges related to human rights violations and her direct involvement in negotiations with parties to the conflict. Her success was due to her reputation, her family’s reputation and her credentials. She was very well educated, and calm with a humble tone when addressing sensitive issues. In a western culture, this might be perceived as a weakness, hesitation or even incompetence; however, it was certainly a sign of power and strength in the Arab culture.
To conclude, it is important for contractors and organizations who will be focusing on the WPS implementation in the MENA region or globally, to invest in the cultural aspect and history of women status in their respective country. This necessity of cultural understanding should go beyond the hand shake and the dress code for professionals overseas. The assumptions that are built on shallow surface will not withstand the weight of the tasks ahead. Therefore, engaging women with the right credentials and characters, will allow for a real success.