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Arab businesswomen still rare says El-Haj Aref


Arab businesswomen still rare says El-Haj Aref


At a conference in Paris of the Arab International Women’s Forum, bringing together businesswomen and company directors from the Arab and western worlds euronews met Diala El-Haj Aref, Syria’s Work and Social Affairs minister. As a minister she belongs to a very select group in the Arab world, and has run her department since 2004, after a state career spanning several economic sectors. She has written widely on economics, administration, or Arab women, and was here to speak about the role they and their western counterparts can play together. While El-Haj Aref notes Arab women have broken into the world of business recently, they have yet to break the quasi-monopoly of economic decision-making being a male affair.

euronews: “Minister, welcome to Euronews. Why do think these conferences on the role of Arab women are so often held in non-Arab countries?”

Diala El-Haj Aref: “In my opinion there are several objectives. We want to be enriched by the experiences of others, from those who have gone before us or from more developed nations. The second is to discuss our problems with experts who can help Arab nations to resolve them. The third is being abroad allows many women to express themselves freely and openly, without the obstacles they would face in their own countries.”

euronews: “Do you think that today we can compare a European businesswoman with one from the Arab world?”

Diala El-Haj Aref: “In some areas they are directly comparable, but not in all. In the service sector yes, they are contributing to economic growth, and this is seen in the key economic statistics. Some countries are comparable. But in industry it’s a different story. Few comparisons are possible, and when you look at the Information Technology sector, for example, it’s virtually a male closed shop.”

euronews: “But today, generally in the Arab world there’s a host of laws allowing women to move up in the workplace, and reach high level positions, is there not? “

Diala El-Haj Aref: “When we look at this socially, it’s impossible to answer yes or no. I think laws in the Arab world have matured to some extent in the sense they promise absolute equality for citizens, and rule out sex or race discrimination. But their application does not always follow, and lags far behind the legislation. There are reasons for this. The laws may be mature, but society isn’t. The statute book is running ahead, and both men and women are unable to accumulate the experience necessary.”

euronews: “According to many observers a woman arrives in a management position, above all in certain Arab nations, as the lucky beneficiary of belonging to a politically or traditionally prominent family. Is this your perception of the state of things?”

Diala El-Haj Aref: “Without a doubt this is true in many cases, more or less, depending on the country. But I don’t want to point the finger, because it’s a normal, natural thing. A woman who is brought up in a politically active household will be more qualified than one who has never been involved or had a chance to develop political skills. A woman who has come from a business family and who is well-educated is certainly qualified. So why shouldn’t they be allowed to go higher?”

euronews: “So can we say that the business and economic sectors are starting to free themselves from male domination?”

Diala El-Haj Aref: “The business community remains a mostly male preserve. Women have started to play a role, but it’s just a start in terms of numbers if not importance. Today we find big companies run by women, companies that are economically important, but there’s very few of them compared to male-run businesses.”

euronews: “One last question. Are Arab women entering government able to help improve rights for ordinary Arab women?”

Diala El-Haj Aref: “I think most societies have got over the question of women’s rights, because there’s nothing new to say on the subject. Today’s societies are proud to display all they’ve enshrined in law and their systems to ensure female equality. Today it’s obvious, and everyone has noticed; no-one’s talking about rights any more. Now it’s a question of access, of making the fruits of those laws available, so women can do what they want to do.”

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