Muna AbuSulayman; Khalid Dawoud, Aljazeera New York correspondent; Fatiha Layadi (from left to right)UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)–When Muna AbuSulayman started reviewing term papers from her college students that cited inadequately informed newspaper articles instead of professional journals and other more reliable materials, she had a small revelation.

Her students did not have access to scholarly publications.

The former co-host of a popular Saudi Arabian television show when she wasn’t teaching at King Saud University in Rhiyad, AbuSulayman had been studying the papers her American literature students wrote for other professors and was wondering why they were of lower quality than what was written for her American literature class in English.

She realized that most journals and other professional publications were only available in English or French. However, in general, outside the enclave of the business world people grow up speaking only Arabic and students study for their college degrees in Arabic.

That got her thinking about intellectual isolation and the need for a huge translation effort to give Arabs access to information, something she raised at a recent session here on women’s advancement in the Arab world.

These materials need to be made available not only to college students, she said, but also to those in high school, given that only 30 percent of Saudis earn a college degree.

"Otherwise we’ll never be able to leave the isolated, underdeveloped, gray world we live in," said AbuSulayman, a U.S.-born Saudi who is currently the secretary-general of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation, a Saudi-based charitable foundation focused on women’s empowerment, poverty alleviation, disaster relief and dialogue between Islam and the West. She is also a world fellow at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Development Fund.

While arguing that Arab women need more access to a European sensibility, she said that that didn’t mean they should adopt a Euro-style agenda.

‘We Can’t Cut and Paste’

"We can’t just cut and paste," she said.

As an example she pointed to programs such as the Czech Republic’s three-year paid maternity leave, designed to support families in a country with one of the lowest birth rates in the European Union.

That wouldn’t be relevant in most Arab nations because under population isn’t a problem in the Arab states, she said.

"We don’t have an aging population. We have a very young population, so we don’t want a population explosion," she told Women’s eNews after the panel, which was held at the New York offices of the U.N.

Of greater concern to Arab women, she said in her presentation, are early-retirement incentives that make women obsolete just as they are hitting their prime.

Across the Arab world, women are mostly teachers, she said, starting work immediately after college. They juggle their husband, kids and work for decades.

When they are 45, women all through the Arab Gulf states are offered early retirement and many smart, accomplished women take it. Six to eight months or a year later they want to go back to work and can’t and aren’t eligible for other jobs.

"Basically, at the age of 45 your life is over," AbuSulayman said, adding that the task is to combat the waste of women’s talent that’s "just due to medieval views of women’s life trajectory."

AbuSulayman also called attention to the disconcerting findings of a study published in the American Economic Journal’s Economic Policy section in August 2009 by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in Philadelphia.

In the "Paradox of Declining Female Happiness," authors Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers noted a growing "gender gap in happiness" between men and women in the United States since the 1970s. As women in the United States and elsewhere have gained more rights and social and economic opportunities, their happiness level has dropped while that of men’s has risen.

Men’s Happiness Surpasses Women’s

By surveying the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Data Program for the Social Sciences since 1972, and other major studies around the world, the authors found that universally, men’s happiness level has surpassed women’s. (The study did not cull overall statistics from the disparate sources of data.)

"Although I’m happy that men are happy, it looks like the women’s movement mainly benefited men," said AbuSulayman, drawing chuckles from her audience at the event sponsored by the American Moroccan Institute and the United Nations Correspondents Association.

She said this is not an indictment of the women’s movement, but rather a sign that women’s happiness levels need to be addressed worldwide–not a Pollyanna-style, blissful ignorance type of happiness, but the contentment born of an ability to move between work and home spheres without being penalized or excluded.

In tandem with this would be initiatives to make work more appealing to Arab women.

She pointed out that women still bear the brunt of housework and child care, even in the relatively advanced Netherlands.

Other speakers at the panel discussion emphasized the major advancements that have been made in women’s rights, particularly in Morocco. Fatiha Layadi, a member of the Moroccan Parliament, noted a huge jump in political participation among women. However, she cautioned that social and political obstacles remain, despite one of the most progressive set of family laws in the Arab-speaking world.

Layadi said women’s candidacies increased by almost threefold in June 2009, and female candidates won 3,406 seats, 60 more than called for by an Interior Ministry quota. In municipal government, meanwhile, women shot up to 12 percent of the country’s 24,600 municipal offices, up from 0.5 percent.

"But to me it’s not enough. This makes a very small 12 percent," Layadi said. "I have no choice but to remain vigilant about women’s rights in Morocco."

Journalist Theresa Braine covers international and other topics from New York City.

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American Moroccan Institute

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