During a recent interview with Newsweek magazine in response to the nascent women's rights movement in Egypt, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "I believe that the rights of women and girls is the unfinished business of the 21st century. We see women and girls across the world who are oppressed and violated and demeaned and degraded and denied so much of what they are entitled to as our fellow human beings."
Clinton's observations came during the start of the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day. To mark the occasion, the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs launched "Empowering Women & Girls through International Exchanges." It is a yearlong series of events, through the International Visitors Leadership Program, bringing 100 women leaders from 92 countries to the United States.
From March 17-22, the International Council of the Tampa Bay region hosted 13 leaders in professions that included academia, medicine, business, government, law enforcement and media. Before coming to Tampa Bay, the women met with Clinton, first lady Michelle Obama and the secretary-general of the United Nations.
The State Department's objectives for the exchanges are rooted in global diplomacy, but what about the visitors' experiences? What did they want to teach their American hosts, and what could they take back to help women in their homelands?
Ghayda Alkhalil, an Iraqi, and Iman Mousa, a Palestinian who lives in the occupied West Bank, responded by e-mail. I quote them at length to share the candid views of foreigners most ordinary Americans would not hear otherwise.
Alkhalil: "Women in the United States do not suffer from the problems of the real political sense because of certain laws and regulations that prevent discrimination between women and men. But this does not mean that in some states, discrimination against women does not exist. There are organizations and institutions that help women through loans, grants and projects carried out by women, which help raise the economic standards of women. Generally speaking, U.S. women are better off economically than their Iraqi counterparts.
"The level of education for women in America where we visited is high, but I don't know if this is a nationwide phenomenon or just in big cities. I will relay to Iraqi women what I have learned and found useful. This visit was a source of strength for me. I will try my best to make the experience of American women a model. I will tell them about the challenges women in America faced before they were able to achieve their goals."
Mousa: "I did not expect to find bias in salary and access to important social centers against women in the United States, which calls for freedom, democracy and equality. But I learned that women struggled and fought for a long time to get some of their rights and that unfairness is an ongoing problem. My eyes were opened to many things that could help me in my practical life.
"The American experience, in most fields, cannot be applied to other societies because of differences in customs, traditions, religion, language and heritage. But I can take back the American experience with elections and work on an awareness campaign to educate Palestinian women on how to choose candidates and how to exercise the right to vote with integrity and transparency. We experienced an election the world has witnessed for its fairness and transparency. But America only exports to us incomplete democracies. It did not respect, neither did the rest of world, our choice of candidates, and did not give our elected officials the opportunity to prove themselves. They were boycotted and stigmatized as terrorists.
"During our visit to the Stavros Institute's Enterprise Village and Finance Park (in Largo), we learned about linking curriculum theory to the applied practical side of life and to what is happening to students. It can work, no matter how simple its application, in some Arab countries and should be adopted by governments.
"After meeting many American people, whether at the grass roots level of students and teachers or at the level of decisionmakers, we learned that they have incomplete knowledge of the political, cultural, social and educational advancement of the Arab nations in general and about the status of Arab women in particular. They know next to nothing about Palestinian women living under the occupation. They do not know where Palestine is located on the map. Living under the occupation, Palestinian women must deal with repression and violence on a daily basis, especially in the Gaza Strip. It has been under siege for over three years, tormented by the lack of food, medicine, security, peace and stability.
"This program gave us the opportunity to acquire information and knowledge and experiences that we can use. And I am here to introduce Americans to my people and my cause in order for the occupation to end so we could live with our children in peace and security."
The 100 women left the United States with homework: They collectively are to spend a year developing a project that can improve the plight of women worldwide. They will share the results of their efforts, perhaps returning to the United States to do so.