By Siraj Wahab, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)
Hind Ottmani looks like you might imagine a sharp, 24-year-old Moroccan woman might look, but the youth and womenâ€™s representative to the World Economic Forum on the Middle East surprises you with keen insights and wisdom well beyond her years.
At 24, she has studied architecture abroad, but she also has broadened her experience by volunteering for a host of non-governmental organizations in Morocco, from Oxfam Australia to the Rotary Club. She has worked on several initiatives regarding womenâ€™s equality and youth activism, and serves on Moroccoâ€™s advisory panel for the United Nations Fund for Population Activities. Although she continues work on a masterâ€™s degree in architecture, she already has some good ideas for a blueprint of successful reform in the Middle East.
First and foremost, she says empowerment begins at home.
â€œI am very close both to my father and to my mother,â€ Ottmani told this correspondent during an exclusive interview on the forumâ€™s sidelines in Sharm El-Sheikh last month. â€œOur relationships are based on the principles of respect, confidence and trust. At home, I have never been disposed to speak with one of my parents concerning a specific issue and not with the other. The decision-making has always been shared between both, and we communicate a lot. Both my parents have always encouraged me in all my endeavorsâ€”especially the professional ones. They are very proud of my work and donâ€™t put the brakes on my professional and personal development.â€
She attributes most of her success to the trust her parents have had in her.
â€œI have always been given the choice to make the decisions that concern my life,â€ she said.
â€œBut I also think that confidence has to be gained. It is not something we get for free, and it is also a great responsibility. If you get the freedom to do what you think is good for you, you have to demonstrate that this freedom is deserved, and that it is based on mutual respect. I am conscious that most parents in the Arab world donâ€™t educate their children this wayâ€”at least not their daughtersâ€” and I am very thankful to my parents for being that comprehensive and supportive.â€
Ottmani dismisses Western stereotypes of Arab women as being completely oppressed by a male-dominated culture. She says the reality is quite differentâ€”even if itâ€™s a reality most Arab men might be uncomfortable admitting. â€œArab women are not subjugated, and I believe that Arab women have strong personalities and, most of all, are very smart,â€ Ottmani said.
â€œSociety may have cultivated this idea of gender inequity, but women use their intelligence to make men think they are the ones who make the decisions, but, in reality, the decisions are made by women. Of course, this is not a sustainable way of resolving problems, and there is an urgent need to change that mindset. I believe that women have to play the key role in this process. Childrenâ€™s education still remains the responsibility of women in our societies, and it is up to us women to educate our children on gender equity principles, starting with educating our daughters the same way we educate our sons. It is all about models. Children tend to reproduce what they see at home.â€
She also says the nations of the Middle East could gain a lot by looking to the Maghreb as a model for reconciling traditional values with progress while respecting the tenets of Islam.
â€œMorocco is a great example of an Islamic country that has reached a consensus between the feminist movement and religious leaders to make very significant changes in the family code, changing the status of woman in societyâ€”at least legallyâ€”and instilling the principle of gender equity within the family, which is almost a revolution in peopleâ€™s minds,â€ Ottmani said.
â€œMorocco has always been on the crossroads between the Occidental and Oriental worlds. Being on the old trade routes, it has always been a meeting point for different cultures and trends. This has given a great deal of diversity to our culture. As a land of cohabitation for people of many religions, it stands as a country of tolerance and respect. Morocco has chosen to be a country of both modernity and tradition.â€
As a delegate to the World Economic Forum on the Middle East, Ottmani said one has to have a solid understanding about what such conferences can accomplish.
â€œIt is not a meeting where decisions are made but rather a laboratory of propositions and a great atmosphere for brainstorming, since it gathers politicians, businessmen and businesswomen and civil society,â€ she said.
â€œEach group can make its voice heard and, I think, it is important to learn how to open the dialogue with people who donâ€™t necessarily think like you do and donâ€™t see the situations the same way; for the interests are not the same for all.â€
She also noted that the conference should send a clear message to all that a new timeâ€”and a new generationâ€”is coming.
â€œIt is very significant that the theme of this WEF on the Middle East was The Promise of a New Generation,â€ Ottmani said.
â€œIt means that people are conscious of the huge asset that young people represent in the Arab worldâ€”if they are empowered.
We are 60 million people in the Arab world under the age of 25; 60 million people who will be the engineers of development in our countries for the coming 60 years.
If we work on educating and empowering young people, we can ensure a bright future for the Arab world.â€