The Davos challenge

Zeba: Hi Michael! Happy 2011! Did you see the article this month about the World Economic Forum’s gender quota at its annual Davos event? I cheered when I read it because with this quota, this year’s WEF is making a strong statement for women at their premier event known for bringing together global business and political leaders, along with selected intellectuals and journalists to discuss the world’s most pressing issues.

The way I see it, the only way to force solutions, at least initially, is to mandate certain behaviors. I know that there are women out there who say that they don’t like positive discrimination and others who don’t like quotas in general. But the truth is that the facts on women in corporations are gloomy.

Michael: And a happy new year to you Zeba. Great to catch up again, especially on such an interesting note. I did read about the Davos gender initiative. Your cheers are well-placed. I am a firm believer in calculated acts of forced integration. Even if women are not, numerically speaking, a CEO force just yet, perhaps their guaranteed presence will inspire other women to move into to such positions. What exactly the outcome of such integrationist moves will be, however, are never clear. It may be that very little happens as a result of the gender initiative. That’s the unfortunate reality of these projects: there’s no certainty about what they’ll accomplish. The good news is that initiatives like Davos don’t rely on the outcome to justify their utility. They are instruments of change.

Zeba: Interestingly, Michael, the Davos quota was suggested by a Muslim woman, Saadia Zahidi, Director and Head of Constituents at WEF. Seeing this made me think about Muslim organizations. You know as well as I do that Muslim organizations and events have very low representation of women. It upsets me to see how underrepresented women are at our forums and in leadership. I always think of it from my dad’s point of view. He has two daughters and one son. He has given us all the same love, invested in our futures equally and yet – his daughters have less of a voice in the community than his son does merely by virtue of gender. I have said more than once in both public and private forums – being aware is not enough. Muslim men need to stand by women on the issue of gender equity if for no other reason but to make the world better for their daughters.

Michael: I fully agree. We need more women in leadership roles throughout the American Muslim community. Certainly there are some female leaders but on the whole, their visibility is minimal and their ability to contribute at the higher levels of Muslim organizations is still too low. ISNA broke the trend by electing its first woman vice-president, Dr. Ingrid Mattson, and then electing her as president. But this is an isolated achievement. I believe women are being denied access in ways that a Davos-style initiative might challenge.

Zeba: Michael, I commend ISNA for breaking the gender barrier. However, I too hope that ISNA will do more. We need greater representation of women at all levels of Muslim organizations.

Michael: ISNA was a good start. But the problem is deep and is more than men’s blockage: some women believe they shouldn’t lead. While I don’t think that women need to want what men want in order to be valued, the lack of women in leadership roles is creating problems for other women who want to explore new possibilities. For example, while Amina Wadud was harshly criticized for her break from the tradition, few actually considered how to deal with the real desire that some women have to lead, if not in prayer, then in other religious roles. More needs to be done, much more.

Zeba: Michael more needs to be done in very real, visible and meaningful ways in the Muslim community. The Davos’ Gender Quota is an example that I hope ISNA will take note of and follow with regard to its panel requirements for this year’s convention. We don’t need panels on ‘Women leaders’ as much as we need equitable representation of women on all panels at ISNA.

Women need to speak up. This is stated clearly in an insightful TED Talk by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and through the work of The OpEd Project .

Michael: I agree that women need to speak up. In some Muslim communities, this is one of the chief obstacles to women’s progress: not enough women are expressing themselves. Part of this problem has to do with women. I know some Muslim women who actively discourage younger women from seeking leadership roles unless it’s as a leader of other women. Men, it’s assumed, can lead everyone but women can only lead women. The other part of the problem is us, the men. We don’t do enough to encourage women to seek leadership roles or to support those who do. Take a look at the executive committees and boards across the US in mosques; men are the dominant force. Two steps are necessary to address this problem. First, we’re going to have to challenge the discrimination present in religious textual interpretations. There are simply too many verses and ahadith floating around that are used to break the will of our young women. Second, we’re going to have to create a space—a Davos-style quota—for women to fill. That’ll be a step in the right direction.

Michael Vicente Perez and Zeba Iqbal are regular contributors to Altmuslimah.

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