It's a common misperception among Westerners that women in the Middle East have few rights. In fact, they have significant rights, says Amal Sedky Winter, PhD. The problem is those rights have been stripped away by today's oppressive regimes.
"Women leaders in the Middle East are well-educated, tenacious and well-versed in the social and political issues they face," Winter says. "I believe that women hold the key to mitigating excessive extremism."
Winter is an Egyptian-born clinical psychologist who has lived in the United States since she was 16. That dual heritage has given her a thorough and nuanced perspective on Middle East-U.S. relations. Her work has included consulting with the National Democratic Institute to help assess the challenges to establishing democracy in the West Bank, Gaza, Kuwait, Qatar and Jordan. She has also trained women political candidates for parliament in those countries so that they were effective leaders.
Winter says the rise of religious fundamentalism in the region has created a large hurdle for women's rights in the Middle East. Religious leaders have used regressive and erroneous interpretations of Islamic texts to subvert women's power, she says. To help protect women's rights, Winter recently established a pro-literacy program in Egypt with the American University in Cairo. The program aims to train parents and teachers to intervene in cases where young children are denied the chance to learn to read.
Winter believes the United States shoulders some of the blame for the region's lean toward misogynistic extremism. By backing Arab leaders who aren't supported by their people, the United States has helped create an environment where Middle Easterners turn to fundamentalist Islamic institutions for leadership.
People's misunderstanding of Arab political will and its cultural history is responsible for much of the tumult, Winter says. To that end, she believes her bicultural upbringing and experiences as a psychologist make her a good candidate for "translating one culture to another." She recently launched a Web site where she hopes to share her perspectives on world issues so that Westerners and Middle Easterners can better understand each other (http://MyEyeOnEgypt.net).
"Sometimes I feel like the little Dutch boy Hans with my finger in the dike," Winter says. "The best way for people in the U.S. to support change in the Arab world is to change things in America, starting with its foreign policy, including the issues of Palestine, Iraq, torture and renditions. Let's all put our fingers in the dike."