On March 1st, 2016, the May Chidiac Foundation, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, organized for the fourth year the “Women on the Front Lines” conference under the patronage of Mrs. Lama Tammam Salam, at the Phoenicia hotel in Beirut. This annual gathering brought together prominent female figures in several regions, including the Special Coordinator of the United Nations in Lebanon, Sigrid Kaag, the former French minister H.E Yamina Benguigui, British CNN TV presenter Becky Anderson, and general manager of Optimum Telecom Algeria (Djeezy), and the frontrunner of Forbes’ list of the ten most powerful Arab women, Ghada Jebara. The conference was attended by Ministers: Michel Pharaon, Nabil de Freij, Ramzi Jreij, Alain Hakim and MPs Bahia Al Hariri, Marwan Hamadeh, Antoine Zahra, Nadim Gemayel, Dr. Riyad Rahhal and Naji Gharios and former ministers Ziad Baroud, Jihad Azour, Fadi Abboud, Atef Majdalani, Joe Sarkis, Leila Al Solh, Nayla Mouawad, Raya El Hassan and many ambassadors.
In her welcome note, MCF founder and president Dr. May Chidiac indicated, “When given the opportunity, the Lebanese woman succeeds in diverse innovative fields. If she is not the woman in front, she motivates her partner and attracts so much success on account of her support”. She also asserted that “we are proud that our conference is still a place where men and women can speak in spite of tireless efforts made by many parties in the country and in the region to extinguish the flame of change and evolution. Women’s rights lie at the heart of human rights, so let us earnestly unite our efforts to promote debate and raise awareness, and achieve the transformation in order to secure a better future for all mankind.”
On this occasion, the patron of the conference Mrs. Lama Tammam Sallam delivered a speech in which she said: “There is no doubt that this conference showcases and analyzes the experiences of women’s success in the political, business cinema, or counter-conflict worlds. Today, our region is in particular need of decisions that constitute the antitheses of extremism. The role of women is to foster open minds, and amiable hearts, with no malice. Women constitute the first line of defense in the face of extremism. Through the education she provides to her children and the values she plants in her family, she can counter terrorism or any risk of radicalization.”
US Ambassador Richard Jones added “The efforts made by this community is exactly what we need for real and lasting progress. Empowerment of women is considered a complex challenge that requires a collaborative solution so that each one of us plays a role. We are here to celebrate together the contributions of those on the front line – in international relations responsive to the pressure of the refugee crisis, or in filing reports as journalists for exclusive stories from the field, or as leaders in business and overcoming the risks and conflicts in order to create jobs. In some cases, these conflicts on the front lines can be ended by women fighting extremism in their families. In all these sectors, women have an important role to play.”
The conference touched on the role of women in foreign affairs and business, filmmaking, as well as the testimonials of mothers of jihadists involved in extremist and terrorist organizations.
The first panel highlighted the role of women in diplomatic affairs at all levels: internal affairs, foreign policy, civil cases, human rights, women’s rights, business administration and others. The focus was on the crisis in Syria and how different countries dealt with the issue of immigration that was a product of the conflicts in the Middle East. What is the role of Western countries, especially where women are bearing leadership positions in dealing with the crisis? United Nations ambassador in Lebanon Sigrid Kaag stated, “Women must be represented at all levels and we need to give them a voice”. Sawsan Ghoshe, the director of the United Nations Centre in the Middle East stressed the importance of reporting the news objectively and devoid of stereotypes. Whereas, the former French minister Yamina Benguigui stated that “women’s rights are on the decline due to the armed conflict and religious issues.” Dr. Maha Yahya added: “We want a Lebanon where women are considered necessary to life”.
The conference included a special segment presented by British CNN journalist Becky Anderson in which she explained how to “change the way you report news today with the noticeable evolution of technology. She pointed out that “good journalism is confident which means accuracy, balance, and impartiality.” She added, “Our job as journalists is to be sure that important news is presented to people whether there is an appetite for it or not”. The segment was followed by a question and answers segment with TV presenter Paula Yacoubian and the audience.
Ms. Ghada Gebara, CEO at Telecom Operator (Djeezy), presented as a keynote speaker and focused on the victories of women in this field, which enabled her to reach decision-making positions. She claims that this is considered a challenge to the men who dominate this domain.
The next panel discussed women in the business world and focused on the success and achievements of women in the business sector as well as their capability to assume decision-making positions that are considered a challenge to the dominance of men in this field. H.E. Zohra Driss, a member of the Tunisian parliament expressed her “desire to be a boy until the age of 18” but later discovering that she “can be like a man but with the charm of a woman.” She added that her biggest passion is to help women earn their rights. The discussions centered on challenges facing successful business women in digital culture, the digital and technological sector, and establishing financial independence.
A unique panel composed of mothers of jihadists shared their experiences on suffering through the involvement of a family member in terrorist organizations. They explained their shock towards what happened to their children and discussed the suffering and the pain of being denied the right to bury them. One of the mothers indicated that “leaning towards this kind of extremism begins with the child’s desire to be isolated from their surroundings and society” and stressed the need for awareness from parents for their children’s actions.
There was also a presentation by the March Foundation’s founder Lea Baroudi who displayed the value of her working with young adults of Bab Al Tabanneh and Jabal Mohsen who were once at war. She trained them to perform in a theatrical show that brings together young people from the two regions in order to confront extremism. She has turned this into a vocational experience and has been able to open a Café for them to perform and work simultaneously.
The last panel highlighted the importance of the role of filmmakers in addressing national and civic issues through films. Nadine Labaki, Hala Lotfy, Najwa Najjar, and Khadija Al Salami – all 4 talented Arab filmmakers- explained their efforts in peace-building through the camera lens. In addition, they focused on issues that are considered taboo and an integral part of the culture in the patriarchal societies of the Middle East. For Nadine, it is very important to continue to produce films in Lebanon, and she aims to portray Lebanon in her films because it is where you can influence and change things. She stated that she also feels that “she has a responsibility towards her country.” The four filmmakers agreed that the Arab world does not give adequate moral significance towards local production. Even if it is possible to secure financing and a team to produce a good film, the audience is more likely to watch a Hollywood film over an Arab one. Khadija Al-Salami touched on the difficulties facing women in the film industry in Yemen and her personal story with the harassment she experienced at a young age. Hala Lotfi also offered stories of the difficulties of filmmaking in Egypt stressing that women bear more pressure than men.
All in all, the conference fulfilled its objectives in educating the public on challenges female front runners face while also providing sound advice and all encompassing solutions.
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