Queen Noor of Jordan

Remarks at the National Organization of Arab-American Women Banquet - Jan. 20, 1995

Queen Noor of Jordan
January 20, 1995— New York, New York
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Dr. Oakar,
Dr. Sabah,
Dr. Mukaddam,
Dr. Sadik,
Your Excellencies,
Distinguished Guests,
And Members Of The National Organization Of Arab-American Women,

I am delighted to join you here today at the United Nations, and I am honored to accept this international award for the promotion of development, democracy and peace. Had my life's journey not taken me to Jordan, I might still have been here with you tonight -- perhaps not as the recipient of this award, but very possibly as an active Arab-American, pledged to the personal and professional advancement of women and to inter-cultural understanding. Throughout my life, I have shared your sense of pride in the extraordinary achievements of both the Arab and American cultures. I also share your commitment to promote constructive communication, and mutual respect between the United States and the Arab world.

The new era we are entering in the Middle East presents a plethora of possibilities and new horizons: some desirable and positive, others dangerous and destructive. Tonight, I would like to explore with you some of the possibilities that we in Jordan envisage for the emerging Middle East, and to emphasize the increasingly relevant role of women and of organizations such as yours to our quest for a new society in this era of transformation.

The Arab world is at a critical juncture today, characterized by contradictory trends. Although our region has registered some of the world's fastest growth rates in social and economic development in the last forty years, progress has slowed appreciably and even reversed itself in some countries during the last decade. Although a just and permanent resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict would offer the promise of collective regional economic and political progress, we have been mired for the past half century in a self-destructive cycle of bilateral disputes and geo-political fragmentation. And although expansive inter-relationships are emerging in the fields of communications, trade, and culture in many parts of the world, too many in our region are retreating to the restrictive parameters of ethnicity, politicized religion and narrow nationalism.

While we must recognize and understand the causes of these realities, we need not remain forever shackled by them.

If we are to advance beyond the futile rivalries, inequities and violence, we must reassess our past differences and look towards reinforcing national achievements and strengths with the immeasurably greater forces of regional integration and economies of scale; and we must develop a common vision of our future based on our shared history and strong cultural bonds. For the past half century, we have suffered the debilitating military and economic constraints of the armed conflict with Israel. And we have failed to generate adequate popular participation in socio-economic development and political affairs. The new Middle East that we seek to pass on to our children offers the promise of peace, development and stability. But it is impossible to speak credibly of these, without speaking of social justice, political participation and fundamental human rights. Our countries of the Middle East face the common challenge to mobilize the talents and energies of all their members to achieve economic and political development that is sustainable, equitable and responsive to real needs.

The development experience of many nations in the past decades has highlighted the primacy of the role of women and the importance of their education and participation in local and national affairs in the attainment of these goals.

While in all Arab societies, women still face varying degrees of legal and social obstacles to their personal development professional fulfillment and participation in public and political life, large numbers of women have nevertheless contributed to and benefited from the development momentum of recent decades. Unlike their prevalent portrayal in the West, many Arab women are educated, deeply involved in family and local community decisions, and increasingly active in political, professional and economic life at the national level. The rising level of education of Arab girls and women has been one of the most profound and positive forces of change in our region. [SEE NOTE]

It is a tribute to Arab women that in the past decade, the Middle East registered the world's fastest decline in the under-five mortality rate (5.4 percent a year), while simultaneously registering the world's worst economic performance (a 0.7 percent average annual decline in gross national product). While Arab economies were generally regressing, the health of Arab children actually improved -- primarily because a better educated generation of young women were able to translate their education and knowledge into good family health practices.

The greatest gains for women and for society as a whole have been achieved in those countries where women have improved their legal, educational and social status, but have not precipitously abandoned their traditional role as the strong anchor of the family unit.

Empowerment of women encourages a new regard for human rights and equitable social and political development. The empowerment of women cannot, however, be isolated from the empowerment of the entire community through more democratic and participatory decision-making. Local communities whose members are educated and self-reliant will be able to tap their own resources and dynamism to devise appropriate strategies to assure their well-being. Democratic participation has generated a dynamic that has energized entire societies.

My own development experience in Jordan has introduced and confirmed this integrated community development approach as an essential catalyst for sustainable development. At the Noor Al Hussein Foundation, we have established innovative projects which build upon our country's traditions and heritage to advance and modernize development thinking. We have moved beyond conventional centralized social welfare practices to integrate social development strategies more closely with national economic priorities, especially through the empowerment of women.

With the assistance of United Nations and other international agencies, we have implemented several successful projects that address the community's combined social, economic, environmental and political needs in some of the most deprived areas of Jordan. These projects offer women education and training, improved access to social services, and opportunities for involvement in the local and national economy and greater participation in community decision-making.

As a result, women have increased their participation in local community, economic and social affairs; family incomes have risen; female school enrollment rates have increased and drop-out rates have declined; migration to the cities has slowed; and we are beginning to notice a decline in fertility rates. The key to our success is the close collaboration of the men and women of local communities to determine their own goals and to devise strategies to achieve them. There has been a quantifiable improvement in the quality of life of individual families and entire communities, which have become more dynamic and self-reliant. I am particularly proud that these projects are considered national and regional development models by several international agencies, including the United Nations Population Fund and the World Health Organization. We have been asked to support their implementation in other Arab countries.

The two essential factors -- gender equity and democracy -- are anathema in many countries, but this successful combination has often been the difference between development that tangibly improves the quality of life of each new generation of infants, and unsustainable, inconsistent progress which relies heavily on subsidies and directives from central government.

Greater opportunities for regional peace and development lie before the Arab world today than ever since the birth of the modern Arab order at the beginning of this century. Pan-Arab economic integration would be rewarding not only for the Arab people themselves; but also a new regional order, consistent with the global trend toward regionalization and large-scale economies, would foster improved relationships between us and the rest of the world.

The world now has an exciting and historic opportunity to work together for human development goals which are deeply rooted in a common moral legacy of justice, humanism and peace. Yet this new momentum of hope and cooperation is threatened by disquieting predictions, appearing in the discourse of Western analysts, of an inevitable and violent clash of cultures, particularly between the Islamic and Western worlds. At this moment of global change and hope, it would be a great tragedy and a tremendous waste to allow the ideological polarization that characterized the Cold War era to be replaced by a civilizational confrontation, based on ignorance and unfounded fears. Our shared ethic and our interdependence for solving global challenges should naturally compel us to forge a promising new partnership based on understanding, mutual respect and cooperation.

The National Organization of Arab-American Women is particularly well placed to further better and clearer communication between our two worlds. Your understanding of the Arab and American cultures entails a special responsibility to promote a meaningful and constructive dialogue between our peoples. The cross-cultural activities and developmental aims of individuals and groups such as yourselves are pivotal to our hopes for a new world of tolerance, peace and development.

Thank you all again. I wish the conference much success and urge you to continue to pursue with enthusiasm your worthwhile endeavors. I remain your partner, always ready to contribute to the advancement of Arab women and women everywhere.

[NOTE] Female literacy rates in the Arab world today range from 28 to 73 percent. Between 1970 and 1990, six Arab countries ranked among the world's top twelve countries in increasing their female literacy rates: Saudi Arabia raised its female literacy rate from 2 to 48 percent ; Jordan from 29 to 70 percent; Tunisia from 17 to 56 percent; Libya from 13 to 50 percent; Algeria from 11 to 71 percent; Iraq from 18 to 49 percent, and Syria from 20 to 51 percent.

The percentage of girls who reach at least Grade 5 in primary school in the Middle East and North Africa ranges from lows of 40 percent to highs of over 90 percent in Jordan, Algeria and Oman. The average for the entire region (79 percent) is the second highest regional average in the developing world, surpassed only by the Pacific/East Asia region (83 percent).

Female secondary education enrollment today ranges from 20 to 90 percent in the Arab world, and in many countries, including Jordan, female university enrollment is 50 percent.

Although women's participation in the work force (ranging from 6 to 27 percent) is increasing, it does not reflect yet the advances in education.

Copyright 1995 by Queen Noor. All rights reserved.

Speech from http://gos.sbc.edu/n/noor5.html.