Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Sharon Cruver, Executive Director of Shaqa’iq, a new video series produced by Kidz Online which profiles successful Arab women who have successful careers in the Middle East. Cruver is also the co-founder of Kidz Online and a member of its Board of Directors.
FP: Sharon Cruver, thank you for joining us today.
Sharon: Thank you for inviting me.
FP: So tell us about the Shaqa’iq program.
Cruver: Shaqa'iq started as a major component of President Bush's Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which is the administration's primary development tool to support the U.S. Forward Strategy for Freedom in the Middle East. The goal is to work cooperatively with governments and people in the region to promote key economic, political, and educational reform issues and reduce barriers to women's full participation in society.
Shaqa’iq is a series of video profiles of Arabic speaking girls, young women, and the male influencers in their lives, focusing on education, career, and technology. The series highlights different career choices for women, features advice from successful women to their high school and college counterparts, and includes supportive statements by key Arab leaders. The goal of the series is to provide Arabic-speaking female role models for Arabic speaking girls and young women. It is streamed online over the Internet and there are plans for the series to be distributed through various television channels, as well as in schools in the Middle East North Africa Region.
The Shaqa’iq curriculum uses videos and lesson plans to show young women the value of continuing their education despite some of the obstacles they may face. The videos profile successful young Arab women filling an educational void by providing role models of success to which young students can relate. The women talk about the struggles and challenges they have overcome. They also discuss their careers and the education required to succeed in their various fields, and the important role the men in their lives play in supporting their continued education and careers, making the profiles a valuable resource not only for young women, but also for the young men who will play a large role in their futures.
FP: Who underwrote the production for this effort?
Sharon: Initially funded at $300,000 by the U.S. State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), and over a year in development, we have profiled 15 women from Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon. Kidz Online is now seeking sponsorships to expand the profiles to women from the other 19 Arab countries.
FP: In a place like the Middle East, where gender apartheid is ruthlessly enforced on many realms, there must be resistance to your efforts. Can you take about the obstacles and challenges you face? The very fact that you are making an effort of this kind means, of course, that there is a serious problem in the first place.
Cruver: Well, we have found that in a region where traditional cultural and religious beliefs to a very large extent define the roles women play in society we realized that any effort to present a differing view could meet with some resistance. But, we have been surprised, and encouraged, by the support of groups and individuals in the Middle East who have helped to make Shaqa'iq a success. I think that they would say that this is more of a process than a problem that they need to go through to redefine the role of women in their society. We realized that Shaqa'iq won't change the current situation overnight; this is just a first step, but by highlighting women that have made the decision, in spite of challenges, to complete a degree, start a business, or take on a role that may have been unthinkable for their mother or grandmother; these are the stories that need to be told.
FP: Can you tell us about some of the groups and individuals in the Middle East that have helped to make Shaqa'iq a success?
Cruver: On the top on the list is the United Palestinian Appeal, a non-profit organization which has spearheaded the distribution of Shaqa'iq throughout 1,500 schools in Palestine this fall. The Shaqa'iq Advisory Board's advice has been enormously helpful since they understand the culture of the region. Organizations which they represent include: Jordanian Parliament members, the Jordanian Ministry of Education; UNFPA; Microsoft, Middle East and Africa; the World Bank in Beirut; King Features Syndicate; plus a number of other government officials that have responded very favorably to this project.
FP: What has been the reaction from Arab women so far?
Sharon: The reaction has been very favorable. Kidz Online has conducted several focus groups with young Arab students and teachers in both the Middle East and the U.S. to judge the validity and appropriateness of the Shaqa’iq video series. These focus groups gave us valuable feedback and helped us shape the direction of the project.
Both male and female students were very interested in hearing the stories of women who came from a variety of backgrounds and overcame obstacles, such as family member objections to school or career, lack of money for continued education, or lack of available jobs. Some of the women profiled are entrepreneurs who discuss how they started their own companies, others discuss what it’s like being a women working in what would normally be called a man’s position, and there are interviews with several women working in different capacities at NGOs whose main focus is helping young girls and women get an education and start a career.
Immediately following the videos, our focus group students began to express their hopes and fears for their futures with the rest of the class and the teachers were eager to learn how they could share the videos with their classes so we’re very excited about the reception the videos have received.
FP: How about publicity and distribution in the region?
Cruver: Shaqa’iq is featured in the current (August/September) issue of British Airways’ Impressions Magazine and Kids Online has also been invited to adapt the Shaqa’iq videos into a documentary for submission to the Dubai International Film Festival this December.
Furthermore, the Palestinian Education Initiative (PEI) is planning to distribute Shaqa’iq throughout 1,500 schools in Palestine this fall as a major component to the Quick-win program which must be implemented by October 2005. The curriculum is targeted at encouraging and supporting higher education levels for the large female population. Statistics provided by the Palestinian National Authority show that drop out rates beyond the 10th grade for females are one and a half times higher than for males. These rates are even more alarming in rural areas.
Along those lines, the Egyptian Ministry of Education is planning a similar pilot program and we are in discussions with the Jordan Education Initiative (JEI) for the optimum implementation plan. We believe that successful pilot projects in Palestine, Egypt, and Jordan, will be adopted by numerous schools systems throughout the region.
FP: How are you going to get access into Saudi Arabia and other countries? There are certain countries where the thought of females empowering themselves in the way you are trying to help is unthinkable.
Cruver: For our first profiles we focused on the women of Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt and have not specifically tried to get access to Saudi Arabia. But what we have found is that even in countries where you would think that there would be opposition to our program we have been contacted by individuals that have suggested women that they would like us to interview who have very interesting stories of success that still fit within the current values of their country. If possible, we would like to do profiles in all the countries in the region.
FP: Does Kidz Online have any other projects in the Middle East?
Sharon: Kidz Online is also a subcontractor to CHF International on a contract from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs to combat exploitive child labor via education in the MENA Region. Among other tasks, we will be developing digital educational content as an intervention measure for teaching 21st century communication skills to children engaged in or at-risk of entering exploitive child labor
FP: Tell us about the demographics of the Arab world – a region steeped in ancient culture and populated with a young demographic.
Sharon: Global leaders are beginning to recognize that they must offer opportunity to Arab youth if they are to combat terrorism, bring about social reforms, and grow their economies. Fostering opportunity for youth is one of the major challenges facing this region and our world today. In some Arab countries, more than half the population is under the age of 15. Projections indicate that in the next 22 years, the entire Arab population of about 300 million will double. First time job seekers will require nearly 100 million new jobs over the next two decades according to the World Bank. This is more than the number of jobs created in the region during the past fifty years. If afforded economic and employment opportunities, Arab youth can become key agents for social change, economic development and technological innovation. Without opportunities, these young students could become militant and embrace destructive alternatives.
FP: It is evident that any society that holds women down will always remain a medieval society that cannot enter modernity or have a true democracy. What do you think it is within the Islamic-Arab world that influences so many males to enforce gender apartheid when it so obviously engenders so many pathologies and failures within the society? What do you think are the impulses that drive misogyny and the yearning to disempower women?
Cruver: I think that within the Middle East conditions for women vary greatly, by country and even within certain countries, so I believe that your question is a somewhat of a very broad generalization of the situation, but in short, the solution can be answered with one word: education. Systemic change in education must include 21st century skills for both genders to improve the quality and relevance of an education system that will better prepare Arab youth for higher paying professional jobs.
Leaders in the Middle East are finding that accepting a modern, secular education system is inevitable and a crucial credo for opportunity. They must adopt this creed if they wish to prepare and inspire a demanding new generation of youth to contribute to their economies. Initiatives like Shaqa'iq are not entirely altruistic. Providing training for 21st century skills will produce jobs for Middle East youth, reduce the appeal of radical, anti-western philosophies and will assist in developing markets for American technology products and services.
FP: What changes do you think your efforts would have for the Middle East in the long term? Would it eventually change the nature of the terror war? Tell us how women’s empowerment, equality and self-determination can transform a region like the Middle East.
Cruver: I really feel that the objectives and goals of not just the Shaqa'iq project but the entire MEPI program are significant to starting the process of a fundamental change in the way women are viewed in Middle Eastern society. No question, it will be a very long process, but a process that is worth taking, and one that is truly in our nation's interest. Transformation is underway and women are and will continue to play a very important role in that transformation.
FP: When you say that it is in our nation's interest to empower women in the Middle East what do you mean exactly?
Cruver: Global leaders are beginning to recognize that equal opportunity must be afforded to Arab women - a critical reform that is essential for growing the economies in the Middle East. Fostering opportunity for women is one of the major challenges facing this volatile region which has a direct impact on the security of our world today. However, in many Middle East countries, some to a much greater extent than others, half the population is disenfranchised and afforded limited opportunities to become productive members of their growing economies. As Vice President Cheney has stated, "No society can prosper that denies opportunity and justice to half its citizens". The MEPI program was created to directly address that issue and our project has, we feel, been very successfully in starting this critical discussion.
FP: Ms. Curver, this is an exciting and extremely important undertaking. We wish you the best of luck with Shaqa’iq
Sharon: Thank you for the opportunity and we are truly excited about the future potential for Shaqa’iq to make a difference for the empowerment of women in the Arab World.