This panel of women writers addressed issues facing the gender at the literature festival. Image Credit:

The World Economic Forum recently stated that the world is 117 years away from bridging the gender gap.

It’s a statistic that the International Women’s Day panel discussed, at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

Palestinian academic and author Ghada Karmi said: “I look forward to a time when International Women’s Day is celebrated by men. The reason I say that is because men still control women’s lives, and it’s no use pretending otherwise... women have come a long way, but it depends on where they live in the world. In many places, their lives are still dominated by a patriarchy.”

One way for women to survive is through education, Karmi says. “It’s not a coincidence that Palestinians are perhaps some of the best educated people in the Arab region. It was a key survival tactic, especially for women.”

For Shaikha Bodour Al Qasimi, Chairperson of the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq), the fact that the UAE encourages the education and empowerment of women is a blessing.

She said: “In our government, we have a lot of women, in the parliament as well. We are quite lucky to be here in the UAE. I think it serves as a role model.”

But while it is important for women to have liberties and opportunities on a societal level, the real fight for equality begins at home.

Shaikha Bodour said: “As a mother of two girls, and a boy, I focus a lot on making my girls strong and independent, so they become empowered women. But then when I look at my son, I think, are we doing enough for our sons? We must raise our sons to be ready for a society full of strong women, who they will treat as equal partners and share their aspirations with. Are we focusing enough on the way we raise our boys?”

Patriarchal societies bring up boys “to feel they are special, so much so that they become little tyrants, much like their fathers”, Karmi added. This has to change, she said.

Chinese-American author Anchee Min shared the cultural implications of chasing equality between men and women.

“If you ask a Chinese person, it’s something nobody talks about... when I was pregnant, my first reaction was that I wanted it to be a son. So I would use all this Chinese medicine, which is guaranteed to make it a male. Of course, when my daughter was born, I couldn’t believe it and had to come to terms with it.”

As women bear children, is it really ever possible for them to be on an equal footing with women?

Shaikha Budour said: “Women need to have the freedom to make choices. When they have a child and want to return to work, their employers need to give them the flexibility to be there for their family and also work at the same time... It’s Marianne Williamson, who said: ‘The greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure.’”