By Jennifer Rubin
The Washington Post
Most U.S. media coverage of the Middle East paints a bleak picture of women's status. "Honor killings," child marriages and, more generally, the exclusion of women from economic and political life are, of course, reasons for pessimism. However, it's not all gloomy.
I spoke Wednesday with Nezha Hayat, one of Morocco's leading businesswomen, who in 1996 became the first female board member of Societe Generale Morocco. During the mid-1990s, she reformed the Casablanca Stock Exchange, of which she has been an administrator for 13 years. She recently founded Morocco's Club of Women Corporate Directors to increase the number of women on boards of directors and is in the United States promoting this cause.
"I happen to be the first woman (in many such posts) because I never thought I had less capacities than men," Hayat told me. Her career also benefited, she said, from working in "emerging" fields such as "new capital markets." Had she worked in established sectors where men dominate, she said, "it would have taken more time."
If Hayat had one message, it was that economic development and women's rights are linked: "Morocco has chosen (a path of) economic development. It can't be done without women." Conversely, economic growth is essential for women to advance. "I have a conviction," she said: The Moroccan woman will be "free when she is financially independent. It means access to education, access to jobs and access to finance."
Many economists would agree with Hayat's analysis that economic growth is key. Morocco has maintained about 5 percent growth in gross domestic product for about 10 years despite economic convulsions in Europe and political upheaval in the Middle East. Hayat noted that Morocco would need to create 1 million to 2 million jobs by 2020 to absorb the young men and women heading into its workforce.
This will require education to prepare young people for a 21st-century economy. Morocco has committed to adapting education, Hayat said, with the goal to prepare graduates to find jobs "and to be more open with more languages taught."
Morocco has taken a very different path than Muslim countries now convulsed with violence. In 2004, well before the "Arab Spring," King Mohammed VI championed a revised family code that provides legal rights to women. "It helped a lot," Hayat said. "But before that there have been women activists in civil society."
Outside Morocco, political stability is not in large supply in Northern Africa and the Middle East. Hayat's example suggests that progress can be made outside the governmental sphere in civil society and in business.