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Women in Business conference looks at economic development issues

Reforms, education, transparency emphasized in first international event of its kind held in Damascus

Syrian first lady Asma Assad opened the country's first international women's business conference with a message on the importance of reforms, education and transparency for building a stronger economic market for Syria and opportunities for women.

"We need to see more far-reaching political and institutional reforms," Assad told a crowd of more than 1,000 at the Omayyad Conference Palace just outside Damascus.

"Only this will attract the foreign investment necessary for our economy to flourish. Transparency is another key requirement. Only corruption flourishes in the dark. That is why our institutions are becoming more accountable, and ensuring that their procedures are clear and open."

Assad also said Syria is working to establish a modern and national educational curriculum in order to create "opportunity to enter the wealth-creating sectors and to reach the top," and to reduce the gender gap.

The two-day conference, organized by Women in Business International with the cooperation of the British-Syrian Society and Modernizing and Activating Women's Role in Economic Development (MAWRED) - a Syrian non-profit women's organization, brought over 1,000 delegates from across the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the United States to participate in panels and networking events aimed at empowering women in business and the workplace. Women in Business International, a nonprofit organization that has encouraged networking between businesswomen from the United Kingdom and the Middle East, has held its annual forum in London for the last seven years. This is the first year that it is being held outside of the U.K.

The forum aims to build networks and partnerships between Arab businesswomen in the U.K. and the Arab world, develop skills and promote investment in Syria and other Arab countries.

Egyptian first lady Suzanne Mubarak; Emine Erdogan, the wife of the prime minister of Turkey; and former Pakistani Prime Minister Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto also gave speeches at the opening ceremony on Saturday morning.

Bhutto's address delighted the crowd, which erupted into applause numerous times.

"Women have a long way to go, especially Muslim women," said Bhutto, pointing to problems of domestic violence, female genital mutilation and sexual assault.

While outlining the challenges facing women in Muslim societies, Bhutto also talked of the influence of her father in her education and her personal journey to become prime minister.

"My message to delegates, to career women, to business women is don't take no for an answer," said Bhutto. "This conference in Damascus on women in business this morning gives me great confidence. The number of women in business, in politics is increasing. I have great hope for the future."

In a session titled Muslim women in business, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad said that while women in Malaysia have played significant roles in the work force and in the political field, the challenge of women in Muslim countries remains in keeping tradition and modesty. Mohamad warned against the immodesty that has accompanied the rights gained by Western women, pointing to the example of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq where a female American soldier held one of the prisoners on a leash.

"Giving a more active role to women also carries this risk," said Mohamad.

"We want our women to be women - to be feminine. We still want them to marry and raise families."

Other sessions during the conference included starting a business, banking and financial planning, marketing and branding, and international business perspectives.

Technical problems with translation equipment that left many unable to listen to the Erdogan's speech did not seem to bother many of the delegates who were present.

"It's an opportunity to meet other businesswomen not only from the Arab world, but from European countries and to make use of their expertise," said Maysa Harwil, who owns an antique shop in Damascus.

Shaza Sueid, a professor of architecture at the University of Damascus, thought that Syrian women would benefit from the conference having been hosted in Damascus.

"Today's conference was a personal gain for every woman who was present," said Sueid. "It is a picture for the world that Syrian women have a role to play here."

Beirut,05 23 2005
Rhonda Roumani
The Daily Star
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