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August 30th, 2005
Pickles, Inc.
Interview with Azza Karam

Azza Karam, Senior Policy Research Advisor for the United Nations Development Program and Coordinator for the U.N. Arab Human Development Report

August 23, 2005: Azza Karam, Senior Policy Research Advisor of the United Nations Development Program and Coordinator for the U.N. Arab Human Development Report, discusses global development and the Arab world with Anchor, Bill Moyers.

BILL MOYERS: With me now is Azza Karam. She was born in Egypt, received her doctorate from the University of Amsterdam and has spent many years working in the Middle East and Europe. She lives now in New York where she is senior advisor to the United Nations Development Program. Welcome to Wide Angle. What surprised you watching that film?

AZZA KARAM: I think the determination that the women had to somehow get over a great deal of pain, whether it was a pain of loss, or the social circumstances that they seem to live in. But, also, I wouldn’t say that surprised me, but what I liked was the sense of humor they seemed to maintain consistently.

BILL MOYERS: Did you find, did you notice that some of the women were uncomfortable with, with one of them being in charge, being the boss?

AZZA KARAM: Absolutely, I did. That was very clear at the very beginning of the film I think. It was also very typical, I think, of women when they get together– there’s not always a sense of comfort with one of them getting in charge. And it’s not just those women. I think it’s a pretty universal phenomenon, interestingly enough.

BILL MOYERS: Their determination was inspiring actually.


BILL MOYERS: And, yet, they wound up in worse financial shape than when they had begun.

BILL MOYERS: How do you account for this? What do you think went wrong?

AZZA KARAM: Well, I don’t think it had anything to do with their determination. I think it had a great deal probably to do with the economic and social and probably to some extent political context that they were living in. It seemed to me that there are a number of factors to take into place. Getting other investors to be interested enough to invest in a venture like this, which is run by a small group of relatively unknown women. Yes, the company may have received certain positive PR. But, at the same time, it’s not like buying a very well established economic enterprise or company. It’s still like investing in a group of women. And I don’t think that would have been something that your average investor would have wanted to take as a risk. So, I think that must have featured as one of the reasons why it was very difficult to raise the kind of funds that they would have needed in order to maintain that economic investment. I’m sure there were other factors related to how well they were able to publicize their product. How far they could get because a number of references were made throughout the film to trying to get into the Israeli market a little bit more in depth. Extend their networks and contacts there, which is clearly something they probably didn’t do as well as they would have wanted or needed to for financial reasons.

BILL MOYERS: Marketing seems a sort of new endeavor to them. A whole new idea.

AZZA KARAM: It’s like the lady said–once she got into it, she found it was such a new and exciting world that she couldn’t get out of it in a sense. And she enjoyed it so much. So, yes.

BILL MOYERS: You’ve traveled and worked so much in that part of the world. Is what you saw with these women atypical or typical of what’s happening to other women elsewhere? I know generalizations are generally wrong. But is there something unique about this situation? Or is there something endemic in this situation?

AZZA KARAM: I think I wouldn’t say there’s something unique. I think that women who have–women and men– but, in this case, women who have confronted a number of difficulties in their lives, the tougher the circumstances they go through, the more the determination to somehow make it in some other domain of their existence. And I think, to me, there has been a great deal of these kinds of initiatives around the world. You find them particularly in rural areas. But especially amongst poor communities where women find that it’s very difficult for them to make ends meet, they become creative about how they can do this. And when they get together, there are many, many ventures in the Arab world where on a very small scale, a group of women will come together and see how they can each save and every month, for example, one gets the sum total of everybody’s saving. And the next month, it’s the other one’s turn.

BILL MOYERS: Sort of like a swap.

AZZA KARAM: Exactly. And many, many different creative ways of being able to make the money go around so that they can somehow keep afloat, so to speak. And sometimes not just keep afloat, but have a relatively OK standard of living for the children to make sure that they can get through school, get through university, whatever it is. So, it’s not atypical. But it’s still nevertheless very heartening to be able to see and observe and see how it develops.

BILL MOYERS: How do you read the impact of being widows? Eight widows. It’s almost like a movie made in Hollywood.

AZZA KARAM: Right, right. No, there was a lot of salt and pepper so to speak, spice, in the movie–the fact that they were widows in the Arab world in general. But, I think also in many Mediterranean cultures widowhood is usually traditionally seen as a difficult stage to be in. Not only because of the financial implications that women might find themselves in. But also because a widow is potentially attractive to married men. So, interestingly enough, it’s usually women–married women who tend to be the least friendly towards widows–because they see in many incidences, of course we’re generalizing again, but in many incidences widowed women are seen as a threat to the social fabric.

BILL MOYERS: Generalizing from human nature, not just Arab culture. Right?

AZZA KARAM: Absolutely.

AZZA KARAM: Absolutely. So, I think that this was an interesting point in commonality that they all would have shared. That the fact that they’re widows. They face similar social restrictions or perceptions and cultural norms. I think that might have been a reason why they also managed to find such a common ground that gave them each the strength to take on such an endeavor.

BILL MOYERS: So their obstacle also became their bond?

AZZA KARAM: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: And they’re all widows.

AZZA KARAM: That’s exactly true, I would say.

BILL MOYERS: Is it unusual for widows to try to go into business in the Arab world?

AZZA KARAM: No. I don’t think it’s unusual. I think what makes this particularly nuanced as a film is that it is perhaps unusual to see a group of widows all coming together at the same time for the same purpose. I mean, you hear of different economic endeavors that women will go through. And, in fact, a good chunk of the wealth in the Arab world actually happens to be in Arab women’s hands. But that’s not something that we would all hear of or know of or that would be made public. But what is unusual about this movie is that somehow they all turned out to be widows and they decided to do this venture all as widows. If they had been different women from different walks of life, it would have made it a bit of it more normal if you will. But I think the nuance of all of them being widows makes it particularly interesting.

BILL MOYERS: I’m taken with what you’re saying that the film was nuanced. And, yet, as I watched it and as I hear you talk, it is so rare for us in this culture to think of that culture as being nuanced. Particularly since 9/11.


BILL MOYERS: It’s been black and white. Good and evil. Right and wrong.

AZZA KARAM: Unfortunately. It’s a very good point. I think one of the things that has been particularly frustrating is observing the way that my part of the world has been portrayed. And not just about women. But generally. It has precisely been that dimension that there’s either good people and they usually think like us, and bad people and they usually would be like them. And I think that particular lack of, again, nuance tends to obscure so much of the reality, which is like any other reality, full of different things. It’s very diverse. It’s very dynamic. It’s in no way stagnant as it seems to be portrayed. I think there is a huge misperception in the Western world in general that Arab women and Muslim women more broadly tend to be very oppressed and subjugated and oppressed and they need to be liberated and all that sort of talk. But I think that that obscures a very diverse reality.

BILL MOYERS: I was struck in the film by how the conflict in the Middle East, the tensions between the Israelis and the Jews, the Jews and the Arabs, affects these ordinary people at the everyday level of life. What’s your take on how they manage to go on day in and day out?

AZZA KARAM: I think that, again, is another very fine nuance of this particular movie. Because it sort of refers to it, but doesn’t really ever refer to it in words. In the sense that you know that the women are not going to be speaking necessarily–they speak in Arabic to each other. They have to speak sometimes in Hebrew to the interviewer. And yet they’re quite comfortable with the interviewer, with the camera being with them. It’s very, very understated–the extent to which the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians affect everyday men and women’s lives. But especially women’s lives, since their life is difficult anyway as a woman. And then, especially difficult when it’s a situation of conflict. It’s not unusual because you know that in many other conflict societies, whether they’re African or Asian or Latin American, women do tend to have a much more difficult social, political context–


AZZA KARAM: –to live through. But, the Palestinian context tends to be particularly underappreciated I would say.


AZZA KARAM: The focus usually when you talk about Palestine, Israel and the difficulties they’re in, the focus usually tends to be on the politicians, on the big picture. Very rarely does that focus go to the everyday person’s life. And even more rarely will it go to the everyday woman’s life. And if it is going to be made from that angle ever, then it would be usually on how difficult and tough and sort of a very negative–generally, a stereotypical view–of how just everything is very, very tough. And I think the nice thing about this movie is it shows that, well, yes, everything’s very tough and so on. But life goes on and you find ways of living and you’re creative in how you find that. And you make your friendships and build your life. And life goes on in the midst of all that. Definitely colored by what’s happening, but it doesn’t stop your life.

BILL MOYERS: Were you surprised that these eight Muslim women finally agreed to cooperate with two Jewish filmmakers from Tel Aviv? Is that unusual?

AZZA KARAM: I think to some extent, it’s unusual because one does imagine that there isn’t going to be that much room for friction or engagement between the two communities. And this was not just an ordinary engagement. This was letting the Jewish women into their lives and their very private moments and sorrows and so on. And joys. So I think if you take a much more realistic outlook on life and you begin to look at how these communities do and have actually for a long time coexisted, then it gives you a totally different perspective and you realize, yes, it can happen. Of course it can happen. The reality of Palestine-Israel is that the communities of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish have coexisted in that part of the world for an awfully long period of time.

BILL MOYERS: What’s aggravating it now so intensely in your opinion? I mean, we know all the obvious forces–

AZZA KARAM: Well, I think it’s been aggravated by political ambitions and issues. It’s been aggravated by different vested interests. It’s been aggravated by the same old, same old. There’s nothing that I’m going to say that’s going to add–


AZZA KARAM: –to the right reason behind why the situation is so complicated. But I think that that is an old issue. It’s an old young issue in a sense that it started relatively recently in human history. But I think it’s a situation that will go on with us for some time, unfortunately.

BILL MOYERS: So what are the lessons you take away from these eight women trying to make a go of it in that little town in Israel? Are there any lessons that come out of their experience that would inform us about the Arab world?

AZZA KARAM: Yes, as we were saying earlier, it’s important to realize that the Arab world is full of surprises. That Arab women are not universally oppressed, subjugated, depressed, etc. That there’s a tremendous amount of determination, a tremendous amount of creativity. That each one has a strength of her own. And it’s precisely because the difficulties that they may face of whatever nature, they’re not alone in facing them. Many of the difficulties and challenges that these women encounter are also encountered by many other women around the world, and certainly in the Mediterranean area as well. Cultural norms and traditions are not unique to this part of the world. So I think that ability to see how there is laughter in the midst of pain. There is joy in the midst of difficulty. And there is determination to take on risks, and do something new, and be strong. It’s very, very much a feature of that part of the world, too.

BILL MOYERS: What are the difficulties? I accept that, and appreciate it. Why is it hard to be a woman in the Arab world?

AZZA KARAM: To be perfectly honest though I don’t think it’s harder to be a woman in the Arab world than it is to be a woman anywhere in the world. I have lived in so many different parts of the world now. I see a remarkable thread of continuity and commonality between and amongst women from any part of the world. I have a difficulty stomaching the notion that it’s particularly difficult for women in the Arab world. I don’t think so. I think that the Arab world tends to be, by and large, of course with many exceptions, still tribally dominated. And there’s still the notion of how a tribe exists and coexists. And I think, to that extent, I mean wherever those kinds of values predominate in other parts of Africa, Asia, Latin America, wherever you find that things can be just a wee bit tougher for women than they would be for women who have exceeded those kinds of boundaries.

BILL MOYERS: Authority is still a powerful force, isn’t it?

AZZA KARAM: Absolutely, universally so. Universally so.

BILL MOYERS: Or as we see, even as we talk, Iraq struggling with the unfinished business of how to make it possible for women in Iraq to be treated equally under the new constitution. We see the religious conflicts going on there. The secularist leaders are saying this constitution, if it prevails, will put women back.


BILL MOYERS: We see Saudi Arabia, where all the stories–


BILL MOYERS: –are both familiar and common. And one has to conclude that, while women have a hard time of it in any patriarchal society there seems to be something that keeps women from making it as equals in the Arab world.

AZZA KARAM: No. Let me put it differently. I think that the focus on the Arab world now is quite intense. And it has been since September the 11th. Let’s face it, there’s been so much more information, and coverage, and just attention directed to that part of the world. Sometimes almost to the exclusion of other parts of the world. And I hear that from many of my Latin American and sometime African colleagues that, you know, you in the Arab world, you get all the blessed attention. And there are those of us who would say, “Well, we wish we didn’t quite have that much attention on our part of the world.” But the reality is that I think if we look at women, and their situation, much more universally, there would be a great deal in common. Having said that, I think there is an element of truth–a great element of truth in what you’ve said. To the extent to which the Arab world is also the part of the world where a great deal of global politics seems to be happening, or based on, or inspired by, or whatever the word is. It’s like the cauldron of global political dynamics. To that extent there are obviously going to be specific difficulties, nuances, that affect people’s lives in the Arab world. Amongst them women’s lives.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I take some of my perceptions from the UN report that you coordinated–

AZZA KARAM: Global Human Development–

BILL MOYERS: What’s it called?

AZZA KARAM: The Arab Human Development Report.

BILL MOYERS: And one of the reports, signed by several Arab intellectuals said that one reason for the Arab world’s retarded development is discrimination against women.

AZZA KARAM: Absolutely. The Arab Human Development report, the very first one, which was issued in 2002, and has been a flagship of the United Nations Development program work, in addition to the Global Human Development report, by the way, which is also another flagship. It did identify three deficits in the Arab world. Women’s empowerment was one deficit. Governance and freedom was another deficit. And the third deficit was knowledge. It did not prioritize one deficit over another. It did not identify those three deficits to the exclusion of other things that are also highly problematic, like poverty in the region. But it did say that those are the three most critical dynamics that are, if you will, affecting the process of human development. So in a way, it put women’s empowerment on a par with governance and freedom issues. And with knowledge in the region. And in so far as it did that, it did us all a huge favor. Because now we can begin to talk about women’s empowerment, not as though it was this “please pay a special attention, do us a favor by focusing on us” kind of way. But more by looking at it as equal in importance and a requirement of attention as the other political dynamics in the region.

BILL MOYERS: I don’t mean to put you on the spot, or require you to defend Arab culture. Now I’m quite aware of the inequality in this country that still exists, particularly in the political religion we now call conservative Christianity. A patriarchy is a still a desired state of affairs. I don’t want to put you on the spot, or make you defend the culture that we know has nuances in it. But what would you have us understand about women in Arab societies today?

AZZA KARAM: That they are just as powerful, diverse, tough and soft as any other women anywhere in the world, quite frankly. It would be a dream come true if there was a reality or realization that Arab women certainly have specific difficulties that they face. But these are not in any way decapitating, debilitating and handicapping. These are just difficulties that have to be faced, and they face them. And they do remarkably well when they face them, too.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that, throughout the Arab world, there seem to be fewer women in parliament, fewer women in cabinets, fewer women in the workforce? How do you explain that?

AZZA KARAM: Because of the context that I was referring to earlier of tribal norms. And patriarchy can still thrive particularly well in tribal cultures. The Arab world, again speaking very generally, and noting different exceptions, it does tend to be a tribal culture.

BILL MOYERS: Would you say it is more from that tribal custom when men were the dominant force in the tribe than from the teachings of Islam?

AZZA KARAM: Absolutely. Because if you look at the Arab world, it’s such a hodgepodge of different religions. You have Christian women who are facing exactly the same difficulty as Muslim women. Previous to the creation of the state of Israel, when you had more significant Jewish populations in that part of the world, they were facing the same issues, as Jewish women, that their Christian and Muslim counterparts were facing. So I would be very categorical in saying that the religion, per se, is not the issue or the problem. And it’s certainly, to me, very clear that it is the way that their religion has been used and adapted by certain already long existing patriarchal elements and tribal elements. That is where our problem is in the Arab world.

BILL MOYERS: In my own tradition, in the Christian tradition, the origins of the church assign women to a secondary position because the patriarchy was the desired form by the people who were writing the rules. I mean are you saying that’s what the situation is in the Arab world, too?

AZZA KARAM: Yes, I’m saying that that’s where the situation is. And most parts of the world, definitely in the Arab world, wherever the interpretation of religion–it’s put into action usually by men. Wherever that has happened, the faith has been twisted in the process.

BILL MOYERS: Who told you who you are?

AZZA KARAM: Who told me who I am? My family. My mother, primarily. Very much my mother, actually. And my father, obviously.

BILL MOYERS: And your father, too? How–why? What did they do? They told you could do whatever you wanted to do. How did that happen?

AZZA KARAM: Well, they didn’t quite say you could do whatever you wanted to do. But I think what they did is they gave me the tools to discover who I was.


AZZA KARAM: Confidence. The capacity to question everything, which used to drive them nuts as well. But also the ability to realize that faith is a very important ingredient in my life. They helped me discover that just by being people of faith themselves.


AZZA KARAM: Absolutely. Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: They would read the Koran to you?

AZZA KARAM: They read the Koran to me. They made sure that I learned it.

BILL MOYERS: You didn’t read any those verses about the secondary status of women?

AZZA KARAM: I did. And I learned the verses in the context within which they came. I learned the story of Islam. Not just the words of the Koran. And that makes a difference.

BILL MOYERS: And the story told you about women?

AZZA KARAM: The story told me about men and women, it told me about the culture and the tribe within which the first words of the Koran were first uttered. Told me about the story of the life of the Prophet, his own life. Told me about the story of the wives of the Prophet. Told me about people like Jesus and Moses and plenty of other prophets that came long before the Prophet of Islam. It told me about a whole world that existed prior to what I understand today to be the Koran. The Koran itself, the story of the Prophet who had the message. And the story of the communities that followed him.

BILL MOYERS: And what did you come to see about women in that long epic story?

AZZA KARAM: That there’s plenty more strength than we are ever able to realize. But also that there hasn’t been a single prophet of God, male prophet, who’s been able to make it quite without the support of at least one woman.

BILL MOYERS: But where is there a female prophet?

AZZA KARAM: Well, you don’t need one.


AZZA KARAM: Because they’re all over, all over the place. You need the man to be a prophet. But a woman, she’s always there.

BILL MOYERS: What did your parents think about your going into the workforce, going out into the world?

AZZA KARAM: I think the original feeling was something that was very pervasive at a certain moment in time when I was growing up which is if you don’t need to work, why must you work? Which with a significant amount of cajoling, and argument, eventually…

BILL MOYERS: They think you didn’t need to work?

AZZA KARAM: Absolutely. It was why do you need to work? You’re fine. You’re well fed, you’re well schooled, you’re well educated. Everything’s there. Why do you need to work?

BILL MOYERS: And what did you say?

AZZA KARAM: Because I would enjoy the challenge of being part of a larger structure, rather than just being at home, and with my friends, or at school, or at university. Like just beyond, the rest of the world. Public space was the rest of the world. So I very much wanted to be part of that.

BILL MOYERS: Did they support your getting your Ph.D.?

AZZA KARAM: Very much so. After a while.

BILL MOYERS: After a while?

AZZA KARAM: After a while.

AZZA KARAM: It wasn’t the initial, “Sure, go for it.” It was more like, “Hmm, you’re going to be living alone. Hmm, how long is that state going to last? Hmm, OK.”

BILL MOYERS: And would they have preferred you to do it at the University of Cairo?

AZZA KARAM: Absolutely, of course they would. And at least I would have been a few minutes from home everyday. I think the fact that I would be living in another city, in another country was a little bit disconcerting. It took a bit of getting used to I would say.

BILL MOYERS: Did they want to select your husband for you?

AZZA KARAM: No. They wanted to. They would have wanted to out of, and I understand that, many, many years later, out of a sense of wanting to make sure that I was going to be OK. Not so much because it was a controlling mechanism, or because they felt it was something they had to do. But just to make sure that I made the right choice, so to speak, so that I would be safe.

BILL MOYERS: I have to tell you, I sense your honor of your mother and father. You respect your parents. You’re holding something back. How did you establish your own independence? What was it?

AZZA KARAM: Insistence. Just determination. What my father sometimes used to call stubbornness, but I insist was determination. Just using exactly the same arguments that they used with me. Using exactly the same lessons they taught me. I didn’t get anything from the outside world.

BILL MOYERS: But did they ever tell you that you’re doing something that Allah did not want you to do?


BILL MOYERS: Women should not do. That you should honor your place in society?

AZZA KARAM: Sure. Surely they told me that I had to honor my place in society. But it wasn’t said as a restricting thing. It was more like, “OK, well, if you’re going to go and do Ph.D., make sure that you do a good job of whatever it is you do.” I think my mother’s only advocacy was, “For the love of heaven, do not say anything negative ever about your religion. Because that’s the one thing that will always sustain you.” And she’s absolutely right.

BILL MOYERS: It still sustains you?

AZZA KARAM: Absolutely–yes, it does. Completely.

BILL MOYERS: What happened when you went to Europe? How did Europeans react to this independent Egyptian woman?

AZZA KARAM: Well, there were different kinds of reactions I would say. But one predominant reaction was something along the lines of, “But surely you’re an exception to the norm.” Which is what used to goad me endlessly, because I knew very well that I was not an exception. I was only one of many. But that was one of their reactions–that they’re not all like you.

BILL MOYERS: It’s still a shock, you know, for Americans to see, in the film, the simple images of the woman Fatma, the marketing–

AZZA KARAM: Yes, yes, the marketing director–

BILL MOYERS: –guru. I mean driving a car in a veil and long skirts, that’s still strange to me.

AZZA KARAM: Yes. It’s interesting, because, right now, a good amount, if not the majority, of women drive–of which there are plenty by the way–in many parts of the Arab world. But a good amount of them are veiled women. And some of them are totally veiled–when I say veiled, I mean like Fatma in the movie. They show their face, and their hands, and they wear different things. But there’s the other kind of veil that only shows that part of your face, you know, the eyes. But even they will–I’ve seen several in a number of Arab cities, in Kuwait and the Emirates, all you can see from the outside is the eyes. And they drive, and they drive pretty OK too.

BILL MOYERS: What happens when you go home? Do you put the veil on?


BILL MOYERS: You don’t?


BILL MOYERS: You’re truly Westernized when you go back.

AZZA KARAM: It’s got nothing to do with being Westernized, it’s got a great deal to do with the fact that there are many women in my part of the world who are simply not veiled. My mother was not veiled.

BILL MOYERS: She wasn’t?


BILL MOYERS: Devout? She was devout?

AZZA KARAM: Absolutely. Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: So do you identify in any way with those eight widows?

AZZA KARAM: Oh, in many ways. Many, many ways.


AZZA KARAM: Let me just first say that I identified enough to have tears in my eyes on a number of occasions. Because I was not only seeing myself, I saw myself and my cousins and my family members and my friends. Again, I keep coming back to this, because it means a great deal. But it’s that sense of determination. It’s that sense of life that throws a lot of very difficult things your way, but you go on with it. And I was moved by the lady who was so upset about not being able to see her daughter, because–


AZZA KARAM: –her husband, the daughter’s husband and his family had kept her away. And I appreciated very much that she took a few days off, so to speak, but she managed to come back. And she was revived by seeing her daughter. It didn’t impede her, all these difficulties did not impede her from going on with her life. And I think that those are the kinds of things that I would be very heartened to see. But also that fuel my own sense of determination. I identified with them because they managed to break a couple of taboos, which I think is always a fine thing to do every now and then. They did break a few taboos. They were widows. They really should not, according to their culture, not be seen too much, or in the public view. And yet somehow they were. They did go out. They did work. They did tackle a number of different things that they perhaps wouldn’t have been expected to.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think that the dynamic among them, and in their story, is more from religion, culture or economics?

AZZA KARAM: I think it’s very difficult to make the distinctions too clearly. I think there’s definitely an element of religion, or its interpretation. Or interpretations of it. There is definitely culture. In our part of the world, the religious forms a very important component of the cultural. And certainly the economic. I mean they needed to have a business. They were hopeful that they were going to make a profit, and be able to live better. And at the beginning of the film, they said, “We’d like to be able to go out, and have a life, and take a vacation,” and whatever. And so they needed that. So the economics definitely does play a role in why people decide to do that. And I think I definitely see that the best answer to your question, though, is all three factors are intertwined. And all of them impact on why people behave the way they do.

BILL MOYERS: Now you are a very empowered individual. Did you find anything empowering in that story, and about those women?

AZZA KARAM: Yes, for the same reasons that I identified with them. I found ironically, I think, again, this double-edged sword kind of thing. But you referred to it in the very beginning when you said, “Did you notice that they had difficulty getting that one lady to be their head?”

BILL MOYERS: The foreman, forewoman.

AZZA KARAM: The forewoman, exactly. And now, interestingly enough, I find that these are exactly the kind of difficulties that we confront when we work together as women. But these are also empowering because, at the end of the day, they were–I wouldn’t say man enough–but they were big enough to come around and say, “Well, we actually do need her. She would make a difference if she were to come back.”

BILL MOYERS: And make a stab at starting something.

AZZA KARAM: They did.

BILL MOYERS: I’ve often been in the position of the two Jewish women who were shooting the film.


BILL MOYERS: They go back to their life in Tel Aviv, I go back to my life in New York, and the story that we covered, for those people, it goes on. We don’t know what–

AZZA KARAM: –what happened.

BILL MOYERS: What had happened to them? I wonder what they are doing today.

AZZA KARAM: That’s exactly the thought that I had. Well, the film ends on a good note. It shows you that at least one of them decided to keep on the business and try her hand at it again. Which I think is great. They would have gone on with their life. I think if that experience would have taught them anything it clearly brought them closer together as a group of friends. When they were having that social day out–they were saying that the village celebrates every now and then, and people go out and they enjoy. They didn’t stay together necessarily as widows, they stayed together because they were the group of women who had worked together, had developed this friendship, and developed a common purpose in life. And I think that those things they have with them anyway, no matter whether they have the pickle factory or not. What they’ve learned from the experience of the pickle factory, they will keep with them and take with them and move forward.

BILL MOYERS: Try an acrobatic act of empathy. Imagine an American audience, unfamiliar with the world you come from, looking at that film. Is there a danger in an American audience misreading what we saw? Stereotyping the women?

AZZA KARAM: Well, I don’t think it would be an acrobatic act of empathy, but it would certainly be an act of empathy. I think that it would be difficult to stereotype anything in particular. Because, if anything, that movie counters quite a few of the existing stereotypes about women not being able to do things. About women generally being incapable of articulating themselves. I think the movie showed their strength as well as the weaknesses. So it really did go against a number of the stereotypes. And, if anything, I read the movie, not just as an Arab woman, but as a researcher on women’s issues. As a person who’s knowledgeable about issues of political Islam. In all the different parts of my identity I saw that movie. I didn’t only see it for my eyes as an Arab woman. And I would have thought that it actually presented a very, again, nuanced reality of Arab women. It would be difficult for me to understand what could be misunderstood in–

BILL MOYERS: How were they affected by the tensions between the Israelis and the Palestinians today? That lingering and malignant conflict. How do you think their situation was affected?

AZZA KARAM: Well, I think, this is something the movie did not necessarily tackle head on but there were implicit indications, if you will, when you watch the movie. Clearly the way that the economy is structured is such that it is really the survival of the fittest. You have to be well established, have a good amount of money in order to be able to make it in an economic context that is otherwise very tough for your average, not to mention, poor Palestinian person. That was one of the underlying dynamics, very much, throughout the movie. On the other hand, you also noted that you didn’t really see much interaction between these women and Israeli people, citizens. With the exception, I think, of the women who were carrying the camera and doing the movie.

BILL MOYERS: It’s hard to have had an exchange with Jewish women before.

AZZA KARAM: Exactly. And, yet, this is an Arab village in Israel.


AZZA KARAM: A Palestinian village in Israel. So that they mentioned what was not covered indicated what was going on to some extent as well. So I think those are the kinds of things that the movie showed. What the movie would not have shown, and I think it might be difficult for an average person to realize, but clearly these were not poor women who were really, really poor. These were women who were left with something.

BILL MOYERS: They were not destitute.

AZZA KARAM: Absolutely not. But they were also, I would say, from the middle class, if you will, of that society. One of them had a car. They had jewelry. These were not down and out totally kind of women. They weren’t rich, I’m not saying that’s what they were. But they were still of the middle class, lower middle probably, side of society. So we don’t know how those who are genuinely–this film doesn’t need to show it, because it can’t show everything. I mean this was a very specific story. But because, in answer to your question, I would say that there’s a huge dynamic of poverty that exists in and amongst the Palestinian areas, and within the Palestinians themselves. Which is very negatively affected by the Palestinian Israeli conflict. And that’s where politics and economics worsen.

BILL MOYERS: Worse than that, right?

AZZA KARAM: Significantly worse than that.

BILL MOYERS: Great inequality between the typical Palestinian and the typical Israelis?

AZZA KARAM: I would say so, yes. Yes, absolutely. I mean if you look at where Israel falls on the human development index and where the non-existent Palestinian people on the human development index fall, there’s a huge difference there.

BILL MOYERS: Let me come back to the work you’re doing at the UN–this very important Arab report that you put together.


BILL MOYERS: What are you trying to do here?

AZZA KARAM: A number of things at the same time, Bill. I think one of the first things that we’re trying to do is in the spirit of what the United Nations Development Program generally does with its Global Human Development Report, which is provide information, comparative information, analysis, statistics– generate debate. Get people to be informed, governments and individuals, to be informed about what is going on in the state of development around the world. In that spirit, the Arab Human Development Report wants to inform what is going on, comparatively, amongst the Arab countries as far as the state of human development is concerned. Not only does the report try to give those kinds of important statistics, data, information, background, it also tries to analyze and provide by Arabs for Arabs, where they believe they’re at. What they think the challenges are. How they analyze those challenges. What they would propose as the way forward. Not just for themselves as Arab researchers, intellectuals, former policy makers, but really for their governments, for the international community. It’s the Arab voice coming out very authoritatively and saying, “Here’s where we are, and here’s what we need.”

BILL MOYERS: So you got the first report when? That was in–


BILL MOYERS: Oh, so it’s been 3 1/2 years.


BILL MOYERS: Would you say a needle of progress has remained static? Has it pushed slightly back, or has it edged slightly ahead, for women in particular, in the scope of your study?

AZZA KARAM: I would say that there are different criteria. That, if you look at it from the perspective of women’s empowerment when it was identified as one of the three critical deficits by the first Arab Human Development Report, it put the whole women agenda very firmly on the table for key decision makers. People in government, for people outside of government. It gave Arab civil society a tool with which they could mobilize themselves. But with which, suddenly, women’s empowerment became legitimate as an issue. It’s no longer something that you often refer to just to pay lip service to. It became a reality that had to be looked at in the same way that freedom and governance and knowledge had to be looked at. So it gave it, I would say, a certain amount of legitimacy and credibility. It’s not that the women’s empowerment issues did not have those kinds of legitimacy and credibility. But I think we’re talking about a context where governments, generally, would not necessarily have seen women’s empowerment as, you know, on the same level as other critical development concerns.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think they do now?

AZZA KARAM: And I think they do now.

BILL MOYERS: This is a leap, but do you think there’s been an impact on women, particularly in some way, from 9/11 and the conflict with terror around the world? Have Arab women been affected by that in some unique way?

AZZA KARAM: Yes. Negatively, but also positively. Negatively in the sense that, suddenly, Arab women–that old stereotype of the poor oppressed Arab women who have to be helped, who have to be liberated, who have to be looked after–that old stereotype, which we had, I think, collectively, hoped we weren’t going to go back to, reemerged very strongly. I mean I’m doing something that my mother’s generation stopped doing in her time, which is to again talk about how Arab women are, yes, they face difficulties. Yes, life is very tough sometimes. But if they want assistance, they want it on their own terms, thank you very much. And we had stopped saying that many years ago. And now I am saying it, and my generation is saying it. And I think that that is, in a way, going a bit backwards. But, at the same time, remember I said there was a positive impact. Sometimes when you have too much attention on you, it’s not always negative. You can turn that into a positive. And I think there are many realities of Arab women’s lives that it’s a good thing that there’s a focus on them now. Because maybe some of those realities, as long as they’re nuanced, can start to come out. And they deserve to come out and get attention.

BILL MOYERS: Well here are eight Arab widows trying to start a pickle factory. Are more Arab women moving into the workforce throughout the Arab world?

AZZA KARAM: Yes, they have been already, pretty much, in the workforce. I think the lowest percentage of women in the workforce in the Arab world is about 20 percent. So that’s the minimum number of women in the workforce. Which is to say that the general trend is for a significant number of women in the labor force across the Arab world.

BILL MOYERS: Why is that important to the Arab world that women move from their traditional positions into the workforce?

AZZA KARAM: It’s important to the world, in general, simply because you manage to get a labor force that mirrors the population. And that, therefore, brings into the labor and economic dynamic the skill sets of everybody that’s in that population. Men and women. For the Arab world it’s, perhaps, particularly important because we’re talking about a number of economies that are very much, really, the developing world realm. They are developing economies that cannot afford the luxury of not having women work. And that’s just a hard economic reality. At the same time, you do have a need for a varied skilled set in markets that are changing very quickly, that are becoming very much part of a global economic enterprise, if you will. And so, therefore, you really do need to draw on all the skills you have in your national boundary, and in your regional context.

BILL MOYERS: It’s often commented on that Arab economies have been stagnant for a long time, except for oil, and that sort of thing. But they’ve been stagnant. Do you think that growing out of that stagnation requires more and more women taking on economic roles?

AZZA KARAM: I think, yeah, I think it’s a good question, Bill. I think it’s important to keep in mind that, effectively, the Arab economies are very diverse. Like you mentioned, the oil-based economies tend to have a very different way of acting, and impacting on the population than non oil-based economies. But I think, as a whole, I wouldn’t say that the Arab economies are stagnant. I would say that they differ and vary in level. But some of them are moving remarkably quickly and fast ahead. But, yes, in order to improve at a regional level then you certainly do need, as I said, every single skill set you have. You cannot do without using your women as part of your active labor force.

BILL MOYERS: So you need women running pickle factories, among other things.

AZZA KARAM: You need women running, in some instances government institutions, not just pickle factories. But, absolutely, you need them at all levels.

BILL MOYERS: No, I meant that just small businesses are often the catalyst for the growth–

AZZA KARAM: Very much.

BILL MOYERS: –the networking of growth that brings on economic development.

AZZA KARAM: That’s quite true. That is very, very true. And you do need them running the small business enterprises. You need them engaged as an active labor force.

BILL MOYERS: Let’s return briefly. Let’s return to tribalism for a moment. What is it about tribalism in these traditional societies that favors paternalism?

AZZA KARAM: Tribal societies tend to be revolving around not just–a leader plays a very critical role in the tribe. And the way to change that leader tends to be very tough. It’s not a matter of a democratic process, so to speak, as we know them today. It’s much more of a competitive, harsh context that makes one leader move to accommodate another leader. Tribes work on the basis of what you own. And you can’t put the things that you own all on a par. There are different grades and hierarchies of what you own. Cattle might be more important than land. Of course not, but I mean there are different categories, and hierarchies of ownership. Traditionally, tribes tend to operate on the basis that a woman is part of what you own. Unless we’re talking about matrilineal tribes, which we do not have in the Arab world. But, usually, women tend to be seen on a par with the other commodities that you own. This is a traditional perspective, I’m not saying this is what’s happening now.

BILL MOYERS: No, no, no. It’s like slavery in this country, when slaves were owned.

AZZA KARAM: Something along those lines.

BILL MOYERS: You’re saying there is this tradition in these ancient–


BILL MOYERS: –tribes, that women are owned like cattle are owned, or land is owned.

AZZA KARAM: Yes. In tribes. Yes, there’s a leader, there are followers. It’s very hierarchical. A tribe is, per definition, a very hierarchical entity. And, as such, the male easily is the leader. The leader has to be a man in patrilineal tribes. Under him there is a strict hierarchy of things, people and things. And women tend to be part of the things that you owned, that the man owns in the tribe. And that sense of ownership is where you have a very strong patriarchal component, if you will.

BILL MOYERS: And that goes back to the story of Adam and Eve–of Jacob and his brothers–

AZZA KARAM: There you go.

BILL MOYERS: The patriarchs of the church. Right, so–

AZZA KARAM: So it’s not just–

BILL MOYERS: The tribalism reinforces that.

AZZA KARAM: Absolutely. It reinforces that.

BILL MOYERS: So it would be hard for a woman who was seen as a thing, has any kind of voice. Any kind of right. Any kind of claim.

AZZA KARAM: Yes, generally, but remember we’re saying that these are tribally based societies. And the tribalism, and the way of thinking, tends to impact, still, very strongly, on these societies. I’m not saying that Arab societies today are still tribes. That’s not what I’m saying at all. But I am saying that the tribal mode of existence still has an influence and an impact on that part of the world. Very, very strongly.

BILL MOYERS: It takes a long time to overcome that doesn’t it?

AZZA KARAM: Yes, it does. Yes, absolutely. But it’s not impossible to overcome. And, at the same time, if you see where Arab women are today, vis-�-vis where they were, say from 750, or 1,000 years ago, there has clearly been an enormous leap forward. I mean if you think of the fact that one of the stories that we’re always told, and that I like to share with my students whenever I’m teaching, but when the message of the Koran first came–girls, baby girls, as soon as they were born, they were discovered to be girls, they were usually killed. This is the climate of the tribes in that part of the world, at the time when the Koran came. And one of the things that was very clear in the Koran was that this is absolutely forbidden. You do not do that. God does not like that.

BILL MOYERS: Culture was stronger than religion.

AZZA KARAM: Well, that’s true, but hold on a second. What happened, if you look at what happened from there to now, some aspects of culture most certainly stayed very strong. But that doesn’t mean that they’re immovable, or that you can’t change them, or that you can’t improve them over time. Today, if you tell anybody in the Arab world you have to bury your daughter because she’s a daughter, I don’t think you’re going to get a very good listening person on the other end. But that’s a huge shift. That’s a huge mental, emotional, social, cultural shift. And it’s happened.

BILL MOYERS: To prize the life of a female as much as you prize the life of a male.

AZZA KARAM: Absolutely. I mean I’m just thinking about this from–perhaps it’s a very personal perspective. But if I know that my great, great, great, great grandparents used to bury their female offspring, or female daughter as a baby, and today, it definitely doesn’t happen–the way I see it, and the way I feel about it, compared to what used to happen so many thousand of years ago. I think, hey, that’s a huge shift forward, yeah.

BILL MOYERS: The pickle factory failed. But, in the great scheme of things, is it possible that pickle factories, and their equivalents, could become important to the Palestinian people as they try to develop their own state?

AZZA KARAM: Absolutely, in so far as small businesses, small enterprises, small and medium enterprises are an important part of a developing economy. It is incredibly critical for pickle factories, and all other kinds of factories, and those kinds of initiatives that come from creating a factory, and a pickle factory in this case. Those kinds of initiatives, that kind of momentum–absolutely critical for the development overall.

BILL MOYERS: What’s it going to take for them to succeed that the eight widows didn’t have?

AZZA KARAM: Perhaps not a situation of conflict broadly that they happened to live in. Much more egalitarian in terms of trade amongst the Palestinians and Israelis. The same kind of abilities that would have been available to a similar group of women who would have been Israeli perhaps, or Jewish Israeli citizens. A stronger capacity for training than they had received as yet. A stronger line of credit.

BILL MOYERS: Marketing.

AZZA KARAM: Marketing.

BILL MOYERS: But essentially what you’re saying is an end to an old conflict.

AZZA KARAM: An end to the conflict would make an enormous amount of difference, yes. Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: Azza Karam, thank you very much for joining us on “Wide Angle”.

AZZA KARAM: You’re welcome.


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