Hillary Clinton urges strong role for women in Arab world

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Arab leaders to move “faster and further” in reform in a speech Tuesday at the U.S.-Islam World Forum Tuesday, rousing audience members as she pushed leaders to give citizens a bigger role in regime change in the Middle East and North Africa.

“The balance of power is no longer measured by counting tanks and missiles alone,” Clinton said. “Now strategists must factor in the growing influence of citizens themselves – connected, organized and frustrated.”

Specifically, Clinton called for an end to the marginalization of women and minorities, quoting the 2005 Arab Human Development Report that said women’s empowerment would be a key factor in determining the fate of the Arab world. She also noted women have been left out of “key transitional decision-making processes.”

“You cannot have a claim to democracy if half the population is left out,” she said. “All over the world we see living proof that Islam and women’s rights are compatible.”

Salam Al-Maryati, president of Muslim Public Affairs Council, an American Muslim advocacy group, said Clinton’s comments as a key American leader were refreshing.

“It’s the first time that an American official has really addressed each and every issue in the Middle East now,” he said. “It’s time to look forward with hope and not backward with anger. I loved that comment the most.”

Despite a positive response, Clinton elicited an outburst from one audience member, human rights activist Maryam Al-Khawaja,  who erupted at the conclusion of the secretary’s speech.

Al-Khawaja called out Clinton as she descended into the audience to greet guests.

“I told her the U.S. needed to start taking a stronger stand on the situation in Bahrain. After all, all [Gulf Corporation Council] countries are considered to be very close U.S. allies, and [the Bahraini government is] using U.S. arms to attack peaceful, unarmed citizens,” Al-Khawaja said. “My recommendation is that there needs to be a ban on arms in GCC countries. The U.S. has a responsibility to put a ban on arms.”

Al-Khawaja, who spoke earlier in the day on panel regarding the role of youth in Arab upheaval, told Clinton three nights ago her father was beaten and arrested along with her two brothers-in-law in Bahrain. An uncle also has vanished.

The activist, who is also the head of the foreign relations office at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, said Clinton’s speech was inspiring, “but at the end of the day, if you talk the talk and don’t walk the walk then it’s a problem.

“The U.S. is being selective on what countries they want to support and which youth they want to support and I think that’s very problematic,” she said. “I appreciate everything she said, but we want to see actions based on that talk.”

Al Maryati said the U.S. should take a uniform approach to the entire region rather than dealing with each country individually.

“Each country has its unique circumstances, of course, but from a human rights, democracy and revolution standpoint – either it’s a revolution or it’s not,” he said. “You can’t call for reform in one area and call for the dislodging of a regime in the other.”

Clinton touched on Bahrain briefly, denouncing violence and noting that the U.S. has expressed concern to its leaders over their handling of protest.

“We know that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t make sense in such a diverse region at such a fluid time,” Clinton said.

She also stressed efforts to stabilize Egypt and Tunisia through U.S. partnership in economic development. The U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation, she said, will give up to $2 billion to support private sector investments throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Clinton also mentioned Partners for a New Beginning, an organization led by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute that focuses on building economic integration across the Middle East and with the U.S.

“These people-to-people contacts have helped lay the groundwork for cross-border initiatives to create jobs, train youth and support start-ups,” she said.

Clinton was scheduled to leave Wednesday for Berlin to meet with NATO foreign ministers and attend a memorial service for the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, according to the State Department. Over the weekend she will visit Seoul to meet with President Lee Myung-bak and Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, then fly to Tokyo to meet with Japanese officials.