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Rena Pederson: Amid Chaos in Cairo, women found reason for hope

Article by Rachel Tatro February 1, 2013 //   5 minute read

This post originally appeared on The Dallas Morning News CAIRO — Some might say it wasn’t the best time for an American goodwill mission to Cairo. Our delegation of women business leaders arrived in Egypt this week as part of the Bush Center’s Women’s Initiative. We had been mentoring businesswomen from Egypt for more than six months, coaching them on networking and leadership skills. The idea is that empowering women helps strengthen civil society in developing countries as women tend to support improvements in education, health and family services. The Egyptian mentees had visited Washington, D.C., New York, Dallas and Silicon Valley in the spring. Now it was time for us to visit them. It was clear from our first day in Cairo that Egypt is a society in transition. There is now a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut across the street from the Sphinx and a Chili’s restaurant on the Nile. There are also more women wearing full-length black abayas in recent months as the Muslim Brotherhood has gained power. An embassy security adviser warned that security has been volatile since the Tahrir Square revolution, and women in particular have been targets of assaults. We were cautioned to dress modestly, not go out alone, walk on sidewalks with our purses on the inside to deter drive-by purse snatchings, and to be on guard for sexual harassment at all times. We had just started our meetings Tuesday when angry mobs began attacking the U.S. Embassy not far from our hotel. Reports began filtering in about a similar attack in Libya. The security concerns did not faze any in our group, which included a marathon runner who had started a business to provide healthy food for schools, a filmmaker who had just returned from making a documentary on trafficking in Cambodia, a former National Geographic photographer, and a woman who had once volunteered at a Mother Teresa orphanage. Dallas representatives included SMU Associate Provost Linda Eads and veteran lawyer Harriet Miers. The Egyptian mentees were equally determined to stick with the program. They included a TV journalist who wants to focus on women’s issues in Egypt, a woman who wants to print books by and about women, a dentist who wants to open a youth camp, a photographer, a woman who is teaching farmers how to use technology to grow different crops to raise their standard of living, and a lawyer interested in conflict resolution. Most were Muslim; some were Christian. About a third of the dozen mentees wore traditional head coverings. Even though the protests at the embassy were continuing, we all got dressed up and went together to a reception at the home of the deputy ambassador and continued to get to know each other. The need to uplift women was clear all around us. Women on the TV newscasts were being asked to wear head coverings. One mentee pointed out more than 90 percent of Egyptian women are still subjected to genital cutting. The illiteracy rate for women and girls is more than 50 percent in Egypt. Unemployment for women is five times that of men. Those challenges were not far from our minds as we workshopped on leadership skills such as developing an “elevator speech” to describe your mission. We covered how to speak up for yourself, how to build a board of advisers, and creating a business plan that fulfills your life plan. As the week went on and more protests were scheduled, we had to cancel a group dinner on the Nile and hunker down at the hotel. While guard dogs sniffed for bombs at the hotel entrance, our mentees stood up in our meeting room and tested their mission statements: “My purpose is to provide a better life for the children of Egypt.” “I believe that every one of us can make a difference in the society through our talents.” Though more violence was expected the next day, no one questioned whether it was a bad time for a people-to-people mission. It was, we all agreed, the perfect time.

Rena Pederson, former Dallas Morning News editorial page editor, is communications director of the National Math and Science Initiative.