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WLP’s Multi-regional Meeting on Women’s Leadership and Institutional Change

Sat, Sep 22, 2001

Press

The Middle East Women’s Studies Review / By Balaghi, Shiva

On June 7, 2001 Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP) convened a cross-regional, interdisciplinary meeting on women’s leadership at the School for Advanced International Studies of John’s Hopkins University in Washington, DC. The meetings were co-sponsored by the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University (NYU). Participants in the meeting represented diverse professional, cultural, and religious perspectives. Together, they closely examined WLP’s model for re-imagining, fostering and supporting women’s leadership and institutional change in the Global South. WLP’s aim is not only to increase the numbers of women in leadership positions but to rethink the concept of leadership at a fundamental .level. “There are different types of leadership–formal, institutional, inspirational. Our model of leadership is charged with change,” said Farhad Kazemi, Vice-Provost of NYU who facilitated the morning sessions.

A primary focus of the day-long meeting was to discuss WLP’s new handbook entitled Leading to Choices: A Leadership Training Handbook for Women that was produced in partnership with L’Association Democratique des femmes du Maroc (ADFM) in Morocco, BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights in Nigeria, and Women’s Affairs Technical Committee (WATC) in Palestine. The WLP project serves as a useful example for other women’s organizations seeking to bridge global and local activism. Using information technology to its full potential, the collaborating organizations hashed out problems and solutions through emails, letters, and telephone calls; drafts of the manual were faxed and emailed back and forth. The resulting handbook presents cases of positive and constructive leadership from around the world and serves as a vehicle for education, organization, and collaboration. Meant to be used in workshops, the handbook is adaptable to various contexts and is designed to create learning partnerships by encouraging communication, listening, mentoring, and consensus-building. Haleh Vaziri, a contributor to the handbook explained, “The case studies in Leading to Choices ask each participant to look within themselves, to recognize their own talents, to examine their world, discover solutions to the problems around them, and to defy the notion that change is not possible.”

The day culminated in a public conference that was attended by some 200 activists and scholars. Introducing the session, Mahnaz Afkhami (President, Women’s Learning Partnership) explained, “We would like to go beyond the matter of equity in numbers and examine the kinds of leadership structures that have lead to the challenges we face today.” Charlotte Bunch (Executive Director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership) discussed the kind of leadership the group was striving to bring about: “We want women’s leadership to support values that look at human rights, economic justice, and women’s rights.” Bunch argued that increasing women’s roles in global leadership will lead to more cooperative and inclusive power structures that can help solve the critical problems accompanying globalization: “Women give more people a stake in the solution because they give more people a voice in the process.” The issue of women’s leadership within the context of institutional transformation was addressed by Aruna Rao (President of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development). Drawing on his experiences as an activist in South Africa, Kumi Naidoo (President, Civicus) called for the need to think locally and act globally and to begin to mobilize men around issues of gender equity.

Ayesha Imam (Executive Director, BAOBAB) spoke about the results of using the WLP handbook on leadership at a number of workshops in Nigeria. “People were feeling empowered and seeing leadership skills in themselves,” she reported. A young woman activist from Nigeria who attended a workshop said, “I realized that I had visions inside of me that I could achieve, and I was empowered to go ahead and achieve them.” This sense of self-recognition was echoed by others who attended workshops held in Jordan and Morocco. After participating in a leadership workshop, one Jordanian domestic worker concluded, “Who is going to recognize us as leaders if we do not recognize ourselves?” Ultimately, according to Mahnaz Afkhami, “The Leading to Choices workshops help women define and identify the kind of leadership they want to exert, and decide what they need from this leadership.” WLP’s leadership model was designed to be inclusive, adaptable, and flexible; the collaborative system WLP used to engage with and benefit from other global organizations suggests promising approaches for women’s activism in the Global South. As Ayesha Imam pointed out, “We have different voices involved in the learning process.”

Shiva Balaghi is associate director of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University, New York, USA, where she also teaches courses in cultural history and women’s studies.

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more