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Nov. 14, 2013 — Women are gaining more rights and economic freedoms in many Middle Eastern Islamic countries because of their courage, their determination – and a lot of social media.

Isobel Coleman, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, made those remarks at Tidewater Community College’s Roper Performing Arts Center on Tuesday as part of International Education Week. Her appearance was sponsored by TCC’s Office for Intercultural Learning, in partnership with State Farm Insurance.

Coleman, an authority on women’s issues in the Middle East, is the author of “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East.”

“This is not only a human rights issue. It’s also an economic issue. In North America, women have about 80 percent of the opportunities men have,” she said. “In the Middle East and North Africa, it’s 39 percent.”

Malala Yousafzai is the face of Middle Eastern women right now, she said. The Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban for her outspoken support of girls’ education has become a worldwide symbol of women’s determination and power. But, Coleman pointed out, many others are leading the fight.

She ticked through some of the women she has known, including an Afghan woman, Sakena Yacoobi, who returned to her country after attending college in the U.S. and founded a chain of girls’ schools. Other beacons for women are TV soap operas and talk shows that dare to discuss sensitive issues, such as child marriage, polygamy and incest, and Tawakkol Karmanl, a Saudi princess who won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

Isobel Coleman
International Education Week speaker Isobel Coleman

The princess’ million Twitter followers give her a large soapbox on a variety of issues, and it’s social media that is giving women new voice, Coleman said. When Saudi women recently defied the country’s ban on driving, they posted YouTube videos of themselves behind the wheel, in many cases with their husbands or brothers in the passenger seat.

“The government can’t control the narrative anymore,” Coleman said.

The prevalence of mobile phones is another plus for women, she said. “Their mobility was constrained,” she said. “Now they have access to the outside world.”

The underlying trends for women in the Middle East are positive, Coleman said.  “Women’s rights are the most important measure of whether the Arab Spring revolutions will deliver human rights,” she said.

Malala Yousafzai's book I Am Malala
Malala Yousafzai's book I am Malala

Indu Sharma, who teaches Diagnostic Medical Sonography at the Virginia Beach Campus and is a member of the Global and Intercultural Learning Committee, helped bring Coleman to TCC. “It’s important for everyone to hear the things we women in America take for granted,” she said. “I also want to hear her suggestions as to what we women can do to help women in the Middle East.”

The event hit close to home for Ghizlane Moustaid, a TCC student who was born in Morocco. “I’m interested in learning about what other women are doing,” she said. “Middle Eastern women are powerful. They can change the world.” She hopes to study international relations at the University of Virginia.

The Western world can support women’s efforts in the Middle East, but “this is not our fight,” Coleman said, recommending such groups as Malala’s Fund and the Muslim Women’s Fund. “At no point have women in the Middle East been better motivated, better educated and better mobilized,” she said.

And yet, there’s such a long way to go. Malala’s new book, “I am Malala,” is banned from Pakistan’s private schools because, they said, it subverts Islam.