A “conservative stay-at-home mom” doesn’t sound like the description of a typical terrorist, least of all one who took up arms and helped murder fourteen people at a holiday party. But that is how 29-year-old Tashfeen Malik was described by a family lawyer after she and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, perpetrated the San Bernardino terrorist attack in 2015. According to news reports, the Pakistani-born woman wasn’t coerced or even pressured by her family or faith – instead, the process by which she went from a fairly secular pharmacy student to a jihadi and ISIS supporter was described by law enforcement as “self-radicalization”.
Examples like Malik’s underscore the flaws in our typical – and often gendered – understanding of terrorism. For most Americans, the word “terrorist” conjures images of young, bearded men with big guns and angry faces. At least, that’s what a Google Images search for the term will show. But contrary to popular belief, the evidence suggests that terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda are happy to welcome women into their ranks. In fact, the Daily Beast reports a supposed ISIS strategy to “turn women into cannon fodder” by recruiting them as terrorists alongside men.
Of course, anyone who is well-versed in ISIS’s beliefs and goals understands that women are essential to their project of establishing an Islamist caliphate. Unlike al-Qaeda, which is international and decentralized, the Islamic State is closely tied to the physical territory it controls. As Graeme Wood explains in “What ISIS Really Wants,” the organization has recruited “tens of thousands” of Muslims from all over the world, who have physically moved to Iraq and Syria. Supporters of ISIS see emigration to the Caliphate as an obligation, and the failure to do so if given the opportunity as a mortal sin. And this mandate includes women as much as men. The ultimate goal of ISIS is control of its territory and the people residing within – to function, in other words, as a state, with the aim of restoring what it sees as true sharia law.
In order to survive, then, ISIS needs all the trappings of statehood – it needs food, clothing, healthcare, schools, and mosques for its people, which necessitates doctors and nurses, farmers, merchants, teachers, and mothers. For ISIS, women are not just a tool who might be able to carry out the occasional terrorist attack without arousing suspicion – they are absolutely essential to its very survival.
Meanwhile, ISIS’s ever-ballooning digital footprint can reach women as easily as men. According to Wood, isolated women in conservative Muslim communities often turn to the Internet, where recruiters are ready and willing to entice them to make the journey.
“ISIS has a policy to bring brilliant women from around the world,” UN Special Representative Zainab Hawa Bangura told the US Institute of Peace at a 2015 panel. “They will spend six hours a day online to recruit a woman. They understand how critical it is to have women. They have deployed smart women, and we are still talking.”
Indeed, compared to ISIS’s concerted online efforts to target women and bring them to the caliphate – or inspire them to commit acts of terror – the US seems to be failing in its efforts to counter violent extremism in women. Organizations like the USIP, the Department of State, and American allies around the world seem blindsided by the threat posed by radical women. Rather than seeking to understand and counter these efforts and thus undermine ISIS’s attempt to build a caliphate, the US has taken a dangerously gendered approach to CVE that casts women as benevolent side players, rather than potentially dangerous main actors. The discussion surrounding CVE and women still revolves around men. Women are often discussed as allies who can influence the men in their lives to reject terrorism, but the conversation continues to overlook women’s own potential to be radicalized and become willing pawn’s in ISIS’s plan.
Of course, men are still make up the majority of terrorists, and as always, it’s important to remember that the overwhelming majority of Muslim women – like men – reject ISIS’s message out of hand. But if the US hopes to stay ahead in the fight against ISIS, it’s time we start crafting a CVE message that truly includes women.
What would such an approach look like? The Global Counterterrorism Forum outlines twenty-two “Good Practices” for countering violent extremism in a way that includes women across every dimension of their lives – countering women’s involvement in terrorism but also building their capacity to contribute to the CVE effort, engaging them as influencers within their communities, increasing their participation in public life and uplifting women and girls who are victims of terrorism. Critically, the report emphasizes how gender inequality in many countries can contribute to the sense of marginalization that leads young women to terrorism, and argue for the use of evidence-based approaches to identify and address the factors that lead women to terrorism.
The examples of San Bernardino, Paris, and other terrorist attacks that involve women show that the US can’t afford to wait when it comes to developing effective CVE strategies that target women. ISIS is happy to welcome disaffected women and girls into their ranks, giving them roles in the caliphate and in some cases encouraging them to join in the fight against Western civilization. The US desperately needs an inclusive approach to CVE that appreciates the unique gender dynamics of women in terrorist organizations, recognizes the power women have both to support ISIS and to resist it, and effectively identifies these women and helps them reject ISIS propaganda. Until we do so, our efforts to prevent extremism from furthering its reach in the Middle East will remain mere half-measures.
Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.
On April 12, 2013, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv hosted a day-long conference for Ukrainian women entrepreneurs focusing on business owners of small and medium enterprises. The goal of the event was to promote the importance of Ukrainian women in fostering economic growth, build the confidence of women entrepreneurs to take on leading roles in business and society, provide practical tools for further empowerment, and serve as a platform for networking.
It was less than one year ago when I visited Kyiv as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Today, seeing the unrest, I am reminded of the importance of US-Ukrainian cultural ties. While in Kyiv, I helped launch the construction of the new American Center to build ties between our two nations. Former US Ambassador John Teft and I knocked down a wall as contractors worked to create a convening place to keep Ukrainians and Americans connecting with one another. I also met with bloggers and media, and was the keynote speaker at the Women’s Forum.
I visited school no. 168 in Kyiv where they are providing mainstream education to students with cognitive and physical disabilities. I met with children learning English through a State Department funded program. I was moved to tears at Babyn Yar, the site of a series of massacres carried out by the Nazis during their campaign against the Soviet Union.
As events unfold, let’s focus on the people as well as the politics. There are beautiful cultural sites throughout the country that must be preserved. Artists, journalists, young people, the LGBT community, and women must have their rights and freedoms.
Among the sports of the Winter Olympics, figure skating is unquestionably one of the most watched. Perhaps it’s the unique elegance of the program and skaters that sets it apart from other winter sports, which are often focused on speed and action, not artistry or beauty.
But similar to popular Olympic sports, gold medalists in figure skating are elevated to an unprecedented level in their home country, and no where is this more true than in South Korea. Before Yuna Kim entered the global stage with her gold medal at the 2010 games in Vancouver, figure skating was underrepresented in South Korea and overshadowed by the greater success it has had with speed skating and the short track. Even though Kim did not win gold in Thursday’s free skate program, figure skating will continue rising in popularity as Kim and other figure skaters rake in lucrative endorsements from the likes of Hyundai, Samsung, and Nike.
Kim also brings an overall recognition to her country through active participation in international organizations, such as UNICEF (of which she is a Goodwill Ambassador) and the International Olympic Committee (which she has expressed joining full-time upon retirement). In many ways, she is a walking and talking (and gliding?) public diplomacy campaign for South Korea.
It’s a story Americans can resonate with: Michelle Kwan, the highly decorated American figure skater who elevated the sport in a similar manner to Kim in the late ’90s, is now a senior advisor for public diplomacy and public affairs for the State Department. According to her, traveling all over the world representing the U.S. has put her in the unique – and not entirely unlikely – position of doing the same through government. (It also doesn’t hurt that she received a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in 2011.)
“I work at the Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau, where we focus on a lot of exchanges, building mutual understanding,” she says in this Feb. 7 interview with WAMU 88.5. “We bring businesses, we bring athletes, we bring music. There’s a great exchange between countries, and it’s a great way to connect.”
Can figure skating contribute to a nation’s public diplomacy goals? If it requires worldwide celebrity status, consistent contact with foreigners, and partaking in globally-organized events, then it must. It is why events like the Olympics have been successful for so long – a country’s image can be made or broken through how its athletes compete. In South Korea’s case, Yuna Kim’s ubiquity in everyday life through her vast commercial and global presence serves as a singular force in their global image campaign, despite the controversy surrounding her final Olympics competition. No doubt it was a significant part of the IOC’s decision to give South Korea the role of hosting in 2018. How it plans to channel public diplomacy from now until then will be fascinating to watch.
Public diplomacy fans should read the list of the 10 biggest public diplomacy stories of last year. Thanks to the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy, we can see the global trends and how public diplomats are responding to those trends.
From the Pope to Putin to Pakistan, there are new players and new narratives emerging in this evolving field of public diplomacy. It is inspiring to see Malala on the list of public diplomats for 2013. Her physical and emotional journey from schoolgirl to global advocate has elevated girls education to the forefront of the struggle for equal rights for women and girls the world over. It reminds us that there is so much work to be done to champion the rights of young women to be educated and to participate in the economies and politics of their countries.
Throughout the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, Africa and Europe, the issues of female participation in the social, cultural, political and financial sphere of governance and society is critical to unlocking the potential of individuals to make a difference in civil society building. Public diplomacy can echo those sentiments and strengthen those calls.
Read the top three stories below. For the full list, view the article on the CPD website.
1. Pope’s Global Outreach Spotlights Poverty and Inequality
Since the inauguration of Pope Francis in March 2013, the Vatican has been engaging with publics around the world by acknowledging local equality, economic, and development issues. The resulting shift in public perception of the Catholic Church continues to unfold.
2. Putin Embraces Soft Power, with Mixed Results
Russian President Vladimir Putin had a busy year of public diplomacy efforts, including addressing the American public through a New York Times op-ed and authorizing the release of activists imprisoned on charges of blasphemy. However, his efforts toward enhancing Russia’s soft power in the lead-up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics have been undermined by his public stance against gay rights, which created negative fallout in much of the Western world.
3. Girl Power, Malala’s Quest for Education
16-year-old Malala Yousafzai survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban to become the youngest Nobel Peace Prize nominee in the award’s history. Yousafzai’s message of peace has made her an international symbol of survival and strength for young people, women, and others impressed by her resilience against all odds.
Tara Sonenshine, former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, and currently a Distinguished Fellow at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs will address the United Kingdom’s House of Lords “Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence” via videotape on Monday, December 16 at 5:15 p.m. London time (12:15 p.m. Washington time).
The live testimony will take place at the British Embassy in Washington. The evidence session is public and a verbatim transcript will be posted on the British Parliamentary website shortly after the oral evidence session at this link: http://www.parliament.uk/soft-power-and-uks-influence. The Select Committee was formed May 16, 2013 to examine how soft power reflects national interest.
Ms. Sonenshine will be addressing issues related to the use of “soft power,” “hard power” and “smart power” and how public diplomacy is utilized with respect to international policy. Questions will be posed by the Chairman and other members of the Committee who are all Member of the House of Lords.
Ms. Sonenshine has high level experience in both government and the media, having served in the White House, State Department, and as Executive Vice President at the United States Institute of Peace. In earlier years, she was Editorial Producer of ABC News Nightline and a Contributing Editor at Newsweek. At her current position at George Washington University, she writes on a variety of topics related to public diplomacy and international relations.
The recent decision by Afghan President Karzai to postpone signing a security arrangement on the continued presence of U.S. troops is apt to confuse an already confused Afghan and American public about the future bilateral relationship that will define post-2014. It is hard for any casual observer or media consumer to make sense out of the daily conflicting stories on whether or not American engagement in Afghanistan will be sustained next year. One of the key challenges of public diplomacy is to match rhetoric with actions on the ground and make a convincing argument to citizens.
An issue where the U.S. has stepped up its promises and rhetoric as well as its policy is around standing by Afghan women and girls—a promise we should keep. It is in America’s interest to see women-–a large segment of Afghan society–educated, trained, active and engaged in securing peace in a country in which we have invested a dozen years of money and lives. The women of Afghanistan are the loudest champions of peace and reconciliation in that troubled land.
Good public diplomacy and good policy are reflected in the announcement just a few months ago from the U.S. Agency for International Development a new, five-year $200 million assistance program for Afghan women called “Promote,” a sign of U.S. seriousness of purpose. The announcement, made in a speech by USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah at the U.S. Institute of Peace in July underscored the continued American commitment to success in Afghanistan—success that Shah argued is “fundamentally grounded in a society that creates opportunity for women and girls.” The new USAID program will propel the education, training and promotion of young women in Afghan government, business and civil society, building on successes as measured in the rise of girls enrolled in Afghan schools.
That announcement was echoed recently at Georgetown University by Secretary of State Kerry, standing with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former First Lady Laura Bush—another good example of bipartisan public diplomacy.
In the first few months of 2014, President Obama will have opportunities to clear up any fog about American ambitions for Afghanistan, including with the State of the Union in February—the ultimate public diplomacy opportunity. (Twelve years ago in 2002, George W. Bush used his State of the Union speech to signal America’s commitment to Afghan women and to underscore signs of progress: “The last time we met in this chamber, the mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes, forbidden from working or going to school. Today, women are free and are part of Afghanistan’s new government.”)
Another place to make the case for US-Afghan relations is on social media–a growing platform for public diplomacy around the world. Today, Afghan women and girls are using social media to make their anxiety about the future known. Zahra is a 23-year old Afghan woman, and currently an undergraduate student at the American University of Afghanistan studying business administration. She shared her anxiety on the website WhyDev, which is dedicated to the Voice of Afghanistan’s youth:
“I live in fear more and more as each day passes and it gets closer to 2014.
Everybody is talking about civil war again. Everybody has a plan to leave Afghanistan; they want to have a better life. .. Today, in our office, my colleague said she put her house on the market and wants to go to Australia. “But how?”, I asked. She said –like everybody else that goes… “With an invitation? Do you know somebody there? Will they send you invitation letter?
We are getting crazy thinking about 2014 and civil war. We can’t enjoy our time right now as it passes. We are losing our time as these fears enter our mind…
I fear what will happen. The only image that I have of the Taliban is of men with a huge turbans, big weapons, Afghan clothes and lots of beards and mustaches. They do not like educated women like me. They want to kill those girls who go to universities or schools…. I am confused. What will be Afghanistan’s future?”
Zahra, like many Afghan girls, wants to know that America’s investment in Afghanistan doesn’t end as the troops leave. Education for Afghan girls has improved in Afghanistan from the 1990s when the Taliban pretty much prohibited it. Today, according to the World Bank and USAID, close to a third of Afghan girls attend primary school. Around 120,000 young women have completed secondary school. In total, at least 200,000 Afghan women now have at least a diplomacy from secondary school, some form of a university degree or some equivalent study. But leaves two-thirds of Afghan girls, waiting for a chance.
In the end, time will tell what the Afghan government will do for its own society, what international foundations and funders will provide, and how committed the United States and the international community can afford to remain in the lives of the Afghan people, in particular its women and girls. For now, the challenge is to keep hope alive and prevent backsliding. Promises are important to keep.
Public diplomacy is about communicating—including lessons learned. So here are a few lessons I have learned from serving in high level positions in government:
1. The first is about idealism vs. realism—how to blend them. You come into government very idealistic and you go home very realistic. But the truth is that the first and last lesson I keep learning is about BLENDING BOTH—meaning that you have to blend ideals and aspirations with what is doable.
That’s hard. As an old friend of mine, Max Kampelman once said, there is what we ARE and what we OUGHT TO BE. Both matter. Resources are tight in the world, but the possibilities of what we can and want to do are endless. So the trick is how to balance both.
At as Under Secretary at the State Department, I had to balance the need to THINK BIG and the painful reminder each day that sometimes what we had to work with was SMALL. I had to balance, at times, the creative urge to deliver real value overseas to local citizens, and the restrictions of the State Department, the legal and administrative requirements, and the accountability to Congress.
So the first lesson is: Strive to accommodate creativity and realism and not see them as a trade off. You can do BOTH. But not always simultaneously and not always to the full satisfaction of everyone. But if you are open, accessible, clear, and honest—everyone is better off and better understands that mid point between the sky and the floor and that often we live somewhere in between.
2. The second lesson I learned, not only from State, but from 35 years of working on global issues is that we cannot fix others if we don’t fix ourselves. We can’t tell governments to stay open and then shut our own down. We have to be as open and transparent as we want others to be. We can’t tell other countries, for example, to put women at the top of their governments if we have never done that. We can’t want things for others more than they want them for themselves.
3. The third lesson I learned is that individuals matter; however, the best way to empower individuals is through teams – but TEAM WORK is hard. It is easy to lock yourself into a room and come up with a brilliant idea all on your own; it is harder to execute that idea or test its proposition without others.
Nobody today goes to space alone. We go to the International Space Station even with countries we can’t agree with on Earth. Just as we would not want to be out in the galaxy all alone, we don’t want to save the world all by ourselves. And the world is listening and watching what we do and participating in what we do… so we have to communicate with each other and with those outside our bubble and deal with different fragmented audiences while not losing sight of the big picture.
4. The last lesson I learned is that to LEAD, you also have to FOLLOW, and listen carefully to those journeying with you or behind you. And that how as leaders in an organization we are role models and we need to be as diverse in our skill sets, knowledge and experiences as possible. We have to set good professional and personal standards. In government, I found the near obsession with the crisis of the day, with the flooded inbox, the fires to put out now, and not pay attention to the brief flicker of a coming flame. We get so caught up in the work of the day, that yesterday is so long ago, and tomorrow not even possible to ponder. So I try to be thoughtful about lessons learned from the past, and to be learned in the future.
by Kate Mays
Looking at only the gender makeup of the Ugandan government, one could make the argument that Uganda is doing pretty well with gender equality. Women make up almost 35% of its current parliamentary members, and in 2011 the 9th Parliament elected its first female Speaker. Further, Uganda was ranked 28th in the 2012 World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report for political empowerment (compared to a rather shoddy 55th place showing for the US. Of course, gender parity in government is only one of many metrics to judge how equally genders are treated within society.) And the gender parity in Uganda’s government representation right now exists primarily because of a gender quota, which was included in the 1995 Constitution, and stipulates that each district must elect a female representative (to date, there are 112 total).
I am not going to delve into the pros and cons of Uganda’s gender quota – that discussion would be divergent and has been done effectively elsewhere – but it is an important premise on which to evaluate the Ugandan government’s approach to gender equality. Namely, one that embraces gender mainstreaming principles, which gained a lot of momentum after the 1995 Beijing UN Conference on Gender and Development, and continue to be practiced and implemented by some governments, the United Nations, the World Bank, and other international organizations.
Uganda does not have a sterling history in terms of its treatment of women. In the economically dominant Bugandan culture, it is commonplace for women to kneel down before men as a respectful way of greeting them (men do not return the favor, neither to women nor other men). Patriarchy pervades Ugandan culture – this post from the WomanStats blog has a good description of the gender roles. In James Lull’s definition of culture, he emphasizes the “extreme repetitiveness of everyday behavior” as the foundation for culture: “Cultural redundancy produces and reproduces meanings which form the bases of coordinated social interaction.” While the act of a woman kneeling for a man in greeting might only seem like an odd, outdated cultural tradition, the societal manifestations of the patriarchal custom are more insidious. According to statistics from the Uganda Women’s Network, 60% of Ugandan women experience gender-based violence. While this has been the focus of some more-recent legislation, it will likely take more than a few laws to reverse the culture and improve on the kind of gender inequality highlighted in this figure.
However, even if the situation on the ground, culturally within the society, is still grim, embracing the language and principles of gender mainstreaming signals to the international community that the Ugandan government acknowledges that gender inequality is a problem that needs a solution, and shows that it is at least making strides to address it. (Uganda has a Ministry of Gender, Labour, and Social Development; it also crafted a National Gender Policy in 2007). For all of gender quotas’ potential deficiencies and possible exploitation, it is, I would argue, a step, and one that signals a commitment to being open to take further steps.
In his piece on Cosmopolitan Constructivism, Cesar Villanueva Rivas notes that “that the ways in which [countries’] identities and intentions are constructed abroad count.” Gender mainstreaming, at the very least, signals an intention, and helps to foster an environment of promoting women’s empowerment. As a result, countries like Sweden, Norway, and the US have shared knowledge and resources with Uganda, through direct engagement with the government in helping to craft gender policy, as well as through Ugandan universities and the numerous NGOs in the region.
What does this mean for Uganda’s cultural diplomacy efforts around women? I would argue that there is a lot of potential for Uganda to stake a bigger global claim on some of the issues it has been working on domestically. Many countries in Africa have adopted gender quotas and are still struggling with similar obstacles to societal and cultural gender equality. Using the NGO infrastructure that already exists, Uganda could coordinate with women’s groups like the Pan-African Women’s Organisation and FEMNET (the African Women’s Development and Communication Network) to host a summit or forum on women in politics, with particular attention paid to leadership and advocacy. A similar program, the African Women Leaders Project, was held in 2008, but it was also run by outside organizations. Although a seemingly intangible detail, if such initiatives come from the African countries themselves it gives them a real power. Further, it would show that Uganda is not only open to accepting the “cosmopolitan” values of “tolerance, friendship, and respect,” but is also “internalizing” these values.
In his piece, Rivas cites Alexander Wendt, who identifies three “degrees” of internalization, the third being “legitimacy,” which is “the most developed of these actions pursued by states, since it emerges from the state’s principles and convictions.” Wendt uses the framework of “friends” and “allies” to differentiate the modes with which countries interact; “friends” is a longer-term relationship in which countries “join a process of common understanding and societal exchanges, step by step.” Within this framework also emerges the idea of a “Self” and an “Other.” Wendt marks progress by how a state can “identify with other’s expectations, relating them as part of themselves.” In the third degree of internalization, “Self is not self-interested but rather it is interested in the Other.” In this case, I would say the “Other” is both Ugandan women as well as countries abroad. Uganda should act for women’s empowerment in recognition of what their “expectations” are for being treated equally, and internalize that goal of equality as one of its own.
The disparity in how women are treated in Ugandan society and how they’re treated in the government’s official gender policies is problematic because it sends a mixed message to other countries. Tolerance, friendship, and respect have to start at home, in order to be credibly projected to the rest of the world. Just as gender quotas project a positive image, it is important for Uganda’s reputation abroad that Ugandan women’s lives continue to improve.
The above post is from Take Five’s Student Perspective series. Kate Mays is studying Cultural Diplomacy as Communication at the George Washington University, looking at themes such as youth, gender, health, climate, free press, and democracy, and writing on how these themes relate to cultural diplomacy and communication.
By Kate Mays
“When I was Secretary of State, I decided that women’s issues had to be central to American foreign policy. Not just because I am a feminist but because I believe that societies are better off when women are politically and economically empowered … So I think that it behooves us, those of us that live in various countries where we do have an economic and political voice, that we need to help other women, and I really dedicated myself to that, both at the UN and then as Secretary of State.”—former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in a December 2010 TED Talk
Since 2006, the World Economic Forum has published the Global Gender Gap Report because “clos[ing] global gender gaps [is] a key element of our mission to improve the state of the world.” The report finds that the more a country utilizes its female half of the population, the better off that country is. In recent years, the US has emphasized women’s rights as key foreign policy objective, including the creation in 2009 of an Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s issues.
John Worne, in his piece “Schools, Hospitals, or Cultural Relations?,” presents an International Relations positioning spectrum that ranges from “giving” (aid) to “fighting” (military action). Cultural relations spans the middle points on the spectrum: “helping, sharing and boasting” (access, influence, and messaging). Worne justifies spending on cultural relations because, “at its best, cultural relations means more ‘helping and sharing’, less ‘shouting and fighting’ and maybe one day a less urgent need to ‘give.’” Considering the correlation between women’s greater participation in society and that society’s prosperity, it makes sense for the US to focus some of its efforts and resources on bringing women to the table; eventually, hopefully, those women will reach out and do the same for others in their society.
A current initiative that strives to “help and share” is TechWomen, a US-based mentorship program that connects emerging female tech entrepreneurs from the Middle East and Africa with American women mentors who come mostly from Silicon Valley tech companies. These “Emerging Leaders” are paired with both professional and cultural mentors, to foster not only professional development opportunities but also to facilitate mutual understanding and cultural acclimation during their time in America. A public-private partnership, TechWomen is an initiative of the State Department and managed by the Institute of International Education.
Announced in April 2010, TechWomen piloted in Spring 2011, bringing over to the US 37 women from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and the Palestinian territories, where they engaged in a five-week project-based mentorship that included professional networking as well as a concluding trip to DC for workshops. The program was enough of a success in 2011 that it not only continued in 2012 but also expanded to include women from Tunisia and Yemen. In 2013, it’s expanding even more to include women from Cameroon, Kenya, Libya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. The Emerging Leaders are all women who have already begun careers in the tech industry; the idea is to develop them further to become real leaders in their field.
TechWomen is notable for its dual focus on empowering women through education, and focusing that education in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. The initiative was developed in response to President Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech, where he called for greater collaboration between the American and Muslim populations to address seven main issues. TechWomen hits on two: women’s rights and economic development and opportunity (through the development of science and technology).
The program has both short-term and long-term goals. In the immediate, of course, the goal is to bolster the mentees’ skills, by sharing tips and ideas, and building their confidence. A main theme in the stories shared on TechWomen’s blog speaks to the power of simply providing a common and supportive space in which these women would feel comfortable vocalizing their ideas. In the case of Evelyn Zoubi, the validation she received from her peers and mentor for her idea (eCloset.me, a website that digitizes wardrobes), was empowering and invigorating. For another Emerging Leader, Thekra, the most powerful workshop taught her to “speak the thoughts I have and not be afraid to take some risks.” These outcomes – confidence-building, creating a network of support and ideas – are mostly intangible, but are nonetheless important in creating a large, sustainable TechWomen network in the Middle East and Africa.
There are so far some real tangible outcomes to the program as well. The mentorship is project-based, so the mentees pick up practical skills and learn more about the tech field from mentors who are on the cutting-edge of the industry. They are also afforded opportunities to network with other leaders in the field to pitch their ideas. Evelyn’s pitch led to a connection with a US organization. Thekra’s idea, EduGirl – an NGO that would build a mentorship model to educate girls in neglected areas in Jordan – encompasses both the skills she learned through her mentorship, and touches on the longer-term goal for TechWomen, which is that the Emerging Leaders will go back to their countries and share their knowledge, to become mentors themselves for younger generations of women in STEM.
While the main focus of TechWomen is to expand opportunities and education, another major tool of cultural diplomacy is woven throughout the program: exchange. During their stay in the US, the Emerging Leaders have opportunities to visit schoolsto see the American education system in action. The program also encourages a two-way exchange. Once the 5-week program is complete, TechWomen mentor delegations travel to some of the mentees’ countries to “focus on: expanding networks of women in the technology sectors, creating and strengthening partnerships, and ensuring the sustainability of Mentor/Emerging Leader relationships.” (excerpted from the TechWomen website. In a video appeal for more TechWomen mentors, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasizes not only the benefits for the mentees, but the opportunity for growth and enrichment for the US mentors.
Hillary Clinton’s appeal for more mentors from American tech companies.
Speaking of the blog, the technical communication infrastructure around the TechWomen initiative seems to be an important piece of its sustainability: there is a robust website, an active presence on social media, and a blog that posts throughout the year. While US mentorship only occurs in the fall, and the delegations take a few trips after that, the conversation around TechWomen appears year-long, so that engagement remains fairly active.
To my mind, TechWomen has been a successful program because of its specificity in mission and audience. The ambitious vision of creating a professional network that can support the next generation of women leaders in technology in the Middle East and Africa (and continue to be self-perpetuating within the regions) is grounded in concrete efforts like the projects-based mentorship, professional development workshops, and networking opportunities. Hopefully the success of these kinds of initiatives will lead to others with larger targeted audiences – opening up educational opportunities for women who are not already on a career path. TechGirls is a promising initiative that reaches younger women to encourage careers in science and technology. Thekra’s EduGirl is a great example of the next step for this movement – an initiative that comes from within the region and reaches out to disadvantaged girls and women.
Kate Mays is a graduate student at the George Washington University.
The above post is from Take Five’s new Student Perspective series. Graduate students studying Cultural Diplomacy as Communication at the George Washington University are encouraged to think about themes such as youth, gender, health, climate, free press, and democracy, and write on how these themes relate to cultural diplomacy and to communication. The posts involve thoughtful commentary on the writer’s chosen theme, linking to class readings and discussions.
Those interested in using innovative methods to spread a message might take an interest in the Half the Sky Movement, an organization dedicated to promoting gender equality in developing nations. This November, Half the Sky will release a game on Facebook. What makes this game interesting – and potentially, will allow it to stand out on a platform usually dedicated to lighter fare – is the way that it links in-game behavior to real-world events. From the organization’s website:
“…Helping in-game does not only reward the players online. Players’ actions and virtual items are tied to micro-donations and matching donations from sponsors that extend to the real world: building schools, donating livestock to farmers or supporting new micro-saving programs. Beyond monetary contributions, players will be invited to share their good deeds with friends and “recruit” them, volunteer their time, organize groups, as well as engage in movies and narratives presented in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.”
Half the Sky’s venture is the latest in a burgeoning trend in the games world – the use of “serious games,” or games designed for a primary purpose other than entertainment, to impact real world events. Watchers of the tech world may remember last year when a players of the game Foldit managed in three weeks to create a protein-cutting enzyme from an AIDS-like virus, a challenge that had stumped scientists in the field for more than a decade. The project, funded by DARPA, now seeks to develop a protein to help fight sepsis. In this way, scientists are hoping to employ every-day human intuitive and puzzle-solving abilities to resolve problems that typically require advanced degrees and the use of supercomputers.
One wonders whether the U.S. Government, which has been working to incorporate other modern innovations such as social media, would benefit from games as a communication tool. Tech@State, the State Department’s body dedicated to applying technology to U.S. diplomacy, has shown a level of interest. Last May the organization hosted a conference on serious games featuring a variety of NGOs who use the medium. Doubtless someone at State is contemplating that if games can be employed to combat disease and promote gender equality, they might be used to present the U.S. favorably abroad. If not, someone should be.
I believe that games can be of use to for public diplomacy, but only if State realizes that it will be held to the same standard as the rest of the industry. For games to impact a player, they must be engaging – people will turn off a boring game as quickly as they switch from a boring broadcast. To date, the State Department hasn’t generated much by the way of interesting content – it has contracted out companies to produce a few basic apps on topics like U.S. trivia, or oceans. I’ve played several of these. Suffice it to say that they are not explosions of creativity and entertainment.
Those interested might find find Jane McGonigal’s lectures at TED conferences to be worth watching. McGonigal is focused on motivating people to contribute to causes, and not necessarily PR, but she’s a source worth hearing on how games can move people to think and act differently. Start from 16:31 for examples of “serious gameplay” – fascinating stuff.