Marilyn Evans works with women on political change and democracy building in four Muslim countries plus Armenia.
"People don’t want to leave their countries," she says when describing the lessons she learned living abroad for four and a half years. "They want to have a wonderful life in their homeland." The women she worked with were hungry for change and wanted help finding a new direction, she said at the talk, Muslim Women Political Leaders: Their Work & Their Lives. "Even though the image of the U.S. has been tarnished,” she explained before her talk, “people are absolutely open to new ideas."
Evans worked in Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Armenia with two non-governmental organizations, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the International Republican Institute chaired by U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Both organizations were started under the Reagan Administration to help countries work on human rights issues. In Afghanistan, Evans also worked with a UN election-related mission to train women interested in the political process.
Evans said she worked with women groups, youth groups, businesses and journalists to give them "true choices" in the political process and access to legitimate information. One goal was to “create an atmosphere to have a loyal opposition,” she said, which she defined as a peaceful transition to power.
The new Afghan constitution requires that 25 percent of seats in parliament go to female candidates, yet she said political parties usually involved a "group of people organized around a very successful man." As a gender specialist for the UN, her goal was to get as many female candidates as possible involved in the political process.
"The women were all highly motivated," she said. "The problem was the men." She therefore worked to teach men why it was important to have women involved.
The Afghan women told her they believed they had influence in politics. In reality, she said, the men raised the money, controlled the money, met with outside powers and set the agenda. Evans gave interactive trainings to the women on how to give speeches, canvass communities to learn the residents’ concerns and become candidates for parliament.
Men in Yemen also had difficulties accepting women into the political sphere, according to Evans. One man from the Socialist party asked the women why he should support a woman who wears a veil. If he can’t see her face, he asked, why should he vote for her? Evans said the women responded by saying, "It is more important what we say."
Men in the Middle East asked Evans why women hold only 15 percent of seats in the U.S. Congress. She would tell them: "The white guys don’t want to give up power in our country." She said she would then explain to them why it is important to have more women involved in the political sphere.
By Hanna Ingber. Adapted from Ingber's "MUSLIM WOMEN HOPE FOR POLITICAL EQUALITY AT HOME TO AVOID MOVING ABROAD"