If many things that marked out 2018, the growing power of the #MeToo movement was among the most persistent and distinctive threads. But the movement itself was not universally celebrated. Even some high-profile female voices formed part of an apparent backlash against it. Legendary actress Catherine Deneuve was among 100 French women who signed an open letter in which they protested that the movement had inspired a wave of hatred towards the accused, and ‘chains women to the status of the eternal victim.’ The letter sparked scathing criticism from activists, but it also demonstrated the complexities and difficulties in advancing the cause of equality through the mire of sexual politics in societies that continue, largely, to be dominated by men.
As we reflect on 2018, it’s worth remembering the milestones achieved by women in our own backyard here in the UAE and around the region. Through my work and life here, I’ve lost count of the number of smart, dynamic, highly educated and ambitious women I have met — from the female ministers who make up almost 30 per cent of the UAE cabinet, to pioneers in business, science and the arts, women continue to play an ever-greater role in the region’s society and culture. To steal a phrase from the UAE ambassador to the UN — Lana Nusseibeh — who I interviewed recently: “This country offers a model for why integrating women in your economy is not just the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do!”
Among the regional trailblazers I have had the pleasure of interviewing for CNN are Sarah Al Amiri whose work on the Emirate’s Mars Mission includes overseeing one of the most ambitious space programmes in the Middle East, to the work of Noura Al Kaabi and Reem Al Hashimi in the evolution of the UAE as a regional capital for ideas, culture, arts and tourism.
On CNN’s Inside the Middle East we featured celebrated actress and director Nadine Labaki’s powerful tale of Lebanon’s forgotten street kids, Capernaum, and saw how Zaha Hadid’s enduring legacy is inspiring a new generation of female architects across the Middle East. We also met animator Fatma Almheiri, who created the first homegrown Emirati superhero, and 9x times marathon runner and seasoned mountaineer, Manal Rostom. These are all modern women creating new realities for themselves.
Of course, women in this region face challenges and while I am optimistic about the long-term future of women in the Middle East, it’s never good to be complacent; there is always more progress to be made and it’s important to make sure that girls and women, in whatever walk of life, are supported in their schooling, their careers and their ambitions.
Qualifications, or more specifically, access to them, remain a profoundly important issue for women in this region and around the world. For this year’s International Day of the Girl, UNICEF published some troubling statistics: roughly a quarter of young people — most of them female — are currently neither employed nor in education nor training.
One billion young people — including 600 million adolescent girls — will enter the workforce in the next decade, UNICEF’s report said. More than 90 per cent of those living in developing countries will work in the informal sector, in jobs that are neither regulated nor protected, and where low pay, or no pay at all, as well as abuse and exploitation are commonplace.
There was much to celebrate in 2018, but progress is hard won and not without cost. This past year may be remembered as the one where these issues fought their way to the top of the agenda and stayed there. For that to be the case it will take the voices of the many women — and men — calling for change to receive support from all corners. Wherever we live and work, equality is a universal human right. #MeToo is not just about famous people in wealthy countries, it is also about ordinary, poor, vulnerable, voiceless people. Bringing real change for them will take sustained political action in 2019 and beyond.
Becky Anderson is managing editor and anchor of Connect the World CNN, Abu Dhabi.