Haleh Esfandiari




By Peyman Pejman

Today’s Haleh Esfandiari Forum at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. begins a series of annual public events focused on women’s empowerment in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. This joint initiative by the Middle East Program (MEP) and the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative (GWLI) honors Haleh Esfandiari’s commitment to promoting women’s empowerment and her leadership of MEP from its inception in 1998 through 2015.

Kayhan London spoke to Henri Barkey, director of the Middle East Program, about the series.

What is the series about?

Dr. Henri J. Barkey, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

We are honoring Haleh Esfandiari, who was my predecessor here at the Middle East program and someone who did a great deal, especially in terms of women’s rights in the Middle East. We are starting a program in her honor where there would be events on issues regarding women in the Middle East.

So this will be annual?

Yes, this year we are starting with inaugural events, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has gracefully agreed to launch it. We want to make as big a splash as possible to get momentum behind it.

We also have, here at the Wilson Center, the Global Leadership Initiative. In conjunction with that program we will develop activities, panels, research projects, and publications on women in the Middle East: what they face, what are their opportunities, what are the changes taking place. We will focus on broad issues. We will have big yearly events but also these other activities.

The Haleh Esfandiari initiative is all about women – not just this year. We do a lot of things at the Wilson Center – politics, economics – but this is an initiative on women in the Middle East.

Who else will participate this year?

Secretary Albright will give a talk and answer some questions in a conversational format with the president of the Wilson Center, former Congresswoman Jane Harman.

Is Esfandiari herself involved in the program in any way, or is it just named after her?

Haleh is still a Fellow at the Wilson Center, and of course she will be at the groundbreaking event, but it is the Wilson Center and the Middle East program that is putting this together.

Will there be any particular emphasis on Iranian women?

Eventually, yes. [Secretary Albright] did a lot when she was secretary of state to enhance women in the Middle East. With time, we will have programs on Saudi Arabia, Iran, anywhere in the Middle East.

Is there a particular takeaway you want people to have from this series?

The value and role of women in the Middle East have not been appreciated by leadership of the countries in the region. You find that it is very, very hard for women to get to positions of responsibility, to work, to advance. This is also the case in the United States. We have now crossed that line, when you think about it, in some disciplines where women are in the majority. I see it as an academic in universities where women achieve a great deal, but let’s face it, in many countries in the Middle East there are still restrictions. Some are cultural, some are religious, some purely political. One of the things we do in this program is to highlight the ramifications and implications of these. We you essentially leave half of your population out of the workforce, there are costs associated with that, there are economic costs associated.

For those who might not be able to attend these seminars, are there ways they can still be informed about the content?

We are a public institution. Everything we do is public. The event on Wednesday will be streamed live and archived on our website. When we do publications, they are also on the website. When we do events, they are open to the public.

Both Secretary Albright and former congresswoman Harman are Democrat. Should we read anything into the lineup?

No, Jane Harman happens to be the president of the Wilson Center and Albright is someone I admire a great deal. I worked for her, and she is someone for whom this issue is very important. Maybe next year we ‘ll get [former Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice. We don’t have a Republican or Democratic agenda. The Wilson Center by definition is chartered as a non-partisan institution and we are also created by Congress so we are responsible to them.

Whose idea was this and how long have you been working on it?

I took over this program almost two years ago. About six to nine months ago we started thinking about a program to honor Haleh and thought the best way to do that is something like this. But it takes time to put together. It does not happen overnight.

Event time: 14:00-15:00 EDT, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington 20004, D.C.