It was a beautiful Saturday in May when I joined Doris and Rima Salah, longtime and well-known members of our YWCA World Service Council, for a one-day visit with two foreign guests at their apartment overlooking the United Nations. The visitors were Najla Jabnoun, a lawyer and professor from Tunisia, and Walaa Hassan, an NGO professional from Egypt. Both women looked to be in their late 30s and had left families with young children at home to attend a USA sponsored program for highly qualified women leaders called “Hands Along the Nile” in Boston and Washington, D.C. They had arrived in Chinatown on a Chinese tour bus to see New York for eight hours before taking a return bus back to Boston. Another WSC member and World YWCA UN representative, Muna Killingback, who works at the host Center for Women at UMass. had suggested that they visit Doris and Rima, knowing that “such a visit to the city would enhance their whole trip.”
As we all greeted each other, we also shared the Salahs’ spectacular view of the UN, the East River, and the city from their 30th floor windows. Rima has been active with the United Nations and UNICEF for many years, serving as the head of UNICEF for West and Central Africa and more recently helping countries such as Chad, Somalia, the Phillipines, as a consultant and ambassadorial assistant when countries have been threatened by war, famine or weather disasters such as the recent typhoon in the lower Philippines which killed a million people. Rima also currently teaches at Yale as a part-time clinical professor at their Child Study Center. Doris, who served as Executive Director of the YWCA of Palestine for 30 years, shares the apartment with her sister and is one of several key representatives for the World YWCA at the United Nations. The Salahs have used their apartment as a gracious and hospitable center for entertaining foreign visitors and others for many years, and this was one more such occasion.
During the first hour-long visit, we learned that the scheduled Boston training experience of our two visitors had unfortunately been severely affected and curtailed by the events of the “Boston massacre” on April 17th. Najla and Walaa had actually been at the finish line of the race and only missed the first bombing by moving away some 15 minutes before it occurred. Then their hotel was across the street from the second bomb, and as they said, the whole area after that was closed for operations for the rest of the week, with constant police and surveillance everywhere. However, they had now completed two weeks of intensive training and were planning to finish the coming week with a two-day visit to Washington to see more of our democratic institutions at work.
While the two visitors spoke with appreciation of the knowledge gained about all the legal and policy issues for women that were presented in their training, there were some sad reactions to the status of women’s rights here in the United States. As Najla phrased it, “ I thought that I would be inspired by the legal status of women here in the United States and came expecting to learn many new ideas. But we have had laws enforcing equal pay in Tunisia since the 1950s, and abortion has been totally legal during the first three months of pregnancy for some 50 years.” Tunisia seems to have the highest status for women in all of Northern Africa, and the threat of Islamic extremism there is not that alarming, according to Najla, although women still need education and empowerment.
Walaa added her own words about Egypt – that her country had secured similar strong rights for women in the good years after World War II back in the 50s and that even with the Islamic movement dividing the country post-revolution, she didn’t see a danger of losing existing women’s rights there that provide for equal pay, maternity leave and abortion. They wanted to know why the United States was so negative about securing rights through United Nations actions and resolutions, and the rest of us could only say that US politics and a misconceived fear of losing “national control” and “freedom” has hampered US participation in United Nations actions ever since the UN was created in the 40s.
The fact that the USA, along with only Iran and the Sudan, has not adopted the CEDAW agreement prohibiting discrimination against women was cited as another sad case of our lagging behind 180 other countries on such international concords that could benefit women. We all agreed that women still tend to be given second place all around the world with countries using the excuse of economics, religion, culture, dominance, or inaction, and that this picture still needs major action for change. Both Rima and Doris, with their extensive knowledge of countries in the Middle East and Africa, were also able to add facts and ideas about current NGO and UN efforts such as those under way to end child marriage and violence against women.
When it was time to end discussion and see the city, the Salahs were more than ready to show further hospitality and kindness to their two guests. They escorted them over to the United Nations and gave them a personal tour of the main building, since the formal Visitors Center was closed for the weekend. Then after a good lunch at a nearby Turkish restaurant, they all walked over to Fifth Avenue and visited Rockefeller Center and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Finally, after asking what their guests most wanted to see, Doris and Rima took the two women down to Battery Park for a view of the Statue of Liberty and then got them back to Chinatown for the evening bus to Boston.
As Doris said later, “we had to rush a bit to get it all in, but we are fond of such visitors, and it meant a lot to them.” For those of us who know the Salahs, this was a wonderful example of how they show hospitality to both our large CSW groups each year as well as to other eminent visitors. Also, the fact that Doris and Rima both speak fluent Arabic and French surely helped their guests to feel welcome and share their views. For those of us in the World Service Council, we can be truly thankful that we have such gifted ambassadors in New York City to help the World YWCA and all of us as we try to improve the lives of women – and to welcome such visitors who come to learn from America and, as on this occasion, also teach us along the way.
Chair of World Service Council,