Monday, September 3, 2007

Forbes: A Prestigious Economic Magazine That Doesn’t Own a Map’s article entitled “Muslim Women in Charge” crows proudly that “Despite the barriers, 10 women executives from the Middle East made our World's 100 Most Powerful Women ranking this year.” Except not all of them are Muslim or from the Middle East.

Vidya Chhabria, #97 on Forbes’ list, is originally from India. She also isn’t Muslim (why does Forbes think that Muslim = Middle Eastern?).

Imre Barmanbek (#88) is from Turkey—while I’ll always consider Turkey part of the Middle East, a number of Turks themselves consider Turkey as part of Europe. I guess Forbes forgot to ask.

And what are these barriers that Muslim women had to overcome to be on Forbes’ oh-so prestigious list? Culture? Family? Middle Eastern women have no more barriers to making Forbes’ list than North or South American, European, or Asian women. Women everywhere have to grapple with cultural and familial acceptance of their place in the workforce. Didn’t the term “glass ceiling” originate within the U.S.?

While I sort of appreciate Forbes’ efforts at being inclusive, they’re going about it completely wrong. Other than mislabeling these women (or labeling them at all), Forbes also takes on the task of reminding everyone about how “backward” the Middle East is: “[Dr. Nahed] Taher is unusual in a country where women are prohibited to drive, vote or hold high-level government office, and in a region where poverty and tradition deprive many women of control over basic choices, from what to wear to when to get married….”

After giving several paragraphs about positive developments for women’s employment throughout the region, Forbes immediately reminded us that despite all this, a Arab Human Development Report from 2002 says that “noted that just one in every two Arab women can read and write.”

Don’t worry everyone! The Middle East is still backward, despite all these fantastic women! Maybe these women are powerful heads of companies and government, but we think they all still have to cover their hair, and thus are completely oppressed! Forbes makes it seem that not driving herself to work or wearing hijab almost cancels out Dr. Taher’s work. By the way, Dr. Taher is the first woman chief executive of Saudi Arabia's Gulf One Investment Bank. I wouldn’t drive myself to work either with a sweet title like that.

And why did Forbes focus on Dr. Taher? There were plenty of other Muslim women on their list from the Middle East that they could have focused on in this article. Why not focus on Maha Al-Ghunaim, chairwoman of the rapidly expanding Global Investment House in Kuwait, or Dr. Sima Samar, the chairwoman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, neither of whom wear hijab? Or focus on Sheikha Lubna al Qasimi, who has enforced transparency within the United Arab Emirates economy since she became Minister of the Economy in 2004 and has launched her own perfume?

While Forbes could have made up condescendingly ethnocentric captions about any of these women, Saudi Arabian Dr. Taher allows Forbes to easily solidify its ideas of Middle Eastern women as oppressed, and lets the article showcase her great “triumph” over these “backward” traditional societies, lumping all of the Middle East into the “as backward as we think Saudi Arabia is” category.

While some of the Muslim women featured in Forbes’ list cover their hair and some of them do not, and I am sure that they all choose what they want to wear and whom they want(ed) to marry, Forbes has a difficult time seeing past these women’s circumstances and focusing on what they’re really doing for their countries and other women.