Al Arabiya News is marking International Women’s Day, and the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration on gender equality, with a special series profiling leading women around the world, among them HRH Princess Fay Jahan Ara.
With a quick flick through your social media feed, you will likely encounter the latest revealing female celebrity selfie. While some perceive these images as a form of sexual empowerment and freedom, one woman has labeled them a “crime against women.”
To mark International Women’s Day, Al Arabiya News sat down with HRH Princess Fay Jahan Ara, a philanthropist, women’s rights campaigner, and president of the RACH Charity Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the quality of life of underprivileged children and families.
The princess’s humanitarian work focuses mainly on India, the home of her late husband and the Indian royal family of Avadh, Lucknow.
Q: How has the RACH Foundation served women’s rights around the world?
Our intention is not only to support women, but to create a better understanding and to educate people to enhance family relations. Our main goal is fighting against poverty, which I believe is the main problem, and which relates to the lack of education.
We began in India, then I wanted to connect myself to more international organizations to create global awareness and bring my Indian experience to the international arena. The fight [for women’s rights] is global. We work mainly in Europe, the United States, India and China.
Q: Female celebrities and public figures are showing more skin. Do you see this as a form of female empowerment?
I am very attached to this subject. I believe education on the meaning of female empowerment is not just for our youth. We have to educate older generations, parents and governments. Because of the influence of social media and the behavior of public figures, many do not understand what comes with the responsibility of female empowerment.
This is a crime, a crime against many families who want to raise their kids well. Kids these days are given more online freedoms, and are surrounded by pictures that take their attention in a certain direction. For women to show their bodies this way, it is abusing women around the world.
To empower women does not mean you have to dress less. It also does not mean you have to fight men. This is where the problem escalates. Empowering women has its own laws. It does not mean you have to fight against your partner or your family because you are “empowered.”
Q: What is your interpretation of female empowerment?
Female empowerment is not only about women. It is about society’s behaviors and manners among all interactions: woman to woman, man to woman and woman to man. To be empowered is not to say that the future should be in the hands of women. We should acknowledge a future led by both men and women to have a healthy next generation.
These healthy relations start at home. Families should promote an understanding of equal relations between men and women, and raise their children and entire societies this way. I come from a family where my grandmother, my mother and myself saw a need for women’s voices to be heard. At that time, men and women were working in opposite directions. Now they must work together.
Empowering women also means teaching them to not fight against other women. Sometimes I find it harder working with women than men. They are so much harsher to other women. I have seen it in many countries and cultures. We need to work against this. All the same, women wanting to feel empowered must also not see men as the enemy.
Q: There are low levels of female participation in the workforce and in leadership, as well as high levels of domestic violence and female genital mutilation in the Middle East, Asia and other developing regions. What are the factors behind this, and how do you aim to curb them?
Many developing countries, cultures and traditions enjoy treating the man as leader so he can gain security and defend his actions. However, I have also seen women lacking the urge to want to participate in society more actively, which places them in weaker positions. They are very happy to not take on more responsibilities. We need to see how far women can go.
Women need more government support in such countries. We cannot see true progress without official support, much like in Western countries, where slow changes in women’s roles took around 200 years. We have to give societies time to grow, and we must have governmental support if we want to achieve sustainable change.
When discussing domestic violence in these regions, you have to look at cultures to understand the positions of women within the family. You also have to look at laws regarding women. In some countries, women still need permission from a male guardian to travel. Instead, women must be treated as decision-makers. The three recurring factors for women’s rights that must be looked into more are culture, tradition and education.
Q: What can be done about the lack of education of girls in developing countries? Can you explain the culture of girls not having the same rights as boys? One of the most popular, recent examples has been the case of Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai.
I visited Pakistan in 1975 and found it to be so secular, educated and open-minded. In the 1990s, everything changed because the government began changing policies, education took on a different form, and there were many cases of corruption, which bred extremism. This created negative messages that led the country backward, all due to the policies of those in power.
The government should work harder to stop extremists and empower real people in search of education. A lack of education has led to what we are witnessing in India, where we have 5 million girls under the age of 15, many of them being prepared for marriage.
Q: Who is your ultimate female role model, your inspiration in female empowerment?
It has been 20 years since the Beijing Declaration on the global agenda for gender equality, which I participated in. The 189 countries that attended declared that women’s rights are human rights. This caught the attention of the entire world.
Hillary Clinton [who gave a speech at the 1995 Beijing conference] is my role model because she remained strong when her family suffered several problems and she bounced back. She managed to keep her family together and continued her political career. Who had attempted to destroy her life? Another woman. This should not be supported by any society.
This article is part of Al Arabiya News' Special Coverage on International Women's Day.SHOW MORE