Women in the World 2013 Recap: Girls' Education, Women in Syria Take the Stage


What an evening! Thursday night marked the kick-off proceedings for the Daily Beast's fourth annual Women in the World Summit here in New York City. The two day event, described as "an intimate and impactful gathering centered on vivid storytelling and live journalism," seeks to raise consciousness about gender advocacy and inspire solutions to the world's greatest problems. 

From its speaker list, it certainly is rolling in the mainstream big leagues (on the first day, attendees got to hear from Christiane Amanpour, Barbara Walters, Angelina Jolie, and Meryl Streep) but perhaps more impactful, attendees heard the testimony of women who are making incredible changes in Syria, South Africa, and especially Pakistan. 

The second day of the summit will be lived streamed, but to catch you up on what you missed, here's a quick run-down of the first day's events. 


Firstly, this is swanky, y'all. Various corporation sponsors like Toyota, Coca-Cola, etc have really amped up the already beautiful venue with interactive stations displaying women's initiatives and how you can get involved. Girl power gone glamorized. Time to find our seats! 


Michaela is a ballerina with the Dance Theatre of Harlem Company and was absolutely stunning. After hearing her own narrative as an orphan from Sierra Leone brought the United States, her grace and energy is even more impressive given the challenges she has had to overcome. Brava!


Tina Brown, who originally launched the first summit back in 2010, kicked off the night with introductory remarks. After a quick shout out to the college students in the audience (hey Harvard!), Brown reflected on this past year, mentioning specifically how social media has brought women's interests to a "tipping point." In an interesting reinterpretation of Sheryl Sanberg's Lean In, Brown called on leaders to "lean on" institutions to end gender oppression. 

One by one, WIW co-hosts came to the stage and presented a woman activist. These activists ranged from an undocumented mother working to end deportations that separate families across borders to an Egyptian woman who continues the fight for gender equality in her country. Almost more of a dance than a presentation, this segment seemed a bit odd. I would have preferred to hear these activists present their own stories in their own words and languages (most are international), but perhaps we will hear from them later. Particularly exciting was Meryl Streep's heartfelt tribute to the late Irish labor activist Inez McCormack.


Next, Barbara Walters led a discussion on women in Syra with her central question, "Why should Americans care about what's happening in Syria, particularly to its women?" Panelists Mouna Ghamen, cofounder of the Syrian State movement and coordinator of the Women Make Peace Platform, and Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International, met Walters' direct questions with powerful persuasion.

Ghamen emphatically repeated that "women's issues is a security issue, a foreign policy issue," while Salbi endorsed the potential of women's peacemaking as the region's only hope. Over 70,000 individuals have died in the Syrian conflict and while Ghamen and Salbi both yearn for peace, they articulated the necessity that it ought to be a negotiated, political process that ends it. Ghamen insisted that she wants peace, but demands democracy. 

The "South Africa's New Power Player" segment was a bit of a misnomer since its honoree, Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, has been a part of South Africa's activist, medical, and business leadership for many decades. The theater broke into stunned murmurs when Dr. Ramphele reminds us, "Every 34 seconds a woman is raped in South Africa. A mother, daughter, friend, it could be my granddaughter."

Indeed, this inter-generational intimidate approach seems to be a central part of Dr. Ramphele's activism. First, she cited her fortune for being "born into a family of strong women," she then calls the great Nelson Mandela as a "father figure," and proudly discusses the achievements of her son in mobilizing his own generation.

In another great moment, Dr. Ramphele encouraged women to be honest about what you don't know, arguing that not knowing is not the same as stupidity. Rather, it offers opportunities for further understanding. I thought Dr. Ramphele's most powerful reflection comes when she cites the importance of intersectionality in fighting oppression: "Whether it's racism, gender equality, once you are a conscious being you have no choice but to be a change agent."


This last panel, "The Next Generation of Malalas" was by far the true highlight of the night. The all-star Christiane Amanpour moderated a discussion between Humaira Bachal, founder of the Dream Foundation Trust, Khalida Brohi, founder of the Sughar Women Program, and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, CEO of SOC Films. The panelists are all extraordinary young women fighting for girls' education in Pakistan, a cause for which the young Malala Yousafzai was attacked by the Taliban this fall. (You really should watch this entire discussion as it's incredibly moving, and if I were to document all of the highlights I'd basically transcribe the entire conversation.)

Khalida explained to WIW how she was so collected while facing down men who threatened violence against Pakistani schoolgirls: "I think I was being patient because I knew one day this man would be working for me." 

All three panelists acknowledge the danger inherent in their activism since, as Sharmeen directly put it, "The more you speak out, the more we shake society, the bigger the target."

But ultimately the audience was brought to a standing ovation when Khalida confided, "Before I left I told my dad, 'Not doing this work would kill me. Doing this work will keep me alive. Let me go." Stunning.

To conclude the evening, Angelina Jolie announced the establishment of the Malala Fund, a foundation that will be directed by Malala herself to continue her cause for girls' education. "They shot her point blank in the head," Jolie said, "and made her stronger." The fund's first work will be to take 40 girls out of domestic labor and place them into the schools with the goal as Malala herself said in a video presentation to WIW to turn "40 girls into 40 million girls."

Stay tuned for more updates!