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  • US tech initiative for Muslim women gets mixed welcome

The latest in a series of US science diplomacy initiatives to strengthen ties with the Muslim world has received a mixed reaction.

The TechWomen Programme (TWP), announced by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship held in Washington last week (26-27 April), aims to empower women working in technology in countries of the Organisation of The Islamic Conference (OIC).

TWP is scheduled to begin in spring 2011 and will be managed by the US State Department. The programme seeks to help female technologists share professional experience and knowledge by setting up mentorships between women in OIC countries and the United States.

It will provide 20–40 women from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Palestine with up to six weeks of work experience with female employees in technology companies in the United States. Some of the US hosts will then travel to the participants' home countries to offer skills development and networking workshops.

This is the latest step towards fulfilling US President Barack Obama's promise to help achieve technological development in Muslim-majority countries, made in a landmark speech in Egypt last June (see Obama vows to boost science ties with Muslim world and US Congress eyes science diplomacy programme).

"There is a huge stock of technology in American industry available for transfer to Islamic nations, and person to person contacts are critically important for such transfers," John Daly, former science official for the aid agency USAID, told SciDev.Net.

"This approach has worked well in the past with both men and women. Targeting the programme to women in these countries should help to level the playing field, giving them opportunities that might otherwise be denied due to discrimination against women in some Islamic cultures."

But Hilmi Salem, director general of Applied Sciences and Engineering Research Centers at the Palestine Technical University, said decision makers should explore "what the hidden agendas are" for such initiatives.

"My first impression is that US initiatives are greatly appreciated, but I think it is politically motivated. This means that a price has to be paid, in terms of influencing the Arab and Islamic cultures, traditions, etc.," Salem told SciDev.Net.

And Syeda Tanvir Naim, a consultant to the OIC and a member of the UN Advisory Board on Women and Science, said that these proposals for "mere four to six weeks training courses in [the] US are totally inadequate".

Naim said steps that could make a real difference include setting up scholarships and joint research programmes for women from OIC countries to work at top US universities and setting up technology incubators and training facilities within the OIC countries to promote the culture of science entrepreneurship there.

But much of the initiative must come from OIC countries themselves, Naim said.

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