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New fund supports research on Middle Eastern women

Employment discrimination lawyer Kristan Peters-Hamlin '82 is passionate about the rights of all women, including those in the Middle East. "Improving women's rights benefits us all," she says, citing research showing that when women gain more civil rights, they become moderating influences on their governments.

And that is why she has established the Kristan Peters-Hamlin Chair's Fund for Women's Civil Rights in the Middle East in Cornell's Department of Near Eastern Studies to support research.

"The United Nations and its signatories have agreed that there are certain human rights that are so basic that they are fundamental to all humanity, no matter the culture," Peters-Hamlin explains. "If a U.N. signatory nation nevertheless denies their female citizens these rights, are they then defining women as not human?"

She calls this "gender apartheid" and sees it as the civil rights issue, requiring concerted international effort.

The solution, she feels, will be rooted in the kind of research her fund will support to elucidate the confluence of religion, law and custom, and evaluates and compares the disparate laws in different Middle Eastern countries as a means of resolving doctrinal arguments that have been used to justify deprivation of women's rights.

"The fund will definitely make a difference," says Kim Haines-Eitzen, chair of the Department of Near Eastern Studies. "The fund is both an acknowledgment of the complex issues related to women in the Middle East as well as a vote of support and encouragement to our students to engage with these issues."

Haines-Eitzen says they hope to receive proposals from as broad a segment of the Cornell community as possible -- such as law student Ann Eisenberg '12, one of this year's recipients. Eisenberg will examine enforcement in Moroccan rural areas of the new Moudawana rules, which moved the country from traditional Islamic family laws to those more in line with international conventions.

Emily Smith '10, a religious studies major now in Jordan as part of the Intensive Arabic Program, will examine use of the hijab and burqa. "Laws that attempt to liberate the 'oppressed' Muslim women often end up oppressing them in different ways," she says. "I want to explore the significance of externalizing something as internal as piety."

Sam Gordon '10 will examine women's rights from an economic perspective by evaluating the viability of microfinance as a tool for poverty reduction and improved economic sustainability in the Middle East. He hopes his research will be used by microfinance funds to improve their efforts in the region.

As an undergraduate, Peters-Hamlin began thinking about the concept of internationalizing human rights when students built a shantytown to protest Cornell investments in apartheid South Africa. "An African-American Cornell student once told me, 'as long as any black in this world is deprived of rights because of their skin color, it diminishes me,'" she recalls, adding that it made her wonder why more women didn't feel the same way about gender apartheid: Where was the sense of sense of moral outrage and concerted, organized international effort that fought South African apartheid?

At the urging of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Peters-Hamlin became involved with Vital Voices, an NGO promoting international civil and economic rights for women. Peters-Hamlin has also helped found Bridges to Middle Eastern Women, an organization more specifically targeted at that region's gender apartheid.

"One of my life goals is to leave the world a somewhat better place for having lived here," says Peters-Hamlin. With the establishment of the Kristan Peters-Hamlin Fund for Women's Civil Rights in the Middle East, she's taking a step toward putting her goals into action.

Linda Glaser is a staff writer in the College of Arts and Sciences.

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