DOHA, Qatar — First lady Michelle Obama urged the world to open more opportunities for girls in education and women in the workforce in a speech Wednesday that drew on her experience with gender bias growing up in Chicago.
“Back when I was a girl, even though I was bright and curious, and I had plenty of opinions of my own, people were often more interested in hearing what my brother had to say,” Obama told about 2,000 people from more than 120 countries gathered for an education conference in Qatar, among the Persian Gulf nations that host branches of U.S. and other Western universities.
“I was even told that I would never be admitted to a prestigious university, so I shouldn’t even bother to apply,” added Obama, who graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School.
In Qatar, she made an impassioned plea for men to stand up for gender equity in education, a message that could be at odds with views on the roles of men and women held in some parts of the Arab world and beyond.
“Today, to all of the men here, I want to be very clear. We need you,” Obama said, drawing slight laughter and significant applause in the cavernous auditorium of the Qatar National Convention Center. “As fathers, as husbands and simply as human beings, this is your struggle, too.”
Obama arrived Monday in Doha to begin a week-long Mideast visit. On Tuesday, she visited the Al Udeid Air Base in the desert outside the capital to show solidarity with U.S. troops based there. Late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien and others came with her to entertain an estimated crowd of 2,000.
Later Wednesday, Obama was scheduled to leave for Jordan to visit a school supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development that educates Syrian refugees.
Obama’s speech drew attention to a White House initiative called Let Girls Learn. It also cast a spotlight on an annual conference sponsored by the Qatar Foundation, an organization connected to the country’s ruling family. The foundation is chaired by Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, second wife of the former ruler Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani and mother of his successor, Emir Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani.
The conference is known as the World Innovation Summit for Education, or WISE. It has drawn educators, education officials, analysts and activists to Doha every year since 2009 in an effort to spur thinking about how to improve education and bridge gaps in opportunity around the world.
Among the goals of WISE is to draw attention to urgent problems, such as: 1 in 5 workers will lack basic education by 2030 if trends hold; conflicts in the Middle East are depriving more than 13 million children of an education; and young people in North America and Western Europe are 12 times as likely as those in sub-Saharan Africa to have a chance at higher education.
Equally important is the search for solutions, organizers emphasized.
To that end, the conference honored Afghan educator Sakena Yacoobi, 65, winner of the WISE Prize for 2015. Founder of the Afghan Institute for Learning, She has sought for many years through the nonprofit organization to provide teacher training to Afghan women and take other steps to support education and health services in a nation wracked by myriad troubles.
During the Taliban’s repressive rule, according to a biography provided by the conference, Yacoobi started 80 “underground” learning centers to help girls continue to receive education.
“It’s a great honor to be recognized,” Yacoobi said in an interview. She said it was “fantastic” to showcase efforts to empower women and girls.
“My goal is there would not be one single child uneducated in Afghanistan, especially girls,” she said. “We have a long ways to go. Education is in my heart, in my blood. Especially regarding Afghanistan, the world should know how important education is to Afghan society.”
Obama stopped by an exhibit hall after her speech to greet about two dozen adolescent students, mostly girls, working with “portable multimedia tool kits” in a venture called Ideas Box. The tool kits were described as crates on wheels that can be opened and set up in less than 20 minutes to create a “cultural space” with a satellite Internet connection, 20 laptops and tablets, a library stocked with paper and electronic books, and a “built-in cinema.” They have been used in Africa and the Middle East to help with the education of refugee children.
Approaching several girls who had been working at a table with balloons, aluminum foil, construction paper, electric wire and modeling compound, Obama shook their hands and asked about their plans.
“How are you?” she asked. “Nice to meet you. . . . What’s your name? . . . So what are you interested in studying? . . . You’re still figuring it out? You have time. . . . Great to meet you. So proud of you guys.”
Later, Obama appeared with Sheikha Moza and former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard at a roundtable on women’s education. Gillard lamented obstacles that girls face worldwide in getting to and through school. “Educating a girl creates a virtuous circle of peace and prosperity for our societies,” Gillard said.
Delegates to the conference embraced Obama’s message.
“She told her story, and through storytelling, she wants to reach people’s hearts and make them aware of how transformative education can be,” said Ilhem Allagui, an associate professor of strategic communications at Northwestern University’s campus in the Doha complex called Education City.
“I’m in total agreement with her about education rights for children,” said Walaa Abdel Khalek, an expert on the Spanish language who was visiting from Cairo University in Egypt. “I really liked her story about growing up and how her family helped her a lot. When the first lady of the United States says it, it matters.”