POMED Notes: Women After the Arab Awakening
On Tuesday (10/2), the Wilson Center hosted two panel discussion in their series entitled; “Women after the Arab Awakening.” The first panel, “Today’s View from the Ground”, featured Dalia Ziada, Executive Director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Egypt, Omezzine Khélifa, Politician and Advisor for the Tunisian Ministry of Tourism, Rihab Elhaj, Co-founder and Executive Director of the New Libya Foundation, Fahmia al-Fotih of Yemen, Communications and Youth Focal Point analyst for the United Nations Population Fund, Hala al-Dosari of Saudi Arabia, Ph.D. candidate in health services research, and Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center as moderator.
The second panel, “Tomorrow’s Prospects for Women in the Region”, featured Honey al-Sayed, Director of the Syria Program at Nonviolence International, Gabool Almutawakel of Yemen, Co-Founder of Youth Leadership Development Foundation, Hanin Ghaddar of Lebanon, Managing Editor at NOW News, Yassmine ElSayed Hani of Egypt, Independent Journalist at the Foreign Desk of Al Akhbar Daily Newspaper, and Rangita de Silva de Alwis, Director of the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative at the Wilson Center as moderator.
For full event notes, continue reading below, or click here for the PDF version.
Dalia Ziada began by reminding everyone that Egypt “is not Iran” and even though the new government is Islamist, their government is different from others. Ziada mentioned various laws pushed by Suzanne Mubarak that have helped women, including the right to divorce and to pass nationality to children, but stated the marginalization of women has always been present due to social and cultural norms. Therefore, she argued while Islamists may pose a threat to women’s rights in Egypt today, we must recognize that long-standing, cultural norms have and continue to challenge women’s rights advocates. She concluded by stating “democratization cannot happen without women.”
Omezzine Khélifa focused on how women’s role is evolving and what they can contribute to the process of democratization. She noted women’s rights advocates in Tunisia recently succeeded in ensuring the constitution enshrines equality, not complementarity, between men and women and that some female members of the Constituent Assembly, who make up 27 perfect of the governing body, have become vocal on women’s rights issues. At the same time, Khélifa noted that while there have been some recent successes in preventing a regression of women’s rights and freedoms, this does not imply a progression for women in Tunisian society.
Rihab Elhaj said “very little has been done to protect women and promote involvement in any sector” of Libya. She argued the current marginalization of Libyan women across sectors is not the result of any subversive campaign by particular factions, but a default reutn to cultural norms in a highly patriarchal society. Additionally, the infrastructure for women to participate in society isn’t present, which includes lack of support for working mothers such as affordable daycare. Elhaj stated that women are increasingly marginalized, and are faces increases in physical threats, gender segregation, pressure from social and cultural norms, fear of social stigmas and negative gossip. She emphasized that the newly elected National Congress (which includes 33 women out of 200 members) and the newly appointed President must be more vocal on prioritizing the advancement of women.
Fahmia al-Fotih praised Yemeni women for their involvement in protests, but mentioned women were exploited by both the regime and opposition forces, and now face increased marginalization and risk of kidnappings, defamation and killings. Additionally, some Islamists have attempted to defame the reputations of women involved in protests and politics. Although the GCC recently emphasized greater women’s involvement in society as essential for its success, al-Fotih quoted the U.N. Envoy to Yemen, who stated that unfortunately “Yemen’s political parties disagree on everything, except marginalizing women.” Four out of five women interviewed claimed their lives have worsened over the past year, al-Fotih concluded, saying “the future of women in Yemen is still very blurry.”
Hala al-Dosari said “it’s rare for women to question and challenge authority,” in Saudi Arabia, yet many Saudi women have been inspired by the transformations in other Arab countries to challenge traditions and authority in their own, perhaps more subtle yet still important. Al-Dosari mentioned the campaign for women to obtain their license as an issue that began in 1990, but lost momentum and that a real challenge to promoting change from the bottom up is that all civil society organizations in Saudi Arabia must be approved by the government and that freedom of assembly is not guaranteed. She concluded that harassment is still a large concern, and one that must be addressed by authorities.
During the Q&A, the panel was asked to explain why the new ruling government are trying to overturn progressive women’s rights laws, what the fastest way is to make the paradigm shift, how should the U.S. government be involved, and why these governments are using Islam to control women when, in fact, Islam has many examples of strong, outspoken, and politically active women. Al-Fotih said there is a habit of blaming women when something goes wrong in government. Elhaj contributed the discussion of overturning progressive laws to the tribal structure inherent in Middle East culture that attributes a man’s importance to how many women are below him, arguing this is “perhaps why it is even more important for Arab women that these revolutions succeed.” Al-Dosari argued the fastest way to change the status quo is to have good relationships with people, regardless of their agenda. Ziada mentioned the importance of facebook and other social media, while al-Fotih said physical interactions combined with media outreach will help educate women about their rights. Ziada praised Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her help promoting women’s rights, but said there was additional grassroots work to be done, and that the U.S. government should bypass working with Arab governments and instead support and empower civil society. Khélifa mentioned the youth as being a key demographic to interact with.
Honey al-Sayed started the second panel by claiming that developing NGOs in Syria is key to rebuilding Syrian society and educating Syrian women. Al-Sayed stressed that it is important to keep in mind that the empowerment of Syrian women is not simply for the benefit of women, but for Syrian society at large. Al-Sayed commented on the militarized conflict in Syria and explained that the toppling of the regime was of primary concern for both Syrian men and women. She went on to express that Syrians “need to rebuild not just the infrastructure, but the entire society”. Finally, she mentioned that media needs to play a critical role both now and in the post-Assad era in both rebuilding Syrian society and creating a culture which empowers women.
Yasmine el-Sayed Hani opened by explaining that Egyptians “feel the responsibility of being watched by the rest of the Arab world”, and are acutely aware of the impact their actions have on the rest of the region. She proceeded to explain that before the revolution, women had made tremendous progress and made reference to the bill that was passed allowing women to pass on their citizenship to their children. Then, Hani began to address the current issues facing women in Egypt such as the lack of representation on the Constituent Assembly. “Only seven out of one hundred are women in the Constituent Assembly, so the real struggles now are women’s issues in the constitution” she said. Hani explained that after the revolution organizations and initiatives started to act collectively and cited the example of the rally on Thursday, October 4th in which more than twenty women’s organizations and movements will march to demand a law criminalizing sexual harassment to be included in the constitution.
Hanin Ghaddar focused on women’s status in Lebanon and the ways in which the sectarian system divides and disempowers women. Ghaddar explained that “Lebanon has no civil law which governs family relations; instead, they are governed by sectarian laws, all of which discriminate against women.” She cited a statistic demonstrating the prevalence of domestic violence in Lebanon, “one woman dies every month as a result of family violence in Lebanon”, and continued to explain that domestic violence and martial rape are not criminalized by Lebanese law. Ghaddar condemned religious institutions in Lebanon for their role in setting back the women’s rights movement and she claimed that “the Arab spring cannot be completed anywhere until religion and state have been separated.” She continued by expressing that Islamic feminism in and of itself is a paradoxical term. She then ended on a powerful note exclaiming that “women should make big strides and take what is theirs with their hands and bodies….no more small steps.”
Gabool Almutawakel stated that while it is true that women played a pivotal role in the revolution in Yemen, their participation has decreased dramatically during the transition period. Almutawakel stressed the importance of women working alongside men, and the idea that women are not only working for women’s rights, but for society at large. She continued to explain that it is important to enhance young women leaders in the private and public sectors and in existing CSOs. She then continued to address the challenges and opportunities facing women in Yemen today. She said the primary challenge is the politicization of women’s issues and religion, and that opportunities are presented in the new and growing youth groups, in GCC initiatives, and in society’s readiness for change.
During Q&A the the panel was asked to comment on what role the media can play in transforming patriarchal culture in their respective countries. Al-Sayed gave a personal example of the ways in which her morning show in Syria made it a point to discuss issues that “broke the ice in a conservative society” such as sex education and homosexuality. Hani explained that in pre-revolution Egypt, there was only one source of information and millions of receivers, while now “there are hundreds of sources; this created a circle of trust within the media and the audience.” She went on to explain that “the new media is deconstructing the spiral of silence in which previously minority voices were silenced in the media and negative beliefs and practices were upheld.” Gabool responded by expressing that the media can play a crucial role by publicizing young female role models. Next the moderator asked the panelists to comment on the divide between secular and Islamic feminists and how claiming that Islam and feminism to be a paradox may be divisive to the women’s movement. Ghaddar responded by stating that “acknowledging the legitimacy of Islamic feminism divides women further and that a simple separation of state and religion is what respects everyone’s beliefs and rights.” Hani disagreed with Ghaddar and explained that “Sharia as we understand it is a paradigm by which we live. I would instead advocate focusing on how religion can play a positive role in developing our society.”