CAIRO: The Alliance for Arab Women, Karama and UNIFEM organized two conferences on women’s rights in the Arab world in Cairo this week.
The weeklong series of events culminated on Tuesday with the Mahfoutha Sindiyanat El-Karama Award Ceremony. The award is given out every year to a woman who has relentlessly fought to keep her dignity. This year Karama decided to present it to Sudanese journalist Lubna Ahmed Hussein who last summer was sentenced to 40 lashes for wearing trousers in public in Khartoum.
“I am not a hero, said tearful Hussein, “I was obliged to do it [challenge the court] because I know my rights and the law [on proper women’s dress] is unconstitutional. In 2009 alone, 43,000 women were arrested like Hussein for wearing trousers in the Sudanese capital.
Sudan and Somalia are the only two Arab countries that have not ratified the CEDAW (Convention of Elimination of All Discrimination Against Women) of 1979.
Women’s rights revisited
Women activists from the Middle East and North Africa region gathered this week in Cairo to review the progress of Arab countries in the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action and the CEDAW convention.
“This is a very timely discussion because of the current economic crisis and women’s particular vulnerability to it, said Hoda Badran, the chairman of the Alliance for Arab Women. Badran, who was a regional NGO coordinator for the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, initiated the preparation of a shadow report on the status of the Beijing platform in the MENA region. The Alliance coordinated a number of different NGOs from the Maghreb, the Gulf and the Levant to collect information for the report.
A similar document had been prepared as an overview of the 30 years that past since the 1979 adoption of the CEDAW convention. The delegates at the two conferences shared their knowledge and insight of their respective countries to revise and amend these two documents.
Challenges old and new
Tanzanian politician Gertrude Mongella, who was the secretary general of the 1995 Beijing Conference, was the first to identify the challenges that the platform of the conference is facing today.
“Work has remained on a regional level, she said explaining that supporters of the platform have not communicated across regional borders enough. Women have also stayed out of international political processes. “When we are talking about peace, we are still leaving it as an agenda for men, she added.
Although all Arab states except Saudi Arabia have granted women the right to vote, Arab women have had limited participation in national politics. “Arab women’s political participation is the lowest in the world – only 2 percent, pointed out Badran.
As a result, lack of political will in the Arab states has repeatedly hindered the legal implementation of the Beijing platform and CEDAW. In addition, women’s organizations have often been harassed by the government.
“We got together at a conference to discuss important issues of women’s rights and the media was not allowed to cover any of it, said Amira Al-Taley, an activist from Oman. “Women need equality, justice, freedom, patience, patience, and patience, she added.
“Poverty is wearing a female cloak, Haifa Abu Ghazaleh, general secretary of the National Council for Family Affairs in Jordan. Poverty was raided as one of the main concerns at both the Beijing +15 and the CEDAW+30 conferences. The financial crisis on top of the already strained economic circumstances in a lot of Arab countries are exacerbating women’s financial situation which, in turn, pulls down girls’ enrollment rates and exposes women to more violence.
The rise of conservative movements and media misrepresentation of women were also identified as detrimental to women’s rights activism. “There is an atrocious campaign against us, said Layla Naffa, Arab Women Organization (AWO) program director in Jordan, referring to conservative movements which oppose women’s equality. One of the key notions that has to be changed is the concentration of family honor in the female body, she said.
“The media has also been propagating the objectification of women and limiting their social role to the home and the family, said Badran. The media across the Arab world has also been succumbing to conservative trends. At the same time, the delegates at the conference identified it as a key ally in raising awareness about women’s rights.
Future of women’s rights
With all the current challenges to women’s activism, ensuring continuity in the young generation has been largely ignored as a priority. “Young people don’t care about equality today. All they want is an easily life, ‘fast food’, said Nariman Abdel Kader, a practicing lawyer and professor of law.
“We have to find a way to reach young people. With all the new developments in technology, we cannot use the old ways any more, said Afaf Marei, director of EACPE and coordinator of the CEDAW Coalition.
Marei also pointed out that NGOs working with women are coming under growing financial constraints as donors from the West are unable to support them as much. Local companies, she said, are only interested in charity and not human rights.
A breakthrough that was not readily identified at the conference is the rising interest of men activists in women’s rights. The events this week had quite a few male attendees, both journalists and nonprofit workers. “Women’s economical role is becoming increasingly more and more important, said Botros Eshak, coordinator of project Together to Work.
“I have two daughters and I will give them good education. I will teach them our good values and give them an example with my fine relationship with my wife, said Tamer Magdy, the executive manager of El-Masry Foundation for Community Service.