Tag Archives: Arab women

Lebanese Women Offered a Toothless New Law

5 Mar

Dalila Mahdawi

BEIRUT, Mar 5 2012 (IPS) – Nour’s husband returned to Lebanon after two years of working abroad a changed person. The man she had loved was distant, cold and uncommunicative. Then, two weeks after his homecoming, he attacked Nour while she slept, raping her with such ferocity that he caused a fissure.

“When he finished I felt something coming out of me,” she says. As she writhed on the floor in agony, her husband looked on in silence. “After an hour he took me to a doctor. The doctor is his friend and refused to examine me. He prescribed me medication for the bleeding, which took three days to stop.”

It took Nour a week to recover but the psychological pain remains. “He killed my spirit, my body and my femininity,” she says quietly.

In an effort to protect women like Nour from abusive partners, a coalition of civil society organisations has spent the last five years drafting a law criminalising mental, physical and sexual abuse. The bill was approved by the Council of Ministers in April 2010 and is expected to be passed by parliament within the coming days. However, campaigners warn that the parliamentary committee tasked with overseeing the law has made so many amendments that they have rendered it useless.

The law, as drafted by the coalition, would have appointed public prosecutors to investigate incidences of violence, established special units within the Lebanese police force to respond to family violence cases, obliged medical personnel to report cases in which they treated women bearing signs of abuse, and empowered women and their children to seek restraining orders against their abusers. For the first time in Lebanese law, it outlined the different types of abuse women face, and designated clear punishments for offenders.

But a committee of eight parliamentarians, only one of whom is a woman, have made a number of radical amendments, removing marital rape, and economic and psychological violence from the bill entirely, and introducing a new article that grants religious bodies priority over civil law to oversee protection.

Leaked committee documents also show that the clause establishing a specialised police force for domestic violence cases was deleted and the bill’s focus on women was watered down to include the elderly, men and children.

In an interview with the Daily Star newspaper in December, committee member Imad Al-Hout hinted at the changes to come by denying the existence of marital rape. “There’s nothing called rape between a husband and a wife. It’s called forcing someone violently to have intercourse,” he was reported as saying.

The amendments have left the law “empty” and its approval would represent a major defeat for women, says Maya al-Ammar of KAFA: Enough Violence and Exploitation, the non-governmental organisation that spearheaded efforts to draft the law. In particular, the removal of marital rape indicated a lack of understanding by the committee about the types of violence experienced by women, says Ammar.

“If they don’t see that rape is rape, then I don’t know how they can study a law related to gender-based violence seriously,” she tells IPS. The coalition has had some dialogue with the committee but its members are reportedly keen to avoid debate until the law passes. Calls to committee members made by IPS went unanswered.

Statistics are difficult to come by in Lebanon, particularly on such a highly stigmatised topic as domestic violence, but a tally of reported death tolls suggests one woman is killed on average each month by a male partner, according to KAFA. Lebanon has a population of four million.

At least one-third of women in Lebanon have experienced some form of gender-based violence, says Dr. Jinan Usta, a family medicine doctor at the American University of Beirut Hospital, and researcher on domestic violence. Considered a private family matter, domestic violence remains shrouded in secrecy, and women face considerable barriers leaving abusive relationships. Women who seek assistance from the police or courts often report being told to return home, meaning few even bother to report abuse.

The amendments made by the committee seem to be aimed at placating Lebanon’s main religious authorities, which have all vigorously opposed the law. As with other issues relating to personal status, Lebanon’s 15 religious courts currently have jurisdiction over cases of domestic violence and are keen to maintain that power.

In June 2011, the country’s top Sunni and Shia bodies rejected the bill as a Western plot to undermine the Arab family. Campaigners, however, find the charge offensive. “Violence is not an Arab tradition,” says Dr. Usta.

Zeina Zaatari, regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Global Fund for Women, agrees that religion is being used to cover deep-seated patriarchal attitudes towards women.

“The domestic violence bill presents a form of legal protection for women and children residing in a particular household,” says Zaatari. “I do not see in that any contradiction with Muslim values, unless we are saying that Muslim values support violence against women; or unless we are saying that women are so simple minded and vicious that they would go and appeal to the courts just to spite their husbands. If we value women’s lives, which all faiths should, then we would support a law that protects them.”

The need for a civil law is especially critical as religious courts have demonstrated they are unwilling to assist women facing family violence, says Nadine Mouawad of the grassroots feminist collective Nasawiya, which has been active in lobbying for the adoption of the draft law.

“Across all confessions, the priority of religious courts is to advocate for reconciliation, which often means brushing over the women’s experience of violence. They have been inadequate in offering women shelter, separation rights, financial support, and other important elements of protection.” The amendment to refer cases of domestic violence back to the religious courts therefore “defeats the purpose of the new law,” she says.

Despite the bleak outlook, campaigners have vowed to keep up the pressure on the government in the coming weeks with media campaigns, protests and publicity stunts. If the amended law is approved, says Ammar, it will have “succeeded in silencing the voices of women.”

Nour, meanwhile, had this message for the parliamentary committee: “Where is the family that should be preserved? If the mother is finished, then the whole family is finished and you will simply be the one who contributed to its destruction.”

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Too much luxury and little substance at equality forum

24 Feb

Dalila Mahdawi for YourMiddleEast

Women have occupied a central role in the popular uprisings that have raged across the Arab world in the last year. The faces of political activists like Yemen’s Tawakul Karman, Syria’s Razan Ghazzawi and Tunisia’s Lina Ben Mhenni have, at least in many Western media outlets, become emblematic of regional calls for greater democracy and improved living conditions.

With the global spotlight shining on Arab women, it was not altogether unsurprising when organizers of the annual New Arab Woman Forum  (NAWF) chose women’s role in the revolutions as the theme for their Beirut meeting earlier this month.

Al-Hasnaa, a pan-Arab women’s magazine based in Lebanon, has organized NAWF for the last five years. It brings together prominent personalities from across the region for two days of discussions on the place of women in Arab society, culture, politics, and economic activity.

“We at Al-Hasnaa magazine believe that women’s issues are today a cause common to all Arab communities,” the organizers wrote on the eve of this month’s conference. “One of the major prerequisites for the continued advancement of Arab societies is that women should be free of all restraints so that they can play a leading role in economic and social development at all levels and in all fields.” The conference, they promised, would take “full account of the historic dimensions of the ongoing ferment and revolution in the region as it continues to follow up, analyze and discuss leading political and social issues of the hour.”

Despite the stated interest in advancing women’s causes, NAWF was met with scathing criticism from Arab feminists and disappointed attendees who dismissed it as a public relations venture with only a superficial interest in gender equality.

Even before the meeting had taken place, Lebanese women groups led by the feminist collective Nasawiya, had issued a press release condemning the elitist nature of the forum, which was held at a five-star hotel at a fee of $300 per person.  “It felt less like an enriching debate and more like watching people have coffee,” feminist activist Paola Salwan Daher complained.

Such vitriol against the conference is not new- NAWF has been dogged by criticism since its inception. During the 2009 forum, a number of participants left in disgust after Lebanese journalist May Chidiac launched a sectarian tirade against Belgium’s first veiled MP, which culminated in the politician bursting into tears. Detractors say crucial debates, such as women’s rights to divorce or to equal protection and standing before the law, are virtually ignored. They also complain that the forum favors celebrity endorsements over speakers with actual involvement in advancing women’s rights. The event is usually held under the patronage of a high profile woman, such as Emirati Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, Lebanese first lady Wafaa Sleiman or MP Bahia Hariri, sister of Lebanon’s assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri – women who are arguably more famous for their attachment to ruling men than for their individual commitment to women’s rights.

During this year’s forum, complaints about irrelevant speakers seemed fair after Syrian actor Duraid Lahham used his time at the podium to castigate women. Gender inequality was “all the women’s fault,” he told a bemused audience. “Violence (against women)? What violence? Men are also subjected to violence and they too have rights.”

In keeping with its theme of women in the revolutions, this year NAWF organized a short march for participants to call for gender equality in the region. The choice of route was itself indicative of the socio-economic group present at the forum, with marchers starting from the luxury Four Seasons hotel and walking through the upscale streets of Downtown Beirut, which are privately owned by the controversial construction company Solidere. “In the end, the protest was a symbolic action by women of the upper classes who wanted to take part in the Arab Spring in their own way,” wrote Lebanese journalist Ahmad Mohsen.

May Abi Samra, a young blogger who attended the forum, said she was appalled by the exclusive nature of the participants and the superficial manner in which crucial issues, like women’s political participation, were handled. “It was a fashion show/cocktail party,” she wrote. These “plastic women were actually debating their role as women in the Arab Spring, while wearing their finest jewelry and clothes … reaffirming society’s gender roles which expect women to have only one job: seducing men.”

In an irony that was perhaps lost on her audience, one NAWF speaker used a panel discussion on the Arab uprisings to criticize the exclusivity of mainstream Arab women organizations. “I call on women’s movements to rethink their elite discourse, which is far removed from the experiences of poor marginalized women,” said Nabila Hamza, the Tunisian head of Foundation for the Future, a Jordanian organization.

In response to criticism about the hefty conference fee, this year NAWF invited a number of students to attend for a “symbolic” $20. The concession did little to appease the anger of many women’s groups, however. “There was no real economic diversity in the rooms of a deluxe hotel, in a country where the average salary is $700 a month and where many households need to have two jobs or side occupations to make ends meet,” Daher wrote.

“With the amounts paid for that lavish hotel and with the money the sponsors poured into it, couldn’t a more creative approach been taken?”

Posh women’s rights in the Arab World

2 Dec

The New Arab Woman Forum is an elitist club for ladies who lunch. It desperately needs to become more diverse

Dalila Mahdawiguardian.co.uk, Wednesday 1 December 2010

Today, hundreds of women will gather in Beirut for the fourth annual New Arab Woman Forum (Nawf).

Bringing together prominent personalities for two days of “analysis of the changing position and role of women in Arab society, politics, and economic life,” Nawf claims to be the region’s “leading and most relevant women’s event”. If that’s true, then the Arab women’s movement is in serious trouble.

When I attended Nawf as a journalist last year, I was given a luxury leather notebook-holder as a welcoming present. Sadly, the notebook-holder was pretty much the only thing of substance to emerge from the proceedings. The file’s fashionable pink and brown colour scheme represents all that is wrong with Nawf, which seems to be more a gruesome parade of plastic surgery operations and couture outfits on the relatives of male political leaders than anything remotely to do with women’s empowerment.

For many involved in the struggle for gender equality, Nawf is as genuine a women’s event as many of the noses of its attendees. Last year’s session on political quotas, arguably one of the most important debates for women in the Arab world, for example, was butchered down to about 20 minutes so as to ensure it didn’t run into the obviously invaluable lunch break.

Besides a struggle with priorities, one of the biggest obstacles to the forum’s legitimacy is its outrageous price tag: it costs $300 (plus 10% VAT – more than £200) a person to attend, with no discounts for non-governmental or other community-based organisations. Why organisers have repeatedly chosen to host the event at the InterContinental Phoenicia hotel, the ultimate symbol of opulent excess, is another mind-boggler.  Perhaps Nawf didn’t get the memo that it is women who make up the bulk of the Arab world’s illiterate and impoverished citizens. If the organisers switched to a free or cheaper venue, it would automatically open up the event to a more diverse community of women.

Activists have also complained that Nawf denies invitations and speaking opportunities to important grassroots groups in favour of big names. Nawf could learn a lot from those it excludes, including those on its own doorstep in Beirut, such as the feminist collective Nasawiya, who recently invited the prominent gender studies professor Lila Abu-Lughoud to deliver a free public lecture. Instead, Mohammad Rahhal, Lebanon’s male environment minister, is delivering a speech.

The gilded hotel doors are firmly shut on precisely the women who should be listened to but wide open to those who have no real involvement in improving the lives of Arab women.

Another particularly irksome feature of Nawf is that organisers have stubbornly insisted on holding it in Beirut for a third time. The choice of location has repeatedly been justified with the old cliche that Lebanon is the most open society in the Arab world. But just because some women in Lebanon can wear a miniskirt doesn’t mean they enjoy substantive equality. Far from it: the Lebanese government considers women as juveniles in many aspects of the law, forbids them from passing on nationality to their children, and does not protect them from domestic violence, including marital rape. Until recently, Lebanese women were not even permitted to open bank accounts for their children.

Lebanon also has one of the lowest regional figures for women in politics, standing at a mere 3.1%, compared with Iraq’s 25.2%, Tunisia’s 27.6% and Syria’s 12.4%. As recently as 10 November, Lebanon balked at UN recommendations to improve women’s rights. Nawf’s real motivation to host its event in Beirut, therefore, seems to revolve around the idea that the allure of a trip to Beirut, with all its glamorous boutiques and restaurants, will entice more participants to cough up the hefty attendance fee. After all, there’s nothing like a vague two-day conference to take away the guilt of spending thousands of dollars on yourself.

No doubt the organisers had the best intentions when they envisioned Nawf. Any efforts to initiate discussion on the problems facing Arab women are to be commended, but if Nawf wishes to be taken seriously as a platform for all Arab women, it must make immediate and serious changes to become more inclusive of those whom it claims to speak on behalf of. Until then, the conference will remain an elitist club for ladies who lunch and a source of dismay to the real, anonymous women fighting for equality in the region. They might not have designer handbags but surely their ideas and experiences deserve just as much recognition.