Tag Archives: equality

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.

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Hear the women of Iran roar

17 Jun
Women in Iran at the core of the protest movement

Women in Iran are at the core of the protest movement

With Iran’s population currently revolting, a lot of attention is being paid to the country’s women. Here are just three of the many articles telling their stories: 

While I don’t always agree with the Christian Science Monitor’s editorials or the paper’s religious standing, they generally print high-quality, informative reports. This editorial addresses the situation of women in Iran’s current “uprising”. “What is striking about the Iranians protesting fraud in the June 10 “election” is the number of women on the front lines. Among all those cheated at the polls, they may feel the most denied.

Excellent and informed article on The National:  “We feel cheated, frustrated and betrayed,” said an Iranian woman in a message circulated on Facebook. Iran’s energetic female activists are using the social networking site to mobilise opposition to Mr Ahmadinejad. Iranian women also have a dynamic presence on the country’s blogosphere – the biggest in the Middle East – which they are using to keep up popular momentum against the election outcome.

This article on Comment is Free on The Guardian is as dull as dishwater to read but containts some interesting facts. 

“Over the last year, for example, there have been a series of small but significant victories: Iranian MPs have declined to enact laws that would have further facilitated men’s ability to indulge in polygamy; new measures are presently under discussion to enhance women’s inheritance rights; and reforms are also being put forward to end the insulting, discriminatory rule in compensation cases, where a family of a dead woman will be awarded literally half of the compensation paid for a man’s death.”

Lebanon’s Crawl to Equality

12 Jun

This article first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and was written for Common Ground News Service.

Patriarchy and political dynasties have shut out women who wish to govern.

By Dalila Mahdawi

It sees itself as one of the Middle East’s most liberal countries, but Lebanon’s lack of women politicians is conspicuous. While Lebanese women today enjoy senior positions in the private sector, political appointments have all but eluded them.

Lebanese women were granted suffrage in 1953, yet to this day they face considerable obstacles to entering politics in a country where political dynasties and patriarchy rule.

Most Lebanese women who do go into politics do so “wearing black” – that is, filling a position made available by a deceased male relative, and for which there is no other male relative available. Two examples are Myrna Boustani, who became the first Lebanese woman in parliament upon her father’s death, and Nayla Mouawad, who joined the body after becoming a widowed first lady of Lebanon.

But even when a female politician is elected to parliament without the help of a tragedy – as Bahia Hariri was in 1992, well before the assassination of her brother Rafiq Hariri, the five-time prime minister – it still seems to be a requirement that she hail from a rich and traditionally political family. It is virtually impossible for an independent, self-made woman to enter the political arena.

Unfortunately, the issue of women’s political participation was only superficially addressed by Lebanon’s elections on Sunday. The elections, which saw a Hezbollah-led opposition defeated by the Western-backed March 14 coalition, were widely hailed as the most competitive in years. But out of 587 candidates, only 12 – or a mere 2 percent – were women.

Worse, only four of those 12 – Nayla Tueni, Bahia Hariri, Strida Geagea, and Gilberte Zwein – were elected to Lebanon’s 128-member parliament. And all of them belong to political dynasties.

Lebanon’s instability has in the past helped drown out voices calling for gender equality. Over the last relatively trouble-free year, however, those voices have become louder and more persistent – most notably in a campaign to alter Lebanon’s discriminatory nationality law, which prevents Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese men from transferring their nationality to their husbands and children.

Beirut has also been pressured to amend discriminatory family laws and to make greater efforts to combat gender-based violence.

But during the run-up to the elections, the closest the country came to a national debate on women’s role in politics was a war of slogans. The opposition’s Free Patriotic Movement played on the well-known French saying “Sois belle et tais-toi” (“Be beautiful and shut up”) with posters urging women to “Sois belle et vote” – “Be beautiful and vote.” The March 14 coalition responded with “Sois egale et vote” – “Be equal and vote.”

The parties were keen to attract women voters. But none of them explained how exactly they intended to promote women’s rights.

Women will be able to play a greater role in the governance of Lebanon only if the country’s political system moves away from its traditional sectarian system and toward a secular meritocracy. In 2005, a national commission to draft a new electoral law suggested introducing a 30 percent quota for women, but this was rejected. If the parties are serious in their calls for equality, they could impose voluntary internal quotas to ensure that a minimum number of women run in intraparty and national elections.

Lebanon has a duty to eliminate gender discrimination. Beirut amended the national constitution in 1990 to embrace the International Bill of Human Rights, paving the way for international human rights to be applied to national legislation. It might be too late for this year’s elections, but greater political participation by women could be encouraged in the 2010 municipal elections.

As long as Lebanon continues to hinder women’s rights and prevent women from entering the political process, the country cannot enjoy true democracy. Men and women alike must work to encourage the election of more women members of parliament.

Lebanese women have had the right to die as part of their country’s army for the last 18 years. They should also have the right to help formulate the laws that govern every Lebanese citizen – man or woman.