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