Tag Archives: Gender

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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Nationality and the Palestinians

8 Jun

Looking over my story about Samira Soueidan, I realized I left out some vital information about why the Justice Ministry would appeal such a case. Do they not like Egyptians? Do they not like widowers?
Those who’ve followed my reporting on the issue will know that the appeal is actually more or less framed around the idea of the 400,000 or so Palestinian refugees being resettled in Lebanon.
Lebanon has always been paranoid that Palestinian refugees will be granted Lebanese citizenship and resettle here, upsetting the demographic balance in this hysterically confessional country. The argument put forward by officials in public is that they don’t want the Palestinians to relinquish their right to return to the country they were expelled from. (This is coincidentally one of the main reasons Lebanon also does not grant the Palestinians the right to work in most professions).
But scrutinize the issue and you will find this policy is nothing but lies. Christian Palestinians were granted Lebanese citizenship a long time ago, simply because they would bolster Christian numbers. So it has nothing to do with the rights of Palestinians to return to their occupied country and everything to do with sectarianism. By granting Soueidan the right to nationality, the Justice Ministry saw a dangerous precedent being set that could pave the way for all stateless children and husbands to demand their right to citizenship.
It’s especially difficult to comprehend the logic behind Lebanon’s sexist nationality laws when looking at the facts on the ground: According to a UNDP-funded study, only 2% of all Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese are married to Palestinians. This shows the law for what it is:deeply flawed and only existing to serve the patriarchal sectarian system.

Rich old widows and manipulative foreign men

3 Jun
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NGO hits out at General Security over nationality laws
By Dalila Mahdawi and Carol Rizk
Daily Star staff
Friday, May 21, 2010

BEIRUT: A Lebanese non-governmental organization (NGO) lashed out on Thursday at recent comments by the director of General Security, Wafiq Jezzini, accusing him of “humiliating” racism and sexism.

The Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action (CRTD.A) also asked the Lebanese government to clarify what progress had been made in enacting a decree granting free of charge residency permits with up to three years validity to the non-Lebanese husbands and children of Lebanese women.

The decree, proposed by Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud, was approved by Cabinet on April 21, but has not yet come into effect, leading human rights activists to suspect it was being delayed on purpose.

Last week, Jezzini told the Cabinet Baroud’s decree contravened Lebanon’s labor laws and accused non-Lebanese husbands of Lebanese women of entering the country illegally and marrying much older “rich widows” to financially exploit them.

Jezzini, whose remarks were published by Al-Akhbar newspaper on May 14, also claimed that granting complementary residency permits to the non-Lebanese husbands and children of Lebanese women would lead to “social problems.”

Lebanese law permits men to pass on their nationality to their non-Lebanese wives and children but bars women married to non-Lebanese from doing the same. Deprived of state protection and recognition, those without citizenship live in a precarious legal vacuum and cannot benefit from state education or health care, work in the formal economy or vote.

Non-Lebanese husbands and children must apply for costly residency permits on an annual basis or face imprisonment and deportation.

“Giving complementary residency permits would encourage these people to enter Lebanon on the pretext of tourism or work and then not leave,” Jezzini said. “They marry Lebanese women to benefit from the provided facilities and nothing more, and this can lead to social problems and hurt society and the economy.”

He added: “[General Security] has mentioned in previous correspondences that … Lebanon has become a target country for immigrants. This flow is either legal or clandestine … [and] has led to a relatively large number of foreigners living illegally in Lebanon, many of whom – notably Egyptians, Iraqis and Syrians – marry Lebanese women and have children even if they are already married in their native country.

“They do not take age differences into consideration and sometimes marry rich widows because they are looking for a refuge or a way out.”

Roula Masri, gender program coordinator at CRTD.A, said Jezzini’s tone was “humiliating” and “totally offensive.” Jezzini was suggesting that foreign men come to Lebanon to find “old and unmarried women,” she told The Daily Star. The security official also suggested that Baroud’s decree “would give working class men the right to come and marry women who have passed the suitable marriage age and to exploit them,” Masri said.

CRTD.A asked the government to elucidate what progress it had made toward ratifying Baroud’s law. “It’s been a month since the endorsement so it’s unusual that it’s not yet passed into effect,” Masri said, adding that most laws only need two or three weeks to enter into force.

The NGO also issued a statement responding to Jezzini, saying his comments were “offensive to Lebanese women, their husbands, and to the working class.”

It added: “The head of General Security should not have generalized but should rather have focused on determining clear and transparent standards. He should also not have interfered in the personal affairs of the right of Lebanese women to choose their husbands.”

Jezzini’s comments were especially offensive as “dozens of families live in constant fear of being deported,” CRTD.A said. According to Masri, the Iraqi husband of a Lebanese woman was deported on Sunday even though his papers were in order.

Photographs show Lebanon’s dark world of domestic violence

3 Dec

Victims of abusive partners display work in effort to break taboo
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Thursday, December 03, 2009

BEIRUT: For many women throughout the world, the place where they are most vulnerable to violence is not the street, but their own home. For Layla (not her real name), home brought a daily ritual of violence and humiliation at the hands of an abusive husband. Last year, he married another woman behind her back and left for another country, kidnapping his and Layla’s three children. She has not seen them since.
Documentary photographer and women’s rights activist Dalia Khamissy has been working with Layla and nine other women since August to create an exhibition of photographs, “Behind the Doors: Through the Eyes of Women Survivors of Violence.”
For the project, Khamissy partnered with KAFA: Enough Violence and Exploitation, a Lebanese non-governmental organization dedicated to eradicating gender-based violence, child abuse and human trafficking. The 10 participants are among hundreds of survivors of domestic violence who receive social, psychological, legal and other support from KAFA.
Khamissy’s project, funded by the Italian Embassy in Lebanon and the Italian Cooperation Office, opens to the public Thursday afternoon. The exhibition falls during the annual “16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence,” which sees a flurry of activity across the globe toward ending domestic, family and gender-based violence from November 25 to December 10.
Khamissy said she hoped the exhibition would help thrust open the doors on a highly stigmatized topic.
“I hope it will make people more aware about domestic violence and make some women speak out and seek help,” she said.
Reflecting their different experiences, each woman explored a particular theme through their photographs. One woman shot images of her body, the so-called source of all her problems with her partner. Another chose to grimly document the tools of torture used by her husband.
“Dalia taught us how to compose, to adjust the light, and other technical issues about the camera, so we could give photos that reflected our feelings and suffering but that were also good quality,” said Tala (not her real name).
Because of the women’s need to remain anonymous, many of the photographs are dark, blurry, and completely untraceable back to their creator. But despite their somber and often grainy nature, the photographs look professional.
“I’m so proud. These are the pictures by women who never touched a camera before,” Khamissy said. In one striking black and white photograph, a pair of virginal white underpants lies on a stone wall. The caption, written by someone identified only as B.H, reads: “I am in my fifties and this image keeps haunting me.”
In order to produce the photographs, the women involved had to reflect on their experiences, stirring up memories of violence and disgrace they might rather not recall.
“We consider this work as a form of therapy,” said KAFA social worker Rima Abi Nader.
“At the beginning, it wasn’t easy to go deep inside myself and show what was hurting,” said Tala, who took five weeks to start shooting photographs she felt truly represented her feelings. “When you have good memories, you want to remember them. When you have bad memories, you’d rather forget.”
The photographs “represent a visual framework of the pain that [a] few women went through over many years, and of a suffering that remained absent from the social awareness and buried in the maze of the privacies of [the family home] and social taboos,” said KAFA director Zoya Rouhana.

While they reveal the experiences of only 10 women, the exhibition’s photographs bring into relief the experience of many more Lebanese women who have or are living through domestic violence.

Violence against women is the most persistent human-rights abuse in the world yet also the most unpunished.
A third of women across the globe have at some point been coerced into sex, beaten, or otherwise abused, most often by someone known to them, the World Health Organization has said. According to the World Bank, women between the ages of 15 and 44 are more likely to be raped or experience violence than cancer, war or car accidents.
No statistics about domestic violence exist in Lebanon, where domestic violence remains very much a taboo. But legislation clearly favors men: the penal code has no specific laws relating to domestic violence and does not recognize marital rape a crime. Rapists can be pardoned if they propose to their victims and men granted lenient sentences if found to have killed a female family member to preserve the family “honor.”
Khamissy said she hopes the exhibition will highlight the urgency of adopting a family-violence protection bill. A law has been drafted by KAFA, and if introduced, special police stations and courts would be opened to address family violence, and perpetrators of violence would be required to pay all expenses caused by their actions, such as medical care or legal fees.
The draft law is especially urgent, said Nader, because of the legal and social obstacles women encounter when trying to escape abuse. “In our confessional system [where personal matters are governed over by religious courts], it’s rare to give women the right to custody or their right to obtain divorce,” she added.
Many women are also economically dependent on their abusive partner, making it even more difficult for them to leave. Some of the women participating in the exhibition still live with violent husbands.
Still, for Rouhana, the photos are a symbol of “resistance to male power and to the rule of some tyrants empowered by the patriarchal system [which grants them] an almost unrestricted control over the destiny of their wives, daughters, sisters.”
“Before I got married, I thought I was a strong and free person,” said Layla. “After marriage, I was imprisoned.”
Tala agreed: “Everything [you do] is limited – what you are going to wear, where you are going, even your political views he decides.”
“This [exhibition] is a salute to the women who decided to revolt against what others consider an inevitable fate and unchangeable reality, despite the fact that their resistance is still unrecognized, unprotected and unsupported,” said KAFA director Rouhana.
“Behind the Doors” is showing at the Ministry of Tourism in Hamra from 4 p.m Thursday, December 3, to Wednesday, December 9, 2009.
If you or someone you know wants to talk about domestic violence, call KAFA’s confidential, round-the-clock helpline on 03 018 019.

Stolen Lives: Lebanon suffers problem of child brides

10 Nov

Economic crisis pushes children from poorer areas into early marriage
By Dalila Mahdawi, Daily Star staff
Tuesday, November 10, 2009

BEIRUT: Early marriages are making an unwelcome comeback in impoverished Lebanese villages and among the Palestinian refugee community, spurred on by the global economic crisis and harmful gender stereotypes, women’s rights activists warned Monday. Child brides are seen as more of a problem in countries like Saudi Arabia or Yemen but have been steadily increasing in poor areas throughout Lebanon over recent years. Girls as young as 13 are being married off by their parents with damaging consequences on their education and psychological and physical well-being, experts said.

The remarks came at a regional women’s rights conference organized by the non-governmental organization Developmental Action without Borders (Nabaa) and Movement for Peace (MPDL) with support from Spain’s embassy in Beirut.

Faten Sabah, a researcher at Nabaa, said the global economic crisis was pushing poor families to marry off their daughters in an effort to relieve financial pressures on the household. “In Lebanon, the phenomenon of early marriage is reappearing … This is the start of violations against women’s rights,” she said, noting that early pregnancies could have dangerous health implications for both mother and baby.

Out of 77 Palestinian girls interviewed in south Lebanon by Nabaa, some 46.75 percent of 17 year olds and around 32 percent of 16 year olds were already married, she said, adding that there was a clear correlation between the girls’ education level and age at time of marriage.

“Most acknowledged their marriage was early and expressed some regret,” she said, with some 74 percent of all child brides saying family pressure had pushed them into marrying. Women who had married early were more likely to fight with their husbands, experience social isolation and less likely to return to formal education, Sabah added.

The poor villages of Mujid and Bibnin in Akkar, north Lebanon, are witnessing similar increases in child brides, too. After Israel’s 34-day war on Lebanon in July 2006, observers also noted an increase in “exchange marriages,” where a person’s sister is given almost as a dowry in exchange for the sister of someone else, said Jou­mana Merhi, executive director of the Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering.

Lebanese law has adopted the same definition of “child” as described by the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which Beirut signed in 1991. According to the convention, and for the purpose of civil obligations and contracts, a child is any person below the age of 18. The marriage of anyone under this age, then, is considered a breach of the convention.

But in some Muslim circles, girls as young as 9 are deemed suitable for marriage, Merhi said. The minimum age at which girls can marry is lower than boys in all of Lebanon’s religious courts, which govern personal status affairs such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

Lebanon has signed several international treaties on the rights of the child, but enforcement remains problematic. Beirut became party to the Convention’s Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, in 2004. It also signed the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict in February 2002 but has yet to ratify it.

“Another choice other than early marriage must be given to these women,” stressed Merhi. “It is very important to find opportunities for these girls.”

Jesus Saenz Denis, International for the Middle East at MPDL, praised Nabaa officials for their work among the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon.

These activities “demonstrate they don’t just come and talk about women’s rights, but enforce them” through concrete action in the camps, he said, pointing to the organization’s work in providing education and vocational training to Palestinian girls.

Despite the encouraging work being done, Denis said more work on women’s rights was needed. “This conference will not be enough. You must keep fighting in your communities every single day for women’s rights, which are human rights themselves.”

Lebanese beach resort discrimination policies uncovered

25 Aug
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
BEIRUT: If you’re a migrant domestic worker or dark-skinned tourist, it’s more than likely you’ll run into difficulty trying to enter one of Lebanon’s pool or beach resorts. This is the sad conclusion reached by international advocacy organization Human Rights Watch (HRW), and confirmed by countless individuals who’ve experienced such racism first hand. 

“Last summer we blind-called resorts to see if there were any restrictions on [the entry or use of facilities by] migrant domestic workers,” Nadim Houry, Senior Researcher at HRW’s Beirut office, told The Daily Star. “We initially called pretending to be a Lebanese family enquiring” about entrance fees and regulations. The results: out of 27 resorts called, 17 said they practiced some form of discrimination against migrants, Houry said. 

Many resorts that do let in migrant workers only do so on if the women are accompanying their employers. Even then, the women are either not allowed to sit in the public area or swim in the pool or sea. Resorts contacted by The Daily Star justified such discrimination by saying they did not wish to upset other guests or that migrants paid less or no entrance fee. As no discrimination law exists in Lebanon, the resorts aren’t doing anything illegal. But their rules conjure up images of Apartheid South Africa or of racial segregation in the United States. “This is clear racism in its most basic element,” Houry said. 

Sylvie, not her real name, is a black Cuban-American who worked for a large international organization in Lebanon. She said she was stunned by the racism she encountered and recalled a story of two black colleagues who were barred entry at a resort because of their color. “If you’re dark-skinned, don’t come to Beirut presuming to find the diversity-friendly cosmopolitanism that the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ moniker seems to imply,” she said. 

Lebanon is home to roughly 200,000 migrant domestic workers, although this figure does not include those who enter the country illegally or Syrian and Egyptian day laborers. Many of these women, who are from such countries as Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Ethiopia and Nepal, work as live-in “maids” for employers who respect their rights, but a sizeable number experience violations of their human rights. 

Their problems are compounded by the fact they receive no protection under Lebanese labor laws, leaving them with little access to the justice system. As such, many domestic helpers work long hours without a weekly day off, or for employers that physically or psychologically abuse them.  A 2006 survey of 600 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon by American University of Beirut professor Ray Jureidini found that 56 percent worked over 12 hours a day and 34 percent were not allowed regular time off. 

A similar survey by the NGO Caritas Lebanon in 2005 found 90 percent of employers retained the passports and other legal documents of their domestic worker employees, placing limitations on their freedom of movement. Many workers are also denied regular, if any, payment of their salaries. 
Thus while racist restrictions on migrants at Lebanon’s beach resorts is not the most pressing difficulty faced by these women, as Houry admits, it is symbolic of their predicament. “It’s a very telling problem … a manifestation of the deep-seated racism against migrant workers” in Lebanon, he said. 

 Some commentators have pointed out that the discrimination upheld by some Lebanese according to their perceived views of a person’s socio-economic background. “I think it is different when the women domestic workers … go into these facilities as friends of Lebanese people, [as] opposed to on their own or as workers with a family,” said Zoe Ozveren on a Facebook group set up to support migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. “I personally have been called an Ethiopian girl because of my skin color and treated rudely by a few people, but as soon as they see me with my Lebanese or American friends, the attitude is completely different.” 

Dima Dabbous-Sensenig, Director of the Lebanese American University’s Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World, agreed. “I bet if the maid was Swedish or Italian there would be no problem letting her in the swimming pool and in restaurants and at the hairdresser’s, etc,” she said. 

To better inform migrant domestic workers of their rights and responsibilities, the Lebanese government recently introduced an information booklet and a standardized contract available in the women’s native languages, as well as English, French and Arabic, that is also signed by the employer. While the contract grants workers the right to a weekly day off, it has its shortcomings: it does not mention the women’s right to enjoy their day off outside of their employer’s home and does not enforce penalties for agencies or employers who breach the contract. And while Lebanon is party to the International Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, it has yet to sign the 2003 Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. 

Eradicating racism in Lebanon will not be achieved overnight, but as Houry noted, it must come to an end if the country wants to attract tourists of all backgrounds. “These discriminatory practices are a stain on Lebanon’s efforts to promote itself and its beaches as a welcoming and tolerant place,” he said, urging the Lebanese government to take measures against racism and to formulate an anti-discrimination law.

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.”