Tag Archives: New Arab Woman Forum

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.

Participants turn on each other at forum on women

16 Oct

By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Friday, October 16, 2009

BEIRUT: An elite group of Arab women gathered in Beirut Thursday for what was supposed to be a lively two-day forum on the status of women in the region, but which quickly descended into bitter exchanges between several attendees. Picking up the threads of last year’s meeting, the third annual New Arab Woman Forum (NAWF) brought together prominent women from across the Middle East to muse over Arab women’s poor political and economic participation and women social entrepreneurs, media workers and business leaders, as well as sexuality and Arab writers. But participants will more likely remember this year’s gathering as the date Lebanese journalist May Chidiac reduced Belgium’s first veiled MP, Mahinur Ozdemir, to tears.
During a panel on the role of media in shaping public opinion on women’s issues, Ozdemir spoke of her own experience with the Belgian media, who attacked her joining the Christian Democrats party when she wore the Muslim veil.
Her presentation was met with scathing words from Chidiac, who called the Belgian-Turkish politician divisive and compared the veil to her two prosthetic limbs, the result of a car bomb assassination attempt in 2005. Chidiac also suggested Ozdemir’s presentation was uninteresting and off-topic, prompting tears from the politician.
Chidiac was in turn criticized by several members of the audience, who called her attack on Ozdemir unwarranted. “We all know the story of May Chidiac, and so we thank you for not telling us, but we don’t know her story and it’s interesting to hear what she has to say,” one participant interjected.
Some attendees took advantage of the heated discussion that followed to criticize the forum’s high-profile composition: At $300 a ticket, attendance at NAWF isn’t available to everyone. “Surely you have to include grassroots activists in such a conference or you’re excluding the majority of the region’s women,” said one participant who declined to be identified. “But how can they afford to pay?” Other participants regretted that the forum’s first panel on women in politics had been cut short.
During that discussion, Aman Kabbara Chaarani, president of the Lebanese Women’s Council, urged Beirut to adopt a quota system for women politicians and to implement international resolutions calling for gender equality. “Instead of moving ahead we are falling behind,” she warned, saying the Lebanese government lacked the political will to advance women’s rights.
Kicking off the forum earlier, caretaker Education Minister Bahia Hariri said NAWF, organized by the Arab League, women’s magazine Al-Hasnaa and Al-Iktissad Wal Aamal Group, embodied “the pillars of rebirth to which the Arab countries and the Arab nation aspire today.”
Sima Bahous, assistant secretary general for social affairs at the Arab League, outlined the main issues needed to further women’s rights in the Middle East. “Although we are very proud of the achievements of Arab women in the fields of education, labor, economic rights, politics and legislative bodies, these achievements still fall short of our aspirations and needs,” she said, pointing in particular to the region’s staggering illiteracy levels. Some 100 million Arabs, 67 percent of whom are women, are illiterate, according to the 2008 International Review of Education.
Concerted efforts in the education, social welfare and health fields were needed, she said, adding that women’s economic and political participation also needed boosting. Despite recent victories by women in politics, overall participation in the region remains less than 9 percent, while economic participation stands at about 30 percent, Bahous said.
A brief award ceremony honored former first lady of Lebanon Mona Hrawi, Ozdemir, Kuwaiti writer Leila Othman, and Saudi professor Suhair al-Quraishi for their efforts to promote women’s rights in the region.