Tag Archives: women’s rights

Another day, another article about women

8 Mar

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I have published another story on the tug-of-war over Lebanon’s draft family violence law. You can read it here, on IRIN.

HAPPY WOMEN’S DAY!!! MAY WOMEN EVERYWHERE ENJOY THEIR RIGHTS IN FULL AND WITHOUT FEAR OF VIOLENCE OR DISCRIMINATION!

27 Jul

Wanted: Women for Lebanon’s Cabinet (op/ed)

25 Jul

A woman-free zone: Lebanon's new Cabinet comprised entirely of men (AFP)

Beirut, LEBANON:In 1776, the first lady of the United States, Abigail Adams, wrote a letter to her husband John and to Congress, imploring her countrymen not to overlook women’s interests. “Remember the ladies,” she urged, adding with considerable defiance: “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

More than 230 years later and thousands of miles away in tiny Lebanon, Adam’s words have gained renewed urgency. In mid-June, after five months of intense negotiations, Prime Minister Najib Mikati finally unveiled his new Cabinet. Not one of his 30 appointees is a woman.

“Women hold up half the sky,” as the Chinese proverb goes, but in many parts of the world they are still being forgotten by the governments that are supposed to represent them.

While the absence of women from political life is typical in other Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, Lebanese women have enjoyed at least symbolic representation in their government since being given the right to vote in 1952. Before the previous government was brought down in January, there were two women in the Cabinet, holding the finance and state portfolios, and four women among 128 parliamentarians. Though this amounts to a paltry 3.1 percent, most activists were optimistic it would, in time, gradually increase.

If being deprived a share of the Cabinet wasn’t bad enough for Lebanese women, their role in society has been further called into question by the disappointing comments of the country’s most senior Sunni leader. Grand Mufti Mohammad Qabbani recently condemned efforts to introduce legislation protecting women from domestic violence as a Western plot against Muslim family values.

These seem like strange words indeed when one recalls Lebanese citizen Charles Malik’s pioneering role in drafting the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights — a document firmly committed to ending gender discrimination and one that the Lebanese have enshrined in their Constitution. Mr. Qabbani seems to have overlooked the fact that Lebanon helped articulate those very values he now accuses of being foreign and which many other Muslim leaders would call an integral part of their religious beliefs.

Unfortunately, the masculinization of Lebanon’s government is just the latest in a string of major blows to women’s political participation in the Arab world as a whole.

Women were at the helm of the uprisings in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt, but only one has been appointed to the new 27-member Cabinet in Cairo and plans for a woman’s quota introduced last year have been abandoned. In Tunisia, where women formerly held over a quarter of parliamentary seats, they head only two of 31 ministries now. Developments in Lebanon thus may well herald the beginning of retrogressive steps on women’s rights throughout the region.

This apparent sleepwalking backwards increasingly goes against the grain of global attitudes towards women, whose participation in decision-making is now an internationally recognized marker of social progress and is on the rise every year.

The United Nations has, since 2000, led initiatives to mainstream women’s active role in the public life of their countries, issuing several resolutions in this regard. Lebanon should embrace its historical role as a defender of human rights and implement those resolutions in good faith.

Without women, Lebanon’s political jigsaw puzzle is glaringly incomplete and calls for transformative change will go unanswered. As one local group put it recently, “How can we arrive at social justice for all when we exclude half of society in the decision-making process?”

Women must become an integral part of decision-making bodies if Lebanon and other Arab countries want to enjoy real democracy and truly serve the needs and aspirations of their people.

The political participation of women is a matter of justice, not a privilege they should have to fight for. The sisters of Abigail Adams should not have to wait any longer for their rights to be recognized.

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.

Family Violence

26 Nov

I miss writing stories about development issues in Lebanon. But, thankfully, other writers are doing so.

Voice of America, for example, just published a story about family violence. The author talks about the efforts of anti-exploitation NGO KAFA to push through a bill on family violence- currently Lebanon has no legislation protecting women (or men) or children from family-based violence.

The reluctance of the state to get involved in what it sees as a “private” affair effectively gives perpetrators of violence the green light to continue terrorising their families with impunity. KAFA, who works on lobbying and directly with survivors of violence, submitted  a draft bill to Parliament sometime ago which would see domestic and family violence criminalized (including marital rape, which is currently not even recognized), introduce a properly trained police unitcourt system to take charge of family violence cases, and oblige perpetrators to pay all legal and medical costs of those they harm. The bill has been gathering dust at Parliament for over a year now, although legislators have expressed (orally at least, though it remains to be seen whether that translates into action) support for a law.

But while Lebanon’s politicians continue to bicker over sectarian issues, their citizens will continue to fall through the legislative cracks. Words of support won’t protect those suffering from abuse- we need KAFA’s family violence law implemented and we need it implemented now.

If you or someone you know in Lebanon wants to talk about domestic violence, call KAFA’s confidential, round-the-clock helpline on 03 018 019.

Inside the mind of a Lebanese politician

3 Jun

In all countries of the world, politicians are meant to serve their constituents. In Lebanon, politicians (except a minor handful) serve themselves and then, if they have enough energy to spare, their religious community. Samira Soueidan, a Lebanese mother of four, apparently committed a crime when she married an Egyptian man. Her husband is now dead but she continues to pay for this crime- the Lebanese government does not recognize women’s right to pass on citizenship and so her children are stateless. They have never been to Egypt and do not have nor wish for Egyptian citizenship. They are Lebanese to everyone except the State.

Samira wanted recognition her children are Lebanese, and so she went to the courts. The first court said yes, her children should be granted citizenship. Then the Justice Minister decided to appeal.  I repeat, the Justice Minister. He wins, Samira’s children and by extension all Lebanese women lose. The irony is too much to bear.

If you want to read more about the case, here it is:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

BEIRUT: A landmark ruling which granted citizenship to the children of a Lebanese mother was overturned by an appeals court Tuesday in a move that has left human rights activists reeling.

Samira Soueidan filed a lawsuit five years ago demanding her four children be granted citizenship rights following the death of her Egyptian husband. 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.

Leaving the courthouse in Jdidet al-Metn, Soueidan said she had “lost the battle but not the fight” and vowed to take her case to the Court of Cassation, Lebanon’s highest appeals court. “I’m not going to stop here,” she said, adding that her children had been born and raised in Lebanon and should be viewed as Lebanese.

In a breakthrough ruling last July, Judges John al-Azzi, Rana Habka and Lamis Kazma ruled in favor of granting Soueidan’s two sons and two daughters citizenship. The judges said their decision was based on the fact there was no law prohibiting a Lebanese mother from passing on her nationality to her children after the death of her husband. They also noted that aspects of Lebanon’s nationality law were “obscure” and that current legislation favored foreign women over their Lebanese counterparts.

The verdict was applauded by civil society organizations and suggested a breakthrough for thousands of other families suffering because of the sexist legislation. Ironically, however, it was appealed by Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar.

The Court of Cassation, presided over by Judge Mary al-Maouchi and two other women consultants, accepted Najjar’s appeal and overturned Azzi’s ruling, saying it contravened Articles 3 and 537 of Lebanon’s Civil Law code and the nationality law. “Judicial courts are not concerned with granting nationality rights [in cases where it was not granted at birth] as this is a right only enjoyed by the president,” stated the 17-page ruling, a copy of which was obtained by The Daily Star. Soueidan will have to pay all the legal fees incurred in the case.

Representatives from the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action [CRTD.A], a Lebanese non-governmental organization that has been supporting Soueidan in her fight, said they were disappointed but “unsurprised” by the legal setback. “The approach of the Lebanese government since Azzi’s ruling has not been encouraging,” said Roula Masri, CRTD.A gender program coordinator.

She claimed the judge had been subject to harassment and “humiliation” from leading officials in the Justice Ministry.

Azzi was also reportedly unofficially banned from talking to journalists, who were required to submit interview requests to the Justice Ministry. A request submitted by The Daily Star several months ago was never answered.

There are around 18,000 Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese in Lebanon, according to a study by the UN Development Program. Around 80,000 children and husbands are potentially made stateless by the current legislation.

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. They are vulnerable to arbitrary detention, have difficulty accessing the legal system and live under constant fear of deportation.

Lebanon’s nationality law was formulated in 1925, at a time when Beirut was under French mandatory rule. “It’s about time to amend such an outdated law,” Masri said. That the law continues to be applied flies in the face of “claims that we live in a democratic country that can compete in the international arena.”

A 1994 amendment of the nationality law gave the child of a Lebanese mother and foreign father the right to obtain citizenship. But in order for it to be granted, the child must marry a Lebanese citizen and live continuously in Lebanon for at least five years, including one year after marriage.

Tuesday’s ruling, together with the discriminatory nationality legislation, contradicts Article 7 of the Lebanese Constitution, which guarantees men and women equality before the law, Masri said. “The only way women can win their rights is by amending the current nationality law,” she said, adding that CRTD.A would respond to Soueidan’s defeat with a major public event. Masri also decried the fact that Soueidan’s hopes for nationality rights were thwarted by women judges. “It’s a pity to find women not supporting other women’s rights.”

Nationality rights: ignored but not forgotten

26 Nov

Omission of issue from ministerial statement does not justify neglect
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Thursday, November 26, 2009

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s new Cabinet must not forget its duty to work toward granting Lebanese women nationality rights, despite its apparent omission of the issue in the ministerial statement, gender-equality activists said Wednesday. Over 100 people heeded the call of social justice organization Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action (CRTD.A) to demand an overhaul of the current discriminatory legislation, formulated in 1925. 

The law allows men to pass on their nationality to their non-Lebanese wives and children but forbids Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese from doing the same. This injustice is further exacerbated by Lebanon’s reservation on Article 2 of paragraph 9 of the UN Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, pertaining to nationality rights. 

“The Lebanese Constitution lets any Lebanese man who marries a foreigner automatically give her his nationality and even if she has 10 children from a previous marriage, they get the Lebanese nationality,” said one woman who wished not to be identified. “But children who are born in this country and are Lebanese citizens more than some of our politicians cannot get the nationality.” 

There are about 18,000 Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese living in Lebanon and over 80,000 people affected by the current legislation, including children and spouses, according to the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) “Toward Reforming the Nationality Law in Lebanon” project. 

CRTD.A launched the regional Nationality Campaign nearly a decade ago to demand reform of discriminatory nationality laws. Since then the campaign has met with considerable success, with Algeria, Morocco and Egypt changing their laws, said CRTD.A executive director Lina Abou-Habib. More recently, Bahrain adopted measures guaranteeing equality for women and Syria has enforced laws stipulating gender equality in education. “We are witnessing progress in the region. There is no excuse for Lebanon not to join in,” Abou-Habib said. Viewed as illegal aliens, those without Lebanese citizenship face myriad difficulties, including obtaining employment or affordable education and health care, are required to go for regular medical check-ups and blood tests, and face the threat of deportation every day. The difficulties faced by those without citizenship was on Wednesday apparent as audience members emotionally recounted painful experiences. 

One Lebanese woman married to a non-Lebanese said she feared for her children’s financial future. “Who is going to in­herit from me after I die? Neither my children nor my husband will benefit from my life’s work.” 

There are also a number of people who, because of a decades-old administrative oversight, continue to be denied their right to Lebanese citizenship. “Men and women are treated the same when it comes to injustice,” said audience member Haider Radi, struggling to hold back tears. “I was born of a Lebanese father. My father was born in Lebanon in 1920 and was registered in 1932 but he was then transferred to the foreign register in 1936. My father suffered from bad governance and now I’m suffering and my daughters are suffering.” 

Abou-Habib reiterated the Nationality Campaign would not accept reform of the nationality law that excludes Palestinians. Those against an amendment of the law have argued that the naturalization of thousands of Palestinian men and children would tip Leba­non’s delicate sectarian balance in favor of Sunni Muslims, the religion of the majority of the country’s 400,000 Palestinian refugees. 

But rights activists have pointed out that less than 2 percent of Lebanese women are married to Palestinians. “Any nationality law that comes with exceptions would be unconstitutional,” Abou-Habib said, referring to the Constitution’s demand for total equality between men and women. 

While nationality rights are important in their own right, Lebanon’s sexist legislation is only one manifestation of gender inequality, activists said. In a statement earlier this month, the Nationality Campaign urged ministers to include “clear statements” in the upcoming Ministerial Statement on how they intended to push forward gender equality. In particular, they de­manded clauses addressing the right for Lebanese women to pass on their nationality, the implementation of a women’s quota for municipal polls next year, and the approval of a proposed family-based violence bill. But the Cabinet has already disappointed them. Abou-Habib said Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud had told members of the Nationality Campaign last Friday that out of 30 ministers, which include two women, only he and Information Minister Tareq Mitri had called for the ministerial statement to include a clause acknowledging the need to reform the nationality law. 

Lebanese politicians’ inaction has only reasserted the determination of activists to persevere with their demands. “We’re going to go through with the na­tionality campaign and we won’t wait for any MPs to take action,” said one audience member.

Ministerial Statement fails to address nationality law

21 Nov

By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Saturday, November 21, 2009

BEIRUT: The head of a leading Lebanese social justice organization on Friday lamented the absence from the Ministerial Statement any efforts toward reforming the country’s sexist nationality law. Lina Abou-Habib, executive director of the Collective for Research, Training and Development-Action, said Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud relayed to the organization his disappointment that out of 30 ministers, which includes two female ministers, only he and Information Minister Tareq Mitri had urged the Ministerial Statement include a clause acknowledging the need to reform the country’s 1925 nationality law.

The law allows Lebanese men to pass on their nationality to their non-Lebanese wives and children, but forbids Lebanese women from doing the same.

Abou-Habib said the decision was a “serious setback” for gender equality activists.

“It is extremely disappointing. We were expecting something better from this government given all the work that had been done and all the promises made” on allowing Lebanese women to pass on their nationality, Abou-Habib said.

“It shows consistency with the previous government in terms of the total disregard for women rights and citizenship rights,” she added, noting the Justice Ministry’s recent decision to appeal the granting of citizenship to four children born to a Lebanese mother and an Egyptian father. No ministers were immediately available for comment.

CRTD.A has called for a meeting Wednesday Midday at the Engineers Syndicate in Mosaitbeh to step up action.

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.

Syria amends honour killing law

2 Jul
President Bashar al-Assad

Article 548 was abolished by Bashar al-Assad’s presidential decree

THIS FROM THE BBC: Syria has scrapped a law limiting the length of sentences handed down to men convicted of killing female relatives they suspect of having illicit sex.

Women’s groups had long demanded that Article 548 be scrapped, arguing it decriminalised “honour” killings. Activists say some 200 women are killed each year in honour cases by men who expect lenient treatment under the law.

The new law replaces the existing maximum sentence of one year in jail with a minimum jail term of two years. Justice Minister Ahmad Hamoud Younis said the change was made by the decree of President Bashar al-Assad, following a recent increase in “wife-killings… on the pretext of adultery”.

The new law says a man can still benefit from extenuating circumstances in crimes of passion or honour “provided he serves a prison term of no less than two years in the case of killing”. The legislation covers any man who “unintentionally” kills his wife, sister, daughter or mother after catching her committing adultery or having unlawful sex. It also covers cases where the woman’s lover is killed.

Reports say women’s rights activists have given a cautious welcome to the change, with one group calling it a “small contribution to solving the problem”. Their objection remains, however, that the new law still apparently invites men to murder women if they catch them having sex or suspect them of doing so.