Middle East and North Africa Women's News Brief
March 11, 2013
The following news brief on women’s issues is a biweekly publication by Wilson Center’s Middle East Program.
Gender parity in parliament possible within 20 years, new trends show
“The [IPU’s Women in Parliament] year in review noted that although the Americas maintained its lead as the region with the highest average of women MPs at 25.2 per cent, it was the Arab world that witnessed the biggest regional jump of the year. The historic appointment of 30 women to Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council in January 2013 for the first time ever and the election of an unprecedented 18 women to the Jordanian parliament thanks to quotas in both countries helped the Arab region’s average rise from 13.2 per cent to 16 per cent.” (IPU)
March 3: 'Arab Women Rising' compiles untold anecdotes of Arab women changing societies
“Arab Women Rising”, a new book released by Knowledge@Wharton, shatters stereotypes by revealing women as entrepreneurs, business leaders, and changemakers, in an anthology of 35 anecdotes… Against the backdrop of the recent Arab Spring, these stories reveal women overcoming social pressure to build companies, pioneer new technologies, and evoke societal change over time.” (Wamda)
March 1: First woman to head a political party in Egypt says it proves the revolution has changed attitudes
“[Hala] Shukrallah is the first woman – and first Christian – to lead a major Egyptian party. At a time when the 2011 uprising seems to have achieved little, her election is a reminder of the seismic social shifts the revolution unleashed. At least, that is how she sees it. ‘What we're seeing here is that something truly on-the-ground is happening,’ Shukrallah, 59, says of her election. ‘I think it's a reflection of the changes in the people's psyche since the 25 January [revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak]. They do not really see these elements as significant – being a woman, being a Copt, or whatever. These elements are no longer significant in comparison to a much bigger thing that they are aspiring to.’” (The Guardian)
March 1: Ministers in Egypt’s new cabinet
Four women are included in Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb’s new cabinet in Egypt, including minister of information, minister of environment, minister of manpower, and minister of social solidarity. (Ahram)
March 6: First woman to head Egypt party worried over military
“The first woman to head an Egyptian political party has expressed concern that a return to military rule could threaten democracy in a country roiled by three years of turbulence. Hala Shukrallah, a Copt who now leads the liberal Al-Dostour Party, told AFP the failure of democratic groups to throw up a civilian leadership was benefitting the military, and could also help the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood make a comeback.” (AFP)
March 8: Iraqi women demonstrate in Baghdad against child-marriage draft law
“About two dozen Iraqi women demonstrated on Saturday in Baghdad against a draft law approved by the Iraqi cabinet that would permit the marriage of nine-year-old girls and automatically give child custody to fathers.” (Reuters)
March 8: Nearly 3,000 female candidates expected in parliament elections
“Campaigning for the Iraqi parliamentary elections, scheduled for April 30, will begin in just a few days. This election is seeing the widest participation by women to date—there are almost 3,000 female candidates, all of whom are promising changes in Iraqi life and to compete with men in the political sphere.” (Asharq Al-Awsat)
March 5: Only 8 women CEOs in Israel’s top 100 companies
“Female representation atop the largest companies, which has doubled in the past year, is actually better than the companies further down the line; the top 300 companies have 19 women CEOs (6.3%) and the top 500 companies have just 27 (5.4%).” (Jerusalem Post)
March 6: UNDP Kuwait launches women legal empowerment website
UNDP-Kuwait plans to launch a website as part of the Women Legal Empowerment Program. “The program aims at increasing women's legal awareness and also aims to bolster mechanisms through which women can realize their right of access to legal information and improving their capacities of retrieving and obtaining such information through information technology tools.” (KUNA)
March 3: Honor killings rise in Palestinian territories, sparking backlash
“Twenty-seven women are thought to have been killed last year in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip by family members claiming reasons of ‘honor’—more than double the 13 cases documented in 2012. The age-old rationale can serve as a cover for domestic abuse, inheritance disputes, rape, incest or the desire to punish female independence, according to Maha Abu-Dayyeh, the general director of the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling, a Palestinian human rights group that tracks the killings.” (Washington Post)
March 8: Palestinian women join West Bank anti-riot police
“Only three percent of the Palestinian police force’s 8,000 members are women, but other branches of the security forces are making tentative steps to boost women’s numbers in their ranks. This week, a group of 23 women finished their training to join the presidential guard, which protects key figures and carries out special operations.” (Times of Israel)
March 10: Saudi marks Women’s Day by driving
“A Saudi businesswoman has celebrated Women’s International Day by driving her car in the Eastern Province city of Khobar. Dr Aisha Al Manaa, often described as ‘a multi-talented and inspirational pioneer’ for her numerous accomplishments in entrepreneurial business activities and in promoting women’s rights, said that she wanted to refute once more the claim that women would be harassed in case they were allowed to drive.” (Gulf News)
February 25: First woman to vie for Tunisian presidency
“The Leader of the Democratic Movement for Construction and Reform (MDER) in Tunisia, Amna Mansour, announced her candidacy for the next presidential elections, making her the first woman in the history of the country to run for presidency.” (Middle East Monitor)
March 3: 32 Percent of Rural Women Cannot Read or Write
“The results of a survey on the ‘situation of women in rural areas,’ presented Monday in Tunis revealed that 32% of rural women cannot read or write and that only 19% of them have their own economic resources.” (All Africa)
February 26: Media is ‘best tool’ to empower women, says pioneering female Emirati lawyer
“Diana Hamade, one of the first female Emirati lawyers in the country, still raises eyebrows when she walks into court. ‘Judges are shocked when a female stands up and argues,’ said the founder of International Advocate Legal Services in Dubai. ‘They tell me, ‘you look like a woman who can do a better job at home’.” (The National)
February 26: Emirati woman is one of the world’s most outstanding police officers
“The International Police Association has chosen Maj Amina Al Bloushi of Abu Dhabi as one of the four most outstanding police officers in the world.” (The National)
March 4: Yemen opens the door wider to women in office
“The Yemeni national reconciliation government's recent decision to adopt a 30% representation quota for women in public office and leadership positions at all levels has met with approval from a number of national women's groups.” (Al-Shorfa)
By Samaa Ahmed
Opportunities and Challenges to Middle East Women: 2014
March 9, 2014
To mark International Women’s Day, the Wilson Center’s Middle Program asked 42 women from the Middle East and around the world to share their views on opportunities and obstacles facing women in 2014. The following are excerpts from the publication.
Raya Abu Gulal, Lawyer and Co-Founder, Women Lawyers Group-Middle East (Iraq)
This year could be a year of both opportunities and obstacles for women in the MENA region. We have already noticed opportunities for women in the Gulf region such as more women in the workforce, support for women entrepreneurs, and the increase in women’s political participation. Nevertheless, obstacles remain in place in the Gulf region’s constitutions in terms of women’s status: women still face obstacles related to citizenship rights of their children, divorce, inheritance, and other related matters.
Muna AbuSulayman, Co-founder, Medeen.com; Partner, Directions Consultancy LLC; Co-host Kalam Nawaem; Partner, Glowork, Women Employment Opportunities (Saudi Arabia)
To become a product of personal decision, rather than circumstance, is perhaps the thing that most women aspire to in the Arab world. But for many this goal is not quite possible, at least not yet.
The Arab world is struggling on many fronts: the economy, legal rights, governance, women’s rights, unemployment, and, in some parts, education. These are the issues that continually come up when you look at challenges facing the region. These issues are all important to the development of a stable future for the MENA region. Nonetheless, I believe that sectarianism is the greatest threat that women face right now. Yet, we deal with the other issues because they are easier to work with, easier to give aid to, easier to talk about, and easier to measure. They are not messy; they are not as nuanced; they are not as complex.
Fahmia Al Fotih, Communication Analyst, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) (Yemen)
I believe 2014 is going to be a year of opportunities as well as a year of continuing obstacles for women in the MENA region. Despite the political turmoil and conflict that envelops the region and despite the fact that most of the region’s countries are still listed at the bottom of international reports regarding women’s rights and freedoms, there is a ray of hope in some countries like Yemen, Tunisia, and Libya.
In Yemen, women have been actively part of the transitional period where they comprised 30 percent of most of the committees of the National Dialogue, which has just concluded this year. Now the real challenge for Yemeni women will be to make sure that the outcomes of the National Dialogue and their rights are enshrined in the upcoming constitutional reforms and subsequent legislation, which has just started to take place this year.
Rend Al Rahim, Executive Director, Iraq Foundation and former Iraq Ambassador to the United States (Iraq)
The new year may bring more settled times in the Arab region, though mixed results for women. In a landmark achievement for women in the region, Tunisia adopted a liberal constitution in January that upholds the rights of women, undertakes to provide parity between men and women in the legislature, and pledges to fight gender-based violence. In Egypt, Hala Shukrallah scored an unprecedented success for all women in the region when she became the first woman to lead a political party, Al-Dostour, or Constitution Party. Most women in the MENA region will not fare as well as their Tunisian sisters or experience the success of Shukrallah in Egypt.
Ümit Cizre, Professor and Director, Center for Modern Turkish Studies, Istanbul Şehir University (Turkey)
Whether they are dealing with old or new establishments, Islamists, secularists, the military, police, husbands, or strangers, women in the MENA region continue to suffer from exclusion, desperation, poverty, lack of mobility, and insecurity. Political violence, power struggles, polarized societies, civil wars, the collapse of economies, and the resultant absence of law and order have brought about a worsening situation for women, whether in the streets, work places, schools, universities, or at home. Among the issues negatively affecting women, however, “sexual and bodily integrity and personhood” have acquired unparalleled prominence in the region.
Hanin Ghaddar, former Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center; and Managing Editor, NOW News (Lebanon)
Violence in the Middle East is often perceived as security incidents, sectarian clashes, and suicide bombers. Lebanon has recently stepped back into all of the above. However, it is hardly reported that violence has also increased, in parallel, on the domestic level.
Domestic violence, or violence against women in particular, has reached dangerous levels, and the draft legislation to protect women from violence is still in the drawers of the parliament. Manal al-Assi, Fatima al-Nashar, Roula Yaacoub, and many other women were recently murdered by their husbands, and no one is moving a finger to stop it because the religious institutions have no interest in changing the law.
Click here for the full publication.
Pew: Appropriate Dress for Women in Muslim Countries
January 9, 2014
Most people in seven Muslim-majority countries from Egypt to Pakistan prefer that a woman completely cover her hair in public, but not necessarily her face, according to a survey from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. Each respondent was given a card depicting six styles of women’s headdress and asked to select which was appropriate for a public place. The styles ranged from a fully-hooded burqa (woman #1) and niqab (#2) to the less conservative hijab (women #4 and #5). The following are excerpts from the survey.
Overall, most respondents say woman #4, whose hair and ears are completely covered by a white hijab, is the most appropriately dressed for public. This includes 57% in Tunisia, 52% in Egypt, 46% in Turkey and 44% in Iraq. In Iraq and Egypt, woman #3, whose hair and ears are covered by a more conservative black hijab, is the second most popular choice.
In several countries, substantial minorities say it is acceptable for a woman to not cover her hair in public. Roughly a third (32%) of Turks take this view, as do 15% of Tunisians. Nearly half (49%) in Lebanon also agree that it is acceptable for a woman to appear in public without a head covering, although this may partly reflect the fact that the sample in Lebanon was 27% Christian. Demographic information, including results by gender, were not included in the public release of this survey.
Even as publics in many of the surveyed countries express a clear preference for women to dress conservatively, many also say women should be able to decide for themselves what to wear. This attitude is most prevalent in Tunisia (56%), Turkey (52%) and Lebanon (49%) – all countries where substantial percentages are open to women not covering their heads in public. But nearly as many in Saudi Arabia (47%) also say a women should be free to choose how she dresses. Smaller, but sizable percentages agree in Iraq (27%), Pakistan (22%) and Egypt (14%). What the survey leaves unanswered is whether respondents think social or cultural norms will guide women in their choice to wear more conservative or less conservative attire in public.
Click here for a Q/A with the study’s author.
Dalia Ziada on Egypt's Turmoil
September 4, 2013
Dalia Ziada is an award-winning human rights activist and the executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo, Egypt. She analyzed the ouster of the Islamists in the following interview.
How do you feel about the July 3 military intervention now? Do you view it as a coup?
Not at all! I still believe it was the right move and I am grateful they intervened at the right time before the people start to take the fight on their own. It was going to be a civil war if the military had not jumped in the middle.
How do you feel about the actions over the last week of August?
It gets quieter day after day. Life is going smooth except for the curfew, which the people have happily adhered to. I have never seen the Egyptian people so obedient to an authority that asks them to go back home at 7 o’clock in the evening. But again, this proves how much the people are grateful for the military that saved them from the Muslim Brotherhood. The recent U.S. statements on attacking Syria are echoing loudly in Egypt, making people more and more willing to sacrifice anything to keep the involvement of the military in politics for as long as possible.
How do you feel about the roadmap back to democracy? Is it viable? Will enough players sign on?
It is going okay. Not as fast as I wish, but it is fine so far. The military is keeping itself out of political decision-making and is busy fighting terrorism, especially in Sinai. We have taken the first step already as the ten-expert committee made all necessary changes on the 2012 constitution. Now, the 50-representative committee is being formed and in two months we will have the final draft for referendum. Two months later, we will have parliamentary elections. Two months after that, we will have presidential elections. The interim president and the government are showing sincere commitment to the timeline of the roadmap.
Where are the political players in the middle? What are they doing, thinking, planning?
All political parties in Egypt, except for three parts are happy for the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood from political life. The three parties that are unhappy are the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party and the al Wasat (Center) party and the Salafi al Nour party. Although the al Nour party supported Morsi’s ouster, its members are still showing strong opposition to all the decisions made by the new government. This made the government and the people give up on them and not worry about their opinion anymore! So, actually they hurt themselves by trying to stay in the middle. They did not take the side of the Brotherhood as they always used to. But they are still unable to accommodate themselves with the liberal values of the new secular government! They are trying to play politics, but they are more naive in politics compared to Brotherhood.
Who would you like to see as the next president? Do you have favorites?
That is a very difficult question. I still do not know. But I know for sure, it should not be one of the names in the scene now. We need a fresh face.
What do you want to see happen to the Muslim Brotherhood?
First, the leaders must be punished for what they did; i.e. inciting hatred and committing violence. Second, we should look for the good elements among them and see how to accommodate them, especially the young people who disobeyed their leaders in 2011 and insisted on joining us in the January 25th revolution. Those young Brotherhood members are not as brutal and violent as their leaders. They can easily practice politics and do whatever they like.
A year ago, Egyptians took to the streets to demand that the military cede power. Would they do it again – and even could they do it again given current circumstances – if they should again view the military as not sharing power or turning power back fast enough?
Yes, I think if the people realized at any moment that the military is not acting properly, they will get out against them. The Egyptians are determined to walk the path of democracy until the very end and never let anyone stop them, not the Brotherhood, not the military or anyone else. Egyptians have more political maturity now, which would make it very difficult for any leader to abuse power.
How credible or representative is the transition government?
It is very credible and very qualified, but not representative. Most of its members are technocrats and experts from Mubarak's era. But I think this is because those are the only people in the country who have the qualifications needed for running state affairs. They are doing a good job so far, especially with the massive financial support we got from United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
You once liked Mohammed ElBaradei, the acting vice president who resigned in mid-August. How do you feel about him now?
I am not shocked about his withdrawal. That is very typical of him. He always escapes at the critical moments. This time, he destroyed his credibility and the people are looking at him as a traitor. He cannot repair this image in the eyes of the people any more, no matter what he does.
Women on Egypt's Coup
August 5, 2013
The rise of Islamist political parties has arguably impacted women more than any other sector of society. But nine women from four Arab countries had diverse reactions to military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt on July 3.
Elected representatives should be voted out office, not ousted by the military. I am seriously concerned about the status of democracy not only in Egypt but in all the Arab spring countries. I fear that democracy has been overridden in the name of freedom. Pro-Brotherhood television channels were closed immediately after Morsi’s ouster and newspapers were censored. Some voters may lose confidence in the democratic process because the constitution and president they voted for were so easily swept aside.
The politicization of Egypt’s army and police is a particularly dangerous development. Some police even joined anti-government protests. Security forces protected anti-government protestors while dealing harshly with Morsi’s supporters. No one knows exactly how many were killed in crackdowns on pro-Brotherhood sit-ins and demonstrations. And the armed forces and police may yet play a more direct role in politics. In May 2013, the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that members of the police and armed forces could vote in future elections.
The civilian demonstrations against Morsi will remain in the hearts and minds of Egyptians as a true expression of their hopes and dreams. Egyptians have twice risen against dictatorship and corruption in the name of democracy. They will not settle until the country is securely on the path to a better future. Egypt may lead the Arab world toward another revolution to end all types of dictatorship.
Morsi’s ouster was part of new wave of the January 25 revolution, in which the army responded to the people’s call. The Muslim Brotherhood is now collapsing in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. The path carved out starting on June 30, 2013 is the correct one for the Egyptian revolution. But democracy is still developing and needs more public support.
The overthrow of Morsi’s government was a correct decision because Brotherhood rule was a big calamity for Egypt and the Arab world. Cairo has a great historical standing as a leader of the Arab world. Egypt’s military demonstrated that it is an independent institution that respects the decision of the people. Now the country is undergoing a necessary period of transition. But the youth should continue their involvement and prevent extremist Islamist groups from ruling Egypt. Iraq is now suffering from the acts of such groups.
The Tamarod (Rebel) movement restored the glow of the Arab revolts that was stolen by Islamist parties. They won elections just after the frustrated peoples’ moment of triumph. But the Egyptian people, through Tamarod, demonstrated their true will. And they inspired Arabs elsewhere to call for the end of injustice and oppression.
Morsi was the mirror image of other leaders who coopted the Arab revolutions for the benefit of their groups. And his ouster has sent an important message throughout the Arab world — that people can effect change. But Egypt’s experience is unique and difficult to recreate elsewhere. For example, Iraq has a multitude of sects, religions and ethnic groups that frequently disagree. Egypt is more homogenous and its people are united in their demands and goals.
Ousting Morsi was a bold step by people unwilling to bow under an ineffective regime. What happened in Egypt should happen in all Arab states in transition. Citizens must ensure a change of government has a concrete effect on society and is not just a change in faces. The only change the Brotherhood brought was the shedding of Egyptian blood. Security was only provided for those in power, who solely cared about their vision. They were not committed to the development of Egyptian society.
The overthrow of Morsi by Egypt’s military was expected. Some in the Arab world were even waiting for it to happen. Morsi had remained silent in the face of discrimination in Egypt, especially against the Shiite minority. Discrimination led to the humiliating killing of prominent cleric Sheikh Hassan Shehata, his brother and friends in June 2013. New leaders need to understand that democracy means involvement of all citizens, even the opposition and minorities. The government’s duty is to listen to their concerns and try to work out outstanding issues.
An extremist party will have a hard time lasting long in Egypt, a nation of more than 80 million people. The people who could oust Hosni Mubarak, a dictator that held power for more than 30 years, can impose the democracy that Egyptians deserve. Morsi’s ouster regained some of the people’s trust in the Arab trust. The rest of the Arab world may soon understand that only democracy and tolerance will prevail. Less extremist Sunni-majority countries may now take steps towards democracy and stop using the threat of Shiite parties as an excuse.
Morsi’s toppling demonstrated that building a democracy is an ongoing process. Democracy is not just the result of the first round of voting after the fall of a dictatorship. The first vote is likely to be just a reaction to the previous regime.
Egypt’s experiment has shown that all groups should participate in the transitional period after tyrannical rule. A coup may be less likely if all groups participate equally from the beginning. Democratic transition should be a two-stage process. In the first stage, the country should restore security and balance to political life. Special programs for national reconciliation and mechanism for transitional justice should be put into place. And the people should be allowed to establish a broad and effective civil society. Elections should then be held in the second stage.
Women on Qatar Emir's Abdication
July 19, 2013
The Emir of Qatar abdicated in favor his 33-year-old-son on June 25, 2013. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani announced the long-rumored decision on national television. “Teach your children the best of what you have been taught for they have been created for a time different than yours," he told his people. Seven female leaders from five Arab countries — Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco and Syria — were asked how the power transfer to Tamim bin Hamad al Thani could impact the region.
Half of the respondents thought Qatar’s influence in the region may recede. Two thought the new emir may reconsider its reported support for the Muslim Brotherhood. A Jordanian woman noted that Doha has its own pressing issues, such as implementing the new constitution and holding elections for the advisory Shura council. The following are the women’s responses arranged by country.
The emir’s ceding of power to his son may have large-scale implications for the region, but mainly for Syria. He will control Qatar’s funds, which have reportedly been used to support religious extremists fighting the Syrian regime. But some are bent on disrupting coexistence between different communities in Syria. Some of the extremists want to establish a caliphate and have already applied Islamic law in some the regions they control.
Yet Qatar, to some extent, has been taken out of the regional equation regarding Syria. Other actors dictated a specific role for Qatar to play in Syria. But Doha overreached and tried to use its money to increase its stature. Now those actors may make room for more loyal and experienced players than Qatar.
I do not expect a significant change in Qatar’s policy because the new emir was crown prince since 2003. His father may have feared the power of the youth’s spirit, leading him to step down. But the appointment of his 33-year-old son is hopefully a sign for future changes.
The abdication of the emir in favor of his son may have been a concession to foreign powers. Qatar’s role in the region may become more complex since the new emir seems to have plans to work broadly in the region. Doha’s actions could inflame sectarianism in many countries. The increase in sectarian violence is already visible in Egypt, Iraq and Syria. But many in the region hope that the new emir will enact less intrusive policies on neighboring countries.
The acceleration of events in the region since the Arab uprisings, especially in Syria, has already pushed Emir Tamim to make some changes. He reportedly gave Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi 48 hours to leave Qatar. Qaradawi has no formal connection to the Muslim Brotherhood but is widely considered the movement’s spiritual leader. Tameem’s decision may signal a change in Qatar’s foreign policy. Perhaps it will stop interfering in uprisings and transitions elsewhere in the Arab world. I hope that Qatar will spend its resources on supporting poor countries and solving social crises in the region.
Some observers considered the emir’s abdication as a message to Arab leaders to create space for the youth’s energy. But Sheikh Hamad was also keen to reinforce the authority of his son to ensure that no one will undermine the family’s rule. Qatar has a long history of coups.
Doha has sponsored change in the Arab region, mainly through its alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists following the Arab uprisings. But hopefully the new government will refocus on internal reforms, such as implementing the new constitution and holding elections for the advisory Shura council — an empty institution whose current members are all appointees.
The abdication was really a message to all the emirs of the Gulf states to step down before they pass away. The power transfer indicates a step towards modernity and progress for the royal institution, which has long been authoritarian. The former emir set a precedent. But the question remains, why did he pick the son of his favorite wife, Sheikha Mouza?
Qatar’s change in leadership will likely reduce its influence in the region. Doha has had its hands in the affairs of several countries since the 2011 Arab uprisings. But Qatar’s unconstructive interference — especially support for the Muslim Brotherhood — may be scaled back, commensurate with its small size. The new emir issued a congratulatory message to Egypt after President Mohamed Morsi was ousted, an unusual move for Qatar.
Photo Credit: Embassy of the State of Qatar in Washington, D.C. and diwan.gov.qa
Can International Human Rights Norms Secure Women's Rights in the Middle East?
June 24, 2013
Women leaders and activists from the Middle East discussed the current women’s rights situation on the ground in the region and what strategies can be employed to use international human rights norms to secure their rights going forward.
On July 10, the Middle East Program, Global Women’s Leadership Initiative, Environmental Change and Security Program, and Global Health Initiative of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a two-panel discussion on “Can International Human Rights Norms Secure Women’s Rights in the MENA Region?” with Lilia Labidi, Visiting Research Professor, Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore; former Minister of Women’s Affairs, Tunisia; and former Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center; Moushira Khattab, former Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center; former Egyptian Ambassador to South Africa and to the Czech and Slovak Republics; and former Minister of Family and Population, Egypt;
Fatima Sbaity Kassem, Visiting Scholar, Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWaG), Columbia University, and former Director, UN-ESCWA Centre for Women; Fahmia Al Fotih, Communication Analyst, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Yemen; Kahina Bouagache, women’s rights activist and corporate and international lawyer, Algeria; and Eman Hussein, Professor of Education, Al-Balqa'a Applied University, Jordan. Haleh Esfandiari, Middle East Program director, moderated the first panel, and Rangita de Silva de Alwis, Global Women’s Leadership Initiative director, moderated the second panel. Jane Harman, Director, President, and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Center, provided opening remarks.
Harman endorsed the slogan “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights,” first invoked by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the 1995 UN Conference on Women in Beijing. During this event, Harman expressed her optimism for the progress of the women’s rights movement in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. She stated, “The bar has been very low, but there is progress and I think we should applaud progress wherever we see it.” Harman asserted that the answer to the question “can international human rights norms secure women’s rights in the MENA region?” is the centerpiece of understanding how women can advance in a time of “hopes and concerns.”
Opening the first panel, Sbaity Kassem provided a general overview of what is taking place in the region after the Arab uprising of 2011. She defined the framework of women’s rights in the region as being centered on gender discrimination, violence against women and girls, and poverty and socioeconomic conditions. She pointed out that poor education underlies all three of these problems. In answering how human rights conventions can play a role in advancing the rights and status of women in the MENA region, Sbaity Kassem noted that progress is linked to a culture of democracy and peace, stating that “without peace and democracy, there will be no women’s equality.” She indicated there is a long road ahead before women see the change they hope for. However, any progress, she emphasized, is contingent on a democratic process that guarantees the involvement of all members of the society, especially women, through civil society organizations. In addition, Sbaity Kassem emphasized the need to build alliances with religious leaders and to interpret the shari’a in a gender-sensitive way.
Labidi focused the discussion on the challenges facing the implementation of women’s rights programs on the institutional and micro levels. Drawing on her previous experience as the Minister of Women’s Affairs in Tunisia, she talked about the lack of adequate funding and institutional capacity of the relevant governmental administrations and NGOs to achieve satisfactory performance. The shortcomings, in her view, may not be present on the constitutional or formal policy level, but they become apparent at the level of implementation. For example, she mentioned the unwillingness or lack of enthusiasm of male public servants to report to a woman and devote their time to working on women’s programs. Labidi also noted the clear discrepancies between programs targeting urban and rural areas; women in rural areas have access to fewer resources and opportunities than those in urban areas, and the workers tend to have less training. Labidi expressed concern over a government’s actual commitment to human and women’s rights in the region, noting that “institutions might be there, but they are empty.” She emphasized that a key to achieving actual change in the region is a civil society that is aware of and has the sufficient tools to address the kind of work that has to be done on the ground.
Khattab had an optimistic outlook on the prospects for improving the standing of human and women's rights in Egypt following the ouster of former President Morsi and the pronouncement of the interim government’s constitutional declaration. She focused her discussion on the historical evolution of the Egyptian constitution and the change in the legal attitude toward women’s rights. She believes the Morsi government's constitution was regressive in terms of its commitment to human and women’s rights, putting women and children “at the mercy of those who are in power.” Khattab said the constitution should explicitly provide for an irreducible minimum of rights to ensure the state’s commitments to these standards. She acknowledged the presence of a gap between the de jure and de facto implementation of laws and the fact that constitutional provisions do not guarantee the realization of these rights. However, she said the uprising in Egypt has helped to bridge this gap as people have become more politically-minded and savvy. Khattab also draws her optimism from the fact that the new interim government is run by technocratic figures like Mohammed ElBaradei who has developed an international reputation for his commitment to human rights and interim President Adly Mansour whose legal background qualifies him to transition Egypt into a state that respects and implements international human rights conventions.
Following the first panel, de Silva de Alwis asserted the primacy of human rights norms and the fact that these norms are universal and closely interlinked. She noted that when states enter reservations to human rights conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), it nullifies their potential impact on women’s status in the region. Therefore, member states should develop social and religious norms that are in compliance with human rights norms to prevent a negative impact on women’s lives.
Bouagache discussed state accountability in terms of producing accurate reports on the status of women’s rights and compliance with international conventions such as CEDAW and also in terms of state responsibility to enact principles of the conventions in order for them to be implemented. She addressed the gap between the rhetoric of the conventions and enforcement mechanisms in national constitutions, noting that reservations and lack of mechanisms for enforcement hinder implementation of these laws, preventing tangible results and improvement in the status of women’s right in the region. She noted that even in cases where reservations have been lifted, such as the law on women’s equal rights to citizenship in Algeria, amendments to the constitution are still pending.
According to Hussein, women’s rights status has improved over the years in Jordan, and women currently have the freedom to exercise more of their rights. However, there are still cultural, economic, political, and religious barriers that obstruct the full realization of women’s rights in Jordan. She noted that religious misinterpretations have led to the justification of honor killings and discriminatory inheritance laws that create obstacles for effective implementation of women’s rights. In discussing political barriers, Hussein stated that although women’s participation in politics has increased considerably, there is still much to be done in terms of political empowerment, which requires a stronger political will and support from within the country. Finally, she discussed the efforts taken by women’s movements to overcome these barriers including campaigning for lifting CEDAW reservations, lobbying for women’s quotas, raising public awareness by convening lectures and workshops on international human rights conventions, and strengthening women’s capacity for political participation, among others.
Al Fotih stated there has been considerable success in incorporating human rights principles in Yemen’s domestic laws and that many discriminatory laws have been modified, though many more remain and implementation is not guaranteed. She discussed the major challenges in implementing human rights norms in Yemen, saying that the society suffers from a general lack of knowledge about human rights and that considering the country’s current political status, compliance with human rights norms is not a priority for authorities. Al Fotih also added poverty, women’s high illiteracy rates, and the community mindset as other obstacles in implementing human rights norms in Yemen. In conclusion, she noted that the current political transition and the new constitution have provided opportunities to come up with more efficient enforcement mechanisms for the implementation of the human rights norms in the country.
All of the panelists agreed that education is a primary solution to many of the concerns raised. Increasing awareness of women’s rights is at the heart of the women’s rights struggle in the MENA region and a key strategy is helping to change the societal mindsets in the region. This requires not only constitutional changes; it is also the role of civil society, the government, and the international human rights organizations. The panelists noted that all these institutions have to work together to achieve a greater level of public awareness so that the societal reservations in the MENA region can be tempered.
By Azd Al-Kadasi and Afarin Dadkhah, Middle East Program
Women on Syria Part I: Greatest Fears
June 24, 2013
In June 2013, the death toll in Syria reportedly rose to more than 100,000. The conflict began with non-violent protests in March 2011 but quickly turned violent after harsh government crackdowns. Observers have increasingly called it a civil war. Twelve women from seven Arab countries, from Bahrain to Egypt and Syria, were asked what they feared most about the conflict. Most were concerned that Syria may break up along sectarian lines. Some were worried about spillover violence. Two women feared that foreign powers may interfere to serve their own interests at the expense of the Syrian people. The following are the women’s responses arranged by country.
My greatest fear about the Syrian conflict is that the parties will fail to reach a political compromise. A transition process needs to ensure that all groups within Syrian society retain their rights and dignity. Without a compromise, the militias will only gain more power and tear the country apart.
My greatest fear about the Syrian conflict is that the state will fragment due to deepening sectarian and ethnic rifts, similar to what happened in Iraq.
I fear that the Syrian conflict has turned into a battle between Sunnis and Shiites. The role of Hezbollah and Iran cannot be ignored. Hezbollah divides the people of the region into two broad groups. The first includes believers in the guardianship of the jurist, or wilayat al faqih, the principle behind Iran’s Shiite theocracy. Hezbollah seems to consider all others as non-believers ― including allies of America and Israel. Hezbollah’s defense of President Bashar Assad's regime has damaged its image not only in Lebanon, but across the Arab world. Many had supported the party for its role in fighting Israel in 2006.
My greatest fear about Syria is that it will splinter along ethnic or religious lines. The fragmentation of Syria, which is strategically placed in the center of the region, would be a blow to Arab nationalism. I also fear that the huge number of weapons and militants flowing into Syria will cause instability. Terrorist groups may find a welcoming environment in the chaos.
My greatest fear is that the sectarian conflict will spread to neighboring Arab countries. Most of them are supporting one of the sides already. Iraq will be the most vulnerable to sectarian violence. The heaviest clashes between Sunnis and Shiites calmed down in 2005, but tensions erupt periodically.
My greatest fear is that armed groups will take the reins of power. Many more innocent civilians would get caught in the crossfire between rival groups. The displaced would face harsh conditions in neighboring countries. Armed militants could also destabilize other countries, especially Iraq – which has already suffered from an uptick in terrorist attacks as the Syrian conflict has worsened.
My greatest fear about the Syrian conflict is that it has turned into a civil war. Daily killings and the deteriorating situation of refugees outside the country are especially worrisome.
I am concerned that sectarianism will spread across the region. The segregation of the Syrian society into Sunni and Shiite groups is part of a destructive plan nurtured by external powers helping both the Assad regime and the rebels. The media’s constant labeling of events and people has exacerbated this problem. Sectarianism helps politically driven movements to recruit innocent people to fight in Syria. My ultimate fear is that the country will be divided and run by small groups backed by different external powers. A fragmented Syria could destabilize the whole region.
I fear that the Syrian conflict will expand into a full-scale civil war subject to the will of international powers – in which the Syrian people will be the biggest losers.
My biggest concern is that the constant stream of sectarian killings and targeting of civilians will drag on, just like what is happening in Iraq. I also fear that Syria may be divided into small states based on ethnicity and religion.
My greatest fear is that the victims of violence will become numbers, merely a minor calculation for regional and world players, and the seemingly helpless United Nations. No sincere effort to end the bloodshed and destruction has been launched. The various players are focusing on short-term gains with little to no regard for the impact on ordinary civilians – or Syria’s viability as a state after Assad goes. I went to Syria several times last year, and I follow the developments closely. As a survivor of Lebanon’s civil war, I see many parallels, and I fear the worst for Syria.
The massacre in Syria broadcast on the news every day is painful to watch. Syria’s problems are rooted in despotism and corruption. I fear that only the law of the jungle applies and that human rights have been thrown out. The government and president are not with the people. Syrian journalists have asked for political asylum in France due to the pressures they face from the regime.
Photo credit: Voice of America News: Scott Bob report from Azaz, Syria. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Women on Syria Part II: After Assad
June 24, 2013
The endgame in Syria is not clear after two years of intense fighting between the rebels and government forces. But the Syrian opposition has made it clear that President Bashar Assad leave the country. President Barack Obama and other world leaders have also said Assad must step down. Twelve women from seven Arab countries, from Bahrain to Egypt and Syria, were asked what a post-Assad Syria would be like. Most of the women foresaw a chaotic transition and sectarian fighting. Two warned that Islamic extremists could grab power. Iraqi women noted similarities between Syria and the bloody conflict that ensued after Saddam Hussein’s fall. The following are the women’s responses arranged by country.
If President Assad steps down as a result of a political settlement, Syria may move towards democracy. Otherwise, the conflict will turn into an everlasting and destructive civil war.
Whether or not Assad stays or goes does not really matter. The Syrian people will need to reach a consensus to form a democracy ― without the intervention of regional powers. The Syrian people must serve their national interests.
The bloodshed in Syria will only cease after sectarian groups abandon their desire for revenge. In an idyllic post-Assad Syria, representatives of all factions would sit together and appoint an inclusive interim government. They would set a clear timeframe for rebuilding the country and preparing for a legitimate election.
Syria will likely follow the same path as Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s fall. Conflicting political forces will scramble to take power, leaving the country unstable until they reach an agreement or form a coalition government – which will take time.
Syria will be unstable after the regime changes, just like what happened in Iraq. Remaining state institutions will likely be weak and lack independent authority. Elections will help stabilize the country. But coups and attempts at revolution will not.
A post-Assad Syria would face a long period of disorder given the strength of armed groups and the weakness of the political opposition. A Taliban-like would likely take advantage of the situation and grab power, with negative implications for the whole region.
Syrians will stand up and rebuild their country after Assad is gone. Women should take part in the decision-making process and work towards peace and reconciliation.
If someone had asked me what a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq would look like, I would have given them a totally different picture from how Iraq is doing today. The Assad regime is not much different from Hussein’s. Based on our difficult experience in Iraq ― which we have not yet recovered from ― I do not have a rosy picture of a post-Assad Syria. Extremists, especially groups affiliated with al Qaeda, are growing in number and have a lot financial support. They may pose a serious threat to Syria’s long-term security.
I see two possible scenarios for a post-Assad Syria. Radical Islam and al Qaeda may come to power, which would be a great disaster. Or the weak opposition will take control and begin the long process of building a modern, democratic state.
The subsequent phase of reconstruction ― with or without Assad ― would be very difficult. The fighting has significantly damaged infrastructure and crippled the economy. Conditions would need to improve before refugees or displaced persons would return to their homes. And restoring of security and stability would require ridding the country of foreign terrorist groups. Syria would likely need the assistance of regional and international bodies.
The gradual, systematic annihilation of organized society will be the determining factor for Syria's future whether or not Assad goes. The real question is whether anything will be left to rebuild. Bringing the nation back together will be difficult.
Imagining a post-Assad Syria is difficult – as is seeing the virtue of what has happened in Arab states that also had revolutions. Presidents were overthrown, but the situation is still foggy and unstable in many ways, especially in Egypt. The youth and international organizations supporting civil society will never accept the status quo.
Photo credit: Voice of America News: Elizabeth Arrot from Damascus, Syria. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Women Challenge the Muslim Brotherhood
April 19, 2013
Responding to the Muslim Brotherhood, leading female activists are charging that Islam actually guarantees women wide-ranging rights–and that the largest Islamist movement in the Arab world merely wants to maintain male dominance. In March, the Brotherhood had warned that U.N. passage of a draft declaration on violence would lead to society’s “complete disintegration.” It said that the declaration contradicted Islamic principles by allowing women to have full sexual freedom and marry outside their faith while cancelling the need for a husband’s consent to “travel, work, or use of contraception.” The nine female activists come from Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Morocco.
The Muslim Brotherhood has long had a desire to curtail rights that Islam actually guarantees women. The Brotherhood is tightening its grip on society by posing as the guardian of Sharia, or Islamic law― taking advantage of society’s lack of knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence on women’s rights. The movement defends its interpretation of Islam with flimsy arguments whenever women’s rights are brought up. The statement is full of slanderous allegations meant to garner public opinion. It sullied Egypt’s reputation and the world’s image of Islam.
The U.N. statement on the status of women expands the definition of violence to include lack of health services, denial of education and withholding of employment opportunities. But the Muslim Brotherhood’s statement deals with issues that are irrelevant to the document, such as divorce, inheritance, polygamy and dowry.
The movement might have denounced the U.N. draft declaration to push Egypt to eventually withdraw from the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Egypt’s new constitution does not reference commitments to international conventions.
Unfortunately the Muslim Brotherhood’s statement was false. It did not reflect the reality of women’s status mentioned in the U.N. declaration or account for the political awareness of the Egyptian street.
Unfortunately the Muslim Brotherhood condemned the U.N. draft declaration, which promotes dignity and freedom for women. The movement’s reaction was ignorant and contradicted the principles of Islam.
Religious values are important, but they develop according to the time and place. Islamic law was formulated centuries ago and is seldom totally in line with the age of globalization and the Internet. The Brotherhood should learn to separate religion from politics and power. Secular Turkey succeeded in separating the two and it became a developed country.
The draft U.N. declaration focused on violence against women, mechanisms to curtail it, and ways to help victims. But the Brotherhood’s statement touched on several contentious issues not addressed by the declaration. This detracted from the central issue, namely violence against women. But many Muslim countries have agreed with the U.N. draft.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s objection is about saving the dominant power of men over women and society in general ― in the name of religion. Religion is about fairness, justice and reform. It is not about implementing the law of the jungle. Religion does not entail slavery and vice. The Brotherhood is imposing restrictions on women’s freedom and dignity by deceiving society in the name of religion. Depriving women of their own rights to education and work because of so-called “honor” and humiliating them for earning their own way is not acceptable.
The Muslim Brotherhood is having a difficult time dealing with issues of democracy, women’s rights, Coptic (Christian) rights, and how to maintain a healthy relationship with the West. In the next stage, the movement could even seek to abrogate women’s right to run for office, or prevent them voting under the pretext of maintaining female circumcision. A move like this would undermine support for the Brotherhood and isolate it from mainstream society.
The Brotherhood and many other Islamic movements reject calls for women’s emancipation. They see the expansion of freedom for women in their communities as degradation.
There is a general lack of understanding and agreement on what constitutes violence against women. Even the title of the U.N. declaration alone, might be a sensitive issue for some. But Muslims can accept what is consistent with Islamic law ― which forbids violence against women.
Click here for the Muslim Brotherhood’s full statement.
Women on Saudi Appointment of Female Advisors
March 25, 2013
In early January, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al Saud appointed 30 women to Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council, which had been an all-male assembly. The council advises the government on new legislation. Fifteen women in nine Arab countries, from Morocco to Egypt and Iraq, reacted to the appointment and remarks by controversial cleric Ahmed al Abdulqader ― who reportedly called the new council members “prostitutes” on Twitter.
Nearly all of the women saw the appointment as an important step in the struggle for women’s rights in the kingdom. But several stipulated that the appointment would make little difference if other reforms are not enacted. A former Egyptian ambassador argued that only an “on-going effort to uproot structural and underlying causes of discrimination” will empower women. Saudi women are not allowed to drive cars. And they have to obtain permission of a male guardian to do everything from traveling, to getting an education and marrying.
One Egyptian and one Lebanese woman suspected that the king’s decision to include women on the council was based more on a desire to improve his international image rather than on a genuine desire to advance women’s political participation. Mariam al Rowaie, a Bahraini women’s rights activist suggested that the king might be trying to divert attention from government inaction on other issues. The following are the women’s responses arranged by country.
The appointment of women to the Shura Council is a step forward. Hopefully they will be able to discuss women's issues and revise some laws, such as the male guardianship law, which affects every woman's life. Under this law women are treated as immature people all their lives. They cannot do or accomplish anything without permission from their male guardians, from traveling to getting an education, and marrying.
The appointment of women is without question, a positive step towards the integration of women into political life. But the broader context of their appointment should be examined. What was the criteria for their selection? Do these 30 individuals represent the people or the government? Did this action satisfy the Saudi people, or was it intended to impress and deceive the international community? How long will the council be appointed instead of elected?
This is a positive step, but it must be followed by further steps so the women are more than just decorations at the council. Their participation should have a positive impact on the ground for the Saudi people. Regarding the sheikh’s comments, the driven women of Saudi Arabia will deter against such ignorant comments in the future.
The Saudi appointment of 30 women into the Shura Council is a great step in the right direction, and demonstrates the political commitment of the monarchy. It will not, however, suffice to empower women unless it is followed by a comprehensive set of measures including:
- a review of legislation to remove all forms of discrimination and violence against women;
- systematic awareness raising campaigns to generate social support for the acceptance of women as equals;
- establishment of a data collection system to identify victims of discrimination;
- planning and resource allocation and;
- capacity building measures, which are crucial to enable women to prove that they are equal ― and for men to understand that women are equal.
The cleric’s comment exemplifies the very mentality that the Saudi leadership’s decision attempts to change. But change will not happen unless these appointments are part and parcel of an ongoing effort to uproot structural and underlying causes of discrimination. If not, women’s participation in the Shura Council will do little to further their rights. The parliamentary quota for women in Egypt suffered the same fate.
The appointment of women to the Shura Council is an important turning point in the political life of Saudi women. But further reforms are necessary.
King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz was courageous for taking this step. Sheikh Abdulqader is free to express his opinion. Democracy includes freedom of thought. Women in Europe and North America did not attain their full rights over night either. Margaret Thatcher’s actions in parliament, and later as a prime minister, demonstrate the evolution of women’s political participation. Canadian women in Quebec did not even gain the right to vote until 1940.
Arab women need courage, and both domestic and international support.. Women also need time. The appointment of women to the Shura Council is the beginning of change in Saudi Arabia. Finally, as we say in French: “Les chiens aboient et la caravane passé,” or “the dogs bark and the caravan moves on.”
King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz may be trying to enhance his domestic and global image, rather than truly advancing women’s right to participate in political life. If the king was sincerely interested in women’s rights, he would have started by lifting everyday restrictions on women. Granting women the right to drive and ending domestic violence would have been good first steps.
Change is imperative and cannot be ignored by any system of government. The Saudi king seems to have realized that the continued survival of his family’s rule depends on his response to the inevitable demand for change ― despite the opposition of the religious establishment allied to the monarchy. Calls for democracy and increased citizen participation in decision making ― which have increased in Saudi Arabia since the Arab Spring ― probably contributed to the king’s appointment of women to the Shura Council. The move seems to expand women’s rights, a key topic of interest to his Western allies. The decision might be an attempt to cover up his lack of response to calls for other reforms.
This is the first step towards women gaining more rights in Saudi Arabia. The appointment of women to the Shura Council may open a door for women to discuss their rights and needs. Women still play small roles in public and political life compared to men in the country due to a strict interpretation of Islamic law. This is the time for Saudi women to show men their abilities. Women will almost certainly face a lot of challenges from conservative elements. But they are able to defend themselves.
I have always believed that the Saudi revolution will start with women. I'm proud of them and their achievements, especially during the last few years with the support of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. The king has been significantly expanding women’s opportunities for work and education.
The sheikh’s reaction was not surprising. It reflects the misperception that women are deficient. Many men see them only as bodies. They are unable to recognize a woman’s ability to participate in public affairs. Such statements will not stop Saudi women from pursuing their ambitious.
The women of Saudi Arabia deserve many congratulations for this huge achievement. The first steps towards change are always difficult. People who resist reform try to damage women’s reputations, like the sheikh who was mentioned. But they underestimate women’s abilities.
The appointment of women to the Shura Council won’t have an immediate impact. Saudi women now need support from other women on the regional and international levels. They would benefit from capacity building and training programs with non-governmental organizations, so they can get the most use out of their new positions and play an active role in the council.
Women in Saudi Arabia need a true revolution among themselves. The current initiatives are formal and timely, coming after the Arab Spring uprisings. But while the kingdom appointed 30 women to the Shura Council, women do not even have the basic right to drive a car. If the monarchy embarks on a modernization project, priorities should include reform of health and labor laws that are detrimental to women
The appointment of women to the Shura Council is not only important for Saudi women, but for all Arab women and women everywhere. We must support them and trust them to further women’s rights. Arab women have a clear vision and goal ― equality between the sexes.
This was the first step on a difficult and long journey towards women’s equality. The appointments were an important first move in beginning to break down barriers imposed on women for hundreds of years. The sheikh’s comments were meaningless. Congratulations to those who supported the effort.
King Abdul Aziz’s decision was a great step forward and a victory for Saudi women. But in many Arab countries, clerics always pose a challenge. Clerics would be better off if they stayed out of politics ― and this would benefit women as well.
Measures that promote women’s access to positions of responsibility are important. But parallel action is needed in the media and school curriculum to change society’s stereotypical image of women.
Report: Female Workforce Participation 25 Percent in Mideast
March 15, 2013
Women in the Middle East and North Africa are more educated than ever before, but their participation in the workface is 25 percent – about half of the world average, according to a new report by the World Bank. “Often what stands between women and jobs are legal and social barriers,” said Manuela Ferro, Director for Poverty Reduction and Economic Management in the MENA region. But even some educated women lack the relevant skills currently in demand. Policymakers could begin to undo the inequalities that women face through “bold policy shifts, legal change and education,” according to the comprehensive 200-page report. The following are excerpts, with a link to the full text at the end.
Facing popular pressure to be more open and inclusive, some governments in the Region are considering and implementing electoral and constitutional reforms to deepen democracy. These reforms present an opportunity to enhance economic, social, and political inclusion for all, including women, who make up half the population. However, the outlook remains uncertain. In 2011, Tunisia mandated that an equal number of women and men run as candidates on the electoral list, and women have secured one-quarter of the seats in the constituent assembly. In the Arab Republic of Egypt, millions of women turned out to vote in the 2011–12 parliamentary elections but, ultimately, made up only 2 percent of the lower house of parliament…
With higher levels of education and lower fertility rates than ever before, women in the Region increasingly are looking for work. The public sector long has been the dominant source of employment, especially for women in the Region, who typically earn significantly more there than they would in the private sector. Indeed, women’s typical fields of study, such as education, health services, and humanities, are geared toward employment in the public sector, thus reinforcing their preference and suitability for government jobs. However, further expansion of the public sector is increasingly fiscally unsustainable, especially in the labor-abundant, oil-poor countries.
Moreover, job creation in the private sector so far has been too limited to absorb the large and growing number of young jobseekers. In addition, within this limited sphere, women are unable to compete on an equal footing due to several interrelated factors. First, women in the Region continue to face significant restrictions on mobility and choice. These constraints are held in place by legal frameworks, including regulations that restrict work and political participation; and by social and cultural norms.
A second constraint is the poor quality of education and critical skills mismatches between what is studied in school, especially for girls, and what the private sector demands. Third, employers often perceive women as more costly and less productive than men. For their part, women have concerns about their reputations and safety in private sector jobs. This report focuses on the incentives and constraints generated by the economic and institutional structures that prevail in MENA countries.
The economic and political environment arising from the Arab Spring has created an unprecedented window of opportunity for change. Given the growing labor, demographic, and fiscal constraints, and the changing aspirations in the Region, policy reforms urgently are needed to boost job creation for all.
For women, these reforms alone will not suffice. Even as jobs are created, additional measures will be required to address the myriad constraints to women’s participation in the workforce. Targeted, coordinated efforts are needed on multiple fronts to increase women’s participation in the economic and political spheres, and these efforts must be specific to country context. These efforts include changes in policies to secure women’s equality under the law, to bridge the remaining gender gaps in health and education, to redress the skills mismatch in the job market, and to promote women’s civic and political participation.
Changes in laws alone will do little if jobs are insufficient, or, as noted above, if few women possess the requisite skills that jobs demand. Furthermore, a continuation of policies that increase subsidies, public sector pay and benefits, or public sector employment will not help. On the contrary, these policies will further distort the incentives for private sector job creation and for women to seek work in this sector….
Across the world, higher per capita incomes have been accompanied by progress in human development. MENA is no exception. For instance, MENA countries have, on average, female life expectancy at birth that is 9.1 percentage points higher than other non-OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, a difference explained primarily by wealth. This correlation between human development outcomes and per capita incomes also is evident within MENA. For example, just as they have relatively lower per capita incomes, Djibouti and the Republic of Yemen have lower human development outcomes than the rest of the Region. Progress has been uneven within countries as well. For instance, in Upper Egypt, the rate of illiteracy among youth is higher than the national average: 17 versus 11 percent. Female youth in Upper Egypt have illiteracy rates of 24 percent—twice those of their male counterparts and 10 percentage points higher than the national average for young women (World Bank 2011a).
Paradoxically, these considerable investments in human capital have not yet been matched by increases in women’s economic participation. While gaps in economic opportunities for women persist in all countries in East Asia and Pacific, Europe and Central Asia, Latin America and Caribbean, and Sub-Saharan Africa, more than 50 percent of the women aged 15 and above participate in the labor market. In contrast, the corresponding figure in MENA is only 25.2 percent. Almost all MENA countries have female labor force participation rates below the average for lower and middle income (LMI) countries (figure O.3). Not surprisingly, the lowest participation rates are in fragile or conflict-affected countries, including Iraq, the Palestinian Territories, and the Republic of Yemen, where concerns about women’s safety and mobility clearly are more salient. For the Region as a whole, female labor force participation has increased slowly: by an average of only 0.17 percentage points annually over the last 3 decades
Click here for the full report.
Part II: Gender-based Violence and International Women's Day
March 6, 2013
The official United Nations theme for International Women’s Day 2013 is “A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women.” Women leaders from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon were asked how government and civil society can combat gender-based violence. Nearly all of them called for tougher legislation to criminalize violence against women.
Egyptian women stressed a need for civil society organizations to raise awareness of women’s rights and change popular attitudes towards domestic abuse. Lebanese women called for legislation to override sectarian personal status laws that sometimes allow abuse and marital rape. A Jordanian lawmaker noted a lack of shelters for abused women. The following are the women’s responses arranged by country.
Civil society and women’s non-governmental organizations have primarily spearheaded efforts to combat gender-based violence. The government should step up and take the following the steps:
Enact legislation that criminalizes all forms of gender-based violence and discrimination
Draft a plan of action with specific objectives and a time frame for allocating adequate human and financial resources to enforce the legislation
- Empower organizations working on women’s issues and partner with civil society
- Raise awareness of women’s rights through civic education and media initiatives
- Foster international cooperation on women’s issues
Ending violence against women will require political will. Liberal parties should nominate women who can voice their experiences in parliament and change unjust laws. Civil society organizations will need recruit men who will champion women’s rights. If an independent national council for women is established, it could help change society’s mentality.
The government’s inaction on gender-based violence has allowed perpetrators of violence to act with impunity. Women have had little to no access to the justice system on this issue. But protection and rehabilitation for victims are more important than punishing criminals.
Civil society should engage men and religious leaders to help change popular attitudes toward gender-based violence. Organizations should also provide legal and psychological support to women, who frequently deny that they are victims and blame themselves for their situation.
The government should draft laws criminalizing violence against women and hold authorities more accountable for protecting women. Civil society should undertake outreach programs and advocacy campaigns to change the prevailing mentality. Organizations should target community leaders, households, religious leaders, legislators and government officials to eliminate all forms of violence against women.
The government should enact tough legislation to stop all types of violence against women. Authorities should deal seriously with all complaints and punish offenders. Civil society should help rehabilitate female victims of violence so they can live a normal life. Male offenders should go also be rehabilitated so they change their behavior. Civil society should also raise society’s awareness of gender issues. Organizations should inform women of their rights and teach them how to defend themselves.
Violence against women is a common problem among people from all faiths, regions and backgrounds in Lebanon. Lebanon’s constitution does not contain a family law. So each religious community has its own personal status code. If an abused woman goes to the police, they cannot take her complaint. Abused women tend to stay at home and carry the insulting burden.
The Lebanese government should implement an overriding family law and institute civil marriage. Then state laws would protect women from domestic abuse. The government should also establish shelters for women in cities and rural areas.
Gender-based violence is a serious issue in Lebanon. We have no laws or provisions outlawing domestic violence. The authorities hesitate to interfere in matters of domestic violence. And women hesitate to report to authorities when they are abused by another family member.
Civil society organizations and some activists within the government have submitted proposals for laws on domestic violence. The projects are being discussed in a parliamentary subcommittee. The adoption of the law, however, seems remote because stakeholders are unable to agree on some contentious points.
One of the main points of conflict is whether to outlaw marital rape. A faction argues there is no rape within marriage. Another point of contention is the provision stating that personal status laws—which govern family relations and differ according to each religious community—would override a law banning domestic violence.
The following measures should be taken to combat gender-based violence:
- Enact a protective law, which does not contain provisions for personal status laws to override it;
- Conduct awareness campaigns to encourage individuals to report domestic violence to the authorities;
- Establish an entity within the police department that would specialize in such cases;
- Provide a shelter and employment alternative to victims in case they report abuse and consequently are not able to stay at their home.
Gender-based violence is more prominent than it was a year few years ago. Real cooperation between government and civil society is necessary. But the government does not seem to understand the role civil society can play in combating gender-based violence. The United Nations must help Iraqi civil society to push amendments to laws which basically legalize acts such as honor killing.
But amending laws is not enough to end the violence. The Kurdistan Regional Government amended the law. Yet the number of honor killings has risen. It will be hard to criminalize violence against women if society’s mentality does not change.
A draft law is in the works to protect women from domestic violence. Women are also waiting for the Iraqi government to approve a national strategy to combat violence against women. There is also an initiative to create a body to promote gender equality and reduce violence against women. These government actions could improve women’s status. But the problem is that women’s issues are regarded as luxuries in Iraq.
The government should take the following steps to combat gender-based violence:
- Expedite submission of the draft law "Criminalization of Violence Against Women" to parliament to differentiate between violence against women and other crimes.
- Promote and support the role of the Family Protection Department. Staff it with women specialized in dealing with cases of bodily, sexual, verbal and psychological violence.
- Amend Jordan’s penal code to ban violence against women under the pretense of honor.
- Establish new shelters for women exposed to family violence that are separate from prisons or corrective facilities.
- Start a national hotline to record incidents of violence against women.
Civil society should:
- Raise awareness of women’s rights and relevant laws, especially among youth.
- Form groups to pressure government and parliament for the amendment of legislation to end violence against women.
Part I: International Women's Day
March 4, 2013
International Women’s Day will celebrate economic, political and social achievements of women on March 8. Female leaders in five Arab countries were asked to discuss women’s achievements from the last year.
The prominent participation of women in Tahrir Square demonstrations and elections were key achievements for Egyptian women. But this participation did not always lead to tangible improvements for women in 2012. One leader said that their political, social and economic status has actually decreased overall.
Iraqi women noted that they achieved little in 2012. Female lawmakers have had little say in the political process, despite occupying more than 25 percent of the seats in parliament. Women have also been excluded from reconciliation and peace committees.The following are the women’s responses arranged by country.
Iraqi women were unable to score major achievements in 2012. They faced a difficult economic climate and a conservative society that favors men. Women’s influence in politics has actually receded since 2006.
Women have had little say in the political process. The exclusion of women from Nouri al Maliki’s council of ministers was a setback. In the executive branch of government, there is only one female minister and she does not even have a portfolio. There are over 80 women in parliament, but they are there mainly to satisfy the 25 percent quota. Their participation is handicapped by their respective lists.
On the other hand, the women’s movement was very active in 2012. Civil society organizations held many conferences and published reports. As part of my work with the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization, I lead a delegation composed of six women — including three from the Ministry of Human Rights— to investigate the condition of women in prison. The parliament and government has taken notice of the results of the report, which describe the difficult situation female prisoners face.
The Iraqi government has paid little attention to women’s issues because it has been busy with sectarian conflicts and political crises that threaten the country and the democratic process.
The feminist movement has tried to improve women's access to decision-making positions. But some female officials and lawmakers were not selected according to their merits or experience. They have little influence.
Women used to play a bigger role in politics. The interim government of 2005 had six female ministers. Now there is only one female minister without a portfolio. Women in parliament are just a number. Iraq has a quota reserving 25 percent of seats for women. There are currently more than 80 women in parliament, but few have prominent roles. Even when they are asked to participate in talks or to help resolve disputes, the women are marginalized.
There were few tangible achievements for Iraqi women in 2012. Women’s participation in politics decreased. They were excluded from the reconciliation and peace committees. Women are suffering from the unstable political situation and sectarian tensions.
In 2012, Egyptian women claimed their political voice by voting in four different elections. But this achievement was overshadowed by a decline in women’s status in the politics, society and the economy.
The percentage of female lawmakers in Egypt decreased from 12.5 percent in 2010 to two percent in 2012. At the 2012 World Economic Forum, Egypt was ranked 128 out of 131 countries on women’s representation in parliament.
In the so-called "Revolution Parliament," five out of 180 members of the Shura council were women. This decline was partly due to the rise of fundamentalist voices calling for confining women to certain roles, and limiting their right to participate in society and especially politics.
The past year also witnessed a systematic attack against women activists, particularly during the incidents at the presidential palace by supporters of President Mohamed Morsi supporters. The number of instances of sexual harassment has increased since the revolution, especially on holidays such as Eid al Fitr.
On the economic level, Egypt also recorded decline in women’s access to economic opportunities in 2012. The unemployment rate for women reached nearly 25 percent—one of the highest levels ever recorded.
The most important achievement by Egyptian women in 2012 was their prominent participation in Tahrir Square demonstrations. They cared for wounded protestors and informed the families of martyrs who died during clashes. Women also took a leading role in monitoring violence. They succeeded in insisting on the right to participate in public life —despite the rise of fundamentalism.
Jordanian women achieved some successes at the political and social levels in 2012.
Politically: Women in Jordan attained more seats parliament. We are now hold 18 out of a total of 150 seats, or 12 percent. As for municipal councils, the women’s quota was increased to 25 percent which will be applied in the upcoming municipal elections.
Economically: Jordanians are facing a difficult economic situation in general. Opportunities for women to participate in the labor market did not really increase in 2012, according to recent studies.
Socially: The inclusion of insurance for mothers in social security law amendments was a great achievement for women. A lot of work went into convincing parliament to pass the amendments.
In Lebanon, women have been campaigning on several issues. The most important is the quota for political representation in parliament and in municipal councils. Women built coalitions, networked and advocated for a new law. But the current parliament probably won’t pass the legislation. It is busy dividing up seats along sectarian lines. More women will likely run for positions regardless if the law is passed.
Omani women have gained many rights during the reign of Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said (1970-present). The country celebrates their achievements annually on Women’s Day, October 17.
Women have recently participated more prominently in political life. Women now hold three cabinet ministerial positions. The ambassadors to Germany, the Netherlands and the United States are all female. The number of female members of the State Council and Shura Council have also increased. Women won four seats on municipal councils and four were appointed by the government.
Women have also played a larger role in helping Omani society. Two women were appointed to the National Committee for Human Rights. Women are playing an important role in their communities through their own associations that provide health and other charitable services to the needy.
On the economy, women’s participation in the labor market has increased. Some women have established small home-based businesses. Others now work outside of the home and manage small to medium-sized businesses.
Breaking Taboos: Egypt's Women
February 28, 2013
The most important achievement of Egyptian women over the past year is their emergence as a formidable and active voting block of 23 million voters. They diligently queued for hours in the scorching heat of the summer and the cold winter just to be able to have their say and make their voices heard.
Women have also been very vocal about their views. The sheer number of women from diverse backgrounds who demonstrated last year put their political activism on an equal footing with men. Moreover, women broke many taboos by camping out in the streets alongside men, challenging traditional expectations of their behavior.
More importantly, women reported sexual harassment and took effective measures to monitor and punish perpetrators. And they demanded that the government take responsibility for this issue. Egyptian women, who have always known and valued their self-worth, succeeded in making their power visible to others.
A considerable number of women still, however, vote according to the wishes of the men in their lives. This explains women’s inability to yet translate their voting numbers into a unified political force that serves their rights and best interests. Some women are still against the concept of equal rights for women. It is hard to visualize other social or economic achievements for Egyptians over the past year and women are no exception.
The pivotal role played by Egyptian women in the making of the January 2011 revolution has turned against them. Women’s rights are now a divisive issue. Women were excluded from the post-revolution nation building process— including the drafting of the constitution.
The post-revolution constitution provides for equal rights without discrimination. It does not, however, explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender —a core tenet of all Egyptian constitutions since 1923. The constitution also removed references to international human rights conventions ratified by Egypt. This may have removed their higher status in case of conflict with Egyptian legislation.
The constitution also does not specifically mention women’s rights. The only reference to women as a specific group falls under the family, acknowledging only their domestic role. The constitution gives religion a stronger, yet vague role over legislation and allows for subjectivity. It abolished the parliamentary quota for women. Their political participation has declined both in the parliament to less than two percent and in the cabinet by half. Demonization of women as a sex object has intensified since the revolution. Sexual harassment has escalated to terrifying levels. This may be part of an attempt to push women back into their exclusively domestic role.
The government has done little so far to ensure that women retain their rights. The constitution calls for a battalion of laws to make its provisions operable. Such laws can make it or break it for women. The newly adopted election law does not recognize affirmative action for women. If their marginal representation continues, women will have a difficult time trying to influence such laws.
Moushira Khattab was a Public Policy Scholar in the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in 2012. She is the former Minister of Family and Population of Egypt as well as Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vice Chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. Moushira served as Ambassador of Egypt to South Africa during the Nelson Mandela era and Ambassador of Egypt to the Czech Republic and Slovakia during their formation.
Click here to read her paper, “Women’s Rights Under Egypt’s Constitutional Disarray.”
What Changes Does 2013 Hold?
February 21, 2013
Women leaders in seven Arab countries were asked what political, social and economic changes they expect to see in 2013. Most expected to see political infighting, backsliding in women’s status, or an economic downturn in their respective countries.
Women in Iraq and Lebanon projected a deterioration in the security situation if the Syrian conflict spills over. Yemeni women said their country’s democratic transition hinges on a successful national dialogue scheduled for March. Two Egyptian women noted deep political divides. But one was confident that the parties will form parliamentary blocs and reach a consensus in 2013.
Most of the optimistic responses came from women living in countries that are not facing tumultuous political transitions. A woman from Iraqi Kurdistan thought women will find new economic opportunities in the private and public sectors in 2013. A Jordanian woman expected female parliamentarians to wield greater political influence. An Omani woman forecasted strong economic growth. The following are the women’s responses arranged by country.
2013 will probably be filled with turmoil due to the intransigence and stubbornness of both the rulers and opposition parties. Egypt’s economy will almost certainly continue its severe downturn. The biggest challenge will be to restore growth and market confidence, and to attract investors into financing projects again.
On the social scene, the gap between the rich and poor people may increase due to the absence of social justice and equal opportunities. Unemployment and the budget deficit could also increase if the economy does not recover.
Egypt is passing through a tumultuous period. But 2013 may bring some stability. I expect the political parties to form two or three large blocs, and reach a consensus. If the parties move fast enough, Egypt could even hold early presidential elections. The worst case scenario is where voters lose their enthusiasm for elections or democracy. Regardless, the turnout will probably be smaller in the next elections since citizens have lost confidence in politicians. On the social level, all indicators suggest that women’s status will deteriorate. Civil society will have to work harder to combat this.
I doubt that Lebanon will progress on the political, social or economic levels in 2013.Lebanon is a vulnerable country. It can easily get sidetracked from its own national issues by overwhelming regional and international developments. The country is now even more at risk of being swallowed by spillover violence from Syria.
Events in Syria have already impacted Lebanon’s tourism sector, which had been a major component of economic growth. The sectarian issue in Syria has also heightened tensions between Lebanon’s religious communities. Parliament recently rejected a law that would have given Lebanese women married to foreigners the right to pass on their citizenship to their children. Several years of lobbying amounted to nothing because politicians feared upsetting the sectarian balance in the country.
Lebanon is also reeling under political bickering—or rather horse trading—regarding a new electoral law. Each sect is trying to secure a law that would preserve its representation. Politicians are not interested in working for the benefit of the whole population. So the chances for real change in 2013 are slim or maybe non-existent.
Lebanon’s fate in 2013 may depend on the direction of the Syrian conflict. If it spills over, Lebanon would suffer politically, economically and socially. The conflict threatens to further divide the political parties. A larger influx of refugees could prompt businesses and foreign investors to leave the country. Deterioration in security and lack of sufficient resources to support refugees could lead to increases in sickness and violence. Women would likely suffer from gender-based violence and rape.
Iraq’s economy will probably continue to be weak in 2013. The annual budget was finally approved in February after many developments plans were postponed. Marginalized groups in society—such as divorcees, retirees and the unemployed—that have little to no source of income will be especially vulnerable to fluctuations in the economy.
The political situation also seems bleak due to the rise of sectarian conflicts, enforcement of representative quotas, and lack of respect for Iraq’s constitution. Society also faces significant challenges in 2013. Citizens have little confidence in themselves or the government due to the country’s instability.
2013 is set to be a year of major change in Iraq. Since January, demonstrators in six provinces have taken to the streets to demand government reforms. Many have accused the government of misusing anti-terror laws to wrongfully detain individuals. Even if the Iraqi government satisfies the demonstrators, some of the current leaders may be discharged. And new political leaders may attempt to amend the constitution. Iraqis fear a deterioration in the security situation, which could be further undermined by a spillover from Syria in 2013.
In 2013, I expect women’s participation in politics to be more effective in Kurdistan. They are now more experienced and have more opportunities than in the past. Many non-governmental organizations have been successfully implemented awareness and advocacy programs to change society’s mentality towards women.
This change can open many doors to women in the private and public sector in 2013. Women stand to become more empowered through financial independence and acquiring new skills.
2013 may be a year of defined by conflict between parties and parliamentary blocks. Chances for economic growth or development this year are slim, as parliament has not provided a clear economic vision or agenda. Living standards have already deteriorated, and many families are now living under the poverty line. The security situation may also deteriorate for vulnerable sectors of society. On the social level, violence against women will continue to be a key problem.
Iraq is going through a difficult transformation from a dictatorship to a democracy. But there may be a few success stories in 2013, such as the relative improvement of the security situation, and improvement of standard of living. I expect Iraq’s politicians to compromise to preserve the country’s unity. Then Iraq might be able to establish stronger relationships with other countries, and again become a decision-maker.
The parliament may also pass laws ensuring the transition to a market-based economy. The private sector could then invest oil resources in rebuilding infrastructure, and developing the agricultural and industrial sectors. Corruption rates are already falling to their lowest levels.
On the social level, Iraqis should become less dependent on grant money in 2013. If the government builds up local capacity and provides more job opportunities, it will have an easier time providing health care, education, housing and food to those who cannot work.
Iraq is unlikely to see any significant political, social or economic changes in 2013. The political system’s dependence on sectarian quotas has driven parties to focus on parliamentary gains. This competition has pushed parliamentary blocs into sharp conflict with each other.
These tensions have carried over into Iraqi society. Citizens are thinking in terms of their ethnic and sectarian alignment, which is weakening national unity. These divisions will hamper the country’s reconstruction and economic development efforts in 2013.
In 2013, I expect politicians to make constitutional amendments and pass some important legislation. Parliament may pass a political parties law that would implement funding transparency. It will also work on a social security law to provide welfare to disabled Iraqis.
Parliament is also due to pass laws on oil, gas and infrastructure. The most important issue in 2013 will be empowering women in politics, society and the economy. Iraq could become a regional model of democracy if it empowers women.
The issue of building up the state was swept aside during the recent political crisis between rival parties. In 2013, popular movements are likely to reject the factional struggle, which threatens Iraq’s national identity. But citizens will probably continue to suffer from the lack of security and stability. The economy will continue to be dependent on oil, exposing it to the fluctuations in the world market. The Iraqi government has plans to improve human services, but these will take years to implement.
2013 will be a challenging year for Yemen. It could transition to democracy if regional and international forces support the national dialogue scheduled to start on March 18. The group must outline a constitution for a modern, democratic and civic state in which all citizens have equal rights. But some domestic and foreign actors may attempt to undermine the dialogue. Yemen will face a dangerous situation if the youth who revolted for change in 2011 are duped by this process. Inflation, unemployment, poverty and starvation could increase in 2013, raising the threat of a civil war.
Yemen is scheduled to begin its national dialogue in March, which will gather representatives from a wide range of political and social groups, including youth and women. The dialogue will mainly focus on the political structure, the new constitution and governance. Participants will also tackle economic and education issues during the six month session.
The national dialogue’s success would be an important step towards democracy for Yemen. 2013 may be an important transitional year if the factions and parties reach a consensus on how to move forward. Yemen must keep the economy from deteriorating further and maintain the relatively peaceful security situation until the election of a new president in 2014.
Jordan’s new parliament may help the country progress in 2013, thanks to additional powers granted to lawmakers. Jordan’s parties will have more say on domestic policy, which could help stabilize the political system. Women will play a bigger role in political life, as 12 percent of parliamentarians are now female. Those 18 women may influence the decision-making process. One of the goals of the new parliament is to be more transparent regarding state allocations and expenditures, and generally improve oversight of the state budget.
In 2013, new democratic regulatory laws may be further implemented. These were included in the 2011 constitution, which was passed after large protests. Article 19 provides for equality between the sexes, and forbids discrimination and violence against women. But Moroccan women would further benefit from the ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. The government should also raise the quota for female representatives in local councils before the next round of elections.
On the political level, the government may start appointing people to positions based on their qualifications and experience. On the economy, the government is due to reform the state pension system, and create a fund to support young male and female entrepreneurs.
In December 2012, Oman held its first ever local elections. The government may be more responsive to the requests of the newly elected municipal councils in 2013. The country’s 11 municipal councils can present the government with recommendations on local services.
Oman’s economy is widely expected to grow in 2013, perhaps by 5 percent or more depending on the price of oil. Oil revenues may help Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said achieve the goals of his five-year development plan. In 2011, he pledged to diversify the economy, build modern infrastructure, keep inflation down, and create jobs. Oman has projected spending $78 billion on infrastructure alone by 2015.
Human Rights Watch 2013 World Report
February 7, 2013
Women across the Middle East suffered from sexual harassment and domestic violence in 2012, according to a new report Human Rights Watch. The following are excerpts from the 2013 World Report on Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey and Yemen.
Algeria adopted a new law on January 12, 2012, imposing a 30 percent quota of women on the electoral lists of parties for legislative, municipal, and communal elections. Women won 31 percent of the seats in the parliament elected on May 10. However, the Algerian code of personal status discriminates against women in matters of parental authority, divorce and inheritance.
Systematic sexual harassment of women and girls in public spaces continued without serious attempts by the government to intervene and halt, or deter the practice. For example, in June, mobs attacked and sexually assaulted at least six Egyptian and foreign women in Tahrir square. Although prosecutors investigated two of those incidents, they did not refer any cases to court in 2012, and overall the government failed to prioritize addressing violence against women. After a public outcry, proposals by Islamist members of parliament to lower the minimum age of marriage, repeal the right of a woman to initiate no-fault divorce, and decriminalize female genital mutilation (FGM) were shelved. The Constituent Assembly drafted provisions on women’s rights that further embedded the Sharia law exception to equality in the new draft constitution, echoing Egypt’s reservations to women’s rights conventions which remain in place.
On August 29, parliament approved amendments to the passport law, removing a stipulation that a woman must obtain her husband's consent before she can obtain a Jordanian passport.
Jordan’s personal status code remains discriminatory despite a 2010 amendment. Marriages between Muslim women and non-Muslims are not recognized. A non-Muslim mother forfeits her custodial rights after the child reaches seven years old.
Article 9 of Jordan’s nationality law denies women married to foreign-born spouses the ability to pass on their nationality to their husbands and children.
Parliament is still considering a 2010 draft bill that would protect women from domestic violence. In August 2012, a parliamentary subcommittee put forward an amended version of the bill limiting protections dealing with marital rape. As of November, parliament had yet to consider the amended bill.
Discriminatory provisions that significantly harm and disadvantage women continue to exist in personal status laws, determined by an individual’s religious affiliation. Women suffer from unequal access to divorce and, in the event of divorce, are often discriminated against when it comes to child custody. Lebanese women, unlike Lebanese men, still cannot pass their nationality to foreign husbands and children, and continue to be subject to discriminatory guardianship and inheritance law.
The 2012 elections for the GNC marked a positive step for female political participation; 33 women were elected (out of 200 seats) after the NTC adopted an electoral law requiring each party run an equal number of male and female candidates.
Libya’s penal code considers sexual violence to be a crime against a woman’s “honor” rather than against the individual. The code’s provisions permits a reduction in sentence for a man who kills a wife, mother, daughter, or sister whom he suspects is engaged in extramarital sexual relations. The law does not specifically prohibit domestic violence and there are no voluntary shelters for victims of violence.
The new constitution guarantees equality for women, “while respecting the provisions of the Constitution, and the laws and permanent characteristics of the Kingdom.” Major reforms to the Family Code in 2004 raised the age of marriage from 15 to 18 and improved women’s rights in divorce and child custody. However, the new code preserved discriminatory provisions with regards to inheritance and the right of husbands to unilaterally divorce their wives.
On March 10, 16-year-old Amina Filali apparently took her own life after enduring beatings from her husband, according to her family. Filali’s parents, who live near Larache, northern Morocco, had filed a complaint in 2011 stating that their daughter’s future husband had raped her; later they petitioned the court successfully to allow the two to marry. The case focused attention on article 475 of the penal code, which provides a prison term for a person who “abducts or deceives” a minor, but prevents the prosecutor from charging him if he then marries the minor. That clause, say women’s rights activists, effectively allows rapists to escape prosecution.
Syrian government forces have used sexual violence to torture men, women, and boys detained during the current conflict. Witnesses and victims also said that soldiers and pro-government armed militias have sexually abused women and girls as young as 12 during home raids and military sweeps of residential areas.
Tunisia was long viewed as the most progressive Arab country with respect to women’s rights. However, the NCA adopted a draft article that could erode women’s rights by emphasizing “complementary” gender roles within the family, an apparent retreat from the principle of equality between men and women as required by article 2 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), ratified by Tunisia in 1985.
In March, parliament passed the new Law on the Protection of the Family and Prevention of Violence against Women, aiming to offer protection from violence and practical support to family members and all women regardless of marital status, and to establish local centers to implement and monitor the law’s application. Violence in the home remained endemic, with police and courts regularly failing to protect women who have applied for protection orders.
Women’s and Girls' Rights
Women in Yemen generally are excluded from public life but played an important role in anti-Saleh protests.
The transition blueprint envisaged “adequate” representation of women in all political bodies both during and after the transition. Many Yemeni women’s rights activists are seeking a quota of 30 percent.
Child marriages remain widespread, exposing girls to domestic violence and truncating their education.
Yemen has a high maternal mortality rate of 370 deaths per 100,000 live births. Seven or eight women die each day from child birth complications.
Click here for the full report.
What 3 Government Actions Needed to Foster "Dignity"?
January 17, 2013
Women leaders in the Arab world were asked what three government actions are needed to foster “dignity.” The responses from women in four key Arab countries covered everything from disarming militias to imposing penalties for sexual harassment and more equitable tax laws.
With almost one in four Iraqis living in poverty, Iraqi women wanted more economic assistance for widows and orphans. In Egypt, women called for overhauling the bloated bureaucracy. They also called for a minimum wage that covers basics needs.
Lebanese women wanted fair employment practices. One female activist suggested that the government form a body to monitor gender discrimination. A Yemeni woman urged her government to tackle corruption. The following are the women’s responses arranged by country.
Iraq is a rich country with a budget that exceeded $100 billion in 2012. Yet the poverty rate is 23 percent, according to the United Nations. Iraq has large numbers of widows and orphans, poor quality education and high levels of corruption. The government needs to:
- Conduct studies on regional job market needs and available resources to identify areas where jobs can be created. The government should also promote local goods by imposing high tariffs on similar imports. The government needs to establish vocational centers aiming at enrolling the unemployed to learn skills to produce such products.
Re-establish collaborative centers where the unemployed can pull their resources together and engage in a line business. Government intuitions should give priority of purchase to those centers to ensure sustainability.
Rethink the idea of “giveaways”, like salaries paid to street children, orphans and widows, and implement a rights-based social welfare system. The impoverished will save face by claiming their rights rather than begging for a government handout.
Iraqi government policies in this field are weak. The monthly grant for a woman without a breadwinner is sometime less than $100. Only women, mainly widows, who are registered at the Ministry of Women Affairs receive this benefit. There also are attempts to allocate low-cost housing to the poor and widows. Also, the Housing Bank loans money to help families to create home. But the government needs to increase funding and access to these types of programs.
The Iraqi government should first invest in infrastructure, healthcare, education, and housing to provide Iraqis with dignity. It should then seek foreign investment to create employment opportunities for the youth. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and the U.S. Agency for International Development have funded small projects and supported the private sector.
But Iraq needs vocational training for the unemployed. The International Labor Organization could assist with this. The government should also improve women’s access to facilities in the workplace, since women are more than half of Iraq’s population.
The government can encourage the idea of dignity by adopting a human rights-based approach to economic decision-making. The government should prioritize quality education, adequate healthcare, the right to housing, and sanitation. It should set a minimum wage that allows citizens to maintain minimum living standards. This would curb practices such as the brain drain of qualified teachers to other countries where they are adequately compensated. The government also needs to allocate additional resources to job creation.
The faltering economy lies at the heart of most of Egypt’s problems. The government needs to respect the rule of law and maintain a balance of power between the three branches of government (executive, legislative and judiciary). Impartial checks and balances on these branches would ensure balance.
A democratic foundation would encourage the private sector to partner with the government and inject much-needed investments to create jobs. The public sector is bloated and inefficient, so the government needs to incentivize the private sector to share some of the burden, particularly in crucial industries such as tourism (Egypt’s main source of income), agriculture (to guarantee food security) and manufacturing to maintain a healthy balance sheet for the country.
In the short term, Egypt’s government needs to enact politically sensitive reforms including:
Reviewing the tax laws, especially the income tax law. Some deductions for high-income earners should be cut, without affecting the lower and middle classes
Applying the minimum and maximum wage policy so the highest wage won’t exceed 35 times the minimum wage
Providing support to food subsidy programs to ensure full access for the impoverished
In the long term, Egypt needs reform-minded leadership with vision, ambition and charisma to persuade government institutions to:
Restructure the inefficient public sector and bureaucracy
Support the private sector, particularly small and medium enterprises to ensure credit availability and a broad umbrella of institutional support
Improve education in public schools to produce a skilled workforce
Boost trade relations with new and old partners, attract foreign investment and seek out new markets for exports
Increase civic engagement in public policy to improve accountability
The Egyptian government’s top priorities are to save the economy and implement social justice. In the short term, the government needs to provide adequate security, ensure fair trials and satisfy people’s basic needs. Society would be more stable if reforms create jobs and improve access to goods and services.
The Lebanese government can provide its citizens with dignity when it takes the responsibility for the state's security. If the Lebanese Army disarms the other armed groups, people will feel more secure and political clashes would not break out so often.
The government can also encourage a sense of self-worth by assigning top executive and ministerial positions according to merit and not connections or political fellowship. A more equitable system of appointments could motivate Lebanese to improve their skills, which would improve the national economy.
Finally, the government needs to provide basic needs like electricity, clean water, free education and pensions. More Lebanese would choose to stay in their country rather than seek better living conditions abroad.
The Lebanese government needs to do three things on the economic front:
Impose penalties for sexual harassment and other types of abuse that women are subjected to in the workplace.
Provide incentives to companies and organizations that exemplify gender equity and equality in the workplace. Indicators could include the percentage of female employees, number of women in executive/authority roles, equity of salaries paid to women compared to men, etc.
Create a task force within relevant governmental ministries that would monitor and support the progress of women. This body would provide policy recommendations and action plans to ensure women retain their dignity in the workplace.
The Yemeni government needs to tackle corruption and set up a more transparent economy that benefits all sectors of society. The government should also better utilize existing human resources and improve education. This strategy has proven successful in other developing countries. Reforms should also ensure the effective participation of women— half of the population—in the work force to build the economy.
Women's Rights Under Egypt's Constitutional Disarray
January 17, 2013
Egypt's new constitution falls sort of explicitly prohibiting discrimination based on gender or religion, according to a new paper by Moushira Khattab. The paper warns that clerics may have the final word over new laws. "Women need to organize themselves as a political force and join the liberal movement" to defend their rights, Khattab wrote. The following paper, Viewpoints 15, was published by the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.
Egyptian women challenged tradition and dealt a blow to all taboos when they took to the streets alongside their male compatriots calling for freedom, dignity, social justice, and democracy. They were fighting for their liberty as they called for Hosni Mubarak to step down. Educated young women and men, using the most sophisticated tools of social media, inspired the hopes of a nation. The sense was that women were regarded as equals for the first time in modern history. This epic movement promised a civic boom. Egyptians were becoming more politically savvy and equally empowered. They looked toward a new constitution to secure the freedoms they had fought for.
The process of constitution writing, however, has not been as inspiring and women’s rights emerged as a thorny issue. The tide started to turn against women a few weeks after the fall of Mubarak. On March 19, 2011, in the absence of women and without any form of debate, a constitutional declaration swiftly removed the parliamentary quota for women. It also gave the People’s Assembly the right to choose a Constituent Committee (CC) charged with writing Egypt’s post-revolution constitution.
The Islamists controlled parliament through an unfair advantage afforded to them by an unconstitutional electoral law, which was later repealed. They gave marginal representation to women both in terms of number of seats (6 percent) and the choice of women on whose shoulders the burden of protecting women’s rights would fall. This all took place against a backdrop of radical, anti-feminist sentiment.
The People’s Assembly was consequently dissolved, bringing with it the looming threat of the dissolution of the CC. Uncertainty and illegitimacy threats jeopardized the process and the work of the CC, which was constantly accused of lacking transparency and being devoid of public consensus. The hegemony of political Islamists led to the withdrawal of representatives of other crucial sectors of society such as Christians and experts. This move further impacted the process of rewriting the constitution and left the ground unchallenged for Islamists.
HUMAN RIGHTS-BASED CONSTITUTION
To its credit, the constitution expanded the identification of rights and freedoms, covered in 51 articles compared to 21 articles in the 1971 constitution. A whole chapter is devoted to human rights and their guarantees.
That said, the constitution lacks a human rights approach. Where rights were mentioned, they were either stated in the third person or without guarantees. The constitution did not follow the globally acknowledged classification of human rights, and they were relegated to a secondary position. Religion is vaguely injected in certain articles, threatening restrictions on the exercise of certain rights. The cases of women, children, freedom of expression, and religion are some examples.
AN ENVIRONMENT CONDUCIVE TO RESPECT OF HUMAN RIGHTS
Generally speaking, the constitution does not provide a foundation that is conducive to the realization of human rights. Article 2 maintains “principles” of shari’a as the source of legislation. Contrary to the 1971 constitution, this provides for soliciting the views of Al-Azhar, a religious entity, concerning the interpretation of shari’a. In a constitutional precedent, Article 2 is interpreted by Article 219 using language that effectively turns the non-controversial “principles” into the more restrictive and controversial “provisions of shari’a.” This translates into subjectivity as clerics will have the final word over the laws that translate such broad terms. This gives non-elected, non-judicial individuals authority over the elected legislature and other democratically-elected bodies. Al-Azhar, which has been the subject of takeover attempts by the ultra-conservative Salafis, may shift from being a moderate enlightened institution to taking a more radical stance. This naturally poses a threat to women’s rights given political Islam’s notoriety for being against these rights.
THE CONSTITUTIONAL FRAMEWORK FOR WOMEN’S RIGHTS
The right to equality is covered in two articles. Article 8 uses paternalistic language that the state “ensures achieving justice, equality and freedom, along with channels of social charity and solidarity… to protect honour and property and provide adequate subsistence as regulated by legislation.” Article 33 states, “all citizens are equal before the law, in public rights and duties without discrimination.” The article overlooks personal rights where gender-based discrimination is flagrant. Moreover, it is devoid of legal guarantees of implementation.
The state’s responsibility to guarantee equality between men and women, a basic tenet of all Egyptian constitutions since 1923, was removed altogether from the new constitution. The new document is short of the minimum international standards observed by almost all democratic constitutions. The post-revolution constitution does not prohibit discrimination on the grounds of gender, sex, religion, origin, or any other grounds.
The provision of the 1971 constitution concerning women committed the state to ensure gender equality in all walks of life, provided it does not violate the provisions of shari’a. Women campaigned to remove this caveat but failed, and the entire article was removed. Article 10 about the family is the only article that mentions women as a specific group and is placed under the chapter on the moral foundations of society, outside the chapter on human rights. It only recognizes women’s domestic role within a family, “founded on religion, morality and patriotism.” It does not establish any rights for women, let alone guarantee their implementation. The constitution places “public morals above fundamental individual rights” and leaves its definition to the law. Article 10 relegates society beside the state to ensure “compliance with the authentic nature of the Egyptian family and its morals.” Many fear that such a provision will allow for militia groups to terrorize citizens into what they see as good Islamic dress codes and behavior.
The constitution does not explicitly prohibit human trafficking, servitude, or slavery and signals strong intentions to lower the minimum age of marriage. Women’s rights are threatened by shari’a as the source of legislation, jurisprudence modified by Article 219 and through a religious body (Article 4),4 and by article 76 that allows punishment based on a constitutional clause. Women risk losing acquired gains such as the right to a unilateral divorce granted by law no. 1/2000, and protection from child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) criminalized by law no. 126/2008, to name but a few.
Crucial human rights guarantees are missing. First, reference to the international human rights treaties, which Egypt has ratified and is bound to uphold, has been removed from the constitution. Gone with it is the elevated status of these treaties in guiding national legislation. This omission signals reluctance to honor such commitments,5 if not the intention to backtrack on some of them.
Second, in a serious violation of the minimum standards of human rights, Article 81 restricts the exercise of rights and freedoms with a vague notion of the “non-violation of foundations of the State.”
Third, Article 76 places the legitimacy of crimes and punishment at the discretion of the judge. It is no longer governed solely by law, but could be based on a constitutional provision, again based on shari’a as defined by Article 219. This leaves law enforcement open to subjectivity and potentially negative interpretations leading to the application of hodoud (Islamic punishment).
Moreover, both Articles 76 and 81 can be interpreted according to Article 219 by the clerics who will overrule judges. A great number of articles are qualified by the law subjecting the constitution to legislation (peaceful assembly; establishing associations, NGOs, and parties; labor syndicates; and cooperatives could be dissolved by court order). The balance of power and the independence of the judiciary is another concern. The president has all the executive powers (expanded across 22 articles in the new constitution compared to only 12 articles in the 1971 constitution), shares the legislative powers, and has a serious influence over the judiciary.
Egypt’s post-revolution constitution has divided the nation, instigated unprecedented violence, and dealt a blow to women, who represent 50 percent of the population and who made the revolution possible. The Islamists have succeeded in passing a constitution that bears their mark. They have swiftly moved to pass a battalion of laws called for by the constitution. The Islamist-controlled Shura Council, elected without mandate and with only 7 percent of the votes, is assigned this mammoth task until the election of the lower house. The president used the constitutional declaration of 2011 to appoint 90 members on the eve of the adoption of the new constitution, which only provides for the appointment of ten members.
To suppress objections to the draft constitution, the president lured people to vote in favor of the constitution with the bizarre promise that disputed clauses would be revised after the adoption of the constitution. Such a revision is technically impossible as it requires approval of both houses of parliament with a qualified two-thirds majority in a long and complicated process followed by a referendum. The process of revision will be another distraction bearing no fruit, particularly if the new parliament continues to be controlled by the Islamists.
The Shura Council, during its consideration of the election laws, rejected a proposal to place women on the first half of party lists. Having learned from their mistakes, civil opposition is finally uniting and regrouping with the aim of bringing down the constitution and preparing for the upcoming parliamentary elections. The faltering popularity of the Islamists makes for an opportune time for such unity, which would gain in numbers and strength if joined by women. Women need to organize themselves as a political force and join the liberal movement. These questions remain: Can women unite under one banner? Have liberals learned enough from past mistakes to treat women as equals? Or will women be used as a prop by the liberals to improve their image? My fingers are crossed.
An Ideal Constitution on Women's Rights
January 2, 2013
Women from across the Middle East — from Morocco to Jordan, Egypt to Iraq — responded to the following question: What would an ideal constitution say on women’s rights?
The ideal constitution should move women from being classified as property to owners of property. It should state that woman are equal to men and have the same rights and duties before the law. The constitution should eliminate racial and gender discrimination in employment, health care, education and family laws. It should establish a mechanism to monitor women’s status and penalize those who violate women’s rights.
The new Moroccan constitution, adopted in July 2011, exhibits some qualities of an ideal constitution. It may benefit women since several articles were approved under pressure from the feminist movement. The preamble includes progressive language prohibiting all forms of discrimination. Article 19 states there must be equality between men and women and establishes a body to combat discrimination. Article 30 ensures equal opportunity for women to vote and run for political office.
Only four women were represented in Egypt’s 85-member constitutional committee. As a result, no article was inserted into the constitution to guarantee women’s rights. Article 33 says that all citizens are equal before the law, but there is no explicit guarantee of women's rights or their equal status with men.
The ideal constitution would include articles that guarantee women's rights and equal status with men in political, social, cultural and economic life. It would also protect a woman’s right to initiate divorce or khula. The ideal constitution would also set the minimum age for marriage at 18 years old. It would criminalize female genital mutilation and human trafficking. The ideal constitution would also ensure the country adheres to international human rights treaties.
An ideal constitution would contain only general provisions to avoid the need for repetitive amendments and updates. This would also prevent positive discrimination to the benefit of women. The constitution should specify that all citizens, regardless of gender, are equal before the law. All citizens have equal civil and political rights, equal duties and obligations and equal access to public office without discrimination.
Specific protective provisions should be included in the constitution based on the needs of the community; these provisions should be amended from time to time to reflect changes in society’s values and needs.
The ideal constitution must be consistent in its principles. Morocco is headed in the right direction with its constitutional protection of human rights. The new constitution underscores principles that ensure justice, equality and protection from discrimination. The constitution also responds to some of the demands of the women’s movement. There are some contradictions in the text, however, as the drafters attempted to reconcile the demands of all parties.
The ideal constitution would protect women’s rights as outlined in international conventions. It would prohibit discrimination against women. Women should be able to attain high ranking government positions and even be elected president. Some public resources should be allocated to widows and divorced women or those who have no one to take care of them. The constitution should criminalize any kind of violence against women, including harassment.
The Constitution should define equal opportunities and rights for men and women. It should also establish a quota for female members of parliament and local councils. For example, the Iraqi constitution sets a quota guaranteeing women at least 25 percent of seats in parliament. The Iraqi constitution’s chapter on human rights and dignity is also exemplary.
An ideal constitution would devote more than one article to women. Every article should be drafted with women's rights in mind, and include a mechanism to safeguard those rights. The drafting process should be guided by international human rights conventions, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Key components of the constitution would include gender-sensitive language, a comprehensive article banning discrimination and a bill of rights.
The ideal constitution would guarantee equality between women and men before the law and ensure women’s rights to employment, education and health care. The constitution would also permit a woman to pass her nationality on to her children, and would protect a woman's right to vote and stand for election. One article should set a quota for female members of parliament and local councils so they are able to participate in decision-making.
Siwar Aouadi, Program Coordinator for Development Alternatives Inc., Tunisia
The Tunisian Code of Personal Status, which came into effect on January 1, 1957, gave women their rights and helped improve their status for more than 60 years. After the 2011 revolution, women expected to retain their rights or add to them, but many people wanted to retract all those gains. An ideal constitution would make women and men equal in rights and duties. It will abolish polygamy, keep or improve the current judicial procedure for divorce and require the consent of both partners to marry. The minimum age for marriage would be 17 years old.
The ideal constitution must ensure women’s representation in no less than 50 percent of positions at every level of government, including the legislative, executive and judicial branches. It should also guarantee women's rights to education, and healthcare. Women form half of society, so the constitution should aim to provide equal opportunities for them. It should also protect women from violence. In order to achieve these goals, women must act together to demand their rights.
An ideal constitution must provide protection for women. It would improve their economic status and ensure their participation and representation in the political process.
Women after the Arab Awakening
December 11, 2012
Women played frontline roles in the Arab uprisings, but have since faced growing political hurdles during the transitions. Nine female activists from Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Libya outlined the specific challenges to women’s participation at a meeting sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in October 2012. They also offered strategies for empowering women. The following are excerpts from their presentations, edited by the Middle East Program.
Hala Al Dosari, Ph.D. candidate in health services research; and opinion writer
Activists are working through networks of local and international NGOs and media outlets. The virtual world is the hub for women activists, allowing them to maneuver around official censorship and experience the freedom of unlimited interaction. Women are creating a discourse on gender roles and expectations, social norms, and women’s rights. They are becoming visible despite gender segregation and lack of representation. Sometimes, campaigns created locally and internationally succeed. The inclusion of two Saudi women in the 2012 official Olympic team was one small victory that has not yet translated into sporting opportunities for all Saudi women.
Regardless of Saudi Arabia’s reservation to only adhere to Islamic standards in the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), extremists inside Saudi Arabia have distorted the tenets of CEDAW. However, gender equality is still possible. Activists believe that the alignment of local laws and regulations with the Basic Law of Governance should take precedence. Article 8 of the Basic Law states that the government is based on the premise of justice, consultation, and equality in accordance with Sharia. Aligning local laws with Article 8 is crucial to empowering women in the public sphere. In personal space, a personal status law will be needed. “Om Salama” represents several groups of women in Jeddah, Riyadh, and Dammam working to reinterpret women’s rights through 60 verses of the Qur’an. The groups were named after a wise wife of the Muslim prophet who once solved a serious political dispute. Their mission is to introduce a new egalitarian concept of women’s rights and to eventually draft a new personal status code.
Gabool Al-Mutawakel, Co-Founder, Youth Leadership Development Foundation and co-founder of the Al Watan Party in Yemen
There are two major challenges facing Yemeni women. First is the politicization of Islam—a practice in which religion is used for political interests, which tends to negatively and disproportionately affect women more than men. For example, women’s political participation and their ability to reach high leadership positions are governed by religious scholars and their fatwas. In addition, religious notions are wrongfully manipulated to criminalize politically active women. For example, religion is used in personal attacks that smear a woman’s reputation and question her credibility as a Muslim woman, which can then negatively sway the opinions of ordinary citizens. The other challenge is the politicization of women’s issues. The best example in Yemen is the issue of early marriage, which was first raised as a human rights issue in the past few years but transformed into a conflict and area of negotiation between the two most prominent parties in Yemen, the General People’s Congress and the Islah Party.
Nevertheless, the opportunities for women in Yemen are enormous during this period of transition. Society is still in the mood for transformation and is anticipating and accepting of change more than ever before. Women should take maximum advantage of this momentum in order to increase their leadership roles within their communities.
Honey Al-Sayed, Director, Syria Program, Nonviolence International and former host and producer, Syrian radio show “Good Morning Syria”
We can begin to prepare Syrian women to take an active role across the spectrum of society. We can look to friendly nations for guidance, but we must make our own decisions. To begin with, we must develop civil society organizations and embrace the concept of true non-governmental organizations. Through these organizations, we can educate our women—in fact, all Syrians— and offer training in things like leadership skills, citizenship, and communications. We can teach women how to detect and combat sexism and abuse everywhere—in the home, in the workplace, and on the street. By building our institutions and our capacity, I believe we can start on a massive education campaign that will ultimately create a snowball effect that will support our emerging democracy.
By participating in the political, public health, educational, and economic sectors, I believe Syrian women in the post-Assad phase will continue to be a driving force in the future of Syria. Even today, under the harshest political repression, Syrian women have been able to start the process of their own empowerment. They are educating their children, their neighbors, and yes, their husbands, in equal work and equal rights.
Rihab Elhaj, Co-founder and Executive Director, New Libya Foundation
Libyans at large must acknowledge the great significance and value of women’s contribution in developing a nation. Finally and most importantly, Libyan women themselves must choose to support one another and together take what is rightfully theirs.
It is worth noting that the dialogue on women’s rights in Libya has been expectant and oftentimes extraneous, considering the backdrop of chaos in the newborn democracy and particularly exacerbated by Libya’s institutional voids. Efforts toward promoting just and empowering socio-cultural shifts and policies are mostly bound to be ineffectual due to Libya’s absolute lack of institutions to implement them. Libyans and our allies would best benefit from a collective acknowledgement and dialogue on the urgency and importance of building strong, transparent, effective, and inclusive institutions as an essential first step toward the viability of a democratic state. Ensuring women are fully engaged in the institution-building dialogue and process can guarantee that Libya’s political, civic, and economic institutions work for women as a matter of course.
Hanin Ghaddar, Managing Editor, NOW News (Lebanon), and Public Policy Scholar, Wilson Center
When Islam becomes part of the political system, rather than a matter of personal or spiritual choice, women’s rights always suffer.
In my opinion, the Arab Spring made it obvious to the people that if any change needs to be made, it must be drastic. No more small steps or negotiating with the powers, political or religious. No more compromises and reconciliation. The Arab Spring is about people changing things themselves without waiting for permission or approval.
That’s exactly what women should do: make big strides and take what is theirs with their own hands and bodies. In Egypt, Islamists are trying to amend the constitution against women and their rights over their bodies…Freedom in the Arab world cannot be complete without the freedom of women, and women’s freedom would still be flawed without the right to one’s body. Islam is certainly not the solution. Islamic feminism is too slow for our times, and the only solution is a clear and strong path toward separating the state from religion.
Without strong action in this direction, the future will be really bleak for women in the region.
Omezzine Khélifa, Politician and Advisor, Tunisian Ministry of Tourism
Women have a weighty and decisive presence in all these fields, in all the arenas where the battle for more democracy is being waged: in civil society, as journalists fighting for freedom of the press; as human rights activists fighting for free speech; as judges, lawyers, and accountability experts fighting against corruption and for the independence of justice as well as imagining a new, independent electoral body; as artists fighting for their right to create without restriction or censorship; and as teachers fighting for the right to instruct without fear.
Tunisian institutions and society are undergoing profound change from within. The days of irresponsibility are over. Tunisians of all walks of life are denouncing injustice and speaking out loud to make their voices heard. Thus, they are the genuine actors of change, slowly but surely moving mentalities and behaviors from postdictatorship disorder and uncertainty toward structured and united demands for stability and democracy.
Dalia Ziada, Executive Director, Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies
Egyptian women’s rights are almost grinding between two large stones. The first is the patriarchal mindset that traps women in stereotypical female roles and stigmatizes any woman who tries to break out of this mold. The second is the rise of political Islamists who perpetuate this patriarchal mentality and are misinterpreting religion to justify the social and political marginalization of women in the name of Islam. However, Egyptian women are heroically struggling to push against the two stones and claim the space to which they are entitled as an essential force behind Egypt’s spring.
Nevertheless, we should remain optimistic about the unlimited powers of the Egyptian woman. Women’s sufferings during democratization are not unique to the Egyptian case and culture. In recent democratic transitions in Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Africa, women suffered marginalization, and it took a long time and much effort to win full equality with men. We have our own story of Hoda Sha’arawi, the first woman activist to lead a protest in 1919 to encourage more women to get involved in politics and the first to take off her niqab in 1923 to encourage other women to be more involved in social activities.
Today’s Egypt is full of countless numbers of Hoda’s granddaughters. They have led the 2011 revolution and are currently leading their country through democratic transition. It is only a matter of time before Egyptians realize that the Arab Spring cannot come about without flowers, and, thus, democracy cannot be achieved without women.
Fahmia Al-Fotih, Communication analyst and youth focal point analyst, United Nations Population Fund
It is too early to say that the Arab Awakening has been or can be a “spring” for Yemeni women, as it has not thus far. With prevailing political instability and insecurity, as well as the looming power of Islamists whose agenda toward women is unfriendly, the future for Yemeni women is still unclear. There are many persistent challenges ahead for women in this country, where a majority of women are illiterate and live in rural areas. This makes them economically vulnerable, segregates them from the public domain, leaves them unaware of their rights, and makes them easy and submissive prey—even supporters of Islamist agendas and ideologies.
Yemeni women, whether northern, southern, Houthi, liberal, or conservative, have to stand up firmly as one voice if they really want women to advance. Otherwise, women always will be exploited and underrepresented.
The future of women in Yemen is still unknown because the Islamists and conservatives who took part in writing the constitution 20 years ago are still threatening that they are the ones who will write the future constitution of Yemen. Increasing the fear of this possibility is the lack of female legislators in the country.
The uprisings of the Arab Spring may have been a “blossoming” for some but definitely not for Yemeni women so far.
Yassmine ElSayed Hani, Wilson Center Visiting Journalist and Independent Journalist, Foreign Desk, Al Akhbar daily newspaper
The ongoing struggle in Egypt is not merely between women’s rights activists and those who want to deprive them of previous gains. Rather, it is going to be between those who struggle for real democracy, which appreciates all the components of society, and those who wish to play politics with old, exclusion-based rules.
The space of freedom provided by the revolution enabled women to act freely—though it made them vulnerable to criticism, if not attacks, as well—because this freedom was given to all parties: moderates and extremists, the right and the left, conservatives and liberals, and so on. During this transitional phase, the rules of engagement in Egyptian society are still being crafted, and it is the most critical time for shaping Egypt’s future.
The domination of certain political ideologies does not determine the “final word” when it comes to the status of women in Egypt. Rather, it is a natural part of the competitive political climate that is rapidly changing. The reasons for optimism outweigh those for pessimism—at least for youth if not for politicians. This optimism is increasingly becoming the air many are breathing, myself included. It is certain, however, that the position of women is embedded in the position of the whole society, whether oppressed or free, developed or underdeveloped, democratic or suffering under a dictatorship. It is still too early to judge any of this.
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What Countries are the New Role Models?
December 4, 2012
Women from across the Middle East – from Egypt to Bahrain, Lebanon to Iraq—responded to the following question: Is there another Muslim-majority country that you look to as a model? Why?
Turkey is emerging as an important player that developed economically and proved that democracy and Islam are not contradictory. However, the Turkish model is still a work in progress. Despite enacting reforms to join the European Union, it has not finished building its democratic system because of past military interference in governance.
The United Arab Emirates and Turkey are good models. They have strong economies and do not force women to wear hejab. They are developing with a 21st century mindset. I believe in Islam but I hope that we can develop our country in a modern way. In Islam, there is a principle that states Sharia, or Islamic law, can change depending on the time and place, which influence our lifestyle.
Each country has its own culture, economic situation and demography, which make it difficult to follow a model. I do not look to any particular country that Egypt should emulate, but some have succeeded in specific fields. For example, Indonesia is a member of the Group of 20 major economies. Turkey is successfully fighting corruption and ensuring government accountability. The United Arab Emirates is a regional leader in education and progressive culture. But I cannot find a model for real democracy.
No country could be a model for Egypt. I support a secular state because most Islamist-ruled countries are using fascist methods to deal with citizens who disagree with government policies. Many citizens who wish to live freely emigrate to other places. This happened in Europe during the Middle Ages and recently in Islamist-ruled Afghanistan and Somalia.
I look to Indonesia as a model. It is a democratic, multi-party, presidential republic based on the separation of powers. The legislative, executive and judicial authorities are independent according to its 1945 constitution. Indonesia’s population is also 86 percent Muslim. But the country harmoniously preserves its diverse religions, ethnicities, languages and cultures. For example, citizens elect delegates to represent their respective provinces.
Malaysia is a model Muslim-majority country. Muslims form 60 percent of its population but they coexist with Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and others. Malaysians have a noteworthy ability to avoid conflicts between ethnic groups. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad worked to unify groups of people with different religions.
Malaysia also underwent a model scientific, industrial and economic renaissance under Mahathir Mohamad. By the early 2000s, industry and services accounted for nearly 90 percent of GDP. As a result, the number of citizens living below the poverty line fell from 52 percent in 1970 to 5 percent in 2002. The government focused on education, industrialization and social issues, and Malaysians gained the skills to communicate with the outside world. They entered the international labor market, which increased production and reduced unemployment.
Turkey is a model Muslim-majority country because its economic policies benefit peoples in the Middle East. For example, Turkey is winning contracts in northern, southern and central Iraq regardless of its past relationship with one ethnic or religious group. It is a voice of neutrality in the region.
Turkey's democratic domestic system has developed over time and was not imposed by outsiders or a revolutionary regime. The process took decades and the military intervened several times to put the country back on track. But the military gave back power to civil leaders. Iraq can learn lessons from Turkey’s democratic development.
I respect their Muslim women and how they asserted their roles in mosques and as religious leaders. Female deputy muftis and preachers help less-educated women to understand the correct interpretation of the Koran, which forbids honor killing and other gender-based practices.
Turkey is a model Muslim-majority country. Science and education are national priorities there. The government enacts effective economic reform and attracts foreign direct investment. Turkey also provides a safe environment for foreigners, which is why many tourists vacation there. There is also less poverty than in many other Muslim countries.
I am so grateful Lebanon is not an Islamist country. I was born a Muslim but what is taking place in the Arab world reminds me of Europe in Middle Ages. Each party thinks it is right, while the others are considered nonbelievers or kuffar. Religion and state should be separated. I don't think any country that takes religion upon itself is worthy to be a state, as Islam is not a religion of democracy in its political terms.
The international values we have been raised on cannot be guaranteed under a religious law. I respect women’s struggle, especially the strength of Iraqi and Tunisian women. I used to look to them as models before the Arab Spring, but not anymore. In Lebanon we have more liberties in practice than in other Arab countries, although we have few rights under the law.
Turkey is a model for its separation of religion and politics. It was able to ban religious men from intervening in politics and achieve stability. Turkey has enacted exemplary anti-corruption measures and overcame a financial crisis. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey is the perfect model for Islamist parties in Egypt because the AKP does not enforce Islamic laws on citizens.
The United Arab Emirates is a good model for other Islamic countries because it is not ruled according to an extremist doctrine. When countries are ruled based on sectarianism, there is no freedom. Extremism is a distortion of Islam based on rituals.
Turkey is a model Muslim-majority country. A model should have a low illiteracy rate, especially among women. It should have a strong civil society and a regular transfer of power in government. A model should score well on the corruption index and press freedom index.
Malaysia and Turkey are models because of significant economic progress achieved during the last decade. Malaysia has one of the best economic records in Asia. Gross domestic product (GDP) grew an average of 6.5 per cent annually from 1957 to 2005. In 2011, the GDP (in purchasing power parity per capita) was about $450 billion, which made Malaysia the third largest economy in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the 29th largest in the world. Through reform policies, Malaysia has become one of the world's largest exporters of information and communication technology products. Also, it has progressive laws protecting women’s rights and equal pay.
Turkey is a Muslim-majority, democratic, secular, unitary, constitutional republic with a diverse cultural heritage. It has become increasingly integrated with the West through its bid for full membership in the European Union. Turkey has the world's 15th largest GDP (PPP) and the 17th largest nominal GDP. It is a G-20 major economy and founding member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The government has initiated a series of reforms designed to shift the economy from a statist insulated system to a more private-sector, market-based model.
I don't believe in model countries. People in each country act according to their own beliefs, norms and rules. What works in one country may not work in another. We can learn valuable lessons through studying each country’s unique experience. But we should only enact changes if they comply with our community’s values
Morocco: Women on Government Successes and Failures
November 1, 2012
One year has passed since the Justice and Development Party (PJD), a moderate Islamist party, won 107 of 395 parliamentary seats in Morocco’s first free election. The PJD won 27 percent of the seats and the right to lead a coalition government with three secular parties. Moroccan women were asked the following question: What are the successes and failures of the Islamist-led government?
The country remains locked in a stagnant political situation. Even though the Justice and Development Party dominates parliament, Morocco has not changed at the legislative level. Parliamentary committees are not providing effective supervision of the government, which is their most important function. Some ministers are seemingly absent. The interior minister presides at meetings inside the prime minister’s office, even though the new constitution gives more power to the president. The structure of the government is inconsistent and ministers from the ruling coalition contradict each other.
Article 19 of the June 2011 constitution makes men and women equal citizens under the law. It also created a government office to fight discrimination. But there is only one female minister in the PJD government. There are still many codes that need to be amended. For example, Article 475 of the penal code allows the rapist of a teenager to escape punishment if he marries her. The real problem is in the system of education, the media, and society. Women are considered second-class citizens.
Women have always been very active in all of our demonstrations since Feb. 20, 2011. The total equality between men and women was always present, not just in our slogans. Women participate in different committees of the movement from communications to strategy.
The PJD, unlike Islamist parties in Tunisia and Egypt, quickly integrated into multiparty politics and the democratic system. The party had already played an important role in the opposition led by the Socialist Party from 1998 to 2002. Today the PJD is in power but it rules in coalition with three drastically different parties. Istiqlal, or “Independence” is a conservative party. Koutla, or “Coalition” includes communists and socialists. The Popular Movement advocates for Berber rights and attention to rural areas. This divided coalition is not enacting policies or managing the government efficiently.
The PJD may be an Islamist party but it operates without a strong religious reference. King Mohamed VI is the highest religious authority. So there is an inherent separation between religion and politics. The new constitution is progressive in its protection of human rights and individual freedoms but Morocco still needs dignity, health, freedom and education for its citizens.
It is quite premature to talk about failures and successes. Given the economic constraints and policies of previous governments, this coalition has little room to act. But this Islamist-led government differs from the previous one. It is introducing gradual reforms by increasing transparency and focusing on good governance.
Women Grade President Morsi's First 100 Days
October 17, 2012
This new series provides a platform for women to engage in a free and fluid exchange about pivotal Middle East issues. On October 8, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi completed his first 100 days in office. For this piece, Egyptian women were asked the following question: What are the successes and failures of President Mohamed Morsi’s government?
But I am not fully satisfied with President Morsi’s performance regarding freedom of speech. The government shut down a television station that criticized the Muslim Brotherhood. Articles critical of the Brotherhood or the Freedom and Justice Party were censored and not printed in state or independent publications. Security forces attempted to remove Mohammed Mahmoud’s graffiti which commemorated the Egyptian revolution. A journalist was tried for insulting the president and violence has been used against protestors critical of the government.
Morsi succeeded in ending the military’s rule in Egypt and instilled more democracy into the government. Crime rates have also gone down since he took office. Morsi has made progress in collecting garbage from city streets and attracting more tourists to Egypt. But unemployment is still high and the economy has not improved. He has not replaced the corrupt officials running some government agencies.
President Morsi delivered a speech after first 100 days in office devoid of any vision or real substance. For two hours he presented false justifications for the economic situation. He gave an unrealistic analysis of a reality that only he and his supporters can see. Morsi has not solved any of the problems that he claimed to have made progress on such as traffic, garbage, safety problems and gas distribution. All of these issues are getting worse by the day. I believe he got himself into trouble by promising voters that he would solve such large issues during his first 100 days in office. But it was an even worse decision to give the Egyptian people a false perception of where the country stands. It is improper conduct for a president.
The main success of President Morsi’s government was ending the military's rule. Morsi also changed the leadership of the Administrative Control Authority, a public sector watchdog. He appointed new governors to some provinces and selected a new head for the Central Agency for Organization and Administration.
The president failed to end the fuel shortage, collect garbage in the cities, decrease traffic or control the rise in prices. He also has not raised the minimum wage or enforced it.
President Morsi’s greatest success was providing what seems to be, on the surface, a relatively secure environment. Morsi's other important success was kick-starting talks with the International Monetary Fund for a $4.8 billion loan. The loan, along with economic reforms, are bound to put Egypt’s economy on the right track. The improved security situation should lead to an influx of foreign direct investment, which Egypt needs. Foreign investors are already eyeing Egyptian assets in the banking sector and others. On the international level, Morsi's foreign trips have been carefully planned to include countries such as Turkey, which could serve both as a model and a potential investor.
But President Morsi failed to tackle economic issues head on. His cabinet has not proposed a vision for Egypt that encourages people to return to work. This is the only way to alleviate poverty and save the ailing economy. Morsi also failed to quell labor protests and strikes. If strikes are not addressed swiftly, they could foil plans to attract foreign investment.
Finally, the government is running low on foreign currency reserves. Since January, the government has spent more than $20 billion in reserves to support the Egyptian pound. The currency has already devalued by ten percent. But a devalued currency would help make exports competitive. Morsi has yet to present specific solutions to Egypt’s economic problems. He also has not taken a clear stances on issues related to women or Coptic Christians.
President Mohamed Morsi’s most remarkable action taken during his first 100 days was forcing Minister of Defense Hussein Tantawi and other generals into retirement. It was a turning point in demilitarizing the Egyptian state. By cancelling the June 17 constitutional addendum, Morsi assumed powers that were previously in military hands. The army will no longer play a political role, or override the civilian government.
On the other hand, Morsi has shortcomings. Despite his promises to reform the Constituent Assembly, President Morsi attempted to shore up the Constituent Assembly before the Administrative Court's decision to dissolve it. Morsi ratified the law regulating the selection of members in order to give it legal immunity against being disbanded by the court. He never heeds the call to change by the different political forces within the assembly.
President Morsi’s failures outweigh his successes during his first 100 days in office. He took power away from the Supreme Council of the Armed forces, improved the security situation and released political prisoners. But he failed to present clear criteria for the selection of Constitution Committee members. There is still a shortage of diesel and gasoline. Morsi appointed 45 new editors-in-chief to state media, based on loyalty to him or ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. He also is drafting a new emergency law without revealing details to the public. Finally, he has failed to present a plan for job creation or improving.
It is difficult to assess this period since President Morsi formed his government against a backdrop of endemic corruption of the state. I see him creating a climate for a new era in Egypt at the international and domestic levels. He sent the troops back to their barracks and started to implement a new electoral program and the rule of law.
The road is long and there are many challenges along the way. These challenges are even more difficult to overcome due to the government structure, which does not yet represent all Egyptians. Many state institutions still need to be rebuilt. But Egyptians have felt an improvement in security. Responsible security forces have decreased traffic and helped with the cleanliness of cities.
October 4, 2012
This new series provides a platform for women to engage in a free and fluid exchange about pivotal Middle East issues. For the first piece, women across the region were asked this question:
What should be the role of Islam in your society? And what should be Islam’s role in your government?
Amal Habib, Human rights activist and member of al Wefaq opposition, Bahrain
Islam, like other religions, is a code of ethics. This code should be open for discussion and interpretation that can differ according to time, place and other variables in the development of humanity. But no religion or interpretation should be imposed forcefully. People should be free to express, criticize, adopt any religious or secular belief or idea. Freedom of choice is not only a basic human right, but also an Islamic principle and at the core of my understanding of Islam.
According to the Koran: (Sura 2:257) There should be no compulsion in religion. Surely, right has become distinct from wrong; so whosoever refuses to be led by those who transgress, and believes in Allah, has surely grasped a strong handle which knows no breaking. And Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.
The same applies to Islam’s role in government. It provides instructions for how people should deal with each other and emphasizes just treatment: (4:58) Verily! Allah commands that you should render back the trusts to those, to whom they are due; and that when you judge between men, you judge with justice. Verily, how excellent is the teaching which He (Allah) gives you! Truly, Allah is Ever All-Hearer, All-Seer.
How to attain justice is an issue that should always be open for debate. The human experience has concluded that democracy is the best way to ensure justice. Some people would say democracy does not contradict Islam. This is key to my understanding of Islam.
Another principle is equality. In a society that used to honor people based on their tribe or color, Islam presented this principle: (49: 14) O mankind, We have created you from a male and a female; and We have made you into tribes and sub-tribes that you may recognize one another. Verily, the most honourable among you, in the sight of Allah, is he who is the most righteous among you. Surely, Allah is All-knowing, All-Aware.
When I read this, I understand that all people are equal and the only their actions distinguish them. This is not only a modern, human rights concept; equality is at the core of how I understand Islam. Islam should play a primary role in reminding Muslims of ethics.
Sawsan Karimi, Faculty member of the University of Bahrain
The question assumes that Muslims, regardless of their diverse affiliations and identities, are monolithic and they all have one understanding of “Islam”. Different interest groups have employed Islam to serve their agendas. Women, however, have yet to improve their status and benefit from what Islam can offer. Muslim women, need to study Islam and reexamine it from a woman’s perspective rather than a male-dominated one.
Islam can play a fundamental role in laying the grounds for human rights, justice, freedom of expression, democracy and equality among sexes, classes, and ethnic groups. There is a famous saying by Imam Ali “If he is not your brother in Islam, he is your equal in humanity.” Imposing Islam contradicts with the fundamental Islamic notions of shura (consultation) and/or Imamat (leadership). Islam should allow and nurture the multiplicity of expressions of faith and beliefs in society and government.
Mariam al Rowaie, Women’s rights activist, Former President of the Bahrain Women Union
In my community Islam plays a role in enhancing the perception of equal rights and duties for all citizens. When making policy the government should take Islamic values into account such as the inherent respect for freedom of opinion and expression. It should consolidate the values of tolerance and acceptance of others by providing equal opportunities for its citizens in education, employment and dignity.
Islam is a great religion that reforms Muslims' behavior and organizes their relation with others on the basis of equity and non-discrimination. Islam orders governments to preserve citizens' rights without distinction.
Islam provides society with a set of principles and ethics that help in managing relations between individuals, groups and families. Islam should play a lesser role in the government but it could be used as a motivation for transparency and a strong work ethic. As a Muslim country, the sharia should be the main resource of laws and regulations. A Muslim government, however, should provide for all its citizens, both Muslim and non-Muslim.
Sondos Asem, Chief Editor of the Muslim Brotherhood's official English-language website, Egypt
The primary role of Islam in society is to create harmony and an environment conducive to the worship of Allah. Islam’s economic system, if applied, reduces debt and increases diligent investment due to its lack of reliance on interest. To achieve the objectives of the January 25 revolution, Islam should play a defining role in governance as well. Islam proscribes an egalitarian system of government that ensures separation of powers, checks, balances, and accountability while prioritizing justice and the welfare of all citizens.
Islam started not only as a religion, but as a guide for people. Mosques weren’t places for prayers only; they were places for building individuals and strengthening their relationships through offering education and other social services that are the building blocks of any healthy community. This should be Islam’s role in society.
Islam should play a role in society’s education. Islam will go beyond the material facts and develop more essential characteristics. Islam can teach people how to live their daily lives, how to think and solve their problems, how to deal with their children and how to lead happier lives.
Islamic law, the Sharia, is broader than any constitution because it includes details on everything from buying groceries to dealing with international affairs. Governments should borrow what is relevant from Islam that will develop better civil countries. Governments can refer back to the Sharia in order to solve all kind of issue like ethnic conflicts. They will find clear rules beside examples.
Islam (like other religions) calls for implementing peace, coexistence, tolerance, and diversity while rejecting violence in society. Islam also encourages diversity and the strengthening of ties to eliminate the causes of hate towards each other.
Islam had and will continue to play its social role based on sublime teachings, but the problem lies in Muslims who either drifted away from those teachings, disobeyed them to achieve their interests, or implemented them superficially. Islam supports societal norms and values like social justice, human dignity, equality and the three freedoms of belief, speech and expression. Islam eradicates discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, and color.
October 3, 2012
This new series provides a platform for women to engage in a free and fluid exchange about pivotal Middle East issues. For the first piece, women across the region were asked this question:
What should be the role of Islam in your society? And what should be Islam’s role in your government?
Islam should play a role in steering society away from religious radicalism. It must be neutral, and recognize all religions to spread tolerance among the Iraqi society. This will help our society to address all of its problems. But Islam should be separated from the government and kept away from influencing policy.
Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance that does not differentiate between rich or poor, able or disabled, man or woman and Muslim or non-Muslim. But now religion is used to divide society. Women are defined by their dress code. Their dresses are getting longer, bigger and thicker while the space given to them is paradoxically shrinking by the day. It has become almost common practice to assume that an unveiled woman is non-Muslim, a perception that would have been unthinkable when I was a child. These taboos and stereotypes must vanish. Islam preaches unity, honesty, peace and tolerance; a far cry from what our society practices today.
There should be clear cut separation between religion and the state. Islam, like any other religion is something very personal between God and the individual. No individual has a right to judge the piety of others. The people have mandated the government and it is accountable to the people. So the constitution must ensure equal rights for each and everyone one regardless of sex, religion, race, ethnicity or political views. It should stipulate that the state takes all measures, legislative or administrative, to ensure eradication of discrimination and violence against any citizen. It must ensure the civil rights and freedoms of every citizen.
Islam in my society should have a spiritual role. People can promote Islam but not impose practices on others. Islam can improve personal relationships and inspire people to do good deeds, with the belief that God is the source of goodness. Islam should remain apolitical in order to respect diversity of religion, ethnicity and language. My country is not adopting an Islamic system, even if the laws are inspired by the Sharia. The respect for democratic principles is embedded in the constitution.
We believe in Islam, which means peace. Islam promotes tolerance and peaceful coexistence among all religions and peoples. But unfortunately after the changes that occurred in Iraq, Islam became synonymous with terrorism for many people. This is a damaging distortion. The rise in radicalism and sectarianism led to the division of communities. The groups fought against each other and claimed the lives of a lot of innocent members of society.
Islam should provide a government with guidelines that play an enlightening role. But Islam should not be used as an authoritarian tool. In the 21st century, societies consist of multiple ethnic and religious groups, so a civil state is required to protect both the majority and minorities.
Islam should play a role in promoting justice and tolerance in society, as they are the main principles of Islam. But Islam, like any other religion, should be separated from the government. The state should rule according to civil law, which ensures equality between citizens.
The role of Islam in any society must be - cultivating a culture of peace and solidarity among different religions. Islam should lay down effective strategies for accepting one another to build one unified society and eventually one unified world. The government should be selected on the basis of efficiency and not religion. I believe in secularism and the separation of religion from state. Politicians should not legislate according to their religious beliefs, which should be kept private.
The Egyptian government has an Islamic reference and is trying to apply some religious legislation on society. But much of society wishes for the application of civil law because the Egyptian people belong to other religions besides Islam.
The government should stay committed to be civil and not religious, as the people of the country have different beliefs and religions. The role of Islam in society should be to promote justice, equality and respect for others. These are the core values of Islam.
As per the constitution in Iraq, the government is based on sectarian quotas. But religion is controlling the country by through the government itself. This is detrimental to the country’s development as people busy themselves with religious issues rather than concentrating on real problems such as the lack of public services, lack of education, poverty and unemployment. There are also many widows and divorcees without any social security.
Islam as a faith is a set of social norms that promote peace and coexistence with other religions. Muslims in my society should reflect these norms in their daily life and when dealing with members of other religions. In a diverse country like Iraqi, Islam should be one of the sources for legislations and not the main source.