Middle East

Despite setbacks, women’s rights activists press forward

A woman speaks with a security guard during a protest in front of a courthouse in Alexandria January 21, 2013. (Reuters)

CAIRO: Two years after the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, much of the Egyptian population is still seething, unimpressed with the direction in which the new government is taking the country and disheartened by the memory of empty promises made before a set of free elections.

As Tahrir Square filled with protesters on the anniversary, activists from the region held a conference to discuss the situation for women in a post-Arab Spring era, expressing concerns over the rise in Islamist attitudes and the simultaneously regressive direction in which women’s rights seem to be heading.

“This is the time when everybody forgets about women, both conservative and liberal forces,” warned Amal Abdel Hadi, one of the founders of the Egyptian New Woman Foundation.

While women were at the forefront of the uprisings in both Egypt and Tunisia, “this period of transition is not for our benefit,” Abdel Hadi said, but added that “despite all the pressures ... they open a space for us.”

The conference, the third regional meeting of the Equality Without Reservation coalition and funded by Oxfam Novib, addressed issues from civil marriage in Lebanon to migrant domestic workers in Jordan, personal status laws in Sudan and violence against women.

Established in 2005, the coalition works to lobby governments to ensure that the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, drafted in 1979, is implemented on the ground.

In the region only Sudan, Somalia and Palestine have not ratified the convention, but many states party have signed with reservations. Other countries, such as Yemen, which signed the treaty in full, do not apply its articles on the ground.

Egyptian activists slammed the new constitution, which was rushed into law in late December after a referendum and was drafted by a Constitutional Assembly from which virtually all opposition voices had withdrawn, in protest at their recommendations not being listened to.

“The Constitution was a disaster by any standard and we met with the president and told him that,” said Mirvat Tellawy, president of the National Women’s Council.

“First, they did not mention any international standards at all and nor did they commit to monitoring discrimination or punishing it as a crime.”

She also slammed the omission of an article committing to the social and economic rights of women and the lack of any mention of the trafficking of people.

“We have a long battle ahead and what is taking place is distortion against the judiciary and the Islamic religion ... Everything they are claiming about women is wrong.”

Hafidha Shekir, representing the Tunisian Association for Democratic Women, painted a stark picture of the situation of women’s rights in her country since the toppling of Zein alAbidine Ben Ali in January 2011:

“We see a lot of Tunisians saying they have engaged in polygamy without fear of punishment; some even are members of the ruling party. Some are also calling for reducing the age of marriage and we have seen a lot of restrictions on the freedom of movement of women, especially at night, and these are all acts of the ruling party.”

According to Chapter 15 of her country’s draft constitution that stipulates the state will “accept all international conventions unless they contradict the Constitution,” she added that “well, of course they do, as it stipulates that the main religion is Islam.”

Shekir urged women’s movements across the region to draft alternative constitutions, as those in Tunisia have done, to highlight the flaws in the ones drafted by governments and to pressure those in power to listen to their recommendations.

It is all too clear, however, that this might be easier said than done. One activist from Bahrain, who asked that she not be identified, told The Daily Star of restrictions being imposed upon non-governmental organizations there:

“They have realized our power so they are trying to limit our work.”

A ministerial committee has recently passed a draft law, now heading to Parliament, which would allow government to unanimously merge different NGOs together.

“This is a real threat to us,” she said. Although the vast majority of NGOs are pro-democracy, she said, the government has, in recent months, created a host of quasi-autonomous NGOs.

If Parliament enacts the law and NGOs are merged with groups that are more supportive of the government in Manama, their records and accounts would then be open to scrutiny.

“If this law is approved, it will undo all of our efforts.”

The nationality issue, which this activist had been working on for years, is now so impossible to discuss in public, as it is so intertwined with the fragile political situation, that she has been unable to work on it at all for the last two years.

From Lebanon, nationality campaigners from NGO CRTD-A; Manar Samir Zeaiter from the Lebanese Democratic Assembly; and Zoya Rouhana from KAFA, all stressed their belief that a unified civil Personal Code and the introduction of civil marriage would not only improve women’s rights but help erode the entrenched sectarian mindset among much of the population.

But for Abdel Hadi, the political phase is a natural part of democracy:

“It’s like growing and learning how to walk,” she said. “You have to fall at first and get bruises. We have to pay for our freedom.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 28, 2013, on page 9.

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