Live-Blogging MENA Women in the Reformist Process: A Retrospective @TheWilsonCenter

MENA Women in the Reformist Process: A Retrospective @TheWilsonCenter

Right after the largest religious holiday in Saudi Arabia, a Blogger was detained in Saudi Arabia for defying the female driving ban.   Note, if we want women to be heads of state, they must be considered heads of households in order to move across various levels of civil society. Today, @PITAPOLICY is live-blogging from The Woodrow Wilson Center the MENA Women in the Reformist Process: A Retrospective.  The first panel will cover the status of political and legal reform.  The second panel will cover the economic reform and social change.  Although we don’t agree with all conclusions provided by panelists, each provide a perspective worth noting because they represent a subset of opposition–even within women’s reform movements.  Both panels include recommendations to marry CEDAW to actual country legislation. CEDAW is the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.  Overall, there is some hope to note the “ladders of developmental progress” as we note the lower participation rates of women in the labor force from the Middle East & North Africa region.

Interesting, yet controversial, example provided by Marina Ottaway  in the post-disucssion.  She explained how an industrialized zone in Turkey included women who worked in a factory wearing the full faced covering on the presumption that these women would probably not have had an opportunity to leave the home to go work UNLESS she was covered in this way.  Much debate followed as to what her entry-level options were had she not been comfortable working without the niqaab.

Best quotable comes from Haleh Esfandiari who retold an old story of a woman in Iran who held up her arms and shook her gold bangles when asked “Where is your bank account?”  In some countries, a husband still needs to give permission to wife for her to open a bank account.

Panel 2: The Role of Women in Economic Reform and Social Change

(Moderator) Caryle Murphy, Former Public Policy Scholar at Woodrow Wilson Center

Moushira Khattab, former Public Policy Scholar at WWWIC, former Egyptian Ambassador to South Africa, Former Minister of Family and Population, Egypt

  • “The Women’s Struggle Continues” in presenting Economic Empowerment & Political Participation
  • Comment on quotas: cannot separate the economics from the politics because it relates to education and socialization.  Therefore, women’s rights are not a distraction from the discussion of inclusion of all groups.
  • “We pass laws in the name of women’s rights, but it distracts from women’s rights.  Instead of using big words and impressive terminology, we need to look at rights of women.”
  • 2012: MENA performed the worst.  Global Gender Index considers participation in economy and politics, health and reproductive rights.
  • This past Eid in Egypt experiences lowest level of sexual harassment of women on the street in part because of Egyptian women’s groups more active participation.
  • “There is no problem in putting shariah in constitution if living in a culture where genders are treated equally.”


  • Look at Arab Human Development Report in 2013, which looks at “Rise of the South”.
  • Most countries in the lowest subset of Human Development Index have progressed, but not in MENA region.
  • Egypt’s economy has faced a nosedive where women affected the most: Sharp decline in investments and higher rates of unemployment, 24.7% unemployed (3.5 million). Men fared under 10% unemployment, according to World Bank data.

Kathleen Kuehnast, Director of Center for Innovation for Gender and Peace-building at U.S. Institute of Peace

  • As an anthropologist, we need allies among men because culture can be change.
  • How do we engage religious leaders? project in Afghanistan identified common ground of ‘Personal Security’
  • How to address gap in education resulting from fighting Soviets from invasion.  (PITAPOLICY: (not just women…but men fell behind too.)
  • Coalition building to bridge gap between educated and those excluded as well as those “secular” versus those “religious”: find a regional voice.
  • Khattab: Must challenge the binary categorization of “secular” vs. “religious” categories of women: They’re all equal in status, so why even hyper-focus on this divide?  Find common ground on something that affects everyone, like micro-credit reforms.

Fatima Sbaity-Kassem, Visiting Scholar, Institute for research on Women and Gender (IRWaG), Columbia University, former Director, at UN-ESCWA Centre for Women

  • Violence and conflict always affect women and children more, even in times of reform
  • 29% of women participate in the Labor Force
  • Algeria, Yeman, Syria, Kuwait, Jordan=22 to 25 % women’s labor unemployment–usually lowest in GCC countries (13% to 18%) with the exception of Kuwait.
  • Note more women labor participation in agro-economies versus industrialized or service oriented economies: 88% of women working in Yemen work in Agriculture (51% in Iraq and 24% in Syria).
  • Women’s gains since 1975 have been more in economic domain as opposed to political domain.
  • Recommendations: Women should work more to make themselves a bigger stakeholder.  Need quotas as an interim measure even if there are women who don’t play a positive role in legislation because of “Moderation theory” in that more participation is better than less.
  • If women participate more in the economic sphere, then they can demand more political voice; Must remove legal barriers because only Algeria and Morocco are the only countries that have laws on sexual harassment in the workplace.
  • Women should lobby on gender sensitive legal reform…e.g. International Labor Organization Conventions and CEDAW.

Aucur: In Lebanon we have an NGO that takes on the empowering the enterpreneurial role of women. We hosted a session on just micro-credit because Lebanese personal status law says a woman needs approval from husband to use her property or assets as collateral to obtain these loans.  Religious authorities have disapproved of our legal fight so we are trying to involve religious leaders by targeting younger religious leaders. 

Khattab: We see how religion is co-opted for political purposes….

PITAPOLICY: But how do we vear discussion and coalition-building back into the economy realm.  What’s the impact of women in Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM) being reabsorbed into labor force?

Panel 1: The Role of Women in Political and Legal Reform

(Moderator) Rangita de Silva de Alwia, Director of Global Women’s Leadership Initiative, Woodrow Wilson Center

  • Except for Iran and Sudan, all MENA countries have ratified CEDAW
  • Morocco’s Article 30 Constitution called for equal access for men and women to political process
  • Lebanon: some effort to reform the nationalization law, which prohibits Lebanese women from passing on their nationality to their children. (Lebanese citizenship that allows access to public services, like education)
  • Egypt: We see some progress in tracking sexual harassment through a mobile phone application.
  • Laws needed to propel women’s rights as well as given a seat at the table.

Farahnaz Ispahani, Public POlicy Scholar at Woodrow Wilson Center, former Member of Pakistan’s parliament; former Media Advisor to the President of Pakistan

  • Let’s remember how women fought for gender and family rights before the Arab Revolutions occurred in 2011.
  • Less than 6% of seats in national parliaments are held or allocated by MENA women.
  • In Iran, women also lost the right to serve as diplomats.
  • Calls for “the West” to get involved with MENA region’s curriculum reform, which affects gender reform.  This will change the mindset…as well as calling for a mass media program. (short to medium-term goal)

Interests- Quotas

  • In Pakistan, we tried leveraging the power of quotas by forming a women’s caucus and tried bargaining on widow’s bill…it worked.

De Silva: How will Libya’s Constitutional process produce a ripple effect?

Isobel Coleman

  • Responded to Egypt’s 2011 revolution in an op-ed in the Washington Post: “Are the Mideast Revolutions Bad for Women?”
  • Concern that revolutions often rollback women’s rights during interim period.  Look at Iran and Libya, which called for a return to polygamy after Gaddhafi fell from power.
  • Governments that come out fair on women’s rights are more likely to come out for minority rights…more likely to trend in a positive direction towards democracy
  • Tunisia and Egypt started in different places: Tunisia’s fertility rate dropped the most in MENA region.
  • Saw Ennahda making assertions in support of women’s rights because they heard the criticism and realized that women’s rights was a marker for other types of democritization advancement.
  • Tunisia only country that has come out with a constitution not citing.
  • There was a net gain.

Politics: Quotas

  • Quotas are not a panacea. We’ve seen it in Iraq. Conservative party lines reflected this.
  • Met with Iraqi secular politicians in Washington, DC and asked if they would include Shari’ah because seh reviewed Article 3 in Constitution.

Interests: Egypt

  • We saw so-called “Liberals” in Egypt attacking certain women’s rights reforms because they were perceived as being from Sawsan Mubarak’s agenda (wife of ex-President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak)
  • only 2 women in Cabinet Positions…and only 5 in the drafting constitution process.
  • Would not rule out Egyptian civil society women’s groups.
  • Criticized Egyptian feminist movement as not being as active as the Irani women’s groups post-revolution.

Myriam Aucar, Committee on Womne’s Affairs and the Committee of Foreign Relations at the Beirut Bar Association, Lebanon (Follow her on Twitter @mkaucar)

  • Note: Aucar reviewed tax code regarding gender equality to ensure that Lebanese women afforded same recognition in counting dependents was the same as Lebanese men.
  • Will address 1) criminal law on the protections against domestic violence and 2) incorporation of gender quota disposition.
  • Amended discriminatory attacks laws in Lebanon, yet honor killings are still not considered criminal laws.
  • Incrimination laws regarding adultery differ between men and women.
  • Kidnapping and rape is suspended if attacker agrees to marry victims…in the same vein: marital rape is not a considered as such.
  • Success rate of parliamentary seats that women have won decreased from 6 to 4 of 128 seats.  Therefore, prime opportunity for quota.
  • Initiative to form women’s only political parties in some regions. (PITAPOLICY: We don’t feel that formulating a separate “only women’s party” will advance.)
  • Individual initiative of some judges regarding the children of Lebanese women who married non-Lebanese men. However, it was overruled during appeal.  Cites some cases reviewing personal status cases referring to French mandate prior to Lebanese independence.
  • Case of man forcing first wife and 2 daughters out of home lost because property of land treated as secondary when involving human rights.

Sawsan Zaher, Palestinian human rights lawyer from Israel; Yale World Fellow, Yale University; and lawyer, Adalah–the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel

  • Many courts use right to dignity to address gender inequality.
  • Global Constitutionalism:  Why call for dignity now? Because all constitutions drafted after period of transition (Post World War II), drafting committees used transition period to incorporate right to dignity as a separate right.
  • Palestine is part of the Arab World.

Caryle Murphy, Journalist: How to deal with different perception of dignity? ( e.g. “traditional” versus “modernist” interpretation)

PITAPOLICY: Is there a tradeoff between constitutions between pre and post revolutions?

Quotas can be in interim measure, not a panacea.  There is always a tradeoff between quantity & quality.  Quotas can be manipulated to include voices that overstate one persuasion.  See how entrenched groups put in sisters/moms that reinforce patriarchy or more conservative lines that echo what their brothers in parliament say.

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