Arab Women Say Unrest in Region Is Creating Opportunity for Equal Rights

Azza Kamel, a women’s rights advocate in Egypt, said the popular uprisings in her country and its neighbors are creating new opportunities for women.

“There was no difference between women who were veiled or not veiled,” Kamel said at the United Nations in New York, referring to the protests that ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule last month. “The revolution created a land as free for women as for men.”

Whether the turmoil in the Arab world will yield progress toward full political and economic rights for women is unclear, according to Isobel Coleman, author of “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Woman Are Transforming The Middle East” and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

“It could go either way,” Coleman said in an interview. “In a country like Egypt, where you have powerful Islamist groups and a very influential mainstream that appeals to Islam, women have will have to navigate very carefully. The same is true in Tunisia.”

This week Kamel and other women from the region took part in meetings that marked the one-year anniversary of UN Women, the United Nations agency created to promote women’s rights. They asked UN officials to help them solidify gains and seize opportunities to end some of the world’s most repressive laws and practices.

‘Cycle of Fear’

The 2009 UN Arab Human Development Report said women “find themselves in a subservient position within the family and receive little protection from the legal system against violations inflicted by male family members.” It cited sexual and psychological abuse, female genital mutilation, forced child marriage and prostitution, and trafficking in women.

“Help us break the cycle of fear,” Nora Rafeh, a graduate student in political science in Egypt, said after coming to New York from Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, the head of UN Women, vowed to use her annual $500 million budget to help Arab women become more involved politically and economically.

Bachelet said she wants Arab leaders to learn that every nation loses economically by failing to enhance women’s rights.

“It is a great opportunity,” Bachelet said of the protests that have shaken governments from Morocco to Iran. “This is a very important moment in which the momentum won’t be lost.”

No woman was named to the committee to draft a new Egyptian constitution, Coleman noted, and she cautioned that democracy is likely to bring Islamist groups into Tunisia’s political mix. Laws affecting women in Egypt and Tunisia are some of the most progressive in the region, so there is potential for backsliding.

‘Women at Risk’

Washington-based Vital Voices, which identifies and trains women with leadership potential around the world, organized a four-day workshop, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, in Amman, Jordan, last month. The non-governmental organization was concerned enough about potential retaliation against participants that it minimized advance publicity about the sessions, held Feb. 20-23.

“We didn’t want to put the women at risk,” said Christine German, the Vital Voices regional program manager.

Khadija Sarhi of Yemen said such precautions aren’t necessary now because the atmosphere has changed, even in traditionally conservative Islamic nations like hers.

“People are more open now,” Sarhi said in a telephone interview after returning to Yemen, where three weeks of protests have rocked President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime. “We don’t know how far we will get with this, but it is the best time for us to talk about our struggle.”

Gender Inequity

Yemen is the worst among 138 countries ranked on gender inequality indicators in the 2010 UN Human Development Report, which considers issues such as reproductive health, educational attainment, and political and labor-force participation. Saudi Arabia ranks 128th, Egypt 108th, Morocco 104th, Libya 52nd, and Kuwait 43rd.

Sarhi and Thuraya Dammaj, also from Yemen, are preparing a campaign for the enforcement of laws that allow women to inherit the estates of their husbands or other family members.

“Legally, women can get the inheritance,” Sarhi said. “But in reality, because they are women, family members take the money. No one talks about it. It is like a taboo.”

The women from Yemen said they plan to enlist imams, or Muslim prayer leaders, at up to 10 mosques to support their position during Friday prayer services.

The Arab Human Development Report said even some nations that have signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women don’t adhere to its provisions when they conflict with Islamic law, known as sharia.

Each group of women at the Vital Voices conference is receiving a $25,000 U.S. grant for their campaigns. In addition to Yemen, delegations came from Morocco, Lebanon, Oman, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

“Across the board, from all of the teams, they said they thought things were moving in the right direction,” German said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bill Varner in New York at wvarner@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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