Global Policy Forum

Arab Women Savor Patches of Political Progress


By May Farah*

July 15, 2004

Amid spreading violence in the Arab world, female Arab leaders last week said democracy and a safe and civil global society would only be possible when women have attained more rights and freedom.

"It took people a long time to realize that 50 percent of the population is not represented; therefore how can you have democracy?" said Mahnaz Afkhami, an Iranian attendee at the meeting, organized by the Beirut-based Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia. "The connection has finally been made. The indispensable participation of women is needed for society and the world to function properly." Nesrine Birwari, Iraq's minister of municipalities and public works, agreed. "Women need to be freed from the burden of backwardness and illiteracy and protected from extremist trends," she told the more than 400 Arab female ministers, parliamentarians and nongovernmental representative attending the Beirut conference.

The gathering is part of an ongoing series of meetings among women in preparation for next year's reckoning with the 10-year anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, a United Nation's document adopted in 1995 that promulgates women's rights as human rights. It asks nations and nongovernmental agencies to report periodically to the U.N. on 12 key conditions affecting women: poverty, education, health care, violence, armed conflict, economic equality, human rights, media treatment, management of natural resources and discrimination against girls.

Latin American women met in Mexico City in late June and summit planners are now gearing up for related forums in Bangkok in September, Ethiopia in November and Paris in December. The big anniversary meeting--Beijing + 10--will be held at U.N. headquarters in New York during February and March.

Problems and Progress

Arab women at the meeting often found themselves reporting significant gains, but within a still extremely shaky framework. According to the 2002 Arab Human Development Report, for instance, female education has improved faster in Arab countries than in any other region. But that's because there was so much room to improve. Women's literacy still stands at a regional average of 50 percent. Some of greatest turbulence in the region concerns women's growing political participation. In Afghanistan, for instance, a group of female registration officials were killed last month while attempting to register female voters for the upcoming elections.

But while it was difficult for participants to be celebratory against such a backdrop, they were far from despairing. "The road ahead is long and difficult," said Habiba Sarabi, Afghanistan's minister of women affairs, who insisted that Afghan women will be up to the political challenges facing them. After all, she told Women's eNews, "changing perceptions and norms of traditional gender roles takes time."

Sarabi said that voter registration has been taking place since early December and that, of the 5.6 million voters so far registered, 38 percent are women. She reminded the gathering that women's political participation in the new government, the National Assembly, is guaranteed, with at least 25 percent of the seats reserved for women.

Representation in Government

Iraq's Birwari reminded participants that 25 percent of the seats in the new Transitional National Assembly, which is to be formed soon, would go to women. She said that Iraqi women now make up 46.7 percent of the work force in ministries and six women hold ministerial portfolios. "Thirty percent of director-generals at ministries are women," she said.

Morocco's Secretary of State at the Minister of Social Development Yasmina Badu said her country, which has 30 seats out of 325 set aside for women in parliament, "is advanced in terms of its representation of women in national assemblies."

She highlighted Morocco's passage earlier this year of the Family Code law, which promotes the principle of equality between men and women. The code raised the legal age for marriage to 18 from 15 for women (it was previously 18 for men only). It also brings divorce under the supervision of the law and away from religious authorities. That means that women can now also institute a divorce, whereas before it was left to the discretion of the husband only. The code also modifies the conditions for polygamy making it almost impossible; as a woman now has the right to accept a marriage only if her intended agrees not to take further wives.

Mervat Tallawy, the Egyptian former minister of insurance and social affairs and now the executive secretary of U.N. agency organizing the conference, praised the Women's Movement for Peace. The group was launched by Egyptian First Lady Susanne Mubarak in 2002 and has since brought together peace advocates, U.N. agencies and representatives of international organizations to reflect on and recommend concrete actions that women can undertake to support peace. Tallaway also hailed women's attainment of voting rights in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates and the appointment of female ministers in a number of Arab countries, including six in Iraq and five in Algeria.

Short Films and Networking

At the sidelines of the forum, Arab short films on women were screened including a documentary prepared by the sponsoring U.N. agency that provided a historical perspective of women's social movements across the Arab states. Books, paintings and other artwork by Arab women covering a range of political, social and cultural topics were also on exhibit.

Beyond the formal statements and exhibits, many participants emphasized how important it is for women in traditionalist cultures to simply meet and raise awareness of what remains to be achieved for and by women in the Arab world.

"The most important part of these conferences is the networking aspect," says Afkhami, the Iranian-born activist who now lives in exile in the United States. "There is an extraordinary value in connecting people together. Some may consider this a side benefit, but to me it's a major one."

About the Author: May Farah is a Beirut-based freelance journalist who has lived in and covered the Middle East (Western Asia) for 10 years.

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