While in Washington, D.C., last month, I attended a forum on Muslim women’s rights titled “Women and the Politics of Change in the Middle East,” at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. It was sponsored by the Women’s Learning Partnership, an international NGO dedicated to women’s leadership and empowerment, especially in Muslim majority countries. The event was held to honor the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (CEDAW). CEDAW is a U.N. treaty aimed at providing a universal framework for women’s rights.
The speakers (Lina Abou Habib, Mahnaz Afkhami, Wajeeha Al-Baharna, Asma Khader, Rabéa Naciri, and Azar Nafisi) all have experience leading grassroots campaigns to eliminate gender discrimination in their societies. Described by one speaker as “circumstantial feminism,” their movement focuses on getting Muslim majority governments to implement CEDAW without reservations. Many governments have ratified it without implementing articles 9 and 15—these are the most important articles because they call for equality in family and nationality laws.
In effect, their implementation would mean that a woman can travel without her husband’s approval and pass on citizenship to her children, even if she marries a non-citizen. As it stands now, the law denies citizenship to any child born to a non-national father. The Women’s Learning Partnership published first-hand testimonies of how this law affects women and families. Asma Khader, a Jordanian activist, said CEDAW was ratified in Jordan in 1998 because there was a movement, a public push for more rights. Yet even the ratification of CEDAW-which is what the women consider the minimum for women’s rights, doesn’t guarantee its implementation.
“The public—not the media—creates the buzz; it’s not the other way around,” she said. “There are success stories that go unnoticed.”
The CEDAW blog posts a few interviews, and non-profit and women’s rights organizations promote press releases and related events, yet the media isn’t too focused on the work these women do.
For example, in 2004 women mobilized, took to the streets and lobbied parliament to change the family law. In 2007, the law changed so that now Moroccan women can pass on their nationality to their children, just not to a non-Moroccan husband. Rabéa Naciri, a Moroccan activist and professor, said that resulted in more dialogue and less fear and stigmatism across the Arab world.
“We (fellow activists) learned to work in solidarity, which is something the Arab countries cannot do,” she said. “We began achieving successes and small reforms in Morocco, Algeria, Jordan and Egypt, but in general they are not well known. The media focus is on what isn’t working.”
As each of the women described their experience lobbying and organizing at the local and then international level, they reiterated Naciri’s claim that the media isn’t rushing to cover their positive stories.
All the speakers said while the push for change in family law mostly affects women, it should also include men.
Wajeeha Al-Baharna, an activist from Bahrain said media coverage or not, by focusing on just one aspect of women’s rights (citizen rights and the nationality laws in their countries), women are able to bring attention to their status as second class citizens.
After meeting with Bahraini women, whom Al-Baharna said feel guilty for choosing non-Bahraini husbands (as if they made their children victims of the state’s constrictive law), the campaign met with official bodies—the Parliament and the Shura Council—and then tried to expand their efforts regionally in what was called the Gulf Initiative. They faced resistance from men and women, whom Al Baharna said protested without knowing what they were protesting about.
The activists met with Shia clerics and a joint committee of Sunni clerics and women’s committees. The Shia clerics insisted the law couldn’t be changed from the constitution. Now there is a family law for Sunnis that Shia sects do not follow, she said.
“Sometimes it feels like we are in a constant headlock,” said Khader. “The legislations aren’t moving because we don’t have women in leadership positions. No one is pushing our demands or guaranteeing our rights.”
The event was a way to bring attention to their struggle, and an illustration of how word-of-mouth, media, and public relations can help with their grass-roots movement campaign. Seeing four Arab women and two Iranian women from different countries and backgrounds together on stage, talking about their common identity and the role they deserve to play in their societies was a powerful statement in itself. It showed that women can mobilize and work together, and will continue to speak out until in the name of equality and fair treatment.
Naciri summed it up perfectly when she said, “As Arab women, we have in common not only the discrimination against us, but the desire to live in equality and accomplish our ambitions.”