Activists carry placards reading in Arabic "My body is not your honor," "The law raped us," and "I am you, I am the one thousand revolting women," during a demonstration against sexual harassment, rape and domestic violence in Beirut, Lebanon, December 7, 2019. (Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images)

Arab Women Struggle for Real Change

Feminist movement’s efforts pay off in some countries, in others not so much

Women in the Arab region have long struggled to obtain the rights due them under international law and treaties, and for greater representation in their countries’ political and social systems. There has been progress in several states but many view the changes as merely scratching the surface and designed to polish the image of governments and ruling political parties.

In the past few years, several Arab countries have adopted laws to protect women and their rights, particularly in the political arena.

In Lebanon, some see the presence of six female cabinet members in the new government unveiled on January 22, including Zeina Akar as defense minister and deputy prime minister, as an effort to win over angry protesters who remained in the streets for days after the announcement. This record feminist representation sets a precedent not only for Lebanon but for the entire Arab world.

Nada Nassef, a Lebanese political activist, has taken part in the protests that began in mid-October against planned new taxes and then widened to what many call a revolution, to express deep dissatisfaction with economic mismanagement, corruption and sectarianism. She told The Media Line that the appointment of six female ministers was “folkloric,” as the women were appointed to the “wrong posts” rather than within their areas of expertise.

“It was a step designed to save face,” Nassef said.

She said there is a misconception that Lebanese women have equal rights but that in comparison with advanced countries, where there is high female representation, “Lebanon lacks that. Also, we still have unfair laws against women, such as the citizenship law and personal status laws that are great injustices for us.”

However, she added that the current revolution highlighted the issue of women’s rights, and that being in the streets together day after day demanding government change had created solidarity among females. “But in terms of legislation and laws, we have not achieved anything yet,” Nassef said.

In 2019, the Palestinian Authority, in an effort to protect girls, passed a law setting the minimum age for marriage at 18 for both genders. Moreover, the Women’s Affairs Ministry said that by the end of 2019, the PA would enact a Family Protection Law in the Palestinian territories. This after thousands of females protested in the West Bank and elsewhere against physical, psychological, sexual and economic violence against Palestinian women, as part of the Tala’at movement and under the slogan “There is no free homeland without free women.”

Tala’at demonstrations took place in Ramallah and Rafah in the Palestinian territories; in Jerusalem; in Jaffa, Nazareth, Jish and Araba, in Israel; and as far afield as Beirut and Berlin.

Luban Alashqar, an instructor of social studies at Birzeit University, near Ramallah, told The Media Line that the law setting a minimum age for marriage did not represent real change, as it allows judges to waive the rule in “exceptional cases,” “and most of our judges are traditional and conservative,” depriving the legislation of real teeth.

As for the Family Protection Law, she said that it wasn’t enacted, despite the PA government’s vow to do so.

Alashqar said that based on the latest survey on domestic violence by the Palestinian Center Bureau of Statistics, there has been a slight improvement, “but the study measured traditional violence, whereas now women suffer now from different kinds of violence, such as violence against them in media and digital content.”

She added that women’s respect and freedoms should be reflected in laws and regulations, “as states are judged on the space they give to women’s institutions to carry out their work.”

In late 2019, as the issue erupted on social media, the Palestinian street split over a commitment the PA had made in 2014 by signing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Some Palestinians rejected the treaty, “because it contradicts local norms, religions and divine law,” while others supported it, as it aims to eliminate discrimination against women and achieve equality between the sexes.

Alashqar opined that the division over CEDAW reflected the lack of awareness of the majority and the fact that they formed their opinions based on rumors.

“It’s an international treaty that concerns all the nations around the world. The subject was highlighted in Palestinian social media for deceptive ends, showing certain parts of the treaty but not others. The reactions showed the patriarchal system that dominates the country.”

She said that the treaty confirmed basic human rights, while some clauses that are incompatible with the country’s culture could be covered by exceptions.

In Saudi Arabia, women’s rights have noticeably improved over the past two years.

A central aspect of Saudi Vision 2030, a plan to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on oil, diversify its economy, and develop public service sectors, is for Saudi women to work across a broad spectrum of industries, as opposed to being limited to such sectors as education. Saudi women can now obtain travel documents, including passports, without the consent of a male relative. Saudi women now have the same legal rights as men in matters of work, leisure, finance, law and health. Women can now drive and register as co-heads of household, along with their husbands.

Additionally, Riyadh has committed to raising the female labor participation rate from 22 percent to 30 percent, by reforming both the economy and the legal system.

Lama al-Sulaiman, a Saudi businesswoman who is vice president of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, told The Media Line that the Saudi woman had become a partner in the country’s opportunities, building, development and public opinion. “She became part of the community and it’s only the beginning,” Sulaiman said.

She said that the country’s laws and regulations now help women to become partners and contributors in developing the country. “In terms of implementation, there is a certain change required in the culture to ensure that what has been enacted becomes reality,” Sulaiman said.

In Iraq, amid widespread demands to transform the political system, feminists are demanding 50% representation in any new cabinet. Recently, hundreds of women and girls took to the streets asserting their right to participate in anti-government protests and demand political reforms.

Activists say that Iraqi women have proved themselves through wide participation in the latest demonstrations, which showed that the country’s feminist movement, which began gaining steam close to two decades ago, has paid off.

Milad Latof, a Dubai-based Iraqi journalist and political activist, participated in the protests that began on October 1, demanding an overthrow of the political system and of foreign influence. She told The Media Line that after several devastating wars in Iraq, women became powerless and spent most of the time locked up at home because of sexual harassment and the dangerous security situation.

“However, the revolution changed that, where the female voice was raised alongside all of the other Iraqi voices that emerged for the homeland,” Latof continued. “Iraqi women played a big role in the latest demonstrations, actually an extremely important role. They brought peace to the protests because after the female representation became noticeable, the Iraqi security forces stopped using tear gas and sound bombs [stun grenades], as well as bullets, against the protesters.”

She added that at protests away from “sit-in squares,” which didn’t include women, weapons were used against male demonstrators.

Women in Tunisia have witnessed remarkable progress. In 2017, the government passed a law to end violence against women, in addition to the Personal status law. Donia Bin Othman, a Tunisian lawyer and political activist, told The Media Line that Tunisia had always been a leader in terms of women’s rights, especially since the Personal Status Law was issued, as it made remarkable progress at all levels.

“In 2017, a very important law was issued, which has to do with ending all kinds of violence against women, and it was implemented in 2018,” Bin Othman said. “The state is required to take all necessary measures to protect women under this law, from physical, moral, economic, social and political violence.”

She added that Tunisian women suffered from male tyranny prior to the Tunisian revolution but that women’s rights were among many issues considered within the context of political, social and economic reforms afterward. “However, Tunisian women still demand a law to equalize the inheritance rights of women and men,” she said.

The 2011 revolution in Tunisia, which resulted in the establishment of Tunisia’s first democratically elected government, came in response to high levels of unemployment, political corruption and overall poor living conditions.

In 2019, Tunis banned the wearing of the niqab – the full-face veil – in public institutions and government offices. The decision came after suicide attacks in the Tunisian capital, as the terrorists wore niqabs to sneak weapons past security forces. Some people, however, feel that the security consideration conflicts with personal freedoms for women guaranteed by a 2011 Tunisian law.

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