15 September 2017, GENEVA – International experts on women’s rights from the Arab region and the West called on decision-makers from the Global South and the Global North to increase their efforts towards addressing barriers and challenges impeding the realization of women’s rights and gender equality. This conclusion was reached during a panel debate organized at the United Nations Office in Geneva held on 15 September on the theme of "Women’s rights in the Arab region: between myth and reality."
The debate was held on the occasion of the 36th session to the United Nations Human Rights Council by the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue – a think tank having special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) – and the Permanent Mission of the Arab Republic of Egypt to UN Geneva.
"Women’s rights in the Arab region: between myth and reality" offered an alternative narrative to the widespread misperception and stereotyping of Arab women as well as an objective assessment of the joint challenges faced by countries in the Arab region and in the West to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment.
The Minister of State for Justice of Sudan H. E. Tahani Ali Toor Eldba. stated in her intervention that the political emancipation of women in Sudan is giving results. In this regard, the Minister of State observed that women now hold 30% of the seats in the parliament of Sudan of which positions of Vice President are also held by women. She added that women are represented as head of political parties, in the diplomatic corps as well as in the judicial system, business and commerce and in international organizations. There were also women generals in the police and in the armed forces.
The Chairman of the Geneva Centre Dr. Hanif Hassan Ali Al Qassim indicated in his opening remarks that “advancing women’s rights and enhancing gender equality are the pillars of an inclusive and equal society.” Although he noted that significant challenges exist in promoting and advancing women’s rights in the Arab region, he praised recent initiatives taken by Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates to advance the social, political and economic status of women in their respective societies. He called upon the Global North and the Global South to “define a common agenda” with the ambition of “promoting gender equality at worldwide and to jointly overcome barriers hindering women’s development.“
The Ambassador and the Permanent Representative of the Arab Republic of Egypt, H. E. Mr. Amr Ramadan, noted in his opening speech that Egypt’s recently adopted constitution (2014) guarantees “equal opportunities for women and prohibit discrimination against her.” The speaker observed that “real enforcement of women enables her to liberate her potentials and allows her participation.” In an attempt to enhance the political empowerment of women in Egypt, Ambassador Ramadan underlined that Egypt’s constitution guarantees women 87 seats in the Egyptian Parliament. The vision to achieve “sustainable development” and a “just society” – he said – is in line with the “2030 Vision of Egypt” aiming at advancing gender equality and guaranteeing “equal rights and opportunities” for women.
The moderator of the debate – the Geneva Centre’s Executive Director Ambassador Idriss Jazairy – stressed in his opening remarks that the panel debate’s main objective is to enhance “cooperation and exchange of best practice” between Arab countries and the West as “no region can claim to have achieved gender balance so far.” He added that “significant achievements have been reached in terms of equity, but equality is still some way off in all regions of the world.” The Geneva Centre’s Executive Director concluded his intervention stating that the debate “responds to a larger need for more perceptive awareness of the situation of women and their rights worldwide.“
H. E. Ms. Hoda Al-Helaissi – Member of Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council and former Vice-Chairperson at King Saud University – observed that women empowerment and addressing gender inequality are “universal concerns” of the global community. She remarked that “a country’s true development, economic growth and international success can only come about when it uses its human resources to its fullest – male and female.” H. E. Al-Helaissi further added that the stereotyping of Arab women in the West would not advance the cause of promoting and advancing gender empowerment in the Arab region. She called upon international decision-makers to recognise “the change that takes place and supporting that change rather than merely repeating the static stereotyped image” of women in the Arab region.
In her statement, H. E. Ms. Emna Aouij - member of the UN Working Group on discrimination against women in law and in practice - noted that violence against women affects approximately 1/3 of women at a global scale. The elimination of all forms of discrimination and harmful practices against women and girls relies on the effective implementation of the existing legal framework that guarantees equality between men and women. The UN Working Group on discrimination against women in law and in practice - she highlighted - stresses the “need to include men and women in the constitutional processes of countries” as these represent the foundation for all law. She also emphasized the importance of education and of effective long-term awareness campaigns in order to ensure the respect of women’s rights within societies and to deconstruct stereotypes based on gender and patriarchal social norms.
The member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, H. E. Ms. Naela Mohamed Gabr, highlighted in her intervention that the unprecedented rise of violence and conflict have exacerbated the status of women in the Arab region. She stated that “the political situation in the region and the subsequent deteriorating security and economic conditions” have become fertile ground “for extremely negative outcomes for women, with a decline in interest in empowering them and enhancing their rights.” The hijacking of religious faiths by extremist groups have also exacerbated the prospect of enhancing women’s rights in the Arab region. H. E. Ms. Mohamed Gabr said:
“Unfortunately, there are ideologies that deny development and deny even the historical facts that confirm that women in Islam were partners to men in trade, conquests and propagation of the new religion. It also denies that the divine revealed religions, especially Islam, had given women a respectful place, while respecting their rights and their physical and psychological privacy.”
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences - H. E. Ms. Dubravka Šimonovic – welcomed the recent steps taken by Tunisia, Lebanon and Jordan to repeal discriminatory laws allowing rapists to escape justice if they would marry their victims. The political empowerment of women in Algeria – she said – stands out as an example in the MENA region as women occupy more than 30% of the parliamentary seats.
She further added that the adoption of the Abu Dhabi Declaration “United for Shaping the Future, for a better world” at the 2017 Global Summit of Women Speakers of Parliament in Abu Dhabi - organized by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and the UAE Federal National Council – is a bold call to action to countries in the Arab region to eliminate all forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls. In this regard, Ms. Šimonovic appealed to “countries in the Arab region to be proactive in addressing discrimination and eliminating violence against women, including by implementing the imperative actions included in this important instrument.”
She concluded her intervention stating that issues related to violence against women are not exclusive to the Arab region.
Islamophobia is becoming an issue of growing concern
The second last speaker to take the floor – the Director of Monash University’s Bachelor of Global Studies in Australia Dr. Susan Carland – remarked that her recent book “Fighting Hislam: Women, faith and sexism” contradicted the view that Islam is a sexist religion purporting that Arab women “see it as a crucial instrument in their fight against the sexism they face.” She observed that women belonging to other religious faiths such as Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism have faced sexism and subjugation within their respective communities. Sexism, she noted, could therefore not be attributed as an issue solely belonging to Islam, but to the widespread influence of patriarchy across the world.
In this regard, Dr. Carland said: “Examples from earliest hadith literature, to medieval scholarship, to feminist activity in Egypt and Iran in the early twentieth century, to modern-day scholarship, activism, and political engagement by Arab women to tackle sexism – many operating from a religious framework – abound, demonstrating that Arab and Muslim women fighting sexism is neither new nor foreign. This long history of activity is often unknown both within the Arab and Muslim world, and outside it.”
Ms. Sarah Zouak – The co-founder of the French association Lallab (based in Paris), organizer of the Women Sense Tour, writer and producer of the documentary Women Sense Tour – noted in her intervention that women of Arab origin often witness stereotyping and discrimination in France owing to their religious and cultural backgrounds. She observed that racism in today’s society is a heritage from the colonial era. Ms. Zouak further added that media often contribute to the stigmatization and stereotyping of Muslim men as “violent” and Arab women as “submissive, oppressed, victims, weak and no free will.” Media tend to raise the need to “rescue” Muslim women and they tend to seek the advice of middle-aged “Orientalist” male experts to provide the evidence rather than give a voice to young women of Arab origin themselves.
In concluding her intervention, Ms. Zouak stated that “women are victims of violence in every part of the world, and not uniquely in Muslim majority countries contrary to what some people think.” “Feminism is about empowering women to do what they want and not to dictate them how they should be emancipated” ended Ms. Zouak in her statement.
During the interactive session, the Permanent Representative of the United Arab Emirates to UN Geneva – H. E. Ambassador Obaid Salem Saeed Nasser Al Zaabi – noted that the panel debate will “contribute to clarify the current situation of women in the Arab world and demystify the wrong image widespread in the international arena and in the part of the intellectual community.” He observed that the UAE is ranked as a leading country in the enhancement of “gender equality in the region.” In this regard, H. E. Ambassador Obaid Al Zaabi added that UAE women make up inter alia 20% of the diplomatic corps, 15% of the boards of directors of the UAE Chambers of Commerce and Industry, and that women now occupy two-thirds of all posts in the public sector as well as 30% within senior and decision-making positions.
H. E. Mrs. Nassima Baghli, the Permanent Observer of the Permanent Delegation of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to UN Geneva – questioned whether the fight against addressing Islamophobia has prevailed over the fight to address racism. In reply to this question, Ms. Zouak added that Islamophobia constitutes a form of racism that is prevailing particularly in the West. Muslim women are particularly affected by Islamophobia – she noted – as 80% of Islamophobic attacks in France affect women. Ambassador Naela Gabr added that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has an important role to play in responding to the rise of Islamophobia as it affects the realization of human rights and women’s rights. She appealed to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to address the rise of this phenomenon in collaboration with civil society and other organizations addressing Islamophobia.
A group of students from the EU Business School raised the issue of the promotion of gender equality through education as a solution to countering the rise of violent extremism, referring to the UN Secretary-General Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism. Ambassador Naela Gabr noted that in order to address the triggering factors of violent extremism, education on women’s rights and equality and awareness-raising were crucial in order to change mind-sets and stereotypes.
About the Geneva Centre:
The Geneva Centre, an organization with special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, is a think-tank dedicated to the promotion of human rights through cross-cultural, political, religious and civilizational dialogue between the Global North and the Global South, and through training of the upcoming generations of stakeholders in the Arab region.
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