On International Women’s Day 2018 There’s No Time to Look Back

We have seen the power of women’s activism, and there is still more to do.

On the one day the world sets aside for women, I do not feel like celebrating. How can I when it is women and girls who continue to suffer disproportionately in crisis and conflict?

Bombs  smash into the homes and families of Ghouta, leaving women to pick up the pieces. The livestock of Somali nomads die in drought, and the women in must walk even further for water a drop of water, thanks to climate change caused by people far away from them. A man accused of sexual assault by 20 women sits in the White House.

How can I say with a straight face “happy women’s day”?

Women still face this humiliation, discrimination and violence, yet are denied entry into the forums that could change their circumstances. Across the world, under a quarter of parliamentarians are women. Of the 15 ambassadors sitting on the UN Security Council, just two are women.

How are we meant to end the institutional challenges we face when we are denied entry to the halls of power?

Women leading movements should be leading governments

 

Perhaps I am not surprised that women continue to be excluded from these forums. The past year has shown the kind of transformative change that women can achieve, even while they are still drastically underrepresented politically. In a matter of months, the #MeToo movement spurred a backlash against sexual harassment that saw leading politicians resign in disgrace, and celebrated faces of film and television turned overnight into pariahs.

#MeToo was like a revolution, its arrival seemed  to surprise many, but in hindsight it was inevitable. Of course it was unsustainable that half of the population did not have the platform to challenge the foul comments, unwanted advances, groping, exposure, and worse they faced on a daily basis. Of course. And yet we had to wait until 2017 to be able to call out our tormentors.

Like a revolution, the change brought by #MeToo did not simply happen. It took the courage, the tenacity, the dedication of women campaigners to force the issue. Across the world, we see similar women – as groups, as individuals, as movements – striving to force change that seems impossible, until women make it inevitable.

#MeToo shows how systems of oppression can be challenged through women’s activism. This seems especially significant when you consider how women are excluded from or marginalized in international mechanisms for peace.

In his recent valedictory speech, the UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein spoke with passion about the state of global peace. Surveying the violence and human rights abuses of the world, he suggested we might be mad. With the clarity afforded only to outgoing officials, he spoke of the failings of the Security Council, and the need for reform. Zeid is right. The veto power of the five permanent members is putting politics over peace, it ignores and excuses the violence led or condoned by the global powers.

It is not a coincidence that a forum like the Security Council that so successfully excludes women and women’s civil society should be so broken, so incapable of bringing peace to Syria, to Yemen, to the world.

#MeToo, a time to say “enough”

 

Imagine if the women who said me too, or the women activists who forced an end to discriminatory laws in Lebanon, Jordan and Tunisia, were able to participate in diplomatic and peace processes. These are true leaders, people who have taken it upon themselves to challenge and end inequality and injustice. Like Ambassador Zeid, they saw the madness in which we lived, and they said “enough”. Their example – of changing inequities that seemed intractable – is one that governments and international institutions must learn from.

That women are still able to bring change despite all the barriers they face is something worth lauding. We might allow ourselves a moment to reflect, but the appropriate way to celebrate  is to continue the fight, to support the activists, to join the movements. International Women’s Day is not yet a time to look back. While I can still hear the cries of women and children in Ghouta, Somalia, Yemen, and so many more struggles, there remains so much in front of us to change.

How Can Communities Be Resilient Against Extremism?

 

Extremism and intolerance in the Maghreb and Sahel region are putting the safety and security of the community at risk. What can rights activists do to challenge these threats?

Civil society groups and religious institutions from across the region met in Tunis last week to discuss how they can make communities resilient against extremism.

“There is no contradiction between our faith, our traditions, and the universality of human rights” – Hibaaq Osman

 

The seminar looked at the challenges the region currently faces, such as interpretations of Islam that have fostered intolerance and led to violence. Participants considered the role that religious institutions have to play in challenging these damaging narratives. 

Human Rights

The discussion also considered how the universal framework of human rights can be integrated into contemporary religious practice, looking at how lessons can be adapted for their own contexts and communities.

The meeting in Tunis marked a development in remarkable partnership work between activists and religious leaders that has so far been focused in North Africa. That work has sought to challenge extremism by promoting traditional, moderate religious practice. The meeting in Tunis expanded the model significantly, bringing together civil society groups, religious scholars and experts from Algeria, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, Somalia and Tunisia.

The seminar recognised the urgent need to challenge extremism in the region, and emphasised that the only way to do that successfully is to have an approach led by local communities, and informed by local knowledge.

Combating Extremism

Though combating extremism has been a regional and international priority for some time, previous strategies have been found lacking, and extremism remains a pressing problem. Too often these efforts have taken a top-down approach, failing to understand local history or pay attention to local sensibilities. Other attempts have been focused too heavily on combating violent extremism, and alienated communities.

Zahra’ Langhi of the Libya Women’s Platform for peace noted that “most of the efforts made to solve the problem of violent extremism have been primarily focused on measures based on security and the fight against terrorism. These measures, however, are insufficient and experience shows that violent extremism manifests itself differently in different contexts, thus requiring a differentiated response.”

Langhi said that putting too “heavy a focus on counter-terrorism measures, for example, runs the risk of feeding more violent extremism. Our goal from this seminar is to develop a greater focus on ‘discourse’ to counter extremist ideologies. Creating a counter narrative or alternative narratives to the narrative of violent extremist groups is essential to the countering violent extremism.”

The seminar then took a broader look at the drivers of extremism and intolerance. Historically, communities in the Maghreb and Sahel have been remarkably resistant to intolerant and extremist narratives. It is only relatively recently that such ideologies have managed to gain a serious foothold. The three-day seminar asked how it can be possible to build popular resilience against extremism.

The seminar was jointly hosted by Zaitouna university, the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace, and the Karama network. Zaitouna is Tunisia’s leading theological seat of learning. The Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace was one of the first women’s civil society organisations formed following the Libyan revolution, and has led the pioneering work of partnership work between activists and religious institutions. Karama is one of the largest and most recognised women’s rights network in the region.

Speaking about Karama’s involvment, CEO Hibaaq Osman said that “extremism and intolerance are serious threats to peace and to the coexistence of our diverse communities. We are very excited to be supporting a seminar that is asking the right questions. The only way to successfully defeat these threats is through community-led action and resilience. Building that community leadership and resilience is what civil society organisations can bring to the table, and we are delighted to be joined by distinguished scholars in this work.

“As activists, our work is rooted in a deep pride in where we have come from. That pride is what drives us to want to rid our communities of injustice, inequality, intolerance. We know that there is no contradiction between our faith, our traditions, and the universality of human rights. A religion that is not reconciled to the universal principles of human rights – to women’s rights, to justice, to fundamental freedoms of speech and so on – is not truly a religion. We hope the dialogue we are starting with this seminar will lead to an increased awareness in the Maghreb and Sahel that religion and human rights are completely compatible.”

#YemenCantWait – Film Reveals Shocking Impact of Conflict on Yemen’s Women

The Sisters Arab Forum has launched a short filming revealing the shocking impact of conflict on Yemen’s women. 

The film tells the stories of three women from Saada, Taiz and Hodeidah.  Each must deal with the human cost of war: experiencing violence, displacement with their children and the loss of their parents, and the trauma of conflict.

Yemen’s people have now had to endure a conflict lasting over 1,000 days and has gone largely unreported in global media. The Sisters Arab Forum have produced the film in order to give voice to the people who continue to suffer during the conflict. They hope that it will add to international pressure under the #YemenCantWait campaign for an end to the violence.

For more information about the Sisters Arab Forum for Human Rights, visit their website saf4hrs.org.

Sister’s Arab Forum Conducts Workshop on Women and Peacebuilding & Strategic Planning for Yemen

Yemeni civil society organisation the Sister’s Arab Forum for Human Rights completed their workshop on Women and Peace in Yemen and Strategic Planning  in Alexandria today. The four-day workshop was organized by the Arab Sisters Forum for Human Rights in cooperation with the Swedish Institute in Cairo and Karama.

The workshop aimed to continue the dialogue that began in July 2017 on the participation of women and their impact on the peace, security and reconciliation process in Yemen.

The twenty-five participants included academics, politicians, artists, journalists, human rights activists and representatives of civil society. The conflict in Yemen has taken a particular toll on women, and the workshop looked into the issues relating to women, peace, and security agenda. Topics included “the situation in Yemen and its specificity in the international, regional and national context”. Peace, Peace Preservation – Lessons Learned and a New Approach “and “Humanitarian Challenges – International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights”.

In his opening remarks, Peter Wiederrod, Director of the Swedish Institute in Alexandria, stressed the importance of dialogue. “To stop the war, we have to better understand the root causes. We need to understand why Yemen has become very important to regional actors and a proxy war. The proxy war is very different from the civil war.”

Amal Basha, president of the Sisters Arab Forum, said “we do not know whether we are coming back to our country soon or not … so we have to think together how to stop the bloodshed in Yemen and be a voice for peace.”

The workshop was divided into two parts, one dealing with peace-building, and the last two days of strategic planning to transfer the knowledge of the first two days to a plan of action.

 

بالتعاون مع المعهد السويدي وكرامة .. الشقائق ينفذ ورشة عمل عن “المرأة وبناء السلام والتخطيط الاستراتيجي”

Human Rights Activists Tell Dutch Parliament: To Empower Women You Must Disempower Warlords

Despite representing an essential constituency for peace, women continue to be marginalised and excluded from peace processes in the Arab region, a meeting of Dutch MPs was told earlier this week.

Members of the foreign affairs committee invited women’s rights activists from Iraq, Libya and Yemen to The Hague to discuss the impact of conflict and instability. The committee was also keen to understand how the Netherlands could have a positive impact as a member of the UN Security Council.

Opening the discussion, Hibaaq Osman of Karama noted that this was a rare opportunity for civil society activists to have their voices heard. Human rights defenders – and in particular women’s rights activists – face mounting barriers in their work on the ground, and have very few chances on the global stage to discuss issues as they affect the community. Osman said that it was vital that civil society had a place at the table during key discussions, from the national level to the Security Council. This was an area the Netherlands could use its influence, she said.

Suzan Aref, of the Women’s Empowerment Organisation, noted that women in Iraq have suffered greatly in the recent conflict, and now face further threats from discriminatory laws. Iraqi politicians had recently been discussing the imposition of the Ja’fari law, which would have legalised practices such as early marriage and polygamy, and seriously turned the clock back on the cause of women’s rights.

Iraq had made important steps forward through the agreement of its National Action Plan for the implementation of UNSCR 1325, Aref noted. The plan affirms that peace is best achieved when men and women are equal partners in resolving conflict and investing in stability. However, the plan requires proper funding and political will to ensure that it actually benefits women.

Amal Basha of the Sisters Arab Forum for Human Rights outlined the shocking situation in Yemen: 26 million people facing the daily threat of airstrikes and civilians making up 80 percent of bombing casualties, 2.5 million displaced, and a country facing starvation and disease.

In praising the recent efforts of the Dutch and Canadian governments in demanding an independent, international investigation into the conflict in Yemen, Basha decried the politicisation of the Human Rights Council. War crimes and human rights violations should be the subject of investigation, not negotiation, Basha said.

Zahra’ Langhi opened by showing a clip from the  Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace documentary on the continuing threat of landmines in Benghazi.

Landmines are just one example of the lingering physical and mental trauma of war that Libyans need to deal with in order to achieve peace. Langhi said that efforts to establish democracy in Libya had been hamstrung by the failure to prioritise security, accountability, and demilitarization. Attempts to support women’s participation had been particularly affected by this, with Langhi noting that “in order to empower women, you must dis-empower warlords”.

Justice and security are essential to peace in Libya.

The meeting was attended by number of influential MPs, including former development minister Lilianne Ploumen, as well as Han ten Broeke, Martijn van Helvert, Sjoerd Wiemer Sjoerdsma, Kathalijne Buitenweg and Kees van der Staaij.

In addition to the hearing with the committee, the delegates also met with a number of key figures while in the Netherlands. They were welcomed to the parliament by speaker of the house of representatives Khadija Arib, and also discussed the particular difficulties they faced as women activists.

 

The activists also met with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, discussing their work and trying to understand the foreign policy priorities for the government.

Karama co-hosts roundtable discussion: how can Yemen draft a constitution from a gender perspective?

Leading experts met in Cairo today to discuss how women’s rights and protections for women can be secured in constitutional drafting processes. The discussion brought together 24 participants to pay particular attention to Yemen, and understand what can be learned from the recent experience in the Arab region. The event was co-hosted by Karama and the Sister’s Arab Forum for Human Rights (SAF).

Opening the discussion, Karama founder Hibaaq Osman said that despite the extremely difficult conditions in Yemen, it is essential to think about the country’s future now. A key purpose of the roundtable was to give a voice to Yemeni people, which Hibaaq said has been absent from international discussions.

Amal Basha, president of the SAF, said she wanted participants to bring in an in-depth knowledge of how women’s rights had been addressed in constitutional drafting in the region following the revolutions. Previously women’s rights activism had focused on legislative processes, but constitutional changes provide a more fundamental way of bringing change.

Amal pointed to the difficulties that women had faced during Yemen’s National Dialogue, where discussions on gender had been fraught. She stressed the importance of studying the constitution, understanding where the traps that might undermine women’s rights lie.

Karama’s Maisoun Badawi explored current developments and movements in the region. She pointed to the current situation in Yemen, and the importance of the mobility of civil society to serve the community, and unify his views with regard to the debate on the constitution.

Dr Azza Kamel discussed the experience of civil society in Egypt during the drafting of the new constitution. Dr Kamel noted the stages and mechanisms that formed the process, highlighting the collection and study of previous constitutions, and the understanding of how they had been formulated. She stressed the importance of being armed with the knowledge and information when dealing with the constitution drafting. This understanding cannot be limited to a small group, there is a crucial role for developing the  public understanding of the process.

Mass media has an important part to play in informing the public. This is of particular importance when discussing women’s rights in the constitution, from the point of view of developing public understanding and support.

Howaidi Al-Shabaini of the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace noted that customs, traditions and the nature of Libyan society had a significant effect on the constitutional process there. These factors continue to impact the effectiveness and implementation of the constitution and subsequent laws.

Dr Bilquis Abo Osbeu’a, from Yemen’s Awam Foundation, looked closely at the women’s movement in the National Dialogue process. Women’s activism did see a significant impact in the dialogue – notably on the women’s quota and legal marriage age. This progress was made considerable obstacles, including conservative elements in the dialogue, who consistently tried to block and delay discussions on gender issues.

Dr Abo Osbeu’a said that to secure a gender-sensitive constitution gender perspective is to  correct the historical absence of women, as well as securing the legal basis for the empowerment of women, and a commitment to international treaties and agreements that provide for that.

Legal advisor Dr Fathi Al-Showaiter discussed the struggle that women activists had faced in securing rights, arguing that the most significant steps forward had been made by constitutions formulated at a time of crisis, wars, and after the revolutions, because they had been keen to overcome great difficulties and provide rights to all.

The roundtable concluded with agreement that Yemen’s future constitution drafting must be be clear and precise with regard to women, and include an article explicitly providing for equality between males and females in all respects of the constitution. It should include the mandatory implementation of international treaties and agreements ratified by Yemen.

Participants stressed the need for articles to be clear and detailed enough that could not be left open to interpretation, adhering to the outputs of the National Dialogue.

The roundtable ended with a call for civil society and all parties to work to educate the community – both men and women – of their rights and to clarify the importance of the Constitution, and to work more with the media on this issue.