Arab Women and Social Change

Posted on: April 27, 2012, by :

LaylaBy Leila Hammarneh

Projects Director, Arab Women Organization, Jordan

This year, 2011, will go down in history as the year that brought widespread political change into the Arab countries. Fed up with the status quo and galvanized by frustration and fear resulting from widespread human rights abuses and dwindling economic prospects, citizens of several Arab countries, including a significant contingency of youth, have revolted in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Jordan, Kuwait, and Syria, requesting, above all else, democracy and freedom.

Women have played an active role to bring forth the process of change. For years, they have advocated for political, legal, institutional, and constitutional reforms pertaining to women’s rights through local initiatives implemented through women’s NGOs, regional collaboration, which fostered mutual accountability, sharing of best practices, and strategic analysis, and finally, international advocacy and intervention, often posed through reports and recommendations submitted to the UN bodies. Now, they are demanding to amplify their reach and influence at the heart of the transformation process that is surging through the Arab countries in response to long-denied human rights.

The celebration of March 8, the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, posed a significant opportunity for Arab women to remind people of the inequities and disparities that need to be redressed in the process of change. While much has been achieved in education and employment, as in the case of Jordan, basic gender and human rights have remained unchanged. The celebrations of March 8 reminded women of the force of international solidarity, which was also evidenced by the launch of UN Women and the new UN working group on discrimination against women in law and practice enacted as a result of vigilant lobbying for increased support.
From my perspective, what happened in Tunisia and in Egypt, and the impact these events have had on other Arab countries is a clear step forward for women’s rights. Especially in Egypt, the revolution clarified the fact that, when it truly matters, women and men stand side by side. They stood together as equals in protest for 18 days in Tahrir Square in Cairo calling for freedom and social justice for all. These are the same general demands that women have: gender equality, freedom, and social justice. It is very important to note that these were peaceful protests and that the people called for a civil state and a secular state. All of this describes a new dawn for women leaders, organizers, and activists in the movement, as well as for every day women working toward improved situations and conditions.

The new dawn comes after several tragic years of backlash, during which women’s achievements were overshadowed by negative attitudes toward women influenced in large part by patriarchal structures, fundamentalism, and sharia law. For instance, in Jordan, the tribal lords were aligning against women’s rights. But now, the situation has taken a turn. Women’s rights are finally being put on the table, and now, given the emerging environment, we hope that they will become a top priority in reformation.

We must not regress. The situation cannot progress for general human rights while continuing to ignore the needs and priorities of women. We cannot return to how it was pre-revolution with women considered as a separate entity and awarded only a fraction of the rights and dignities of men. There will be no more backlash and those who would like to pull the wheel backwards will not succeed.

In order to ensure that women’s rights frameworks are emphasized, gains made over the years are sustained, and momentum is gained from the unrest in the region, Arab women need to keep reminding regional and international authorities that women’s issues and gender equality need to be doubly protected, especially in this transitional period. A few weeks after the Egyptian uprising, women, who are still in the stage of promoting equal treatment of women, have been reminded that their recent achievements are at stake. In fact, the main reform initiative for amending articles of the Egyptian Constitution has excluded women participants in the designated “Committee” proposing constitutional amendments. With this as an example of what will follow, women should remain alert. The enchantment with sweeping social change cannot overshadow the dangers of regression and backlash.

Right now, women in Jordan feel a sense of obligation towards their people created after the unifying activities of the Arab revolts. They have participated in demonstrations to express their solidarity with those who have been revolting in Egypt and in Tunisia, and with those who are now struggling in Libya, in Yemen and in Bahrain. Additionally, women have taken to the streets to call for reforms—in particular, legal and political reforms affecting women’s rights. In Jordan, as in most of the Arab countries, there have been delays in responding to calls for women’s rights that adhere to international gender equality standards. There have been a lot of conventions, policies, and public statements made on behalf of women’s rights, but their implementation has been delayed due to a number of factors, including cultural and social stigmas that have become commonplace attitudes against women.

To sustain the momentum of human rights protests, uprisings, and initiatives occurring across the Arab countries, members of the Arab Women Organization (AWO) have expressed their sentiment for reform throughout the past two months, during which they have participated in demonstrations calling for quick reforms and in the “National Dialogue” for equal treatment of women by lifting reservations on international conventions and instruments. AWO has also organized large meetings with the governors in three provinces: Karak, Irbid, and Amman in order to trigger a nation-wide dialogue to discuss acceleration of implementation of women’s rights. Women fear that their demands for equality and women’s rights might be overshadowed by the expected large-scale changes for democracy and human rights. Women’s organizations and activists are working to respond to this fear, primarily by developing new initiatives and enhancing existing programs to be responsive to the current environment and seize the potential of new opportunities and situations presented.