Arab Women’s Activists Meet in Cairo to Strategize Response to Regional Uprisings

Posted on: April 27, 2012, by :

Cairo, May 18, 2011

Activists from over eleven Arab states met in Cairo from May 13-16 to design strategies for promoting women’s rights and advancing female political participation in the Arab region in response to the wave of protests and revolutions sweeping the Middle East.

Convened by the Arab regional women’s rights organization Karama, the group of over 90 activists, judges, and political leaders worked together to build alliances and create five-year national and regional action plans focused on the themes of political participation, human rights, civil society, and legal/constitutional reform.

The women’s rights activists represented a wide range of civil society organizations and included youth leaders from the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, as well as prominent Egyptian females in the political landscape—Supreme Constitutional Court justice Tahani al-Gabali, women’s rights icon Hoda Badran, and former Nile TV anchor, Shahira Amin. Major media from Egypt, Turkey, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France, Germany, Reuters, BBC, and Al Jazeera Arabic covered the event, among others. Leila al Sheikhli moderated the opening session, placing the lens on women’s roles and women’s rights in each revolution.

The working seminar brought together female politicians from the Arab region and Europe, along with women thinking of entering politics to share successes and failures, campaign tactics, and ways women and NGOs can influence governments outside formal electoral politics.

Egyptian presidential candidate Boutheina Kamel urged the women in the audience to run for office: “We need more female candidates. People are not familiar with a woman of authority.” Prospective presidential candidate Mona Sewilam added, “We have to be able to visualize a woman as president. I tell women, ‘let me help you get your voice into power.’”

Six other elected representatives shared advice from their experiences running for office, including Magda Nouishi (Ismailia, Egypt), Sahar Qawaswami (Palestine), Mariko Peters (Netherlands), as well as Ambassador Malin Karre (Sweden), former Rep. Tom Piriello (US), and parliamentary candidate Fatema Khafagy (Egypt). Several Dutch political parties sent staff members to observe the seminar, representing the Green Party, Labor Party, and the Christian Democrats. Two Dutch parliamentary members participated by satellite video link.

Participants were briefed by Amar Qabili of Syria, a political and human rights activist: “Women in Syria have been protesting in front of the Ministry of Interior, and ten of the 36 detained there were women. A hunger strike by women helped spark the release of the first prisoners. Yesterday was the Friday of Free Women; two hundred of our 800 martyrs have been women.”

Hanaa Edwar of Amal Association in Iraq shared the attainment of a quota reserving 25% of parliamentary seats for women, and “in Kurdistan the representation of women reached 30%.”

Emerging from intensive work sessions to develop national action plans, the Arab women activists generated a set of priorities they held in common across the region:

• Political quotas to ensure minimum of women’s representation at all levels, from the district councils to the parties and parliaments
• Training of women political candidates and women policymakers in campaigning, media skills, negotiation, policy formation and fundraising
• Training of trainers on constitutional reform advocacy, specifically for removing discriminatory laws and enacting equality amendments
• Training NGOs for mobilization campaigns that get out the vote, increase political participation by women, and influence political parties to increase the presence of women in their leadership
• Supporting CEDAW as a basis for national legislation and jurisprudence
• Developing media campaigns to promote women in political life, diminish discriminatory attitudes, and to generate increased support for reform initiatives such as equality laws in the constitutions

The areas in which regional advocacy efforts were proposed include:

• Advocacy to foreign governments to encourage aid that is earmarked for women in their funding of democracy development in the Arab region
• Appealing to the Arab League for implementation of CEDAW, lifting reservations, and removal of discriminatory laws
• Issuing a regional petition to support Dr. Mirvat al-Tallawi to become Egypt’s next Foreign Minister
Going forward, Karama – with the support of its partners – has committed to carrying out the regional action plan by providing regional trainings on the most pressing of shared priorities, and will support exchanges for urgent capacity-building and time-sensitive technical assistance.

In a written closing statement (full text follows), participants also pledged to put aside their differences to work together: “We commit to plan strategically to stretch our arms to reach all women in our nations to continue demanding our rights and make our voices heard—the voices of the marginalized, the impoverished, women of all classes UNITED.”

With constitutional committees already in session, elections looming in coming months, and escalating protests and violent oppression, the assembled activists agreed that there is not a moment to lose in increasing the skills and capacity for political activism as the region continues to undergo rapid change on a scale not seen in decades.

The work session was made possible by the generous support of the Swedish International Development Co-Operation Agency (SIDA) and Hivos. The presence of international press could not have happened without the support from the United Nations Information Centre, under the leadership of Dr. Khawla Mattar.

For more information or to arrange an interview with one of the participants, please contact Khawla Mattar at +20 (0)10 701 1222