Cairo, EGYPT – From July 2nd to 4th, Karama and the Swedish Institute in Alexandria hosted a delegation of 15 women academics, activist leaders and experts from the Arab region for the Fifth Session of the Think Tank for Arab Women (TTfAW) in Sweden, where they also participated at the Almedalen Week, an annual political week on the island of Gotland in Sweden.
Delegates from the Arab region and Sweden convened in Stockholm for the first day of the session, which fostered dialogue and discussion on emerging developments for women in the context of political Islam, peace and security, and women’s political participation. The sessions provided analysis of the impact the Arab uprisings have had on women throughout the region thus far and promoted strategies to address challenges and promote women’s rights in these contexts, relying on country-specific evidence and experiences presented by participants from Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sweden and Syria and linking these to broader regional priorities.
Ambassador Birgitta Holst-Alani of the Swedish Institute kicked off the meeting urging activists to exchange and learn from each other, but avoid wholly adapting advice from Western counterparts. “The Arab countries, without disregarding their differences, shares a common language, history, issues of concern, and after the Arab uprisings, they share in a common call for Human Rights….every region has its traditions and each has to develop its own. Listen to others but do not copy.”
Karama Founder Hibaaq Osman shared this sentiment, warning that women in the region must define for themselves their priorities and involvement. “Whether it is the West or the Islamists, we always let other people define who we are. We need to challenge such definitions…Our ideas should not be missing when research is carried out or knowledge is sought after. There is power in the grassroots, so we need to understand the grassroots.” She promoted the Think Tank’s role to influence and impact policies and inform different constituencies about what women want, feel, prioritize and fear from their own perspective and in their own words.
During the presentations, speakers discussed the backlash women have experienced in the context of the growing power of Islamist politicians. Saadia Wadah, an activist from Morocco, discussed the disappointment felt when, after hard-won commitments were made to take steps to enforce international conventions and promote fair gender balance in the nation, the rise of Islamist political leadership after the November 2011 elections put women’s rights immediately at risk. “In the constitution, and in accordance with international conventions women have an equal right to participate politically, but this has not been respected. The government even had an agreement with the EU, but this agreement has not been fulfilled either. Now we need to monitor the governments further implementation of the constitution.”
This situation was echoed throughout presentations on situations in Saudi Arabia, where the Arab uprisings created parallels in inspiring men, women and youth to raise their voices and break down barriers of fear, as well as in Egypt and Tunisia. “The Islamic parties have been the main beneficiaries of the Arab uprisings…There is a new, general trend in the whole region where political Islamists groups are re-positioning themselves,” Nabiha Jerad of Tunisia shared.
Delegates were joined by leading Swedish academics, including Sepideh Nekomanesh of the Forum for Feminist Research, who emphasized that woman are agents of change, and Elin Ewers of the Global Challenges Think Tank, among several to further discuss the situation in the region, as well as to exchange on and discuss strategic approaches to research and dissemination and explore best practices for elevating awareness on the Think Tank, its research and impacts.
The delegation culminated at Sweden’s annual Almedalen Week in Visby on July 4th, where participants joined Sweden’s top politicians and activists for sessions on democracy and human rights, international exchange and investment, and of course, the outcomes of the Arab Spring and what is next for the region. The delegation hosted its own debate at the event discussing whether or not the Arab uprisings helped or harmed women’s rights in the region.
Egyptian activist Fatemah Khafagy touched on positive impacts for women, as well as upcoming challenges. “Though there are still opportunities created by the revolution, the women’s movement have moved into politics to a greater extent, women’s rights and feminist groups have been organized—everybody is talking politics and it makes people come together. Also, women are more economically active after the revolution, because many men lost their jobs and women became the breadwinners.” The question that remains, she shared, is how this can be translated from societal participation to political participation and influence.
Participant Shahrazad Kablan, a prominent Libyan activist, said, “The most urgent question to ask when it comes to the outcome of the Arab revolutions, is whether they will succeed in overcoming the past or not.” At the time of the debate, Libya was on the eve of its first post-Gaddafi parliamentary election.
Of course, there was no conclusive answer to this debate. The situation for women in the region—and for the population at large-remains dynamic and unpredictable. However, there was one thing all delegates could agree on: women have become more vocal, more organized and more politicized since the uprisings and are poised to have great influence, given that proper training, resources and opportunities are secured.
TTfAW participants and members also attended sessions on the Arab Spring hosted by Swedish journalists, academics and politicians in order to discuss the strategic importance of investment in the Arab region and delineate the key types of support—ranging from macroeconomic to mentorship for small business initiatives to financial investment in capacity-building for civil society—needed from global governments, including Sweden’s.
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