The UN is creating a unified body to promote gender equality – and who better to lead it than an inspirational Arab woman?
By Hibaaq Osman
Appeared in the Guardian, Comment is Free
28 May 2010
When the history of the global struggle for women’s equality is written, 2010 may be remembered as the year when the United Nations began living up to its full potential. The general assembly is currently studying reforms to the tangled web of agencies, offices and programmes that work to promote women’s equality in order to create a single “gender entity” with an expanded budget, led by an executive at the rank of under secretary-general.
Unified leadership for the UN’s gender-equality efforts will allow the women’s movement to speak with one voice on the most pressing global issues. But who should lead it? Picking a progressive individual and veteran of women’s rights from the Arab region would go a long way towards acknowledging the huge strides activists in the region have made towards achieving equality – accomplishments that are too often ignored at home and overlooked abroad. Consider just a few:
In Morocco, women’s groups were quick to press the advantage following a landmark reform of the country’s personal status codes and a quota that increased the seats for women on city councils from 0.56% to 12%. A coalition of women’s groups raced to field candidates, resulting in the election of more than 3,000 women to municipal councils around the country in 2009, winning 16% of the seats. While the quota system may be imperfect, it is an important tool that paves the way for Morocco’s next generation of female political leaders.
In 2008, Tunisia took a major step towards equality for women, following the concerted lobbying efforts of women’s groups, when it ratified the optional protocol of the convention to end all forms of discrimination against women (Cedaw) treaty. The protocol allows women to file complaints of gender discrimination directly with a Cedaw committee if they have already exhausted possible domestic remedies, giving women new tools to report rights violations and hold their government accountable.
Last year Kafa, a Lebanese NGO, organised an alliance of local women’s and civil society groups to mobilise support for the adoption of the protection of women from family violence bill that it drafted. The bill, which greatly expands protections for female victims of domestic violence, was approved by the cabinet in April and referred to parliament for ratification thanks to Kafa’s sustained strategies of support: a parliamentary workshop, 300 billboards, 50,000 text messages, interactive community theatre performances, and inspiring the women’s committees of each political party to urge that candidates support the draft law.
There has also been substantial progress in Kuwait, where women went from being unable to vote or hold political office in 2006 to winning four seats (12% of the total) in the 2009 parliamentary elections. While four women parliamentarians may not seem like many, it is a familiar pattern that these first few act as a bridge for the next, larger generation of female leaders, and act as powerful advocates for women’s rights in government.
Behind this string of victories are vibrant, powerful leaders who have the courage to challenge their societies and demand change. Take, for instance, the Sudanese journalist Lubna Hussein, who in 2009 raised international awareness of abusive laws in her country following her arrest for wearing trousers in public. Hussein could have had the charges automatically dropped by virtue of her being a UN employee. Instead, she renounced her immunity and fought the charges in court, shining the global spotlight on Sudan’s discriminatory public decency laws.
Take Dr Haifa Abu Ghazaleh, a senator in Jordan’s parliament, who is a tireless advocate for legislative reform, gender mainstreaming and research into how women are affected by – and can reverse – the dynamics of violent conflict in the region.
Finally, take Dr Latifa Jbabdi, who, in over 35 years of activism, has endured detention as a political prisoner, run for office and co-founded several human rights organisations. In 2007, she was elected to the Moroccan parliament, and promises to push even further, following victories in securing women’s right to divorce their husbands and petition for custody of their children.
In sum, Arab women are no longer just beneficiaries of a global women’s movement that is driven in foreign capitals; they are taking the lead at home, in their region and, increasingly, around the world. Progressive Arab women are more than qualified to run the new UN gender entity; they epitomise its purpose, inspiration and impact. With so many talented, tireless and fearless leaders in the Arab world, the hard question isn’t whether an Arab woman should lead the new gender entity, but which one.