Women and Change in the Middle East
In this conference, speakers discussed progress toward the empowerment of women in the Middle East and North Africa. The first panel examined the status of women in a select number of countries in the region, focusing on women's rights and civil society, and examining developments in women's political participation and legal rights. The second panel focused on the experiences of women in peacebuilding and conflict resolution.
This event was cosponsored with the Middle East Program and the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity.
Panel I: Overview of Women in the Middle East and North Africa Region
Chair: Carla Koppell, Director of Policy Initiatives, Initiative for Inclusive Security
The New Psychology of Tunisian Women and the Personal Status Code:
Lilia Labidi, Professor of Anthropology, University of Tunis, Tunisia
Women and the Ultimate Makeover of Iran:
Sanam Anderlini, Independent Consultant on Gender, Peace, and Security Issues
Measuring Gender Equality in the Middle East and North Africa Region:
Sameena Nazir, Director, Survey of Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, Freedom House
Lilia Labidi discussed the newly emerging psychology of the Tunisian woman, through the lens of the evolving role of women in Tunisia over the past century. First, she observed that urbanization enabled women to progress beyond the production function that they had served under an agrarian system. Since then, women have pushed for greater economic power, and men have lost their exclusive role as breadwinners. The second major change for Tunisian women identified by Labidi was the government's recognition of a family model in which women were the foundation and accordingly granted new rights. To further examine perceptions about the role of women and family structure, Labidi referred to two studies conducted in 1998 and 2005. The results of these studies indicated that Tunisian elites increasingly think that men should help women in the house, and that the role of women has expanded outside the home into the economic sphere. In particular, Labidi noticed, women are now less likely to rely on men for income, and they are inclined to spend their salary on children's education. In addition, Labidi argued that marriage is no longer an absolute value for women—that they also value education, pleasing their parents, promoting their children's happiness, and maintaining a balance between their private and professional lives.
Labidi concluded by describing changes for Tunisian women and families. On the positive side, women have increased access to birth control, and they are more involved in the public sphere and in family discussions. On the negative side, Labidi noted a worsening of family relations and detrimental changes in family eating habits. At the same time, each spouse has been expecting something new from the other: men expect women to make a greater financial contribution to the household; and women expect men to play a greater role in the children's education. While marriage is still important, Labidi argued that women now give greater priority to careers because they are responsible for their own survival. She noted that Tunisian women also now feel greater responsibility to take care of their parents, a domain once reserved for sons. In sum, while Tunisian women have made progress, they must continue to fight for their rights, and especially push for changes in the personal status code, which still favors men with regard to issues of marriage age, rape, and inheritance.
Sanam Anderlini discussed the potential of women as a force for change in Iran, identifying three factors that enable Iranian women to have remarkable potential for bringing about change in their society. First, gender ideology is an important part of the Iranian regime's message—even women's dress has been an indication of social and political changes. Second, according to Anderlini, one of the most pervasive forms of conflict, and opportunities for conflict resolution, in Iran has been along gender lines. Third, the primary way in which women engage in conflict is through non-violent means such as civil disobedience. However, Anderlini observed, regime opponents have not supported the struggle of women, in part because Iran is a patriarchal society. She observed that changes to Iran's social structure would occur gradually, through a bottom-up rather than top-down approach.
Anderlini noted that contemporary Iranian women are highly literate and educated, and yet are minimally represented at high levels of management and authority in the private and public spheres. Women involved in the struggle for increased rights are primarily urban citizens, female relatives of the political or religious elite, former Revolutionary activists, part of the new generation of politicians, or educated intellectuals and civil activists. As for forms of protest, Anderlini emphasized that these women are making their case through civil disobedience, public protests, journalism, creative media, the professional sector, political activism, and organized civil society activism. The role of Iranian women is increasingly a focus of public discourse, and Anderlini argued that there are changes in attitudes toward women across Iranian society. However, Anderlini noted that women lack a strategic outlook and are constrained by a lack of connectivity and solidarity. Women's rights remain a threatening and sensitive issue for many Iranians, including some women. In conclusion, Anderlini noted that the changes in Iranian society, while deep and pervasive, represent an evolution rather than a revolution.
Sameena Nazir presented the findings of the Freedom House Study on Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa. Nazir explained that the Freedom House study used the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a benchmark, and made concrete recommendations to serve as useful tools for policymakers. The study focused on five thematic areas: nondiscrimination and access to justice; autonomy, security, and freedom of the person; economic rights and equal opportunities; political rights and civic voices; and social and cultural rights. One critical function of the survey was to provide a regional comparison that activists can use for their cause, as an alternative to relying on making comparisons with the West. Nazir argued that women's equality remains a formidable challenge as societies face democratization. Nazir also highlighted the region's uniqueness in terms of the gap between the rights of men and women, and the resistance to change on the part of women themselves.
Overall, the study found that current laws regarding the family, education, employment, and personal freedoms are not advantageous to women, and that patriarchal traditions play a clear role in decision-making. Nazir summarized that the major obstacle facing women is inferior status and legal discrimination, despite some degree of equality promised by most of the regional constitutions. Nazir noted that family law is especially discriminatory toward women, and while there are some changes and movements in this area, the exclusion of women from interpreting family law is a great disadvantage. Also, women in the region have varying abilities to effect change, varying from relative strength in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, for example, to greater restrictiveness in the Persian Gulf states. The study recommends that outsiders support women's organizations financially and vocally, and encourages governments to launch information programs to increase legal literacy and access.
ESCWA as a Catalyst for Change in Arab Women
Fatima Sbaity Kassem, Independent Consultant; Former Director, Centre for Women, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA)
Fatima Sbaity Kassem discussed the role of ESCWA in contributing to improved women's rights in Arab countries. ESCWA works to target poverty—especially in the context of conflict, gender roles in the family, and political participation among women. She noted that the high number of stakeholders in these issues means that achievements are the work of a collective. ESCWA seeks to serve the community by distributing information and statistics between United Nations member states, developing region-specific indicators, providing a forum for the exchange of ideas, encouraging women's organizations to develop closer relations with government, and launching media campaigns to sensitize the public. Kassem observed that ESCWA has made significant contributions to a progress made by women in the past years. She pointed to the increased number of national establishments dealing with women's issues, additional accessions to CEDAW, improvements in gender equality indicators, the passing of various anti-discrimination laws, and the right to vote for Kuwaiti women.
Kassem presented an overview of the 2005 Report on the Status of Arab Women, which includes sections on historical development, geopolitical links, the distinction between women's movements and feminist movements, and a number of country and sub-regional case studies. Kassem argued that today's women's movements are progressive, endemic, demand- and rights-oriented, and alliance-seeking. She observed that that the current women's movement is an elitist one, and it lacks a grassroots foundation. Yet, she emphasized that the role of women can be seen as an indicator for democracy, and that democratization and the role of women are inextricably linked.
Panel II: Women's Role in Conflict Areas
Chair: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy, Council of Foreign Relations
Do Women Matter? A Cold Hard Look at Gender and Nation-building:
Cheryl Benard, Senior Political Analyst and Director, Initiative for Middle Eastern Youth, RAND Corporation
Constitutional, Legal, and Environmental Challenges for Iraqi Women
Mishkat Moumin, Former Minister of Environment, Iraq
Liberian Women: Enduring Force for Peace and Progress
Carla Koppell, Director of Policy Initiatives, Initiative for Inclusive Security
Cheryl Bernard spoke about the need to persuade policymakers that including women in post-conflict decision-making will help achieve policy goals better and faster. Today, Bernard argued, there is a disconnect between the number of women in society and their weight in negotiations and nation-building. By creating pressure groups, women can create problems for the existing system and force change. Bernard noted that the inclusion of women is acknowledged extensively in official policy and integrated into reconstruction and nation-building programs. However, in post-conflict situations, women face high levels of crime and loss of social and economic gains. Furthermore, the typical process of deal-making with former combatants sidelines women or uses them as a bargaining chip, since they are usually not a causal force in the conflict. As a result, Bernard argued, the exclusion of women reduces attention to personal status laws and has a detrimental impact on women's and children's health.
Bernard explained the continued exclusion of women by highlighting a number of factors. She stated that "human security" remains ill-defined, that the post-conflict approach is biased toward combatants, and that policymakers think the issue of women's involvement is too difficult or risky to handle. To address these issues, Bernard recommended that post-conflict and nation-building ought to be thought of as separate concepts with distinct timelines. She also called for better data collection and measures of effectiveness, the advancement of the "human security" approach, and the need for women to cause more trouble in order to gain concessions.
Mishkat Moumin discussed the role of women in the context of building democracy and promoting peace in Iraq. She argued that the political process is currently much further ahead of the social and economic process, which is why the political process continues to get stuck. The government needs to open forums for people to join public life and repair Iraq's socio-economic fabric. According to Moumin, current issues for Iraqi women include the constitution, law, and the environment. While women were able to obtain a 25% quota for representation in parliament, family law has now become the main issue, especially since some policymakers are promoting a system that would allow each sect to refer to its own legal code. Also, there are some areas of the constitution that grant equal rights to women, such as the passing of nationality through women as well as men, which cannot be enforced without additional legislation.
While the women's movement is well-organized and non-sectarian, Moumin observed that it is also much attacked, because the women involved lack protection. According to Moumin, one way for women to make progress is by promoting non-sectarian areas of dialogue such as the environment, thus linking across sects and subdivisions. Further, she argued that stability can be achieved through repairing the social fabric, by encouraging education programs, or by giving small loans to families whose children—and especially daughters—attend school. Stability is nearly impossible to promote in an unclean and unsafe environment, Moumin concluded.
Carla Koppell focused on the role of women in post-conflict Liberia, noting that the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as president will be partially considered as a litmus test for women in power. At the same time, Koppell observed that women had a substantial impact in Liberia's peace process negotiations in 1996 and 2003, and that their role is well-recognized by the population at large. However, Koppell cautioned, women were not invited into the peace process on either occasion; they had to push their way in the door and prove their worth. Liberian women then became very involved in elections, especially mobilizing for Johnson-Sirleaf's election. As a result, the current government is working to provide for women's needs, by adding schools and daycare centers to market structures, thus increasing the commitment to education. Koppell commented that the twenty percent literacy rate among women is an indicator of the challenges facing the education sector, and that women's education will be critical to opening up opportunities for political involvement and employment in the security sector.
Overall, Koppell found that women's use of nonviolence to demand involvement in the political process, in Liberia and elsewhere, can serve as a model for shaping emerging democratization movements. In addition, women are able to cross conflict lines to unite for peace, but they need to continue to struggle to be involved in initial negotiations. Koppell concluded with three recommendations: (1) outsiders can be useful by helping women identify their next target or window of opportunity; (2) the structure of negotiations matters should be considered, especially in terms of leveraging for a broader goal or objective; and (3) individual women's performance in positions of leadership, such as that as of Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, should be viewed as a barometer of women's effectiveness but not as an absolute indicator.
Drafted by Mariam Al-Shamma