Challenges to Women’s Security in the MENA Region
Five women activists and practitioners from the Middle East and North Africa discussed the challenges to women’s security in MENA countries in the post-Arab Spring period. The panelists were part of a larger delegation from the region brought together by Karama, a regional NGO working on capacity building of women for peace and security in the Middle East.
On March 7, the Middle East Program and the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a conversation, “Challenges to Women’s Security in the MENA Region” with Haifa Abu Ghazaleh, Special Representative to Civil Society for the League of Arab States and Secretary General, Jordan; Mouna Ghanem, Deputy for the President of the Building the Syrian State (BSS) Movement, Syria; Azza Kamel, Founder and Director, Appropriate Communication Techniques for Development, Egypt; Zahra’ Langhi, Co-founder of Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace (LWPP), Libya; and Faiza Mohamed, Director of the Nairobi Office of Equality Now, Somalia/Djibouti. Jane Harman, Director, President and CEO of the Wilson Center, provided opening remarks. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the discussion.
Jane Harman introduced the program, discussing related research and activism being conducted by Wilson Center scholars and the “remarkable women” of the Karama delegation. She pointed out the role of Islamism in women’s rights movements in the MENA region today, stating, “Islamist parties are here to stay, and that’s okay as long as they’re inclusive.” She reiterated her stance that “security is a women’s issue” that brings women to protect their families and provide support systems for their communities. She called for greater inclusion of women in new and transitional governments, saying they are all “qualified to be part of every policy discussion,” as it is their own personal security that builds national security.
Abu Ghazaleh started by stressing the importance of supporting the specific needs and security of women in the region, as these are often neglected and their condition is deteriorating since the uprisings. Women are not participating in drafting the new constitutions in the region and, therefore, governments are not addressing women’s needs even while political violence against them is increasing. She noted that although 20 out of 22 Arab countries have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), most of them imposed reservations on the elements that contradicted either shari’a or existing national laws.
Langhi emphasized that although women in the region were “trying to become influential shapers of a new discourse on security for the very first time,” they have been systematically excluded from the public sphere since the revolutions. Libya’s “greatest challenge is the enforcement of the rule of law” as the country transitions from revolution, which is exclusionist, to state building, which must be inclusive. In spite of civil society’s efforts to advance a gender-sensitive agenda, militias and the state itself have undermined the rule of law and women’s participation in the state’s institutions.
Discussing Egypt, Kamel asserted that Islamist factions are trying “to use religion to control everything in the country […] while kidnapping our dreams and stealing our revolution.” She denounced the wave of sexual harassment, rapes, and kidnappings around the country claiming that these are “systematic actions against women,” who have no rights specified in the new Egyptian constitution.
Mohamed, based in Somalia, detailed the linkages that exist between African and Arab countries. Human rights violations, she argued, pose the greatest challenges to women’s security. For several of the Arab Spring countries, the African Union can provide a platform to address these violations from a political angle. Saying that “national peace does not mean women are at peace,” she stressed the importance of forcing countries to implement the international gender conventions they have ratified.
Finally, Ghanem described the conflict in Syria, which is causing insecurity for everyone in the country, and the impact of sanctions, which are hitting women the hardest. Syrian women, she said, are victims of sexual trafficking, forced marriage, harassment, rape, and other abuses, whether as refugees in neighboring countries or within Syria due to the infusion of Islamist principles via Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Saying that “personal security is national security,” she called for support for a peaceful, negotiated settlement to end the Syrian conflict to ensure women’s physical security.
Esfandiari tied together the outcomes of the various Arab Spring revolutions by relaying the experience of women after Iran’s Islamic Revolution, which ushered in a reversal of rights that women had fought for years to achieve. She noted that the Iranian experience should have served as a warning sign for women of what was to come once these Islamist regimes came into power.