By Lisa Anderson
The uncertain fate of women’s rights in the turbulent Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region emerged as one of the most pressing concerns on the agenda for the 12th International Forum of the Association For Women’s Rights In Development (AWID), which launched a four-day run in Istanbul on Wednesday.
“It takes a lot of hard work to change cultures of dictatorship to cultures of democracy. We need to develop strategies so we can work as quickly as possible…to try to avoid replacing one kind of dictatorship with another,” said Mahnaz Afkhami, president and CEO of the Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development and Peace (WLP).
WLP promotes women’s leadership and empowerment, particularly in Muslim-majority societies, and is a leader of Equality Without Reservation, a coalition of more than 600 women’s rights groups in the MENA and Gulf region.
The theme of AWID’s triennial forum is “Transforming Economic Power to Advance Women’s Rights and Justice,” but conference leaders quickly made it clear that the situation facing women in MENA countries, many of which recently have undergone or are still engaged in revolution, is a priority.
To underscore that, AWID assembled experts from the region to brief a core group of women’s leaders for two days before the start of the conference on the current situation of women in MENA countries and the challenges they face. The concerns they raised will be discussed in depth over the coming days, but on Wednesday afternoon members of the group highlighted some of the key issues for some of the over 2,000 women attending the conference, which ends on April 22.
Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, chair of WLP and former executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, ticked off how things stand in the region geopolitically:
--“The MENA region is at a point of no return." People will no longer accept injustice.
--The transition to democracy has started but “democracy without gender policy is not possible.”
--Constitutions must reflect full human rights, including equality between men and women and full women’s rights.
But, she said, there is a profound and discouraging disconnection between women’s roles during and after the upheaval in societies where revolution has already occurred, such as Egypt.
Women participated in the uprising as citizens, not as a special interest group, and supported a national agenda, Obaid said. “But in the aftermath of these events, women became invisible. And the minute they began talking about their rights as women, they found themselves isolated and alone.”
Obaid and Afkhami said women must be sharply vigilant about the role conservative religion plays in politics and human rights in these unsettled environments, referring to groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Afkhami warned that in some cases the “language of feminism is being usurped by conservative religion.” The use of words like “dignity” and “freedom” mean something quite different for many women than when used by religious conservatives to propose restrictions on attire and behavior “to protect the integrity of women,” she said.
“Those who self-identify in the religious sphere are not going to be friends of women,” said Afkhami. “Anyone who identifies as Muslim Brotherhood has to be viewed skeptically because where is the ‘Sisterhood’,” she asked.