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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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Category Archives: Women’s Leadership Groups

This post was originally published by The Adventures of Salwa, a sexual harassment awareness group based in Lebanon.  Written by Alex Shams, it tells the story of one man’s commitment to changing attitudes about the permissibility of sexual harassment in the Middle East.  He has gone on to launch the blog Qaweme Harassment as an open forum for stories about sexual harassment and as a platform for Beirut’s “harass map,” cataloguing incidents of harassment across the city.  Check out his post below!

It’s funny how sometimes in life you feel like you see everything, but later realize in fact you can see nothing.

Our experience of the world is shaped completely by how the world perceives us, and even the most basic ideas we might receive as obvious and unchanging- how it feels to walk down the street, for example- are all extremely dependent on who we are, what we look like, and how we are perceived. This, I think, is obvious to many people, and particularly for many women, but as a man I spent many years wholly unaware of the idea that every aspect of my daily life and my daily experience could and would be drastically different if I was not perceived by others as a biological man. Privilege is something truly blinding when you have it, but painfully obvious when you don’t.

It was one, hot Egyptian summer some years ago when I finally began the process of confronting my privilege. Studying in Cairo, I had arrived and spent a week on my own before starting classes. One of the first nights, I went out with a fellow student who I had met in my first class. For me, Cairo’s streets were exhilarating and liberating- a million people out at once walking and yelling and talking and screaming and smoking arguile and doing everything twenty-four hours a day was shocking and beyond exciting to me.

To say the least, I was eager to enter Downtown at night and be soaked up in it’s liveliness with a friend. As we began our walk, searching for an old restaurant in Downtown’s alleyways, I became quickly aware of the fact that these streets were not so liberating for my friend. Suddenly, I came to absorb the fact that 50% of Egypt’s population was NOT cruising these streets, and my friend was a part of that demographic that did not feel particularly “exhilarated” by crowds of thousands of men staring and itching to offer disgusting remarks of approval.

I realized that the week I had spent walking Downtown, feeling liberated and alive and imagining that I was seeing everything this city had to offer, was a week of complete blindness. I had no idea what it was like to experience this city as 50% of the population, and of the world, experience it, and words like harassment were not even a part of my vocabulary. Everything I had experienced in life had been experienced with a blindfold of privilege. I needed to rethink everything I had ever imagined were “how things were.”

The years since that summer have involved a lot of listening, a lot of trying to understand, a lot of reading, and a lot of getting angry. I will never know exactly what it feels like to be objectified and sexualized and subjected to verbal harassment and sexual harassment and the fear of sexual assault and the revulsion women feel on an ongoing basis. And as much as I listened to friends vent and fume over experiences they share with me, the fact is that my presence would deter these men from engaging in their demeaning games- meaning I would never be able to fulfill my silly, faux-gallant urge to punch someone in the face.

The fact is that as a man, and as an ally, I have to recognize my role is not in defending women or punching harassers (not that my fists would do much). Women don’t need me to defend them, and there’s no reason they should- women can defend themselves pretty damn well fine without me assuming a man needs to step in.

My role, as a male ally, is to spread awareness of the problem with other men, and make sure they recognize that Harassment, verbal and physical, is NOT okay and there is NO reason to sexualize or attack a human being merely for daring to enter the public sphere. As an ally, I must be constantly beginning conversations and entering into topics which I know many men, blinded by their privilege, will disagree with me on or blow off. It doesn’t matter if these conversations are uncomfortable, as 50% of human beings cannot go on with their daily life without being made to feel uncomfortable for the simple reason that they are women. As an activist, and as a feminist, it seems pretty damn reprehensible and misogynistic to prioritize my own momentary discomfort over the constant discomfort of billions of human beings who happen to be (mostly) female.

This is why I started the blog Qaweme Harassment. Tired of merely being able to offer sympathy to bad story after bad story, and having converted most of male friends to feminism, I decided to act and work with the Adventures of Salwa create a place for people to share their experiences as well as a way to talk about what works in terms of combating harassment. In addition, I wanted people to be able to chart where harassment was happening and visually recognize it as a phenomenon that our entire metropolis, regardless of religion, race, sect, gender presentation, etc is dealing with. And thus was born, Qaweme Harassment.


Originally posted on Women without Borders on March 24, 2011.

Tawakkol Karman

Tawakkol Karman, Yemeni human rights activist, journalist and politician. She is many people’s first choice to lead Yemen in the future. Image: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

BREAKING NEWS: SAVE Yemen, Latest Update

Out of the uncertain situation, a solution involving civil society and youth leaders is emerging, along with the suggestion that a woman, Tawakkol Karman, could be Yemen’s best choice for president.

Tomorrow will be a big day for Yemen. Opposition parties are calling for a march on the presidential palace despite President Saleh’s declaration of emergency powers banning protests. Some youth leaders are advocating for protesters to stay in Change Square, refusing the call from the political opposition parties to march. However, neither seems to be deterred by the prohibition on demonstrations, and protesters see Friday as the day that they will definitively demand Saleh’s resignation.

A solution to the power vacuum

Maha (name changed), one of our partners in Yemen, reported today that Yemenis on the ground are refusing Saleh’s announcement that civil war will ensue if he steps down. “Many are saying that that claim is ridiculous, and that Saleh is just trying to stop change happening,” said Maha.

Claims of impending civil war surround the defection of powerful military leaders to the opposition, including General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, President Saleh’s half brother and military commander of Yemen’s north-western area. He has pledged his support to the protesters. “Many are skeptical about al-Ahmar’s defection to the opposition,” said Maha. “They think that this is just a way for those who are already in power to retain their positions.”

Protestors and leaders from several opposition parties have now come up with a proposal to fill the power vacuum should Saleh step down soon. They have suggested a “traditional committee” made up of leading civil society figures and youth leaders. No names have so far concretely emerged, but they are certain that they would not allow military figures to be part of the committee. Maha says that there are many qualified people in Yemeni society who would be able to fill this committee.

Women’s role in a new Yemen

Yemen has modeled much of its revolution on Egypt’s experiences. Although many women were outspoken and instrumental in Egypt’s protests, no women have so far been consulted in the process of constitutional change. “This is related to our Arabic culture,” said Maha. “It is very sad, especially because women have worked so hard, and their voices have been so powerful both in Egypt and Yemen. I do not have much hope that a committee in Yemen would have women representatives. Women are often used as a card, played when it is needed, such as during elections or revolutions, then forgotten when men have achieved what they were striving for.”

One woman whose voice is listened to by Yemenis is Tawakkol Karman. Lately, a debate has started on facebook, with many advocating for Karman to become Yemen’s president. “She had a lot of support before the revolution, and many people – both men and women – think she is the best choice. She has a vision for Yemen’s future. She is brave and has a record of social justice. Her popularity has hugely increased since she became active in the revolution. Of course, there are also many who make impolite comments and say that it is a stupid idea that a woman should rule over Yemen’s men.” So far, Karman herself does not appear to have commented on the possibility of herself taking a position in a new order. Much of the debate has taken place over Facebook, as it is a safer arena to express opinions, but Maha says there are also conversations about Karman’s future taking place in the streets.

Who is Tawakkol Karman?

Tawakkol Karman is the 32 year old chairwoman of Women Journalists Without Chains and a human rights activist. In the last elections in 2003, Karman won a seat in parliament along with 12 other female members of Islah, the main opposition party that stands for reforms. In 2005, Karman founded Women Journalists Without Chains in defense of human rights and freedom of expression including the right to public protests. She has been in the forefront in agitating against a draft amendment to the Constitution of Yemen to allow the president to remain in office for life.

Karman has already been arrested more than once this year for her activities in support of revolution. In her advocacy work she is not only a loud voice supporting women’s rights, but also addresses unemployment and corruption in Yemeni society as a whole.

By Iqbal Tamimi, Director for Arab Women Media Watch Centre

See the full article at Middle East Online

October 15, 2010

The above mentioned question was the subject of the discussions that went on during the 8th annual conference of the Arab Women working in the media held in Amman-Jordan from 5-8 October 2010.

The sponsor of this year’s conference was the Foundation for the Future, an independent, multilateral, non-profit organization, committed to promoting and strengthening civil society organizations in an effort to foster democracy and human rights in the Middle East and North Africa. As usual none of the Arab media businesses showed any interest or supported the event financially, technically or otherwise, except few local Jordanian newspapers and businesses even though the Arab Women Media Centre (AWMC) which organised the conference offers its cervices to all Arab women journalists and not exclusive to Jordanian media professionals. Still, even the local Jordanian newspapers did not follow the sessions of the conference and were only content by mentioning the conference once each, as a news item, about an activity that is going on in Amman, as if their female colleagues are not as important as another male organised media conference that is about to be launched in Amman, which already attracted all kinds of gigantic Arab sponsors and an excellent promotional campaign.

The President of the Future Foundation, Nabila Hamza, said during the event: “The number of Arab women who have posts as heads of TV channels are only two or three women. And although the female graduates of media collages in Palestine for example, are more than 43 percent, men working in the media sector in Palestine make more than 80 percent”. She has also mentioned that Saudi women working in the media field account for only 8 percent of the workers in this sector.

The conference discussed different forms of violence and aggression including political terrorism and how it is reflected by the media, religious extremism, domestic, verbal, psychological and social violence, violence as a result of wars and armed conflicts, and the role of the Israeli media language in legitimizing the violence against Palestinians.

I regret that Arab women have very limited role and a faint fingerprint regarding influencing media policies, simply because they are not taken seriously. The few women who appear on television screens managed to do so because men wanted that to happen and they backed them up to occupy such positions, sometimes for political reasons, and other times for other reasons that I do not want to discuss.

The truth remains that a story about stuffing the breasts or lips of a singer with silicone is given more attention in Arab media than a conference organised and attended by women from all over the Middle East, to discuss and educate women journalists about how to make a change through their work and assignments to eliminate violence and phanatisism in a world full of blood, clashes, sectarianism, manipulated religious rhetoric, extremism and an irresponsible use of language and expressions that yields more hatred and recycling violence in different shapes and forms.

Yes, women are doing their best for peace, in this world of madness and violence that comes in all shapes and sizes. But can Arab women journalists manage to succeed in their missions to promote peace when they are alienated from decision making posts of the media.

The Jordanian veteran journalist Mahasen El-Imam said, we recommended through this conference that more attention should be paid to credibility, neutrality and impartiality when dealing with terrorism-related news, and to be careful about the choice of terminologies used when discussing violence before delivering the news to the audience. But most of all we are requesting of media production companies and TV channels to limit and control the recreational programmes that encourage violence.

A report published by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) says that female Egyptian journalists continue to suffer from discrimination regarding access to positions of leadership. Egyptian women journalists accounted for only 34 percent of the general assembly of the Egyptian Press Syndicate. The annual report for March 2010, says only 2,400 Egyptian female journalists are members of the press syndicate out of a total of 7,000 members and women’s percentage of representation in the Syndicate’s Council drops to only 7.7 percent, or 13 members.

A report published by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said female journalists in Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia, UAE and Yemen, receive only 10 percent of the assumed positions of leadership compared to the control of women of about 50 percent of the programs in the field of audio-visual media. The report confirmed that Arab women journalists still face difficulties in advancing within the field of media work, especially the press, as compared to their male colleagues, besides facing difficulties in attending media institutions as its officials see that men are better suited to working in the press field.

Men in the Arab World are in control of the media content, exactly as they are in control of other sectors and activities. Arab women are only allowed to lead the discussions on women’s rights and what is claimed to be “women’s issues” through the media. The content of the majority of programs confirms the subordination of women to male dominance. Arab women journalists are considered good for back up roles and assistance jobs, and not good enough to handle the policies of news production of conflicts, violence or extremism.



When art and activism join forces, you can expect some truly remarkable results! Here is a video featured on YouTube by Nasawiya, a self-declared Feminist Collective based in Beirut.  Nasawiya has worked to reign in the Internet as part of the feminist-activism campaigns, using the creativity and technical skills of the collaborators and participants to create art that doubles as a public messaging campaign. In this film, a young woman in Beirut opens her door over and over again only to hear judgmental, sexist comments about her appearance being lobbied at her from the street below. Every time she goes to the door, opening it becomes harder and harder.

Nasawiya works on many other projects, including tech-based trainings for women, cooperating with other women’s rights and feminist forums in the Arab World, and supporting a migrant-worker task force.

Check out Nasawiya’s website, or find them on Facebook and Twitter.

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مركز وودرو ويلسون ، 15 يونيو 2010

On June 15, 2010, women’s activists from across the Middle East and United States gathered at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC to discuss the needs and efforts to defend the rights of women in the Middle East, as well as the need for American support in helping improve the situation of women –both professionally and socially–in the region.  This clip comes from a report done by Al-Hurra TV on the event.

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Thanks to the Bahrain Women Association for this article summarizing one of their discussion panels on women’s issues in Islam affecting women not only in Bahrain, but across the region.

Bahrain Women Association – for Human Development (BWA) conducted the fourth and final open discussion series titled: “Towards a Successful Family Partnership” which ends the “Women … New Paradigm” project it launched on the 21st of March 2009.

BWA President Eng. Saba Alasfoor delivered a speech at the closing ceremony, marking the end of the discussion series that also happen to be on the BWA’s ninth anniversary. She said: “It’s been fifteen months since we launched the BWA’s project ‘Women … New Paradigm’ with a long-term vision aiming to correct the false beliefs rooted in the culture that have downgraded women in the community with unjustified reasons, as neither human nature nor the Quran validates that women differ from men in rights and duties”.

She continued: “Unfortunately, more than 50% of the survey respondents still want to forbid women’s guardianship, and 54% believe that the testimony of a woman carries only half the weight of a man’s. Moreover, 7% were against women’s testimony in general. We continue to hear that some are skeptical about the benefits behind discussing women’s rights, and wonder and why researchers attempt to introduce innovative ideas.”

In the first session of the open discussion, Mr. Isa AlSharqi, a researcher from Al Tajdeed Cultural & Social Society, emphasized that polygamy is not a rule that Islam has enforced, but that it is an existing Arab social custom that Islam has appropriated and regulated. He noted that “there is a big difference between when a religion establishes a certain rule and when a rule exists and requires trimming and reorganizing. Establishing a rule to be introduced to people should be generated from the essence and spirit of the religion, whereas in the second case, the right thing to do may be to stop the rule if society has reached a certain stage of development in which the problem and causes of the existing rule have vanished. In fact, it is necessary to work towards getting the community to that stage, as it did in the case with slavery.”

Mr. AlSharqi clarified: “The verse of upon which scholars legitimize man to marry more than one wife, ‘if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, then marry women of your choice two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not be able to deal justly with them then only one or what your right hands possess; That is nearer to prevent you from doing injustice’ (Qu’an 4:3) is unrelated to multiple wives. It was and still is a dilemma for all who tried to explain it; some interpreters invented different word pronunciation types that bear a load to the words it was not meant to carry.” He stressed that “the opinion is that the verse is about the marriage of male and female orphans.”

The second session had number of speakers discussing underage marriage issues. Mrs. Huda AlMahmood, vice president of the Bahraini Sociologists Society, said that “by authorizing underage marriage we are legitimizing social irresponsibility.” She wondered about the justice behind this practice, and refused to have these practices validated in the name of religion. Mrs. AlMahmood called for researches to seek solutions exploring the root of the problem, and asked for social responsibility towards marriage issues.

Dr. Fawzia Al-Hani, a human rights activist from Saudi Arabia, said “our communities instill in girls’ minds that waiting for marriage is among the most important duties towards self-awareness and a sense of self.” She added: “family formation is not limited to the physiological reproduction but also requires intellectual, emotional, cognitive and social maturity to achieve the social objectives of a family. Unless girls are mature and educated they will not be able perform this role.”

Mr. Isa Sharqi mentioned: “Young girls have been included in marriage issues, even though Quranic verses which addressed marriage issues focused on women only. All marriage verses use the term ‘women,’ usually reserved for adult females. Small girls are excluded from marriage topics, and their parents’ guardianship during their immaturity should not impose on them what to be applied on matures, this applies to males as well”.

Lawyer Hassan Ismail called for women’s associations to study the medical and health damages caused by underage marriage for those under 15 years of age.

At the end of the open discussion forum, the President Bahrain Women Association expressed her thanks to all those who contributed significantly to the success of the project from their various positions and responsibilities, and extended her appreciation to the Al Tajdeed Cultural & Social Society for their contributions to presenting this innovative, enlightening research. She added: “This is the fourth and last open discussion forum of ‘Women … New Paradigm’ series, which ends the culture establishment phase to correct the perception of women in society, but initiates a new phase for setting practical steps for making sustainable change towards restoring rights and dignity for women.”

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حميدة فروتن

حميدة فروتن

ورد بلاغ عبر الخط الساخن للمشورة الأسرية من طفلة عمرها خمسة عشر عاماً تشكو من رغبة أهلها في تزويجهابالإجبار من رجل يكبرها باثني عشر عاماً وهي ترفض لرغبتها في إكمال دراستها، وعندما أجبرت الطفلة على التوقيع انهارت وامتنعت عن الطعام، فطلب‏ الزوج مقابل عدم إتمام الزواج مبلغاً مادياً كبيراً مما دفع الأسرة إلى الذهاب لمحامٍ ليفاجأ بأن الزواج عرفي وأنه سيتحول لزواج شرعي بعد بلوغها سن‏‏ السادسة عشر سنة، وهنا تدخلت جهة حكومية للاستعانة بالقوى والقيادات لفض الاشتباك، وعادت الفتاة لمدرستها‏، هذه حادثة واقعية حدثت في جمهورية مصر العربية.

نجت هذه الطفلة، ولكن الطفلة إلهام مهدي – 13عاماً- لم تنجُ من مثل هذه الجريمة، فبعد زواجها بثلاثة أيام أعلن عن وفاتها بسبب تمزق كامل في الأعضاء التناسلية ونزيف مميت حسب التقرير الطبي الصادر عن إحدى مستشفيات اليمن.

زواج الصغيرات خطرٌ يحدق بكثير من المجتمعات العربية، فتيات أُجبرن على مفارقة طفولتهن باكراً إلى منزل زوج يكبرهن بكثير لا يعرفن من الحياة غير الدراسة واللعب مع الأصحاب، وهذا الزواج المبكر يعرض تلك الفتيات الصغيرات إلى تدهور شديد في الحالة النفسية بسبب الانتقال المباشر من حالة الطفولة إلى حالة الأنوثة الكاملة ناهيك عن الآثار الجسدية كحالات الضرب التي يتعرضن لها من قبل الأزواج وغيرها من الآثار التي لا يتصور الأبوان أنهما سيزفان طفلتهما الصغيرة إليها.

هناك عدة دوافع تجعل الأسرة تجبر طفلتها على الزواج في سنٍ صغيرة، فظاهرة زواج القاصرات من الظواهر المرتبطة ارتباطا وثيقاً بالظروف الاجتماعية والاقتصادية السيئة التي تعيشها الأسر الفقيرة خاصة في القرى، وهذه الظروف تلعب دوراً مباشرا في إضعاف العواطف الأسرية بشكل عام، وتساهم في دفع الآباء إلى بيع إحدى بناتهم بمقابل مادي! والحقيقة أن المجتمعات العربية تعاني من الفوضى في الأواصر الاجتماعية ولابدّ من صحوة شاملة حتى تعاد الأمور إلى نصابها‏.‏

أضف إلى هذه الدوافع هؤلاء الرجال الذين يمتنعون عن الزواج بالراشدة ويلجئون إلى الزواج بالصغيرة ظناً منهم أنهم يستطيعون السيطرة عليها وتربيتها على حسب هواهم بعكس الكبيرة التي لن تقبل أن يملي عليها زوجها كل ما يريد ومنها العلاقات الزوجية، هؤلاء يصنفهم الخبراء بأنهم شاذون جنسياً ويتجهون إلى الاستغلال الجنسي للصغيرات مقابل مبالغ مالية.

السؤال الذي يطرح نفسه هل وضع الآباء في اعتبارهم أن أي عنف تتعرض له “العروس الصغيرة” -والتي هي الزوجة والأم وربة البيت- وأي سوء تواجهه أو حتى يصدر منها تعامل فيه معاملة الأحداث استناداً إلى اتفاقية حقوق الطفل التي تعرّف الطفل أنه كل إنسان لم يتجاوز سن الثامنة عشرة ؟!! مما يجعلنا ندرك بأن زواج الصغيرات مستنكر للغاية وفيه هضم لحقوق الطفل وهذا ما لا يقبله لا دين ولا عرف، لذا يأتي تحديد الدول لسن زواج مناسب للطرفين تحقيقاً لصلاح المجتمع ودرءاً للمفاسد مع التأكيد على أهمية الأخذ بموافقة العروس التي تكون بكامل رشدها بالطبع والتي قد تجاوزت سن الطفولة فيكون تحديد سن الزواج ضمان لحقوقها، ويصبح الزواج فرصة ومكسبا للزوجة لا مطباً تقع فيه وتخسر نفسها وكينونتها، ومثل هذه القوانين تدفع نحو نهوض المرأة والمجتمع بشكل عام.

وأخيراً نختم بما ما صرحت به منظمة منتدى الشقائق العربي لحقوق الإنسان في اليمن “أن الطفلة إلهام هي شهيدة العبث بأرواح الأطفال ونموذج صارخ لما يشرّعه دعاة عدم تحديد سن الزواج من قتل يطال الطفلات الصغيرات، هذه الطفلة وغيرها تحولت إلى رمز يؤكد بشاعة الجريمة والمخاطر التي تنتج من زواج القاصرات اللاتي لا يدركن معنى الزواج ولا يعرفن أدوارهن أو حقوقهن القانونية ناهيك عن ضعف بنيتهن وإنجابهن أطفالا مشوهين ومعاقين ذهنيا لا تستطعن تربيتهم”‏.

لذا أصبح لزاماً وضع قوانين وتشريعات صارمة للحدّ من ظاهرة زواج القاصرات في المجتمعات العربية؛ لأنه بدون هذه القوانين والتشريعات لن يكون هناك فرق إن دفنا تلك العروس الصغيرة تحت التراب أم عاشت مقطوعة الأنفاس طوال حياتها فوق التراب.

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