International Women’s Day, celebrated on 8 March each year, is a day to honour women and the struggle for women’s rights. Ahram Online speaks to three Arab feminists of different backgrounds on this occasion to explore some of the issues facing Arab women in the post-Arab Spring period.
What differences can be expected in the marking of International Women's Day in the Arab world compared to the West? Will Arab women march for their rights on this day? And if they do, will this improve the status of women in the Arab world?
Maysa Shawwa, Lebanese feminist and human rights advocate, wrote to Ahram Online in light of this day and said that International Women’s Day should honour all types of women.
Unfortunately, Arab women are only honoured in conferences and in forums; the “elite” and officials don’t really recognise what is happening outside the closed doors of such gatherings.
“I mean despite honouring women in official ceremonies, their rights are being breached by the very same officials who claim to speak in their names,” Shawwa states.
In Lebanon, Randa Berri, the wife of the speaker of parliament Nabih Berr and vice president of the National Commission for Lebanese Women, deemed useless to apply a law that criminalises marital rape, claiming such a case can’t be proven.
Her statement was made during the official launch of a campaign to fight underage marriage in Lebanon, on Tuesday, 4 March.
Arab women’s challenges, however, differ from one Arab country to another.
While Tunisia is moving forward towards achieving gender equality and ensuring women’s protection from violence, enshrining women's rights in its new constitution, Yemen is struggling with maternal mortality and with child marriages and with low levels of education for girls as well as with low economic participation of women. Yemen languishes at the bottom of the 2013 Gender Gap Index.
Political participation remains a significant challenge for women in the MENA region, with women occupying just 13 percent of parliamentary seats. This is a particular challenge for women in Lebanon where astonishingly not a single woman was in the prior Lebanese cabinet, while just one female was appointed in the newly formed cabinet.
“Current events don’t point to great gains for women in the advent of the Arab Spring,” Shawwa adds.
In Syria, women still get arrested, tortured, raped and killed in Bashar Al-Assad’s prisons. Many Syrian women refugees, meanwhile, are subject to sexual harassment and underage marriages.
In Egypt, women’s rights have deteriorated as the country heads towards a new period of military predominance in politics. Egyptian women are caught between sexual harassment, FGM practices (female genital mutilation), violence, and discriminatory laws.
Despite infringements on women’s rights in Arab societies, which remain highly patriarchal, civil society groups and women’s movements still voice their concerns and organise events to fight the injustices women face.
“Lebanese women will march on 8 March to demand a legislative session to pass the law to protect women from family violence with adequate adjustments in the aftermath of several cases of Lebanese husbands killing their wives,” Shawwa said.
Imane E Arouet
Imane E Arouet, Moroccan feminist living in France, wrote to Ahram Online marking the International Women’s Day by stating that this day is supposed to honour women all over the world, including Arab women, who face more challenges than women in the West.
“8 March is an occasion where we should make an assessment about women rights, especially after the Arab Spring,” Arouet added.
“We cannot say that the Arab Spring was bad for women; the Arab Spring is theoretically more progressive about gender-equality,” she said.
During the protests in 2011 and until now women were robustly active. They stepped up and spoke out and expressed their political views. Also, we must spare a thought for the women who got sexually assaulted during protests and continued to fight for their rights.
“Generally speaking, Arab women have to deal with two main problems: local misogyny and foreign patronising,” Arouet added. Let’s be honest, the Arab world is no “feminist paradise.”
There are many social issues that we must tackle and try to end, such as: street harassment, domestic violence, distribution of home and care duties, and forced or early marriages.
On the other hand, the Western world is very paternalistic towards Arab women. Especially towards Muslim veiled women. The West trying to fight for Arab women's rights is ethnocentric; it comes with the slogan "Let us free you; the hijab is bad for you, you just don't know it yet ... ”
“Finally, I know Arab women will participate in the marches for 8 March and hopefully, they will march for their rights the rest of the year as well, and try to face these challenges,” Arouet states.
Reem Al-Harmy, Qatari feminist and writer at Al-Raya, also wrote to Ahram Online on this occasion and said that in recent years Arab women have been under international attention, particularly in countries where women face severe circumstances — wars, protests, revolutions, instability, huge gender gaps, etc.
In addition, Arab women still face substantial discrimination from both governments and society. That varies from one country to the other. For example, in some Arab countries, especially in Gulf States, the government doesn't allow women to drive, even if their families allow it.
“In some other countries there are very high rates of sexual harassment and unfortunately some women fail to report it, fearing a societal backlash or just unfair treatment of her case. The Arab Spring changed women’s attitudes regarding this, but still women face many challenges,” Al-Harmy says.
“I don't think the uprising or the Arab Spring per se is bad; women were powerful enough to be part of these uprisings as they happened. They were outspoken, and just as capable of delivering their message as men,” Al-Harmy adds.
However, moving forward, after the excitement of the uprisings faded away, it seems that the people who are now in charge are doing nothing or very little to help women and promote their equality, rights and freedoms.
“It’s very important that women speak up and to get involved in such an event — it’s International Women’s Day!” Al-Harmy said.
“However, I am trying not to be a pessimist, but marching and calling out for demands without having the necessary tools to achieve these demands won’t change much.”
“Therefore, governments, NGOs and the international community, along with the support of people, must be united to help women reach their goals and to ensure they are given full and equal opportunities, so they can be active members of their societies,” Al-Harmy concluded.