There is a wide diversity in the Arab world when it comes to women’s rights and the interpretation of the Sharia. But also when it comes to the space for civil society organisations to act independently. That became clear during a two-day international conference in The Hague, entitled ‘Dreams of Arab Women’s NGOs’.
The conference, funded by Linkis/Oxfam Novib, was organised by the ‘Arabisch Nederlandse Vrouwen Kring (Arab-Dutch Women’s Circle)’ to bring Arab women’s organisations from different parts of the Arab world and the Netherlands together to share positive developments and common challenges.
Noting the diversity in the Arab world, the conference speakers identified the positive development in the relations of Arab governments with women’s organisations. Increasingly many Arab women’s organisations are invited by their governments for consultations and are seen as legitimate players in civil society. Women’s organisations in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, for instance, work on issues addressing women’s practical needs such as maternal and child healthcare and education. But they also address issues of strategic significance, such as nationality (in some Arab countries women either lose their nationality or cannot pass it on to their children when they marry a foreigner), honour crimes, incest, marital rape and sexual harassment on streets.
Partners in change
Some of the participants noted the greater importance of claiming women’s rights in the framework of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights rather than looking for different interpretations of the Sharia. Most of the Arab states are signatories to various human rights treaties and it would serve women’s organisations better to lobby states to fulfil these obligations. One of the important challenges faced by women’s organisations in the Arab world is that of increasing their support-base by mobilising women in their societies and engaging with men, seeing them as partners in change.
At the same time, women’s organisations have to be ready to battle political and religious orthodoxy. It was also noted that most Arab constitutions guarantee equal rights to men and women, but somehow the laws are not in the same vein. And anybody who claims that such laws are based on the reading of the Koran needs to take a good look at the diversity within the Islamic world – from Tunisia (progressive on women’s rights) to Egypt and from Indonesia to Saudi Arabia.
Source: Oxfam Novib