Arab Women Savor Patches of Political Progress

To what degree can democracy be achieved in countries where
fifty percent of the eligible population is denied the rights of
citizenship? Participants in a three-day conference on the progress
of women in the Arab world gathered together both to acknowledge
achievements and to ask this question in Beirut last week. They
maintain that democracy and a safe and civil global society will
only be possible when women have attained more rights and freedoms.
Outlined during the conference was the need to protect women from
extremist trends that make violence a feature of everyday life,
whether psychological, political, or physical.

400 Arab female ministers, parliamentarians and nongovernmental
representatives attended the conference, which is part of a series
of ongoing meetings among women in preparation for next year’s
reckoning with the ten-year anniversary of the Beijing Platform for
Action, a United Nation’s document adopted in 1995 that promulgates
women’s rights as human rights. It asks nations and nongovernmental
agencies to report periodically to the U.N. on twelve key
conditions affecting women: poverty, education, health care,
violence, armed conflict, economic equality, human rights, media
treatment, management of natural resources and discrimination
against girls.

Other meetings will convene in Ethiopia, Bangkok, and Mexico
City.

Efforts sparked by the Platform have taken the form of voter
registration drives, such that 38% of Afghanistan’s 5.6 million new
voters are female. But these reforms often incite hostility and
backlash. Last week, female voter registration officials were
killed while registering women voters for the upcoming election.
According to the 2002 Arab Human Development Report, female
education in the Arab world has improved faster than in any other
region in the globe, but the margin for improvement is much
greater.

In terms of representation in government, women in both Iraq and
Afghanistan must share at least 25% of the seats in their new
National Assemblies. Morocco’s Secretary of State at the Ministry
of Social Development, Yasmina Badu, hailed last year’s passage of
the Family Code Law, which raised the legal age of consent to
marriage for women from 15 to 18 (it was always 18 for men), and
allowed women to initiate a divorce. In addition, polygamy was
thwarted (though not eliminated) as a Moroccan woman now has the
right to accept a marriage only if her intended agrees informally
not to take further wives.

In addition to political gains and addressing grievances,
attendees could find artwork and films showing the history of
women’s movements in the Arab World. But for many, it is not the
political or the factual but the human connection that is the most
empowering aspect of these meetings.

‘The most important part of these conferences is the networking
aspect,’ says Afkhami, the Iranian-born activist who now lives in
exile in the United States. ‘There is an extraordinary value in
connecting people together. Some may consider this a side benefit,
but to me it’s a major one.’
Elizabeth Dwoskin

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