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Fri 4 Mar 2011 10:50 AM

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Arab uprisings 'creating new opportunities for women'

Women's rights advocate believes protests bring hope for equal rights in region

Arab uprisings 'creating new opportunities for women'
A womens rights advocate believes protests in the Arab world bring hope for equal rights in the region.

Azza Kamel, a women’s rights
advocate in Egypt, said the popular uprisings in her country and its
neighbours are creating new opportunities for women.

“There was
no difference between women who were veiled or not veiled,” Kamel said
at the United Nations in New York, referring to the protests that ended
Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule last month. “The revolution created a land
as free for women as for men.”

Whether the
turmoil in the Arab world will yield progress toward full political and
economic rights for women is unclear, according to Isobel Coleman,
author of “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Woman Are Transforming The
Middle East” and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in
New York.

“It could go
either way,” Coleman said in an interview. “In a country like Egypt,
where you have powerful Islamist groups and a very influential
mainstream that appeals to Islam, women have will have to navigate very
carefully. The same is true in Tunisia.”

This week
Kamel and other women from the region took part in meetings that marked
the one-year anniversary of UN Women, the United Nations agency created
to promote women’s rights. They asked UN officials to help them solidify
gains and seize opportunities to end some of the world’s most
repressive laws and practices.

The 2009 UN
Arab Human Development Report said women “find themselves in a
subservient position within the family and receive little protection
from the legal system against violations inflicted by male family
members.” It cited sexual and psychological abuse, female genital
mutilation, forced child marriage and prostitution, and trafficking in
women.

“Help us
break the cycle of fear,” Nora Rafeh, a graduate student in political
science in Egypt, said after coming to New York from Cairo’s Tahrir
Square.

Former
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, the head of UN Women, vowed to use
her annual $500 million budget to help Arab women become more involved
politically and economically.

Bachelet said she wants Arab leaders to learn that every nation loses economically by failing to enhance women’s rights.

“It is a
great opportunity,” Bachelet said of the protests that have shaken
governments from Morocco to Iran. “This is a very important moment in
which the momentum won’t be lost.”

No woman was
named to the committee to draft a new Egyptian constitution, Coleman
noted, and she cautioned that democracy is likely to bring Islamist
groups into Tunisia’s political mix. Laws affecting women in Egypt and
Tunisia are some of the most progressive in the region, so there is
potential for backsliding.

Washington-based Vital Voices, which identifies and trains women with
leadership potential around the world, organized a four-day workshop,
sponsored by the U.S. State Department, in Amman, Jordan, last month.
The non-governmental organization was concerned enough about potential
retaliation against participants that it minimized advance publicity
about the sessions, held Feb. 20-23.

“We didn’t want to put the women at risk,” said Christine German, the Vital Voices regional program manager.

Khadija
Sarhi of Yemen said such precautions aren’t necessary now because the
atmosphere has changed, even in traditionally conservative Islamic
nations like hers.

“People are
more open now,” Sarhi said in a telephone interview after returning to
Yemen, where three weeks of protests have rocked President Ali Abdullah
Saleh’s regime. “We don’t know how far we will get with this, but it is
the best time for us to talk about our struggle.

Yemen is the
worst among 138 countries ranked on gender inequality indicators in the
2010 UN Human Development Report, which considers issues such as
reproductive health, educational attainment, and political and
labor-force participation. Saudi Arabia ranks 128th, Egypt 108th,
Morocco 104th, Libya 52nd, and Kuwait 43rd.

Sarhi and
Thuraya Dammaj, also from Yemen, are preparing a campaign for the
enforcement of laws that allow women to inherit the estates of their
husbands or other family members.

“Legally,
women can get the inheritance,” Sarhi said. “But in reality, because
they are women, family members take the money. No one talks about it. It
is like a taboo.”

The women
from Yemen said they plan to enlist imams, or Muslim prayer leaders, at
up to 10 mosques to support their position during Friday prayer
services.

The Arab
Human Development Report said even some nations that have signed and
ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of
Discrimination Against Women don’t adhere to its provisions when they
conflict with Islamic law, known as sharia.

Each group
of women at the Vital Voices conference is receiving a $25,000 U.S.
grant for their campaigns. In addition to Yemen, delegations came from
Morocco, Lebanon, Oman, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United
Arab Emirates.

“Across the board, from all of the teams, they said they thought things were moving in the right direction,” German said.