A women's rights activist from Jordan, during an İstanbul conference on women's empowerment in the midst of the Arab revolutions, told Today's Zaman on Thursday that such collaboration among women activists is not only beneficial but also crucial for gender equality in the region.
The conference, a joint venture between the Women Entrepreneurs Association of Turkey (KAGİDER) and the German foundation Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS), brought together activists, academics, opinion leaders and journalists from Turkey, Germany, the Middle East and North Africa at the Point Hotel Barbaros to discuss the advancement of women's rights as democratic uprisings sweep the region.
Dr. Lina Shabeeb, deputy dean of student affairs at the University of Jordan, said the sharing of experiences among women's rights activists like those during the “Arab Spring and Women” regional workshop is “necessary for building a good platform of agreement and support” among women's rights activists and opinion leaders. “That is what must be done before we deal with controversial issues. And that is what we are doing here,” she said.
Establishing a common ground among women's rights activists is crucial for effective organization, as the “opposition is strong,” Shabeeb warned following the first session of the workshop, which focused on the development of women's political rights.
As the activists and academics from various backgrounds, countries and ideologies shared their individual stories of success and challenges with one another, the differences among them seemed to melt away. “At the end of the day, we can learn from one another,” said Shabeeb as the women identified their similar concerns and hopes for the advancement of gender equality.
Professor Claudia Derichs from the University of Marburg in Germany, the moderator of the conference, said she may not be Muslim or from the Arab Spring region, but she does share at least one very important characteristic with the activists beside her. “I may be a Catholic from Germany, but most importantly I am a woman.”
The activists, while simultaneously highlighting impressive developments as well as setbacks, echoed the hope for a promising future even though they realized the road ahead is long and arduous for women in North Africa and the Middle East as they tackle rigid gender norms, discrimination and exclusion from political and social life.
Dr. Arzu Celalifer Ekinci, the Middle East and Iranian affairs expert at the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK) in Turkey, said gender inequality in the region is evident in every element of society. According to Ekinci, women make up one-third of the workforce in the Middle East.
The opinion leaders underlined the difference between women's overwhelming participation in the thrust of political upheaval and the regression in post-transitional periods. “In times of transition, people's ears get bigger. Leaders want to listen to everyone and promises are made. This is the most convenient time for women to stand up,” said Çiğdem Aydın, president of the Association for Education and Supporting Women Candidates (KA-DER) in Turkey. “Arab women don't miss it,” she urged.
“The greatest impact of the Arab Spring,” Ekinci emphasized, “can be seen in Saudi Arabia, where women were granted the right to vote and to sit on Shariah Councils.” This development is impressive, she continued, “in a country where women can't drive.” This means young girls will be able to grow up with the hope of having their voices heard in politics, Ekinci added.
The director of the NAHDA (“awakening” in Arabic) Network in Lebanon, Ceren Kenar warned that both secularism and political Islam can pose threats for the attainment of women's rights in the region. With the rise of Islamist parties in the wake of toppled regimes, Kenar said women's rights activists must work with Islamists, “which has not really been done up to this point.”
The participants brainstormed specific measures to increase women's political participation and representation. “I am not against quota systems, but they are tricky,” Derichs said of quota systems in legislative bodies, an issue also contested in Turkey. “In my opinion, the balance sheet is not as important as much as quality, that these women's voices make a difference,” Derichs said. She pointed to Afghanistan as an example, where she said a 25 percent quota for female deputies was put in place. “They had the seats, but at the end of the day there was no connection made among the women from different tribes,” she said.