2018 Cyprus Conference Write Up Women’s Rights in the Middle East
2018 Cyprus Conference Write Up Women’s Rights in the Middle East
The topic of women’s rights in the Middle East has become increasingly relevant in the face of political unrest and radicalized religious movements throughout the region. The protection of human rights rests on the assumption of equality between all peoples, regardless of identity. However, this assumption of equality is not yet offered to women throughout the Middle East, and the emancipation of women lags behind other human rights issues following the Arab Awakening.
Questioning this absence of progress, the Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in partnership with the Christian Academic Forum for Citizenship in the Arab World (CAFCAW) organized a conference, entitled “Women’s Rights in the Middle East Today: Law, Culture, and Religion.” Over the course of three days during a sunny weekend in November, more than 60 scholars, theologians, cultural leaders, activists, and politicians – the vast majority of whom were women — gathered in Adams Beach, Cyprus. Believing that the three factors of law, culture, and religion play a decisive role in the ongoing struggle for women’s liberation in the Middle East, they investigated the factors that impair women’s movement towards equal rights through presentations, discussions, and dialogues. By initiating this conversation, the conference aimed to form a nuanced and multifaceted picture of women’s rights in the Middle East today. Once the issues were outlined, the secondary goal of the conference was to propose innovative solutions to these issues. The conference was an unmitigated success.
Both the Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture and CAFCAW have demonstrated a long-term commitment to furthering women’s rights in Arab society. In fact, explained Dar al-Kalima’s Vice President for Development and Outreach Rana Khoury, “Diyar and the Dar al-Kalima University College began with a focus on women’s empowerment, raising awareness about personal status laws. The first international conference hosted by Dar al-Kalima, in 1996, focused on women’s political participation, especially in Parliament.” As a part of this commitment, Dar al-Kalima was one of the founding members of the CAFCAW initiative. CAFAW named the cause of women’s rights as an integral part of the path to full citizenship. In its founding document, “From the Nile to the Euphrates,” CAFCAW identified the empowerment of women as one of ten preconditions towards a better future in the Middle East. The background of these organizing institutions set the stage for a strong and successful conference.
Dar al-Kalima President Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb explained that one of the primary goals of the conference “was to gather some of the most articulate women in the Arab world who are passionate in promoting women’s rights.” The vast majority of the participants in the international conference were women from the region, namely Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Morocco, and Palestine. Several other participants from the United States and Europe, including Sweden, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom also joined the conference. Each woman was extremely accomplished, making great strides towards gender justice in their own contexts and environments.
All of the participants were eager to gather together and engage each other on a variety of topics related to the overarching theme. The conference provided an unparalleled opportunity to explore new perspectives, highlight the impact of women’s movements on democracy and human rights, and encourage interdisciplinary analysis with regard to Middle Eastern women. Many participants stressed the lack of such forums in their home countries as a key indicator of the struggles women in the region still face. Dar al-Kalima Vice President Rana Khoury named the gathering together of women from different backgrounds as one of the most important successes of the conference.
Participants were invited to submit papers that highlighted the role of women at the intersection of civic law, culture, and religion. Over the course of the three days of the international conference, more than 20 papers were presented by their authors, inspiring a weekend of dialogue and evaluation of the socio-political, economic, and religious contexts in the region. These papers laid out the varying perspectives of women of diverse backgrounds from the Middle East and examined them in the light of quickly changing socio-political contexts in the region.
A majority of the presentations highlighted the various challenges faced by women and girls in traditional patriarchal societies. These challenges spanned from economic limitations to parallel legal systems, and from lack of representation in the media to religiously inspired inequality. Together, presenters constructed an interdisciplinary vision of life as a woman in the Middle East.
Nada Anid, co-founder of Lebanese NGO Women in Front, opened the conference by speaking about her research in female participation in politics. Anid named the “continuous political upheaval and legislative inertia” due to long-delayed elections and government formation as some of the primary obstacles to full female participation in the Lebanese political system. “Women,” she says, “suffer from chronic underrepresentation in a country where everybody wants to be represented in all elected and designated bodies” (Anid 2). Despite high education rates, women continue to lack representation in parliament. According to Anid, accepting the principle of power sharing and exhibiting political will to enact change are key first steps towards true equality.
Young Palestinian Scholar Tala Raheb also explored the variety of factors that affect women’s liberation and equality. In particular, she examined the case of Palestinian Christian women, noting that all three aspects of their identity – as a Palestinian, a Christian, and a woman – affect their experience and effectively subjugate them. She further notes that it is essentially impossible to separate the three dimensions of law, culture, and religion within society. Just as a Palestinian Christian woman is affected by all three parts of her identity, so too do all aspects of her society affect her. In order to move forward, Raheb calls for a mixed-method feminist approach beginning with ethnography and continuing through historical examination and hermeneutics.
A number of participants also spoke about traditional journalism and social media as both spaces for women’s continued oppression and their liberation. Nisreen Zeineh noted that access to the media has allowed women a window into the world and a platform from which to speak about feminist issues and ideas. On the other hand, social media has also opened up a new realm of cyber violence and harassment against women. Likewise, Jordanian journalist Rula Samain observed that much journalism targeted towards women chooses to focus on lifestyle and fashion rather than promoting female achievement. According to both Samain and Zeineh, media of all types can be utilized to promote equality and emancipation for women.
Of particular interest to many participants in the conference is the intersection between religion and culture and their roles in the continuation of a patriarchal society that limits women’s freedoms. Several of the papers presented at the conference dealt with this topic in a variety of different ways. Heidemarie Winkel notes that “at first glance, the relevance of religion for the explanation of gender asymmetry in Arab societies seems to be evident. On closer examination, it becomes apparent that there is no simple causal relation between religious beliefs and women’s subordination. Instead it has to be taken into consideration that religion is strongly intertwined with cultural meaning patterns that shape religious action, perceptions and orientation in the world.” In other words, the socio-cultural norms and expectations surrounding gender roles and patriarchy shape social action and the structures of religious organizations, which in turn perpetuate the socio-cultural norms.
Scholar Frank Darwiche, a professor at Balamand University in Lebanon, examined the Islamic veil as one example of such a symbol of the intersection between religion and culture. In his paper, Darwiche claims that “the Islamic veil may be used to enslave or liberate the one who wears it.” In other words, the veil may be either an obstacle to or a path to liberation. It may be an obstacle to liberation when, as heritage and religious ideology, it is taken without question or when it is used to objectify the wearer. However, it may be a vehicle for liberation when it is worn in defiance of “empirical constraints” or when it is taken as an autonomous choice.
Along similar lines, Pamela Chrabieh and Nadia Wardeh noted that women are largely excluded from decision-making roles “within and across religious sectarian borders,” which reflects the predominantly male and patriarchal structure of religious leadership. Louna Farhat likewise asserts that state bodies in the Middle East made reservations in their ratification of the 1979 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) not for religious reasons, as the states claim, but for political reasons connected to cultural customs. Lebanese Lawyer Patricia Elias reflected on Lebanon’s failure to implement the CEDAW guidelines, noting particular injustices in the fields of personal status law, social security, and full political participation.
Clearly, based on these findings, religion and culture – especially as they relate to women’s rights in the Middle East – are almost hopelessly entangled. In large part, however, the researchers claim that the so-called religious teachings used to oppress women in the region are in fact cultural in nature.
Although the researchers highlighted many struggles and obstacles towards full equality, there also were critical pieces of hope. The conference drew attention to the progress that has been made towards the full emancipation of women in the Middle East. On the topic of religion, lawyer and ecumenical judge Scarlet Bishara presented her work on a new legal system for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL) which protects women’s rights in both personal and family law. This new legal system is far more progressive than the one it replaced and is the first of its kind in the region.
Churches for Middle East Peace, an American ecumenical advocacy group made up of more than 28 different institutions, also presented on their recent conference “And Still We Rise: Transforming U.S. Policy towards a Just Middle East.” This event highlighted the important contributions of women – in particular women from the Middle East – to peacebuilding efforts in Israel/Palestine. Women, according to the group, are playing an increasingly important role in the traditionally male sphere of conflict resolution. Churches for Middle East Peace stressed the importance of remembering and enhancing Middle Eastern women’s personal agency. Amplifying their voices is a key part of supporting women’s rights in the Middle East.
Finally, American activist Jenny Brown provided another example of how faith leaders can play a positive role in the emancipation of women. Presenting on the work of her organization, Side by Side, Brown highlighted movements across the world that show how faith can be, and already is being, used as a part of the solution to gender injustice, rather than part of the problem. One participant noted how hearing this perspective in particular was uplifting to her, as a note of hope in an often-disheartening conversation.
The conference concluded with a celebratory dinner and conversation session, where participants were able to engage with each other directly on the many ideas they had heard over the course of the weekend. One of the greatest successes of the conference was that women and activists from the Middle East were able to build new connections to each other, creating a network of support where ideas and experiences can be exchanged. Dar al-Kalima Vice President Rana Khoury also noted that “the contribution of young women was huge in the conference. The audience was in awe of how strong and eloquent and articulate these young women were about women’s issues.” The voices of the youth, especially young women, are often not heard in the Middle East, and these participants proved that they have something of great value to say and contribute.
All in all, participants agreed, the conference was an unqualified success. Commented one participant: “Once again, Dar al Kalima University College of Arts and Culture and CAFCAW have succeeded in challenging the intellect and establishing a dialogue between diverse identities and currents.” Dar al-Kalima President Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb noted that “It was eye opening to look at the situation of women in diverse Middle Eastern countries and to see what they have in common, but also what is specific to certain regions and countries.”
This conference is part of a larger series working to promote greater levels of civic engagement and civil rights. Together, it is the hope of Dar al-Kalima University College and CAFCAW to “empower full citizenship among all peoples in the Middle East: young, old, women, men, Arab, Kurd – everyone.”