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Organizing Women

The 1990s have been described as part of the ‘‘third wave of democratization,’’ and this process has seen the proliferation of civil society organizations. Much has been written about the expansion of human rights, environmental, development, and various political organizations that are said to make up civil society. Less has been written about women’s organizations and their relationship to civil society, the state, and democratization.

During the 1990s, the Arab world experienced the proliferation of women’s organizations—some explicitly feminist—in the region. In previous work I have identified seven types of women’s organizations: service organizations, worker-based organizations, professional associations, women-in-development (WID) NGOs, research centers and women’s studies institutes, women’s auxiliaries of political parties, and women’s rights or feminist organizations (see Table 5.5). The WID NGOs play an important role in fulfilling the development objectives of civil society: decentralized, participatory, and grassroots use of resources. In countries such as Bahrain, ‘‘women’s voluntary associations have come to form an integral part of civil society,’’ which is responsible for ‘‘initiating all organizations for the handicapped as well as institutions for modern education.’’21

It is the women’s rights or feminist organizations, however, that are the most significant contributors to citizenship and civil society. Such organizations are most numerous in North Africa, where they formed the Collectif 95 Maghreb Egalite, which was the major organizer behind the Muslim Women’s Parliament at the NGO forum that preceded the Beijing conference in September 1995. The Collectif (later 2000) formulated an alternative “egalitarian family code’’ while also pushing for enhanced social rights for working women. In Tunisia, feminist-oriented WID NGOs seek improvements in the quality of women’s working conditions, and the respected Centre for Research, Documentation, and Information on Women (CREDIF) conducts studies on women’s socioeconomic conditions and rights. In Morocco in 1995, a roundtable on the rights of workers was organized by the Democratic League of Women’s Rights, and a committee structure was subsequently formed, consisting of twelve participating organizations. The objective was the revision of the labor code to take into account women’s conditions, to

include domestic workers in the definition of wage workers and the

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Type/country

Algeria

Egypt;

Jordan

Morocco

Palestine

Tunisia

Service

organization

SOS Femmes en Detresse

Red Crescent Society

Noor al- Hussein Foundation

Association for Protection of the Family

Women’s

Health

Program

Tunisian

Mothers

Association

Professional

association

SEVE (women in business)

Women’s

Committee of the Chamber of Commerce; Medical Women’s Association

Professional and Business Women’s Association

Moroccan Association for the

Promotion of Rural Women

Palestinian

Businesswomen’s

Association

National Chamber of Women Heads of Businesses

Development research center or women’s studies institute

New Woman Research & Study Center; Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies

Princess Basma Women’s Resource Center

Center for Studies and Research on Women (Fez)

Women’s Studies Program of Birzeit University

Center of Research, Document. & Information on Women (CREDIF)

Women’s rights organization (or women’s press)

Egalite; Triomphe; Emancipation; Rassemblement des Femmes Democratiques

New Civic Forum;

New Woman Society;

Women’s Rights

Committee,

EOHR

Jordanian

Women’s

Union

SIGI/Jordan

Moroccan

Women’s

Democratic

Association

Al-Haq; Women’s Center for Legal Aid & Counseling

Assoc. of Democratic Tunisian Women

Women-in-

development

NGO

Association for Development & Enhancement of Women

Committee of Moroccan Women for Development

Women’s Unit, Bisan Research & Development Center

General

Association for Vocational Training and Prod. Families

Worker-based and grassroots women’s organization

ETUF Women Workers Department

Palestinian

Working

Women

Society

National

Commission on Working Women

Official

Women’s

Organization

Union Nationale des Femmes Algeriennes

National Council for Childhood and Motherhood

General

Federation of

Jordanian

Women

Women’s section of USFP

Women’s

Affairs

Technical

Committee

Union National des Femmes Tunisiennes

delineation of rights and benefits, to set the minimum work age at fifteen, and to provide workers on maternity leave with a full salary and a job-back guarantee. Indeed, more so than in Middle Eastern countries, North African feminists have developed a kind of social feminism, one that emphasizes not only the modernization of family laws but also the rights of women workers. This may be due to the different history and political culture of North Africa, which includes a stronger tradition of trade unionism and socialist and social-democratic parties.

Demographic, political, and economic changes are the internal factors behind the growth of women’s organizations, but global effects— including the UN and its world conferences—have been important as well. Women’s organizations from the Arab countries first met at a regional meeting in Amman, Jordan, in early November 1994. Sponsored by the UN’s regional commission for West Asia (ESCWA), as part of UN preparations for the 1995 Beijing conference, the two-week deliberations resulted in a document titled ‘‘Work Program for the NonGovernment Organizations in the Arab Region.’’22 That document summarized women’s conditions in Arab countries as follows: (1) women suffer a lack of employment rights and undue burdens caused by economic crisis and structural adjustment policies; (2) the absence of democracy and civil rights harms women especially; (3) there is inequality between men and women in authority and decision making; and (4) women suffer from violence, including ‘‘honor crimes.’’ The solutions offered were comprehensive. The document called for the immediate ratification and implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and a revision of all national laws that discriminate against women. It demanded ‘‘revision and modernization of the legislation related to women’s status in the family,’’ the insertion of the rights of the wife in the marriage contract, and ‘‘the amendment of nationality laws so that children can join their mothers and enjoy their nationalities.’’23 The document stressed the importance of legal literacy and free legal services for women, as well as the promotion of women judges.24

The cooperation of women’s rights and human rights organizations— especially in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, and Palestine—has been fruitful for the expansion of both civil society and citizenship rights. Two examples will illustrate this point. In Egypt, women’s organizations, human rights organizations, and some professional organizations collaborated to protest the imminent passage of a controversial NGO law. The women’s groups included the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, and the New Woman Research Center. A hunger strike and a sit-in were organized, mainly by

women activists. They included two women psychiatrists associated with

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the El-Nadim Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, a women lawyer with the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services, and a writer associated with the Forum for Women’s Development.25 In the second example of collaboration between human rights and women’s rights organizations, the First International Conference of the Arab Human Rights Movement took place in Casablanca, Morocco, on April 23-25. 1999. It issued a declaration that called for an end to the practice of torture; the need to respect freedoms of expression, assembly, and association; the realization of economic and social rights; securing citizens’ rights to participation, including guaranteeing public oversight of the public revenues of the state; and the recognition of women’s rights as an integral part of the human rights system. The declaration asserted that women’s enjoyment of human rights is an integrated and comprehensive process that should encompass all facets of life within and outside the family. It is worth quoting from the declaration in some detail, as it shows the promise of such cooperation, as well as the influence that the feminist groups seem to have had within the human rights community:

Real equality between women and men goes beyond legal equality to encompass changing the conceptions and confronting the stereotypes about women. Thus, it requires not only a comprehensive review of laws, foremost of which are personal status codes, but also the review and upgrading of educational curricula as well as the critical monitoring of the media discourse.

In this respect, the conference stressed the necessity of engaging women’s and human rights NGOs in the process of reviewing current legislations and in upgrading civil and criminal laws, with a view to resolutely confronting all forms of violence and discrimination against women. The conference also called upon the Arab governments that did not ratify (the women’s convention) to do so expeditiously, and those that ratified it to lift their reservations.

It also called upon women’s and human rights NGOs to work to refute these reservations, to challenge the culture of discrimination, and to adopt courageous stances in exposing the practice of hiding behind religion to legitimize the subordination of women. These NGOs were also charged with giving special attention to the continued monitoring of the compliance by Arab governments to their international commitments concerning women’s enjoyment of their rights.

The necessity of considering the possibility of allocating a quota for women in parliaments, representative institutions, and public bodies is a temporary measure. This should stand until appropriate frameworks for women’s voluntary activity take shape and until the awareness of the necessity of equality and the elimination of all forms of discrimination increase.26

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Building support for women’s rights within their countries and the favorable international climate have enabled Arab women’s organizations to register some legal and social gains. In Jordan, the criminalization of honor killings of daughters and sisters became a major social issue, a preoccupation for feminist lawyer Asma Khader (named minister of culture in 2005), journalist Rana Husseini, and other activists, as well as some concerned members of the Jordanian royal family. Initially, the state was timid in the face of a tribe- and kin-based social structure, but women’s groups and the Royal Commission for Human Rights pushed for legal reforms. In December 2001 the Jordanian cabinet approved several amendments to the Civil Status Law. The legal age for marriage was raised from fifteen for women and sixteen for men to eighteen for both, and Jordanian women were given legal recourse to divorce. New restrictions on polygamy require a man to inform his first wife of plans to marry again and to submit evidence of his financial ability to support more than one wife. As a result of an amendment to the penal code, perpetrators of honor crimes are no longer exempt from the death penalty (though judges are still allowed to commute the sentences of the convicted).

In Yemen, a woman was appointed state minister for human rights in 2001, and a successful campaign was launched against the ‘‘house of obedience’’ law, or the forced return of a woman to the matrimonial home. Yet much remains to be done. Feminists and human rights activists seek to insert an equality clause into the constitution (it was removed four years after the 1990 unification of the progressive South and the conservative North), to criminalize honor killings (the penal code currently exonerates a husband’s killing of his adulterous wife), to decriminalize sexual misconduct by women (90 percent of women prisoners are charged with adultery or similar sexual misconduct), and to change the electoral laws to allow for quotas for women candidates. Activist Amal Basha has explained that the strategy is to encourage ‘‘a progressive, enlightened reading of the Shari'a, one that hopefully is acceptable to religious leaders.’’27

Neopatriarchal states in the Arab region remain ambivalent about women’s rights, but circumstances, along with women’s collective action, can lead to policy changes. Algerian feminists have shown a most audacious opposition to Islamism—and to state autocracy as well—in a manner that cost a number of women activists their lives during the wave of Islamist terror in the 1990s.28 For this they were rewarded with government positions. Khalida Messaoudi, one of the leaders of the antistate women’s campaign in the early 1980s and the antifundamentalist women’s campaign in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was appointed advisor

to President Bouteflika after he assumed office in summer 1999. In sum-

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mer 2002 she became one of five women cabinet ministers—the largest number in MENA. When Bouteflika issued an amnesty to several thousands who had been jailed for terrorism, he initially acquiesced to feminist demands that Islamists guilty of rape be exempt from the pardon.29 Algerian women’s involvement in the judiciary has increased as well. In 2001, they constituted about 25 percent of judges, and President Bouteflika increased the number of courts headed by women.30 He also agreed ‘‘to the long and persistent demand of Algerian women’s organizations for the need to amend the Family Status code issued in 1984.’’31 Some reforms were adopted, though the Code still does not establish full equality within the family.

In Morocco, a quota to increase women’s political participation was adopted (mainly by the progressive parties), raising the number and percentage of women parliamentarians in the 2002 elections. What is more, the twelve-year struggle by the Moroccan women’s organizations bore fruit when a landmark reform bill to enhance the status of women in the family and society through changes in the Personal Status Code (Mudawwana) was passed by Parliament in early 2004.

 
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