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Shahnaz Taplin-Chinoy

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Who Is the Authentic Arab Woman?

Posted: 05/04/2012 10:49 am

"Democratic elections did not result in democratic actors who upheld women's rights," said Lina Abou-Habib, President of The Association for Women Rights in Development (AWID), encapsulating the Arab revolutions at the opening plenary of their 2012 conference. Two thousand women development activists participated in the Istanbul conference of AWID. The opening plenary zeroed in on a key question: "Who is the authentic (Arab) woman?" The concept of the true Middle Eastern woman is claimed, but contested, "by conservatives, extremists and development activists."

Other key facts focused on how women were hardly making progress towards redistribution of wealth, resources or a just and fair society. The 2011 Arab revolutions were placed in a historical context; coalitions were viewed as important as was the engagement of youth -- not just through Google -- but by exposing youth in these challenging times to seasoned voices from the women's movement.

Angham (Nos el Doniya) "Needless to prove, I am half the world."

"Gender equality must become a lived reality" said Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director, UN Women in a video message. Bachelet, former President of Chile, cuts to the core in her address: "I am often asked: What does it take to make economic change for women?" She responds: "Laws advancing women's rights, equal opportunities and equal access." For women to progress, Bachelet highlights the need for: "Equal access to resources, assets and markets as well as human rights." It takes time to build coalitions and alliances to move an agenda forward, explains Bachelet, but she also says, "it takes political will."

The AWID conference provided a good mix of new perspectives and dynamic participants. One of the highlights was AWID's release of an insightful report, "Towards a Future without Fundamentalisms: Analyzing Religious Fundamentalist Strategies and Feminist Response," with key findings below:

  • 76% of women's rights activists surveyed by AWID say the strength of the fundamentalists has increased in the last decade and 60% feel it has increased in the context of their work.
  • 8 out of 10 women's rights activists say that religious fundamentalism has negatively impacted women's rights specifically in health and reproductive rights, family laws, public participation, economic rights, reducing women's autonomy as violence against women increased.
  • Two thirds of activists surveyed view the impact of fundamentalism as being more obstructive of women's rights than other movements. Therefore, it is not surprising that women have taken the lead in resisting fundamentalisms: 79% of the activists feel that women's organizations and the women's movement has been at the forefront of challenging religious fundamentalism.

Speakers and advocates at the conference provided key insights into how local cultures and women in particular are impacted by the fundamentalism which is sweeping the world.

Zainah Anwar at Sisters in Islam -- A Voice for Change in Malaysia is someone I was thrilled to see again. I have tracked and admired her work for many years. Zainah is a pioneering advocate who has fought indefatigably for more than twenty years to preserve and advance the rights of women in Malaysia. She fights polygamy, advocates for Muslim women's rights to divorce and defends women's rights broadly.

I reconnected with Jamila Afghani, who conducts imam trainings in Kabul and Jalalabad to combat domestic violence against women. She re-inspired me and had me all choked up as she explained her latest ordeal with a Taliban blast in Kabul just prior to her departure.

The bomb blast occurred with Jamila, her 5 year old son and her husband being in three different locations. Uncertain about life and death -- they all waited to reconnect with each other on their cell phones. Jamila was understandably shook up and ambivalent about participating in the AWID conference, but her husband packed her bags and encouraged her to attend the conference -- which she did like a good trooper. Jamila is one of my icons. When I asked how she could possibly attend the conference in the immediate aftermath of her emotional ordeal with the bomb blast experience, she said without hesitation "but I have to go on." I applaud Jamila for her courage and commitment to the women in her community. We then got down to the basic issues of life for Afghani women who lack access to safe sanitation and public toilets in their daily lives and what Invest in Muslim Women could do about this challenge. Stay tuned, more later.

The other very special woman I saw is one of my heroines, Jodie Evans of Code Pink based in Los Angeles -- ever the crusader, an advocate for enlightened policies and peace. She gave me a strategic but caring pep talk on how activists need to feed their souls and take their breaks -- so they can move on to the next battle they must fight! She reiterated her offer to help Invest in Muslim Women because, she said, "I believe in your idea to reach Muslim women through a faith based lens." Jodie is the best.

Stay tuned for highights from AWID's report, Towards a Future without Fundamentalisms in the next blog:

*AWID has also produced two earlier reports: "Religious Fundamentalisms on the Rise: A case for action" and "Shared Insights: Women's Rights Activists define religious fundamentalism."

This blog is inspired by Khadijah, Prophet Muhammad's first wife. Khadijah is the quintessential role model for Muslim women. She was the first convert to Islam, the first Muslim woman entrepreneur, a globalist and a feminist.

 
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