Webster University Geneva hosted a Forum on Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) on Thursday, December 3, an auspicious occasion that also announced the launch of the new MENA Center for Peace and Development.

The one-day Forum, with interventions hosted via Zoom from renowned experts and moderators from across the MENA region, Europe and beyond, created synergies between women activists in the field, from academia, and international organizations in Geneva. (See below for links to full recordings of the panel sessions).

A keynote address from Professor Hoda El Sadda, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Cairo University, was followed by four high-level panels that shed light and analyzed the on-going struggles, challenges and threats to women’s status and rights:

  • The Role of Education on Women’s Empowerment and Mobilization
  • Feminism and Identity Politics: The Rise of New Social Movements
  • Women’s Rights Movements, Technology and Digitalization: Opportunities and Obstacles
  • Feminism and International Organizations in the Age of Covid-19: Reimagining the Future

Dr. Beth Stroble, Chancellor of Webster University, delivered an opening address by video to launch the conference. She highlighted that the Forum continues a longstanding tradition at Webster University, founded by and for women before women gained suffrage in the U.S., to champion the cause of access to quality education for women. Chancellor Stroble concluded by asking all to join the campaign against discrimination and violence against women and girls by signing the RedCardPledge online.

Dr. Clementina Acedo, Director General of Webster University Geneva, followed with the official launch of the new MENA Center for Peace and Development, sharing the importance of the University’s leadership in convening conferences on these and similar topics. She recognized the tireless efforts of the Founder of the MENA Center, Dr. Maryvelma O’Neil, as well as the vision, aspirations and impact that the new MENA Center aims to achieve. Dr. Acedo also referenced the important synergies between the Forum topics and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, and applauded the extraordinary gathering of expertise among the speakers on the conference agenda.

Keynote Address:

Hoda El Sadda

In her keynote address, Professor El Sadda presented a conceptual framework for what she called “contentious politics” relating to the status of women in Egypt and the Middle East. She explained that social media has provided the means to give visibility to women’s issues and concerns, for example, the use of Instagram to highlight the problem of sexual harassment and assault in Egypt. This compelled the authorities to react and conduct investigations on this matter. She provided a broad historical context to the issues of women’s rights and its evolution in the Middle East. She posited that the process of empowerment for women began during the 1919 Revolution in Egypt against British rule. Similar developments occurred in Lebanon and Syria during the interwar period between 1920 and 1939 where the French were the colonial masters. Even after colonial rule, in the post-independence era during the early decades of the twentieth century, women faced political challenges due to authoritarianism and the post-colonial legacy. During the 1950s and 1960s, independence and empowerment were progressively achieved in the public sphere, but not in the private sphere. The one exception she asserted was in Tunisia. The adoption and utilization of Islamic Sharia law has complicated matters for women. She argued that the decade prior to the 2011 Arab Spring was marked by political movements and demonstrations in which women played a prominent role and brought attention to the problem of sexual violence against women which was initially denied by the authorities. In the aftermath of the political changes in Egypt, women objected to the 2012 Constitution drawn up during the government of Mohammad Morsi. Subsequent to the removal of the Muslim Brethren from power, the efforts of women’s rights groups bore fruit with the new government granting equal rights to women and acknowledging the need to combat violence against women in the 2014 Constitution.

Panel I – The Role of Education on Women’s Empowerment

Salma Al-Nims

Madam Al-Nims spoke about the education of women in the Middle East but focused primarily on Jordan. In the 1950s, the right to education for women was enshrined in the Jordanian constitution. The aim of education was to have educated mothers, and women were considered appropriate for certain jobs only. Since the 1970s, the rise of political Islam has led to the Islamization of education which in turn has resulted in the control of women in the family sphere. Women’s education is not considered a worthwhile investment. However, girls outperform boys in high school and the university. Paradoxically, while women are highly educated, their economic participation is very low as men in the private sphere can deny women the right to work. The pandemic has led to decreased access to education for girls from lower class families due to the lack of access to computers for distance and online learning. Furthermore, child marriage is on the rise.

Fatima Sadiqi

Professor Sadiqi focused on higher education in women’s empowerment. Since the 1990s, graduate programs in women’s and gender studies have been introduced in Arab universities. The objectives have been to challenge people’s thinking, assert the role of women in knowledge production, and work on and develop feminist concepts and terminology. Furthermore, the aims of introducing these programs in Morocco were to democratize education, promote gender equality, institution building, attract students and enhance interdisciplinarity. The percentage of women faculty members and students is greater in universities in North Africa compared to the Middle East. In the Middle East, women’s studies programs first started in private universities while in North Africa they were initiated in public universities. In the former, the programs are more structured with links to domestic and foreign partners. In the latter, the programs have focused primarily on gender equality and family laws. Paradoxically, although women’s literacy is higher in the Middle East than North Africa, family codes and laws to ensure gender equality and protection of women are more developed in North Africa. For example, upon independence in 1956, Tunisia’s Family Law banned polygamy.

Asma Mustafa

Madam Mustafa spoke about the challenges of teaching girls in the Gaza Strip and the tools she uses to teach English. In 2009, she launched the Global Education Project enabling her students to speak via Skype and other online platforms to students in 35 countries. As a result, her students have learned to use technology in education, tell their stories (their challenges of living under blockade, violence, power outages, etc.) in English, conduct research, think critically, make decisions, and solve problems through games, in the process gaining more self-confidence. She discussed the difficulties of daily life in Gaza where 2 million people are crammed in a small area, electricity is unavailable for 16-20 hours a day, and teachers face challenges teaching crowded classrooms of up to 50 or more students. She emphasized the use of group work to solve problems.

Randa Siniora

Madam Siniora highlighted the fact that the situation in Palestinian society is quite complex with the occupation, patriarchal structures, restrictions on movement, the blockade of Gaza, and the lack of resources, facilities and infrastructure. Palestinian girls and women face numerous challenges such as oppression and suffer from violations to their human rights. However, the

Palestinian women’s movement is moving in the right direction in spite of the many obstacles and problems it faces. She underscored that education is highly valued by Palestinians in general. 22% of Palestinians finish their education. 45% of girls in the Gaza Strip and 36% of girls in the West Bank receive an education. Furthermore, 65% of university graduates are women. However, early marriage poses a major problem for the completion of women’s education. Only 19% of Palestinian women are in the labor market while 11% of Palestinian households are headed by women. In general, dropout rates are very high for both girls and boys as they work to help their families. Overall, the challenges faced are plentiful, but Palestinian women are determined to continue the struggle both on the national and societal levels.

Fouzi Mourji

In his presentation, Professor Mourji posited that the percentage of boys receiving an education at the high school and university levels is on average 10% higher than that of girls (89.2% versus 79.7% and 66% versus 55% respectively). He emphasized that drop out rates for children in elementary school are quite high (around 90%). Interestingly, literacy rates are higher among women than men in both urban and rural areas, and female students devote greater time to study and to do their assignments. He explained that 65% of violence against women is committed at home, mostly by husbands and male members of the family. Women who are educated and enjoy a better economic status are less prone to be victims of violence. Although, women represent a larger percentage of the work force in rural areas than in urban centers, in the former they are primarily employed in low-standing and poorly paid agricultural jobs. The percentage of divorced women who are in the labor market is greater than those who are married (46% versus 24%). While educated women have greater access to the labor market, the Covid pandemic has worsened gender inequality, diminishing women’s access to the labor market, healthcare and education compared to men.

Panel II – Feminism and Identity Politics. The Rise of New Social Movements

Asma Khalifa

Madam Khalifa asserted that in the immediate post-independence period, Arab nationalist leaders that took over dismissed social diversity in terms of ethnicity, religion, minorities and gender. The regimes tried to divide and rule people, including women. In the post-Arab Spring era, with the eruption of numerous conflicts in Libya, Syria and Yemen, the involvement of foreign powers has been prominent. She stated that the feminist movements have failed to connect regionally. She emphasized that the feminist approach has to be transnational and reflect intersectionality to transform power relations, to abolish hierarchies, and to address racism in the MENA region. The lack of flexibility and the intergenerational divide among women weakens social and political movements, like feminism. These need to be addressed. She highlighted that Kurdish women have been more successful in in operating transnationally in Syria, Iraq and Turkey.

Hibaaq Osman-Elkarama

Madam Osman-Elkarama explained that prior to the Arab Spring, Tunisia had historically had a better developed and established civil society compared to many other countries in the MENA region. Hence, the Tunisian Dialogue Quartet helped facilitate and ensure a smooth political transition process after the departure of Ben Ali. However, today, ten years after the events, Tunisia is still suffering from inequality, poverty, unemployment and corruption. She stated that

when mass movements turn into political processes, the position of women is often undermined. A notable example was in the Sudan after the 2018 Revolution. Women were overshadowed and marginalized. In Egypt, the Muslim Brethren and the Islamists took advantage of the political vacuum and tried to undermine and weaken the position of women. In general, building a national consensus is difficult before, during and after a revolution. The digital space was important, including for women, to enter the social and political processes. At the same time, technology is a double-edged sword as online platforms are also used to harass, intimidate and attack women. The situation has been acute particularly in countries plagued by conflict. She stated that foreign intervention in the region has exacerbated the situation. In conclusion, she believed that it is too early to assess the impact and outcome of the Arab Spring.

Panel III – Women’s Rights Movements: Technology and Digitalization

Hind Kabawat

Madam Kabawat discussed the plight of women in the decade long war in Syria. Many have been forced to flee abroad. She spoke about the multitude of problems and challenges that women face at present in Syria such as having access to minimal resources, early marriages, and radicalization and sexual violence due to the ongoing fighting. She described the program she runs for the empowerment of women. Although the number of participants is modest, there should be a long-term, positive impact on the lives of the women and Syrian society. She underscored that traditionally the culture for dialogue and debate was non-existent in Syria. Hence, part of the training program entails teaching and emphasizing empathy, resilience, peace building and mediation skills. It also focuses on tolerance, understanding and dialogue. Due to the necessity to go online because of the pandemic, the program reaches women of various backgrounds in Syria, from different religions, ethnic groups, regions and socio-economic classes. This is all a part of an initiative dealing with identity and dialogue. Unlike men who are focused on power, women try to think constructively and move forward toward building a better future. In the course of the program she runs, women share their experiences, lessons, knowledge, anguish, and disappointments. Power is ultimately derived from the people, not the leaders.

Anna Theresa Day

Madam Day spoke about the interaction of social movements in MENA and other regions of the world, and the intersection of technology and social movements. She highlighted the unprecedented use of technology and social media during the Arab Spring which inspired women all over the world. For example, the events in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt motivated women in the Gaza Strip, in the Congo and elsewhere. They were able to organize online for offline events to draw attention to problems such as sexual harassment internationally. She believed while these were key developments, their importance should not be overstated. She stated that internet penetration, innovation and increased private investment in the MENA region are contributing to the advancement of women. For example, in Libya, the new technologies have exposed the widespread problem of sexual assault. Overall, women’s education is more advanced in MENA compared to many other regions. One-third of all startups in the MENA region are by women.

Hayat Mirshad

Madam Mirshad explained that social media has enabled women activists to expose issues such as gender inequality and discrimination. Digitalization has provided opportunities for women who have been underrepresented to have a more level playing field and voice their concerns.

Digital media has been used as an advocacy tool to shape attitudes and link women’s movements. Since the beginning of the Covid pandemic, women have realized the importance of digital technology to continue their activism, maintain their networks, disseminate information and moblize. She cautioned though that technology is a double-edged sword. It can and has been used to intimidate and attack women and women activists. In Egypt and Lebanon, women activists have been penalized for their online activities. She emphasized that women are underrepresented in social media. She explained that not enough attention has been paid to digital literacy for women. New technologies can be used also to hold women back. For example, in Saudi Arabia a new application enables men to track women and their whereabouts.

Marwa Fatafta

Madam Fatafta referred to a UNICEF/ITU report on the digital divide between men and women. She works on the MENA region for an NGO that provides women access to digital technology. She underlined the fact that the internet has become a toxic place for women and members of the LGBT community. Their detractors share private information and photos online to defame and threaten them. She gave a number of examples in this regard. She mentioned a controversial Egyptian cybercrime law and the imprisonment of women activists in Saudi Arabia. The state in the MENA region often weaponizes social media to silence women, human rights and women activists, journalists and NGO personnel by gathering evidence to prosecute and jail them. She underlined that the human rights situation in the MENA region has deterioriated. Echoing many of the participants, she believed that the pandemic is a transformational moment for the women’s peace agenda, providing an opportunity for them to move forward and attain their objectives. She cautioned that the persistence of patriarchy and capitalism enabled them to delve into different aspects of women’s lives, and that social media companies should be held accountable since they are primarily motivated by profit, and not upholding human rights.

Panel IV – Feminism and International Organizations in the Age of Covid-19: Reimagining the Future

Zahra Langhi

Madam Langhi asserted that the Covid-19 pandemic hit the MENA region severely and exposed weaknesses and deficiencies in healthcare services and also the national and international institutions to manage such crises and emergencies, most notably the UN Security Council. For example, she highlighted the fact that it took four months after the eruption of the pandemic for the UN Security Council to call for a global ceasefire in all ongoing conflicts so attention could be focused on dealing with the pandemic and its victims. Even then, the relevant UN Security Council resolution was weak in terms of calling for transparency and data-sharing as key measures to fight the virus due to differences between the US and China. The pandemic has led to a halt in conflict resolution, political processes, and peace negotiations, and could furthermore reverse the limited gains made by women in the MENA region. In response, digital venues are being used instead to ensure progress and improvements are achieved. For example, women in Libya have called for “responsibility sharing” rather than “power-sharing” – often the focus of men’s attention. This crisis is a transformative moment and presents women with an opportunity to participate and play a key role. She stated that multilateralism needs to be reimagined, and emphasized the need to reform the UN and international organizations in view of the fact also that this year is the 75th anniversary of the creation of the UN. There have been many failures in ending conflicts and achieving peace. There is a need for greater international cooperation and the feminist discourse can play a significant role with new leadership centered around feminine values such as compassion, collaboration, empathy, trust-building, accountability and innovation.

Hafsa Halawa

Madam Halawa stated that the pandemic has led to women activists shifting their work and efforts online. Hence, more funding needs to be redirected to digital security to protect women as online activity has increased markedly due to lockdowns, restrictions imposed and other measures. Women who are engaged in dialogue and discussions on sensitive subjects need to be protected, especially women in conflicting areas. In Syria and Iraq for example, as civic space has shrunk, women occupy a louder space on social media and are gaining greater support and a wider following. She also pointed out the gender rights revolution occurring in Egypt since last summer, as women have tried to assert themselves and seek their rights. She reiterated that due to restrictions in the public sphere, social media is occupying a larger space. She also gave the example of the public outcry when women activists in Iraq were assassinated, most notably one in Basra. Authoritarian regimes in the MENA region have tried to use digital tools to thwart access and activism. She recommended that international organizations activate Track 3 to achieve progress and improvements.

Roueida El Hage

Madam El Hage explained that international organizations need to change and adapt in view of the pandemic. The Covid-19 pandemic is not only a health crisis, but also a social, humanitarian, human rights, economic and security crisis as well. It has highlighted inequalities between men and women. Its social and economic impact have created a crisis unparalleled in the history of the UN. The Secretary-General has advocated a comprehensive response to the pandemic by the international community, spearheaded in part by the WHO. He has also advocated women being a focus of these efforts in order to ensure substantive steps are taken and progress is achieved in the area of sustainable development. WHO has been called upon to improve health systems and to work on a recovery program. It is noteworthy that 70% of health workers worldwide are women who are exposed and vulnerable in view of the current pandemic and the challenges it presents.

Concluding Remarks Francis Piccand and Aili Mari Tripp

Francis Piccand

Professor Piccand stated that feminist movements are not a new phenomenon in the MENA region. They have been in an ongoing struggle for many years. Women face formidable obstacles in receiving an education and entering the job market due to social values. He identified a “crisis of citizenship” in some MENA countries which has implications for women’s rights. He attributed this to the origins of the historical, legal and political development of state-citizen relations in the MENA region. He believed patronage, clientelism and religion have blocked the development of citizenship. He questioned whether religion is promoting progress or maintaining the status quo. He thought the Arab Spring may have been a missed opportunity to advance the cause of women. There has been no major breakthrough as conservative forces have collaborated with repressive governments to block change. He highlighted that education is key to the advancement of women, but that huge disparities exist between educated and non-educated women in the region, He explained that the Swiss government should: 1) support feminist activism to promote democracy in the MENA region, 2) prioritize peace and security for women’s rights, and 3) help build coalitions on an international level.

Aili Mari Tripp

Professor Tripp stated there is a need to look comparatively at women in the MENA region and other regions of the world, and also the issue of intersectionality. There are lessons to be learned from women’s experiences in the Middle East. For example, women have played a role in peace building and security in Libya through the adoption of a people-centered approach. There are also differences between countries. In Morocco, secularists and Islamists have worked together to improve the legal status and rights of women. In contrast, in Algeria this has not been the case due to the “Black Decade” which pitted secularists against the Islamists. She emphasized that moments of social rupture can provide opportunities for social fluidity and progress as was in the case in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco after the Arab Spring and also in the Sudan after the 2018 Revolution. She explained that often countries in post-conflict situations achieve social progress. She also provided examples from other regions of the world, for example, with Finland being the first country in the world to have female members of parliament after the 1905 Revolution and women gaining the right to vote in many Western countries in the aftermath of the First World War. Switzerland by contrast, which did not experience any major crises or social ruptures only granted suffrage to women in 1971. The MENA region also contains paradoxes. Although Morocco has one of the lowest rates of women’s literacy in the MENA region, it has some of the most advanced legislation on women’s rights.

Prepared by Jubin Goodarzi and Maryvelma O’Neil, Co-directors, MENA Centre for Peace and Development.

20 January 2021