EGYPT: Networking For A Purpose
In order to enhance the performance of the women rights' organisations in Egypt and the Arab world, a three-day conference was organised by German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) and the Network of Women's Rights Organisations (NWRO) in Cairo last week. The conference discussed concepts, contexts and challenges for collective work by women rights' organisations in the region.
Roland Steurer, director of GTZ Egypt, said that the conference was an Egyptian-German initiative in the context of GTZ's work on promoting gender equality. "We hope to receive larger support from the German government for our activities, and we will conduct a dialogue with the officials next June to have that aid," she said at the inauguration of the conference.
Women's rights' activities have existed in Egypt and the Arab world outside the state system through philanthropic activities since at least the early 1900s, according to Margot Badran, a senior fellow at Georgetown University in the US. She listed the role of early 20th-century activists like Malak Nasef and noted that feminist activists in the Arab world had been developing networking skills over a long period.
Today, "new challenges require using the Internet as a means of boosting collective work between organisations in order to encourage further results," said Badran, though the use of the Internet in this role was also questioned by Farida El-Nakkash, a journalist and NWRO member, who told the audience at the conference that the Internet was currently only used by elites in the Arab world.
"Women in the Arab world are facing various significant problems, including the patriarchal system that places women in a subordinate class, the aggressive capitalism that has spread throughout the region in recent years, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Arab societies," said El-Nakkash.
However, Yoginder Sikand, a professor at the National Law School in India, said that in his country certain interpretations of Islam were not a source of concern for women. Instead, Indian women were being held back by social, cultural and political issues, he said. Muslim women in India wanted to preserve and protect their Islamic identity, he added.
Later in the conference, Ebba Augustin, principal consultant for the GTZ project, presented framework requirements for networking women's organisations in the region. These included the statement of clear and concise goals, locating points of strength and weakness, resilience, a strong secretarial system, and the ability to be flexible.
Calls for associating organisations other than feminist groups were made, including organisations from the private sector, media workers and experts from other fields. "We have to include other social interests to achieve authentic results; otherwise, we will just maintain existing strengths," said Assma Kader, a representative of the Women's Learning Partnership.
The conference also raised the importance of learning from successful models of networking, with Afaf Marei, a representative of CEDAW (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women) in Egypt, presenting previous achievements in various fields.
These included reforming the nationality law by granting nationality to those who have an Egyptian mother, reforming employment law, raising awareness of the CEDAW international convention, and approving the women's quota of 64 seats in the country's parliament.
Models of networking for the rights of women from different countries were also presented, such as the ANARUZ network in Morocco, which aims to combat violence against women, and the WLUML network (Women Living under Muslim Law) that assists non-Muslim women living in Senegal and the Western Sahara.
Egyptian models of networking were presented. According to Maree Assad, head of the country's Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Task Force, "we succeeded in bringing the issue of FGM to the table, which was an achievement since it was taboo to discuss FGM in Egypt in the past. However, today we are able to run campaigns against it every week, and our efforts are continuing."
Other successful experiences of fighting FGM in Africa were presented by Tarine Bien-Aime, a representative of Equality Now from the UK. An effective network should deal with movements able to reach the grassroots, in order to move human rights forward, Bien-Aime said, adding that she hoped that such a model could be implemented in Egypt.
There was extensive media interest in the conference. Mona El-Serafy, executive director of Media Arts for Development (MADEV), said that her organisation trained young people in producing professional films and film clips. She called on the different organisations to send their youth activists to MADEV to be trained on how to produce media messages for promoting human rights.
A short film entitled Man's Shadow was shown, which depicted how society promotes women's submission to men and called for gender equality in rights and responsibilities.
Using the Internet was promoted by many participants as the best way of networking between different organisations and as a way of reaching out to young people. Such new forms of media are important, including new social networks like Facebook and Twitter, because they are a way of reaching new audiences, said Nadine Moawad, a representative of the Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID).
Four working groups were set up on the third day of the conference to discuss legal reforms, youth issues of gender equality, violence against women and the role of the arts and media in promoting women's rights, the participants including activists and feminist organisations from Egypt, the Arab and Islamic World and international figures from the United States, India, Germany and Senegal.
"The international researchers and representatives are experts in the Middle East's social affairs, or represent Islamic communities that face similar problems," said Marwa Sharafeddin, a gender consultant at GTZ and a PhD candidate in law at Oxford University.
The conference recommended reforming personal status laws in Arab societies, in order to make them more in line with realities on the ground. Similarly, young people should be encouraged to become involved in the issue of women's rights, involving them in the decision-making of feminist organisations.
Other recommendations included encouraging the private sector to participate more in feminist activities, engaging men in efforts towards gender equality and combating violence against women, increasing the role of the arts and media in promoting women's rights, establishing regional networks and cooperating with feminist NGOs around the world, and learning from previously successful models of feminist networks.
Sharafeddin told Al-Ahram Weekly that NWRO was currently working on amendments to Egypt's personal status laws, adding that a report would be submitted to officials and published within a few weeks, concentrating on promoting the values of equality, justice and respect for human dignity between men and women.
The report was not only concerned with women's rights, but was also interested in men's and children's rights as well, she said. "We are concentrating mainly on issues of marriage, divorce, engagement, maintenance, obedience, polygamy, shared wealth, custody and ro'ya (the right of divorced fathers to see their children). We are calling for grouping these diverse provisions within one unified family law that will promote equality and justice between men and women."
Sharafeddin added that the NWRO drew on real problems and an enlightened interpretation of Sharia law in drawing up its recommendations. "Most activists in the network are religiously observant, whether Muslim or Christian, and many of them insisted on the fact that the Sharia should be the basis for any amendments, alongside international human-rights conventions."
She explained that the organisation had consulted with religious institutions and figures to promote the idea that Islam calls for equality between men and women, these including the Ministry of Waqf (Islamic endowments) and the Musawah movement that calls for equality within Muslim families.
The work of scholars such as Abdel-Moeti Bayoumi, a professor at Al-Azhar University in Cairo and a member of the university's Institute of Islamic Research, was also important, Bayoumi's work stressing that a man's kiwama, or stewardship, of woman and family was conditional and could be shared with his wife.
"We are seeking ways to gain the support of religion in solving issues of inequality and injustice between men and women in our society, because the personal status law in Egypt is based on the Sharia and Islam calls for equality," Sharafeddin said.
The idea of forming the NWRO had come after a study conducted in 2004 that recommended forming a network to promote collective work in the field, she said. The network had begun with six associated NGOs and now had 11. The first topic addressed had been the issue of informal marriage, with work concentrating on raising public awareness and trying to find a legal context for regulating the problem.
Sharafeddin said that the conference was the first in the Arab world to promote collective work in the field of women's rights.
"The conference came at this time because we want to increase our collective work in general. Planning our advocacy strategy to amend the personal status law is also an essential part of the agenda. It is a big challenge to introduce the new family law, which is why it is very important to work collectively," she said.
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