The event has become an opportunity to call for advancing the status of women worldwide.
While some seize the occasion to call for tangible measures to improve women’s situation, others see it as merely a ceremonial event filled with the rhetoric of sympathy and love for women.
According to Amnesty International, women in the Arab world deserve more respect and dignity.
They are discriminated against and their potential and capabilities are usually ignored.
Beyond the need to increase the involvement of women in politics, it is crucial to create more economic opportunities for them and to strengthen social and legal protections if Arab states seriously want to achieve effective participation of women in public life.
Aljazeera.net spoke to Nicole Choueiry, Amnesty International’s press officer for the Middle East and North Africa, on the conditions of women in the Arab world.
Aljazeera.net: How does Amnesty international assess women’s rights in the Arab world?
Nicole Choueiry: Women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa, as in the rest of the world, are undermined by constant violations and acts of violence.
The experience or threat of violence affects the lives of women everywhere, cutting across boundaries of wealth, race and culture.
In the home and in the community, in times of war and peace, women are beaten, raped, mutilated and killed with impunity.
Amnesty International launched a worldwide campaign to Stop Violence Against Women (SVAW) in March 2004.
One particular focus of the campaign is the link between discrimination, particularly discriminatory laws, and violence against women.
Accordingly, one of its goals is to combat discrimination, particularly by campaigning for the reform of laws that discriminate against women, including in the Middle East and North Africa.
Do you think Arab women’s problems are different from women globally?
The common factor of violence against women all over the world is that it is a violence based on gender.
Every part of the world, including the Arab region, has its own characteristics and is marked by its own problems.
How do you assess the feminist movement’s work in the Arab world?
Amnesty International seeks to support the efforts of civil society institutions in the Middle East and North Africa and enhance their capacity to undertake more effective campaigning and lobbying on the rights of women.
Women’s rights movements and human defenders are to be credited with a lot.
It is thanks to this movement that women have been able to progress and win some rights.
Amnesty International believes that for real change to be effective it should come from within.
It is important to recognise and join forces with women’s groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who have been playing an important role in promoting, defending and upholding women’s rights.
It is thanks to such efforts at grassroots level that certain issues related to women’s rights are being put on the agenda today.
Do Arab countries respect international agreements on gender equality?
Several countries in the Middle East and North Africa have ratified international treaties that guarantee women’s rights, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women – CEDAW.
“Governments in the Middle East and North Africa have a duty to break the cycle of violence and discrimination against women by taking effective measures to address violence in the home, state inaction and discriminatory application of family laws”
This convention and its Optional Protocol remain the only international treaties devoted to the rights of women.
But many of these countries have made declarations or reservations that exclude or diminish CEDAW’s domestic applicability.
The majority of these reservations have been based on Sharia law, or incompatibility with existing national legislation.
Most of these reservations relate to the very purpose of the convention to eliminate discrimination and protect women from it.
Such reservations impede progress in ensuring that women enjoy their rights, including protection against violence and discrimination, and their ability to obtain redress from appropriate national mechanisms.
They would mean that discrimination against women is in effect sustained in law and practice, and deny women the protection against discrimination and violence.
This is particularly so, as national legislation in the region, including the religiously inspired ones, is often discriminatory against women.
If unchanged, these reservations have a direct impact on ensuring that women enjoy the rights that CEDAW was meant to guarantee, including protection from violence and discrimination, and undermine their ability to access justice or obtain redress through national mechanisms.
How do you describe the situation of Palestinian and Iraqi women?
Unarmed women and men both suffer human rights violations such as indiscriminate killings and torture.
However, women are subjected to certain abuses more often than men, and they suffer in particular ways.
Women and girls are more likely to be the target of sexual violence, especially rape.
Women face extra, sometimes insurmountable, obstacles to seeking justice, because of the stigma attached to the survivors of sexual violence, and women’s disadvantaged position in society.
Their role as carers, combined with higher levels of poverty, mean that the impact of war’s destruction weighs particularly heavily on women.
Amnesty International believes that to ensure lasting peace, women must be allowed to play a full part in all stages of the peace process.
In Iraq, women and girls live in fear of violence as the conflict intensifies and insecurity spirals.
Tens of thousands of civilians are reported to have been killed or injured in military operations or attacks by armed groups since the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
The lawlessness and increased killings, abductions and rapes that followed the overthrow of the government of Saddam Hussain have restricted women’s freedom of movement and their ability to go to school or to work.
Eight-year-old Iraqi girl Hanan
Women face discriminatory laws and practices that deny them equal justice or protection from violence in the family and community.
A backlash from conservative social and political forces threatens to stifle their attempts to gain new freedoms.
The general lack of security has forced many women out of public life, and constitutes a major obstacle to the advancement of women’s rights.
Under the government of Saddam Hussein, women were subjected to gender-specific abuses, including rape and other forms of sexual violence, as political activists, relatives of activists or members of certain ethnic or religious groups.
In the 1990s the mortality rate for pregnant women and mothers increased, and became one of the worst in the world for children under the age of five.
Since the 2003 war, women’s rights activists and political leaders have been threatened by armed groups and a number have been killed.
Women have been subjected to sexual threats by members of the US-led forces, and some women detained by US forces have been sexually abused, possibly raped.
Within their own communities, many women and girls remain at risk of death or injury from male relatives if they are accused of behaviour held to have brought dishonour on the family.
So called “honour crimes” are in effect condoned in Iraqi legislation, which allows the courts to hand down lenient sentences on the perpetrators.
Gender discrimination in Iraqi laws contributes to the persistence of violence against women.
In Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, the spiralling violence and killings in the past four and a half years has brought untold suffering to Palestinian women.
Since the beginning of the intifada (the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation), there has been an increased militarisation of the conflict.
This has resulted in a dramatic deterioration of the human rights situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with unprecedented levels of poverty, unemployment, and health problems.
Palestinian women have borne the brunt of the suffering but their plight has been largely ignored.
Women have also faced increased demands as care-givers and providers while at the same time their freedom of movement and action has been curtailed, and they have borne the brunt of the anger and frustration of male relatives who feel humiliated because they cannot fulfil their traditional role as providers.
What measures should be adopted to protect women from violence and discrimination in the Arab world?
Governments in the Middle East and North Africa should address the underlying social and cultural attitudes that discriminate against women and that facilitate and perpetuate violence against them.
Choueiry: Governments should
They must take effective steps to bring their laws, practices, policies and procedures into full conformity with international human rights law and standards, and ensure that they apply the principle of non-discrimination to all people, including women migrant domestic workers, on their territory and under their jurisdiction.
Among other steps, these governments should publicly condemn violence against women and pursue by all appropriate means policies to eliminate it.
They must not invoke any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations to eliminate violence against women.
They must also take all appropriate measures to protect the right of women to equality with men and to be free from all forms of discrimination.
Do you think that the Arab media is playing its role in promoting Arab women’s rights?
The media is playing a mixed role by creating a debate.
However, the media is responsible for reinforcing some gender stereotypes of women that contribute to the actual gender discrimination they are subjected to and encourage abuse.
By that they are adding to the problem rather than being part of the solution.
Amnesty International believes that responsible journalism, based on the knowledge and respect for human rights, could further and protect the human rights of women.
The media has a responsibility of challenging stereotypes and exposing violence against women by questioning certain practices and addressing women’s related issues in a responsible and gender-sensitive manner.
Which Arab countries have the best practices for promotion of gender equality and development?
Amnesty International does not rate governments or compare between their practices.
There have been some very positive signs, however, emerging from the Middle East and North Africa thanks to the efforts of the civil society and women’s groups.