Feminist Perspectives: Thoughts from Movement Builders in Africa

Yunqing Han

VOICE Amplified recently hosted a webinar named “Feminist Movement Building,” which featured activists Sally Mboumien Maforchi and Aisha Yesufu. The former serves as the Cameroonian director for COMAGEND, an organization promoting sexual and reproductive health and rights. The latter is a leader in the movement Bring Back Our Girls, which works for the return of schoolgirls whom Boko Haram, an Islamist extremist organization, has kidnapped in 2014 in Borno State, Nigeria.

During the event, the panelists shared their perspectives on feminism and activism. Aisha points out that while girls are expected to be “the mature ones” in childhood, women are rarely given chances to lead. She highlights that feminist movements are not about asserting female dominance. Instead, leadership is gender neutral and activism simply attempts to establish that notion, as we try to shift away from a patriarchal society.

Sally emphasizes the role of women in peacemaking and contends that women’s resolution of conflicts often involves the forgiving of conflicts that harmed women the most. She believes that feminist movements’ focus on love is the right path to settling regional issues. 

When asked about the biggest obstacle to mobilizing women for social work, both activists agreed it involves leading women to question their past beliefs. Patriarchal societies often educate girls with notions of feminine docility and inferiority, and many repeatedly taught these performances would lead to their acceptance. Feminist movements’ actions can appear as odd or indecently bold in the eyes of many due to the boundaries they push and the active upending of stifling gender binaries. 

Moving forward, Sally and Aisha emphasize the need for more violence-awareness campaigns, funds (and not just lip service) from donors and organizations, and civic engagement from the masses. With all of these pieces working in tandem, we can hope to see steady changes toward a world unbridled by limiting, violent frameworks of the patriarchy – all while we actively prioritize women’s leadership.

Exporting the War on Terror: Islamophobia in Asia

Rutgers Center for Security, Race, and Rights held an online event on January 27th, 2021 entitled, “Exporting the War on Terror: Islamophobia in Asia”. The speaker, Professor Khaled Beydoun, focused on the discrimination of Muslims in China and India.

Professor Khaled Beydoun is a speaker at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville School of Law. He is also a Senior Affiliate Facility at University of California – Berkeley. He has written a book named American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear and can be seen occasionally in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Times Magazine.

India is home to the second largest population of Muslims behind Indonesia. India has recently had a new political party called the BJP who runs on a platform of Hindu supremacy. Some newly implemented laws allow for religious extremists and discrimination against Muslims, which disproportionately affect women. These new citizenship laws are particularly stacked against women who have been historically barred from land and education, making it nearly impossible to prove citizenship. In the latest Global Gender Gap Report, India failed nearly all gender equality indicators. Muslims do not have the right to pass citizenship to their children. India discriminates against Muslims although they are not a minority. Women’s rights are slowly being improved by access to education and the internet. Muslim girls are more likely to attend school in poorer families, in comparison to their male counterparts, than in richer families. 

The Uighur people, a Muslim ethnic group that lives in the Xinjiang Region, also known as East Turkistan (where they have no territorial autonomy) is experiencing a silent genocide at the hands of the Chinese government. In 2016, the government leaders enacted strict and violent policies, such as the strike hard campaign, against minorities that lead to mass arrests, sending them to prisons or concentration camps. In some cases, non-Uighur people were sent to live in Uighur houses to watch them. The government has worked on increasing digital surveillance for small things such as eating halal meat. Many other countries have refused to acknowledge the genocide and the violation of human rights. Uighur women are subjected to forced pregnancy checks, medication that stops their menstruation, forced abortions, and surgical sterilization. By decreasing the births of the Uighur people, the government is essentially seeking the eradication of these people. 

The United States can be pointed to as the creators and framer of the War against Terrorism and the xenophobia that has underpinned its policies and actions since. The government has implemented harsher laws against Muslims and has normalized constant surveillance on all Arab Countries. George W. Bush spoke with China and India leaders to ask them to join the war against terror. The US needs to acknowledge this genocide and China’s ongoing violations against human rights. A strong show of support remains unlikely, as China and the US could risk their economic relations. We continue to imagine and work toward a world where the protection of human beings is at the center of global politics.

The Arab View on Global Powers & Why They Matter to Feminists Outside the Region

On January 28th, the Arab Barometer hosted a webcast discussing the Arab countries’ perception of regional and global powers. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and limited funding, their survey currently only covers Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, and Libya. However, results already demonstrate regional trends.

  1. China viewed as more favorable than the U.S.

With rather tense international relations between Arab countries and the U.S. in recent years, less than 30% of surveyed citizens of the six countries view the U.S. favorably. Libya, in particular, reveals a minimal approval rate of 14%. On the other hand, respondents from all six states express a 30-60% favorability rate for China. The U.S. leader at the time of the survey, Donald Trump, is also less popular than the Chinese Chairman Xi Jinping. The former has the most support in Libya (18%) and the latter in Algeria (42%).

Differences in approach to diplomacy and business in the region perhaps caused this contrast of popularity. As a state that has been affected by various foreign spheres of influence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, China pitches the doctrine of non-interference in its foreign policy. It emphasizes “win-win relationships” and “mutual respect” as its diplomatic rhetoric. This can easily win over Arab countries, many of whom have had unpleasant history with actions spawned by the U.S. “humanitarian interventionism.”

The COVID-19 pandemic may have also increased China’s popularity. Countries in the region witness contrasting policies in China and the U.S. that led to different case numbers and death tolls. More importantly, several Arab countries like Jordan, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt have recently received China’s COVID vaccine, while European countries and the U.S. have been stocking up their vaccines for domestic use. China’s vaccine diplomacy may have won popularity in the region.

  1. European firms are preferred over both.

While China is witnessing surging popularity in MENA, German and French firms are still more approved than their Chinese and American counterparts when it comes to business. Germany consistently occupies the largest or second largest market shares in all six countries. French firms’ popularity varies interestingly: in certain past colonies (Algeria), they have little footing, while in others (Lebanon) the lack of language barrier leads to bigger market shares.

  1. Regional powers’ influences. 

Turkey and Russia are “significantly more popular” than the U.S. Russia’s popularity could be attributed to its reentrance to the Middle East since its intervention in the Syrian conflict. However, it still remains less approved than China, and Putin is less popular than Xi. Turkey proves to be more favorable than Russia, except in Lebanon and Libya, probably because of intervention in their conflicts.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are two other regional powers evaluated in the survey. As expected, Saudi Araba turns out more popular than Iran, which is not an Arab country (Iranians are mostly Persians) and is majority Shia while most other Muslim countries are majority Sunni. Iran has also intervened in several conflicts in the region, causing some Arab countries to perceive it as a threat.

However, the Arab Barometer’s poll does not reveal people to think of Iran as a great threat. Surprisingly, except in Lebanon, where 21% of the surveyed citizens believe Iran is the greatest threat to stability, 2% or less respondents from all other countries hold the same belief.

On the other hand, the U.S. seems to pose a greater danger in Arab people’s perception. 4% or more individuals from all six surveyed countries state the U.S. as the greatest threat to their stability – twice the percentage that believe Iran to be the greatest threat – with Lebanese people the most skeptical at 15%.

  1. The Abraham Accords is not well-liked. Biden’s popularity fares better than Trump’s. Except in Lebanon.

The Abraham Accords is brokered by Donald Trump and normalizes the relationship between Israel and the UAE and Israel and Bahrain. According to the Arab Barometer’s poll, all the surveyed nations demonstrate less than 10% support for the Abraham Accords except for Lebanon, which showcases 20% agreement. This is due to the state’s Christian minority, who shows a 50% approval rate while the rest of the population only demonstrates 11%.

Interestingly, Lebanon is also the only of the six countries that supported Trump over Biden. Some Lebanese people believed that Trump could effectively contain Iran’s nuclear threat. Trump’s Lebanese supporters are mostly Christians, but there are Muslim supporters who approve his “strong” stance against ISIS and terrorism and are willing to overlook the Muslim travel ban. Biden is more well-received in all five other countries, potentially because of his softer stance towards the region.

Do these polls on Arab public opinion matter, especially to feminists outside the region who just want to advance women’s rights there? Definitely. The survey is not conducted by the basis of gender, but anyone living outside the MENA region interested in advancing women’s rights there should understand the contexts these women are living in.

From there, we can better comprehend these women’s thoughts, priorities, and even what “women’s rights” means in their context. The point of activism outside one’s own country is not to force one’s own moral standards onto another society (i.e. to satisfy one’s own savior complex), but instead to provide assistance as an equal peer for goals that people in the region themselves want.

LGBTIQ Community in Times of Crisis in Lebanon & Syria

In a society where restrictive conceptions of masculinity and femininity pervade all aspects of one’s life, as most societies in our world today do, navigating queer identity can be a complex and emotionally challenging experience. Existing outside of the role one has been prescribed in their society is made particularly challenging within historically oppressive contexts. In a webinar hosted by the Gender, Justice, and Security Hub on January 26, 2021, entitled “LGBTIQ Community in Times of Crisis,” Charbel Maydaa, Becca Potton, Caroline Chayya, and Henri Myrttinen discussed their research on the impact of the Syrian Civil War and the Lebanese Revolution on LGBT people in Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey.  

Over the course of the webinar, the researchers gave two slideshow presentations, which highlighted the background and key findings of their research, showed two documentary films they had created, and held question-and-answer sessions so that attendees could inquire about the presentations and documentaries. The first presentation explained how the Lebanese Revolution was halted inorganically by the COVID-19 pandemic, preventing those who were calling for change from achieving their goals. The queer community played a large role in organizing protests, and during protests, many queer individuals found that those with whom they were protesting protected them and wanted to learn about their identities. However, they felt increasingly unsafe as more and more police officers infiltrated protests and began harassing individuals who they believed were not cisgender or heterosexual.

In Syria, the researchers found that queer individuals faced a great deal of violence at the hands of both state and nonstate actors. It was found that in Syria, there is a significant demand for individuals who are assigned male at birth to perform normative heterosexual masculinity. Often, at military personnel operating checkpoints gay and bisexual men, as well as transgender women, will be attacked for appearing “soft.” LGBT Syrians also face the threat of being kicked out of their homes and losing their inheritances if their families discover they are not heterosexual or cisgender.  Some Syrian families will also report queer family members to militias, endangering their physical safety.

An individual who was interviewed as a part of the second documentary that was shown commented that he felt he had a better opportunity to explore his sexuality in Turkey as a refugee than he did at home in Syria. An important element of his ability to discover himself, he mentioned, was the internet access he had in Turkey, which he used to engage with others in discussions of sexuality and queer identity. Online spaces are a valuable resource for people who are discovering or trying to discover their sexuality or gender identity, as they provide access to information about queer identity and connection with individuals who are having similar experiences with gender and sexuality.  

For young people in particular, web resources are highly practical because one does not need physical transportation to access a community or information.  Recently, the Arab Institute for Women launched a web platform to support LGBTQ youth in Lebanon and the Arab world, called Shabaket el Meem.  This platform, which can be reached at the web address www.shabaketelmeem.com, creates spaces for young people who are learning about and growing into their sexual orientations and gender identities to learn terminology they may not yet be familiar with, ask questions about queer identity, share personal experiences, and learn about topics of gender and sexuality from both podcasts and animated videos. With the use of online queer spaces such as Shabaket el Meem, young people throughout the Arab region can learn about the LGBT community and their place in it without the stigma and negativity that might accompany such discussions in other contexts.

The documentary films that were showcased in the webinar brought up the significance of community and the presence of elders in queer spaces as a demonstration that one can exist truthfully throughout their life regardless of their environment.  In discussing this, one documentary subject powerfully stated, “it is nice to know they exist here.” In the second documentary, another subject brought up the exploitation of LGBT individuals in the job market, mentioning that LGBT people face sexual exploitation from superiors and are often forced to work more hours and receive lower pay than their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts.

The event closed with the researchers reiterating their findings during a final Q&A session. They mentioned concerns that the discussion of war as it relates to gender rarely includes conversations or discussions of sexuality or gender identity, as LGBT people face risks, violence, and vulnerability that others do not experience. They also noted that it is important to pay attention to seemingly smaller issues that affect the queer community, as daily microaggressions, homophobia, and transphobia have a profound negative effect on the mental health of LGBT people. To the dismay of the researchers, while there is an academic interest in the issues that face the queer community, policies are not being implemented to protect queer people and little is being done on the ground.  Above all, and despite the numerous barriers in place for people of diverse sexualities and genders, the researchers stressed that the strength and resilience of the queer community be highlighted, as the community has worked tirelessly to bring about change throughout the Arab world.

Women Entrepreneurs in MENA & COVID’s Impact

A summary in part of Victoria Fibig’s article for the Wilson Center

Women entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa have created strong business models and communities, but COVID has posed a significant challenge to many businesswomen in the region. This is highlighted by Victoria Fibig in her recent article for the Wilson Center discussing the effects that COVID-19 has had on women entrepreneurs in the region.  Though the COVID crisis is far from over and many women’s businesses have been severely harmed by the pandemic, the overall situation for female entrepreneurs in MENA appears relatively hopeful, as women have adapted their business models to survive the pandemic and lead the transformation of entrepreneurship in the region.

The first portion of Fibig’s article lays out the challenges many women are facing as a result of the pandemic. The worst consequences of economic and social fallout affect women, and COVID could easily set back many efforts to advance women’s rights.  In the Middle East and North Africa, approximately 700,000 women lost their jobs, the employment gap widened, and significant blows have been dealt to the future of female economic empowerment.  Fibig goes on to detail the experiences of a few specific women from countries throughout the MENA region, highlighting the diversity in women’s experiences of the pandemic and the widespread resilience of women entrepreneurs when faced with the daunting challenges COVID presents.

Fibig highlights the stories of Deema, Sireen, Randi, Ranoo, Hayfa, and Christina, female entrepreneurs from Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Tunisia, and the UAE, illustrating how each woman’s life and business was affected by the pandemic.  These women’s businesses range from online retail platforms to apps for locating construction jobs to marketing and communications firms.  Some, such as Ranoo’s app, have fared well during the pandemic, as many construction workers have registered in the app’s database since jobs are difficult to come by since the pandemic began.  Others, such as Hayfa’s communications firm and coworking space, have suffered as she is inhibited from traveling and conducting social interactions as she usually would to grow her business.  

In closing out her article, Fibig recommends that policies be created that address the current state of business operations under COVID and promote the digitization of business as well as remove the structural barriers that women in business face because of their gender. Fibig mentions that most states in the MENA region have not made efforts to support female entrepreneurs, and women do not feel as if their countries have their backs.  The business registration process is particularly difficult in the region, as there are many hidden fees, copyright issues, and currently few laws relating to the registration of online businesses. Fibig’s article does a skillful job of highlighting the structural and COVID-related constraints that women entrepreneurs face in the Middle East and North Africa, with the accounts of individual women’s experiences with their businesses during the pandemic providing faces for the information the article presents and showing readers the tangible negative effects of the pandemic operating together with ineffective state support. As Fibig presents, women entrepreneurs in the MENA region are highly dedicated and resourceful in their pursuits, but they need state support as they combat the unequal weight placed on them by the pandemic and systemic barriers to their entrepreneurial pursuits. We need to continue to call for a feminist response to the pandemic – now and in its wake where women are likely to feel its impact for decades.

Our Bodies, Our Rights

Previously published by Lina AbiRafeh on Medium

Four years ago, on January 23, 2017, in a room filled only with men, US President of three days, Donald J. Trump reinstated the “Global Gag Rule”, more formally known as the Mexico City Policy, to restrict women’s lives and deny them the freedom of choice over their own bodies. Trump did not invent this regressive policy. President Ronald Reagan first enacted it in 1984, and every Republican president since has enacted or expanded this policy, with each Democrat revoking the policy, turning women’s bodies into political pawns between parties.

The Global Gag Rule strips organizations of their ability to provide comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care by gagging these groups in terms of the health care options and services they can even discuss; with the potential punishment of lost funding. This is a major blow, from the world’s largest donor to global health programs.

Trump not only reinstated the Global Gag Rule, he expanded it to impact recipients of over 12 billion dollars — from HIV and AIDS programming to water and hygiene programs and more. These critical, lifesaving interventions have been stripped away by Trump with total impunity. In 2019, he once again expanded the rule, further restricting those previously-gagged organizations from funding groups that provide abortion services and information — even if they are not recipients of US funding. In effect, the rule gags everything to do with women, their equality and empowerment.

But the Global Gag Rule doesn’t just impact women. Yes, women — particularly those already poor and marginalized — suffer most, but also anyone receiving support through HIV and AIDS programming, LGBTQIA populations, young people, and many others. The organizations that support these populations were already underfunded prior to this. Now they are suffering further — particularly those which bravely elected to continue providing vital sexual and reproductive health services. The Global Gag rule made an already-critical situation far worse, with farther-reaching impacts. Such damage will take years to undo because, for four years, women — and the organizations that support them — have been gagged.

It was under these conditions that SheDecides came together and grew into a global movement, taking women’s voices, girls voices, and those of marginalized communities around the world, and channeling these into change. SheDecides exists to fight for the rights of women and girls to decide freely for themselves — a fundamental human right to which we are all entitled.

Women’s health is under serious threat. The Coronavirus pandemic has put women’s and girls’ already fragile rights even further at risk, only magnifying the damage done over the last 4 years. The crisis has unveiled existing injustices, exacerbating these, and impacted hard-won gains for bodily autonomy. Add to this the global challenges of the last four years — in particular the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has further weakened this landscape, fracturing civil society and compromising services. It has added layers of challenges including further restrictions on funding for critical services and support, and limited mobility to access those services. Many shelters and safe spaces for women have been repurposed as pandemic support centers. And — most alarmingly — rates of intimate partner violence have increased worldwide.

Today, we witnessed the inauguration of the Biden-Harris Administration, unprecedented in many ways, and finally the first-ever woman in the position of Vice President. This team will have their hands full simply cleaning up the messes left by the previous administration — for women and girls, and for the world.

The Biden Agenda for Women is a comprehensive platform for women’s rights addressing health careeconomic securitywork and family, and violence against women. The new US administration brings hope that the repeal of the Global Gag Rule will renew efforts to advance bodily autonomy to undo the harm of the past four years, empowering women worldwide.

While the Biden-Harris Administration has committed to supporting sexual reproductive health and rights and advancing women’s bodily autonomy both domestically and internationally, it must be an international effort. Once the Global Gag Rule is repealed, it will take years to rebuild trust, re-integrate services and spread accurate information on what is allowed under the law. True global cooperation and action will be needed to undo the damage and ensure women have the choices they have long been denied.

The new administration offers hope that the Global Health, Empowerment and Rights (HER) Act, introduced in Congress in 2019, will receive increased political support. The Global HER Act would end the Global Gag Rule once and for all, preventing future presidents from unilaterally reinstating it and putting the lives of millions of women and girls at risk.

Most importantly, this means that essential funding for women and girls’ health is not politicized and restricted. And that women’s bodies and lives are not subject to the whims of political parties, religious perspectives, social decrees, or any opinion. Except their own.

Women’s bodies and lives are their non-negotiable, undeniable right.

The hard work starts now.

Early Marriages among Syrian Refugees Living in Jordan

On January 12, 2021, Het Grote Midden Oosten Platform (The Greater Middle East Platform, a Dutch nonprofit organization) hosted a webinar highlighting a research project conducted on marriages among Syrian refugees living in Jordan.  The research was led by Marina de Regt of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, in conjunction with Yarmouk University in Jordan and two NGOs, Caritas Jordan and Ahel al-Jabal.  The research project was funded by WOTRO Science for Global Development, a Dutch sexual and reproductive health and rights organization.  Nicolien Zuijdgeest of the Greater Middle East Platform facilitated the event, and multiple members of the research team—Ruba Alakash, An van Raemdonck, Siham al Masri, and Naflah al Aboud—participated in a question and answer session.  

The seminar began with de Regt presenting the research that she and her team had conducted under the guiding question of what early marriage means for Syrian refugees and what sexual and reproductive health consequences stem from such early marriages.  The researchers stressed throughout the event the use of the term “early marriage” rather than “child marriage,” as they noted the latter term is rather loaded and does not adequately account for the diversity of circumstances in which early marriages occur.  The team’s main recommendation was that responses to early marriage be diversified on a case-dependent basis, as existing mechanisms of education have been ineffective in decreasing rates of early marriage in the Middle East.  

Their research found that in locating causes of early marriage, it is mistaken to place full responsibility on the role of culture, as this oversimplifies the issue and does not account for the role of other factors involved in early marriage relating to post-flight and economic situations.  It was found, too, that there are diverse contexts for early marriage and diverse needs because of those differing contexts.  An example of differing contexts the research team offered was the difference in the case of a young girl marrying a significantly older man of a family unknown to hers and living apart from her family and the case of a young girl marrying a young boy whose family she has been familiar with for a long time and who she would not have to be apart from her community to marry.  

The researchers also found that the link between early marriage and sexual and reproductive health complications should be reconsidered, as the correlation between the two phenomena is less strong than is often said—though the team noted they would need more medical evidence to make a firmer statement on this point.  Generally, they found that complications relating to pregnancy had more to do with poverty and lack of access to resources than with giving birth as a teenager.

De Regt also mentioned that the research team had conducted their study using three methods: in-depth interviews, ethnographic fieldwork, and participatory action research (PAR).  To this end, the researchers spoke with around 140 individuals in in-depth interviews, including both women and men who were married and unmarried.  The researchers held 25 PAR meetings over the course of their data collection period, which lasted from January 2018 to July 2019, with both unmarried and married women and men.  Over the course of the data collection period, though the groups with men were active and eager to share their experiences, the women’s groups were able to continue meeting for longer because the researcher running the men’s groups had to drop out of the project.  

In general, those conducting the PAR meetings found that participants were eager to share their stories in meetings because they viewed them as safe spaces and valued that the researchers were present to listen and understand rather than lecture.  The researchers revealed that choosing PAR as a data collection method was relatively limiting—though it paid off in the case of this study—as one generally needs a long time to collect data when using this method.  

The main forms of output from this study are a policy brief written for the Jordanian Ministry of Health, a guide for conducting PAR with refugees, a documentary film, a website highlighting the stories of individuals who were interviewed, and multiple academic articles and chapters.  The website also features the study’s publications and resources they created and can be accessed at www.livesinperspective.org

During the question-and-answer portion of the webinar, the researchers answered a question of what they might like to look into if they had had the opportunity to expand their research question.  In response, they mentioned they might like to investigate divorce cases and rates among Syrian refugees, economic safety, legal safety, and sexuality and sexual education, particularly in relation to the influence of technology and the internet.

In the final portion of the question-and-answer section of the event, the research team noted that much of the work done by NGOs tends to focus on “educating the other” rather than on engaging with individuals.  They mentioned that in their research it had been beneficial to lead a participatory approach, where they were present to listen and not to tell.  Alakash noted that there is a need to empower women to decide for themselves in regard to family matters, with the rest of the researchers mentioning in assent that there should be less pressure on women to make particular choices and that they would like for others to make an effort to understand practices without making judgments.

The event closed with the presenters reiterating the message that was to be gleaned from their research, which was that work should be done to empower women and listen to their needs, and that this can only be achieved if those who work to these ends employ more tolerant options and make efforts to listen to women of all backgrounds and experiences without judging.

Really Ready for Change? Examining Attitudes Regarding Gender Equality

Yunqing Han

A study by UN Women conducted in 2019 (and released this year) reminds us that yes, gender stereotypes exist, and YES, they are detrimental to our quest for equality. The 2019 UN Women paper, aptly titled Are You Ready for Change? quantifies harmful gender stereotypes to inform decision-makers of the prevalence of discriminatory attitudes that hinder gender equality.

The study was undertaken in ten countries: Colombia, India, Japan, Kenya, Nigeria, The Philippines, Sweden, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and United States.

While these countries agree that gender equality is “important,” all ten countries show significant gender stereotyping. The respondents’ perceived gaps are small in education and healthcare, but big in media, the public sphere, and homes (5). This perhaps reminds us that while the MENA region needs improvement in women’s rights, the issue is far from just regional.

Let’s now zoom into the Arab country of the ten, the United Arab Emirates. Respondents perceive women to have equal access to education and healthcare as men and women feel similarly safe at home compared to their male counterparts. Great. However, respondents believe that women have less control over their lives in deciding who to marry, managing personal finances, and buying property. Women also have a harder time running for elected office. Although nearly 90% agree that “it is essential for society to treat women as equal to men,” around 50% of surveyed individuals perceive media to perpetuate gender stereotypes, 38% believe that men should be paid more than women for the same job, and 31% believe that a woman should not earn more than her husband.

So, are we really ready for change when we say gender equality is important but also have beliefs that may indicate otherwise? However we interpret the data, we should applaud the UAE for giving women (perceived) equal opportunities in certain areas of life. But there are more that can be done, and we should look ahead to that.

Progress but More Progress Needed: Protection of Women in MENA 2020

By Yunqing Han

Plan International’s recent report, The Protection of Women and Girls in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), examines women’s rights in the region in five countries: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Sudan, and Syria. Unfortunately, women are still subjected to many inequalities and conservative groups often unwelcome potential legal changes.

The countries’ legal protection of women is improving but is still not sufficient. Egypt has no law against sexual harassment in workplace. The continued Syrian conflict leads to inadequate access to healthcare, increased GBV, and more child marriages. All five countries except Lebanon allow children below minimum ages of marriage to marry so long as their guardians believe it to be “in their [the children’s] best interest.” And in all five countries, abortion is criminalized.

On a brighter note, Egypt and Sudan are passing laws to ban female genital cutting – in any type of clinics for the former and in all cases for the latter. Lebanon has recently passed a law in December 2020 to criminalize sexual harassment under broad definitions. Its Parliament amended the domestic violence law to incorporate violence related to but not necessarily done during marriage. And albeit with reservations, four of the five countries (except Sudan) have ratified CEDAW, the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. All five countries have some sort of government structure that promotes women’s rights.

Many problems still impede promotion of change for women’s rights. Intensified political conflicts have prompted governments to overlook women’s issues. Data on the scale of GBV and what women need remain largely unavailable. Inadequate enforcement of laws that protect women’s equality and rights persists. And, despite there being increased activism in the last decade, there is little space for Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in the region. Governments often consider these entities to be foreign agenda implementers who advance anti-Arab values and sentiments. 

However, the report also suggests next steps for activism. The most urgent priority for governments is to harmonize discrepancies between regional and national laws about women. They should also promote dialogue discussing women’s status in issues where women face the most discrimination; namely, in marriage, inheritance, property, and custody. For women’s rights movements, progress mainly looks like including men and religious/conservative leaders as partners and strengthening young feminist movements. With these actions, we might be able to alter agendas to fit local contexts. More importantly, we might gradually let ones who oppose the women’s rights movement see its radical or not-so-radical underlying notion: that women are also people.

Is America a fragile state?

By Lina AbiRafeh

I sit like the rest of the world, watching events unfold in America with awe. I am shocked, but I am not surprised. Can we even fix this?!

As a DC-native, a NY-resident, a Lebanese-Palestinian, an Arab-American, a humanitarian aid worker, and — most of all — as a feminist activist, I find that ALL of my disparate identities are (unusually) in agreement and collectively enraged.

I was raised on the narrative of American superiority. As a child of two warzones — and as a woman anywhere in the world — I understand all too well the need for safety, how hard it is to find, and how important it is to have, above all else how much it should be protected and preserved.

We came to the US when I was nearly 10, Green Cards in hand and Lebanese passports tucked away. We knew we were lucky to have them — and besides, who else would have us? We boarded a plane and did not look back, counting on America as our future, a place where we would be safe.

A life free from violence — isn’t that what we all want?!

But nowhere is safe. Nowhere is free from violence, it just takes the right conditions to bring violent responses out. No country is immune. We see this in our homes — and today we see it on the Hill.

I’m glued to the news, as we all are. This is history happening. There’s nothing normal about the events we’re witnessing, but there’s one common thread, the number of times journalists, pundits, commentators have used language like “But this doesn’t happen in AMERICA” as if the country is immune to violence.

But — does this happen here? I argue that yes, it does. A more constructive question would be to ask why this happens here?

Worst is the rhetoric that such violence is viewed as expected — or, worse acceptable — in so-called “third world countries”, but not in this one. Such commentary continues to position “us” vs “them” and employ language that is, at best, delusional and at worst, discriminatory.

The term “third world” refers to so-called “developing countries”. There is actually no agreement on these labels, but crudely put, “developed countries” are independent and with functioning economies and infrastructure, while “developing countries” are lacking, or lower, in these aspects. Such divisions are broad, outdated, and not useful. Moreover, these definitions are not static. Countries move from “developed” to “developing” and vice versa. In times of insecurity, such fluctuations are normal.

I come from so-called “third world” countries, and I have lived and worked in over twenty of these countries, most of them in conflict. There is nothing distinctly different about these countries and the American experience today. Conflict happens as a result of breakdowns in a country’s political, economic or security structures.

In humanitarian aid, we use early warning indictors and indices on “fragile states” to prepare our responses, measuring social cohesion alongside economic, social, and political indicators.

Signs of oncoming conflict include tensions due to economic decline, discriminations in development and access to opportunities, government corruption, grievances of certain social groups, perspectives on state legitimacy, access to social support and public services, human rights and rule of law, integration of diverse populations, and so on.

According to the 2020 Fragile States Index, the US ranks 149th out of 178, with Yemen in the first position (meaning the most fragile) and Finland as 178th. This doesn’t make us immune to conflict, particularly as we continue to expose fissures in “America” — the country cannot be referred to as a monolith, given the divisions and diversity in this vast land.

No, the US is not “Afghanistan” or “Iraq” or “Yemen” — but these distinctions are not helpful. Further, they are offensive. Afghanistan and Iraq did not spring forth on their own, there is global guilt for creating what one might call “an Afghanistan”. Under similar conditions, any country can experience the same.

What’s more, commentary that our “adversaries” are “cheering” are also sweeping generalizations, feeding a fire rather than bridging a gap. These countries are watching events unfold in America, surely, and are likely feeling vindicated as they have long felt the heat of American rhetoric that “these things” only happen to “other countries over there”.

Today we know: these things happen everywhere. Including here.

I write as a woman in America, an American woman, a voter, a committed citizen. We have work to do. Delusions of superiority are not going to give us the country we need.

I also write as a woman from those “other” cultures and countries and colors. I’ve lived and worked in warzones to end violence against women. Just like violence in the home happens everywhere, violence in society is inevitable under the right conditions — from our homes to the Hill.

The time has come to fix this.