Women's rights advocates gather to ensure they aren't sidelined in 'Arab Spring'

Leading women's rights activists from around the world convened in Washington, D.C., this week to discuss how to ensure they aren't excluded from the democratization sweeping the region.

As the “Arab Spring” continues to blossom throughout the Middle East and North Africa, women's rights advocates and scholars from 20 countries congregated in Washington, D.C., this week for the Women's Learning Partnership Conference on Women and Democratic Transition in the Middle East. Their goal: to make sure women aren't sidelined from the Middle East and North Africa's complex democratization process.

The three-day event at the Woodrow Wilson Center convened leading women's rights activists from a diverse range of countries, including Nigeria, Egypt, Malaysia, Bahrain, Lebanon, Brazil, Iran, Morocco, and Turkey. The primary focus of the event was to foster dialogue among participants and cultivate collaborative cross-border strategies to ensure that women, who have played active roles in their respective countries' movements for government reform and democratization, can work together to preempt or push back against any efforts to sideline them from future political negotiations.

“[What's important] is not just the democratic transition; it's what comes afterwards,” says Wajeeha Al Baharna, a Middle-East based women's rights activist and founder of the Bahrain Women Association for Human Development. “We must implement democratic values, rather than just democratic reform, and [those values] must be practiced in our daily lives.”

Activists provided first-hand perspectives of their own experiences, and spoke frequently of the need for cross-country networks with other rights activists that move beyond groups' various ideological differences to adopt an “issue-oriented” approach centered on achieving unified demands for fundamental reform.

Such changes, according to those gathered for the Women's Learning Partnership Conference, are expansive, ranging from advocating and achieving equality for women's personal status laws to encouraging women to pursue professions traditionally held by men, such as acting as judges in local courts – whether religious, family, or civil. Doing so will ultimately help ensure that the process of reform does not focus solely on external factors, such as free elections, but is centered on instituting socio-political and cultural change as well.

“[Women's groups] must become more issue-oriented rather than ideologically oriented... so that women from different sectors of societies can come together and act in unison,” says Lina Abou-Habib, executive director of the Lebanon-based Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action. “Changing a symbol does not mean that patriarchy is not there,” she is quick to add. “We must look at reform as comprehensive reform – in all aspects – as these countries go through their transitions.”

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