Tidbits of Arabic News translated into English

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Fida and women

(November 18, 2013)

Back in November, the BBC Arabic did another show all about women. It was 'härligt', because all the participants were women. That meant that no one started yelling, no one interrupted, there were hardly even any pointed fingers! Different opinions, yes, but no one chomping at the bit and insulting others for thinking a different way. Ah, peaceful!

The show was helmed by the very capable Fida Bassil.

The basis for the show was a poll which had ranked Arab countries based on how women are treated. Egypt ended up really low in the poll.

This is an Egyptian activist for women's rights.

She says: probably the reason Egypt fares so badly in the poll is because it focused on violence. Maybe in other areas related to women's rights Egypt does pretty well, but when it comes to violence, it's really bad.

Fida: not so fast. The report did not just focus on violence. It looked at violence, but also at the role of women in families, involvement in politics and economics; and also besides violence, it also focused on sexual harassment.

Lady in the blue sweater: yes, the report did also focus on early marriages for girls, female genital mutilation, harassment and sexual assault. Yes, Egypt is right now seeing lots of these violations against women. And yes, I agree that we are not involved enough in political arenas, though we are present.

Fida: the report looked at four areas: violence towards women; how much of a choice a woman has in her reproductive rights; how women are treated inside a family, and the inclusion of women in politics and economics. Do you agree that those were the right metrics?

Lady in the blue sweater: I agree that these were the right standards to go by, and they follow what the UN and what Unicef would say the standards are. However, I think we should remember that the research team behind the report ignored political movements that are in fact happening. But when it comes to violence, the report is entirely correct; yes, we Egyptian women do suffer from violence.

Next a Tunisian lady, Ms. Fatoom, joined the conversation. She is a member of the political assembly in the Tunisian Nahda party.

Ms. Fatoom: We say that in spite of some things, the Arab Spring helped the status of women, because women were actors in the revolutions, part of the protests, and it is our right to enjoy our accomplishments of overturning the governments. I think this report revealed the fears that perhaps in the years to come, women won't continue to progress, but when it comes to Tunisia, Tunisia was ranked pretty high amongst all the Arabs, and was the first out of the North African countries, so we think we're doing pretty well, especially compared to the other countries who recently had revolutions.

Fida: what do you make of the fact that the role of women in society went backwards in some cases under the Arab Spring, for all that women participated in the revolutionary process?

Ms. Fatoom: it is a basis of Middle Eastern societies to revere men at the expense of women; and to be lacking in giving women true opportunities to distinguish themselves.

Next, we turn to a Saudi Princess, Princess Basma. She's been on the show before, talking about the Arab springs, back on March 18, 2013.

 And here she is again.

Princess Basma: This report says nothing new about Arab societies, not about them before the revolutions, and not about them after the revolutions. Since the revolutions, women have gotten more and more hidden, and she is being used as a trading material for the revolutions, for their success. The idea that the revolutions were for women's rights has been lost.

Fida turned back to the Eygptian lady in the blue sweater:
Did the year of rule under Mohamed Mursi and the Islamic political parties in Egypt contribute to the fact that Egypt is in last place in the rankings for women's rights?

Lady in blue sweater speaks with an Egyptian accent, so I don't really know what she's saying, except it was a conclusive: yes, yes, yes!

Then it was Ms. Fatoom's turn again, the lady from Tunisia. Ms. Fatoom is a political member of Tunisia's version of an Islamic political party.
Ms. Fatoom: I don't know about Mursi, and I am not trying to defend Mursi, but to say that Islamic political parties in general are connected to the regression of women's rights is completely wrong and I cannot be quiet about this. Why? Because if we go to the soul of Islam and to the teachings of Islam, Islam is the Protection of Women. And women used to work in the time of the Prophet, peace be upon him. And used to be part of army invasions and be true actors in events. But there are some extremist strains that maybe have distorted the teaching of Islam. But to connect the regression of women's rights with political Islam, I say no.

Fida: Ms. Fatoom, you talk about Tunisian women. Allow me to read out a statement from Ms. Lena al-Mehany, a Tunisian activist: she is nervous about the rights of women in Tunisia under the government of the Islamist party. And she adds: the government plays the role as religious police and puts pressure on girls. Isn't there a new Tunisian law about ...something I don't get ... which will have as its basis religious specifications and which will remove some gains that women have previously had, and which is causing a debate amongst Tunisians?

Ms. Fatoom: no, this is not the case. When the Nahda party was first starting to campaign for office after the revolutions, there were rumors flying that we wanted a law in support of domestic violence, but this was not the case. Now I'd like to say that there are other parties, extremist parties, that maybe put forward laws like what you're referring to, but we are not.

Fida: alright, who is helping support those extremist parties? There are people that say that moderate Islamic governments are the ones who support those extremist parties.

Ms. Fatoom: no, when Nahda came into power, we made a shared coalition with some other parties, but we never encouraged those extremist strains, because quite honestly it is not in the interest of the Nahda party to encourage those people, because they try to change the pattern of Tunisian society and we reject that.  As women in Tunisia, we reject any person that tries to take away our rights!

Back to Princess Basma, and they are back on the subject of how good Islam is for women:

Basma: Of course Islam is not what is holding back the role of women. Islam is what reinforces the role of women! But what we are seeing is that all the Islamist governments are the ones which subtract away from the role of women, and practice something that is remarkable in how unlike Islam it is.  Islam always gives women their rights and gives them rights that no other country gives, and that no other religion gives, nor any other system! However, no political system of Islam does these things, whether Sunni or Shia or anything else, and the politicization of Islam will always lead to limiting the rights and roles of women.

The focus now shifted back to Egypt. They had collected opinions of random people on the Egyptian street. Here's what they had to say:

This lady says: There's something that just lets the men harass women at any time, any instant, in the metro, in the street.

 This man says: men blame women, and women blame men; there's men that don't respect women, and something something, and then there's women that something something, she can take herself something something.

This woman says: they say women's rights and women's rights. We come, we go, tired of the harassment. What's the meaning in that women must face violence, that men must be violent towards us, that they always look towards us through a framework of beatings. This is not a good thing. Everytime you go out you hear what is insulting and hateful, and they don't care about saying things in nice ways, they don't care if it's a girl and her dad, a lady and her husband, two girls together, a pregnant lady, they don't care!

This man says: the problem behind harassment is first of all the man. A man is capable of controlling himself, and even if a woman is dressed in revealing clothes, the first thing is the man.

This man says: when it comes to domestic violence and harassment and the other things that all of us are exposed to, I have seen that if there is a commitment to religion, and if people have knowledge of religion, whether it's the Christian religion or Islam, or any religion you might have, then you would really respect women, because women in the Christian street or the Islamic street, or even in the Jewish street, (!) if we really applied religion correctly, all the problems would be solved.

This man says: well, why are women subjected to domestic violence? well, in the Egyptian expression, it is because they are hard-headed. Women adopt certain positions that they like solely in order to be hard-headed. and to force her opinions and her control over the household. Even when in opposition to her kids, her husband, or the other people in the house.

I don't think that Fida liked that last comment about 'hard-headed' women, because when the camera returned to her, this was the expression on her face:

She asked Ms. Fatoom: are the problems that women face something that is stemming from the very culture of our Arab societies?

Ms. Fatoom: yes, they do in part come from our culture. An Arab woman always feels as though she is insignificant and in need of her husband for protection. We are raised in this simple way by our families, in spite of the fact that women can support themselves. I mean to say that a woman is capable of supporting herself if she can awaken herself before she goes after a man. That she tries to find a place for herself in a framework of dialogue. What happens when you live under violence is that this takes away from a woman's self-confidence and so she becomes more and more desirous of her husband's protection.

Fida: how can a woman be capable of playing such a role unless there are rules and legislation that protect women and that will take her side?

Ms. Fatoom: yes, this is the basis for it all. For example, I as a Tunisian woman, our laws protect women, and allow her to take her husband to court and get a divorce if she can prove that her husband attacked her violently. This is all available under Tunisian law, and it is in our Constitution.

Fida: good, but are there entities to enforce these laws so that they do not merely remain ink on a piece of paper? Who influences these laws, and do those influencers support these laws?

Ms. Fatoom: I speak as a lawyer and as a human rights activist. Truly for most Tunisian women who go to the courts, there is help for her, and she gets her rights, and yes, she can get a divorce if she proves her husband attacked her violently.

So that is all  very nice for Tunisia. It was time to turn to Princess Basma and ask her about Saudi Arabia.

Fida: Saudi Arabia has a very similar culture to all the other Arab Gulf countries. Very similar from the culture to religion to everything else. Why is it that it is so different in the one issue of women's rights? Saudi Arabia is third from worst in the survey, while others of the Gulf countries, like Qatar, are pretty high up.

Basma: it's because Saudi Arabia is more isolated than the other Gulf countries. The other Gulf countries were colonized by the British and have seen much more of other cultures.

Fida: are you sure that can be the sole reason? all the Gulf countries are so very similar. Besides, Saudi Arabia is not that isolated. They also have foreign workers, even foreign workers from western countries. so what's the problem?

Basma: well, you see, Saudi Arabia has a huge geographical area. Qatar, by contrast, is barely a wink!

Fida: and what does geographic area have to do with human rights?

Basma: well, Saudi Arabia is so  huge that it can't interact as well and is just more isolated, unless it's through all these new-fangled inventions like Twitter, and such. Before this, we were completely cut out by foreign influence. And this led to a situation where women's rights went back and back and back without anyone noticing, until around the second World War, at which point women's rights had reached a low point they had never been before.

Fida: well, there are some new rights that Saudi women are attaining. What do you make of that?

Basma: I would call all of it just make-up and cheap jewelry. They're just for the express purpose of making Saudi's international reputation better. Everything these days is all about "women's empowerment", where women strengthen themselves to solve her own problems.

Fida: well, women are now part of the legislative Shura council; they can vote by 2015; the rules against her working have weakened, she can work as a lawyer these days. Haven't these rules made it better for women in Saudi?

Basma: absolutely not, no no no. Because none of the things you've mentioned have been activated. The women who are on the Shura Council do not have any power even over an atom of themselves.

Fida: okay, but the Shura Council is a powerless body; even the men on the Council have no power.

Basma: this is true, and that is why the invitation for women to sit on the Council does not actually show any progress in women's rights. As for women working as lawyers: Saudi lawyers need lawyers themselves.

Fida: but still, women are working as attorneys. We cannot deny that.

Basma: no they are not.

Fida: yes, they are.

Basma: no, they are not. In fact, there was an announcement from the Mufti and from the president of the judiciary that so far they had given the right to women to practice law but that so far it had not happened that a female attorney had entered a court and defended a client.

Fida: (with a smile) according to my information I had it that the women had truly started to practice law.

Basma: (also with a smile) and i wish you would give me that information and tell me from where you got it.

Fida: there's 5 lawyers already, and there's more female lawyers for whom they have just finished looking over their qualifications.

Basma: what cases have they been part of?

Fida: Any case, we'll have to double-check.

Turning back now to the rather neglected Egyptian lady in the blue sweater, whose name is Niveen.

is it possible to say that it was better for women to live under the dictatorships than it is for them today?

Niveen: no, it is better now.

And I can't really understand much of what she says with her Egyptian accent, but she went back to the issue of harassment of Egyptian women, saying how insanely awful it is. Apparently, every single Egyptian woman has experienced harassment on the streets. The dirty men grope them wherever they happen to be. EWWWWWW.

Fida: how do you think it is possible in an Arabic country, like Egypt, with an Arab culture that takes care of women and respects women to the point that you could not see sexual harassment of a woman without coming to her assistance; what do you think happened so that such things can happen, and that it is seen as acceptable. How did the behavior change to allow such things?

Niveen: i think that societal behaviors have changed to become more and more violent. But even more than that, we now, my dear lady, have a crisis in our society. We need serious changes to our behavior and education, and we need fairness before the law.

Fida: alright, to Ms. Fatoom: have there been new laws and legislation that support women as far as education and rights within a family go, or has the situation remained lacking compared to other countries?

Ms. Fatoom: as far as Tunisia goes, no, not at all are we lacking compared to other countries, because we in Tunisia have the rights to ..

Fida: and I'm not just talking about Tunisia but all Arab countries in general.

Ms. Fatoom: I've always said and will always say that if a woman truly wants a fair position in society, she is capable of doing that. I think that most of the Arab societies have by now figured out that they are in need of educated, cultured women and women who have the ability to play an economic role. This is opposite to how it was before, when it was agreed that women only had a reproductive role. Even when it comes to childrearing, we need educated women that can build the new generation.

Fida: when you say that Arab countries have figured that out, what Arab countries are you talking about? When we look at the Reuters Thompson survey (that was the name of the report), we see that there is regression in women's rights when it comes to Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen; Saudi Arabia has always been near the bottom pack. So what Arab countries are you talking about?

Ms. Fatoom: I am talking about some countries that found that when they limit women's roles to reproduction they find that this is a Middle Eastern, patriarchal idea (?). But I'd like to clarify something. We can't compare current women's rights situation to the situation under the past dictators, because under the dictators, you cannot find credible statistics and facts. And us women in Tunisia who worked for women's rights organizations, we had to deal with violence towards women and many other things that take away from women's rights. And under the past dictator, women were violated in prisons, and were raped by their husbands, this was the reality under the dictators.

Fida: Ms. Fatoom, yes, but now there are demonstrations in Tunisia where women demand their rights and proclaim they are afraid of what might happen under the current government. And when the Thompson Reuters report says, for example, that rights for Iraqi women have regressed since the fall of Saddam's dictatorship, isn't that a cause for concern?

Ms. Fatoom: yes, of course, any revolution will produce fear, because you don't know what's going to happen, and the results of a revolution cannot be seen until years have passed. As for Tunisia, 27% of the seats in our parliament are taken by women, and we had a big role in making sure that women's rights remained protected. And as for the demonstrations we've seen, it is the right of those women to fight for their rights and to ask for what she wants.

The end.

To see the full show, click here (will open the right video from the BBC Arabic YouTube channel.)

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