Political Participation, Grassroots Advocacy, and CEDAW: WLP Partners Speak

December 4, 2009

In October, WLP organized two panel discussions in Washington, D.C. to reflect upon the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the ten-year anniversary of WLP, and the launch of Iranian Women's One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality: The Inside Story, the latest volume in WLP's Translation Series.

Participants from Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, and Morocco shared concrete examples of their successes and challenges in demanding greater women's political participation and equal rights, and the lively conversation focused on the importance of a more holistic outlook on both the grassroots and policy-making levels.

Women and Democracy in the Middle East

Women and Democracy in the Middle East, October 26, 2009

Asma Khader of WLP Jordan and
Rabéa Naciri of WLP Morocco
at Women and Democracy in the Middle East,
October 26, 2009, at NED

On October 26, WLP organized a panel discussion entitled "From the Margins to the Center: Women and Democracy in the Middle East" in cooperation with the National Endowment for Democracy. WLP President Mahnaz Afkhami was joined by Wajeeha Al-Baharna of Bahrain Women Association, Asma Khader of Sisterhood is Global Institute/Jordan, and Rabéa Naciri of Association Démocratique des Femmes du Maroc.

Afkhami opened the discussion by describing the extraordinary accomplishments of the One Million Signatures movement in Iran. She described how a fluid group of "circumstantial" feminists broke down barriers of geography, ethnicity, religion, and gender itself to find common cause and push for reform. Their efforts garnered international attention leading up to and following Iran's June 2009 presidential election.

Building upon these observations, Naciri emphasized the importance of a broad-based conception of democracy – one that goes beyond basic electoral processes and places value on personal dignity, freedom, and civic participation. Using the Moroccan women's movement as an example, Naciri described how the struggle to reform Morocco's family code (which eventually succeeded in 2004) not only gave women equal rights, but also helped increase the participation of both women and men in the country's political process and led to demands for other types of government reform, including greater legislative accountability.

Al-Baharna and Khader also touched on the personal benefits of advocacy and democracy-building on the grassroots level. They described how when groups of people are actively engaged in important legislative issues facing women, many develop leadership skills, greater tolerance, and an enhanced sense of volunteerism and solidarity with other women. They also internalize a drive for freedom. As Khader noted, "Women are at the heart of the need to see democratic change... It's not enough only to have women in high-level positions, which is good for raising the glass ceiling and eliminating stereotypes, but it is also important to work with women at the grassroots level, in municipalities, and NGOS on issues relevant to their daily lives."

CEDAW - Thirty Years Later

The next day, Lina Abou Habib of Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action (Lebanon), moderator Azar Nafisi, Afkhami, Al-Baharna, Khader, and Naciri reconvened before an audience of almost 200 people at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies to discuss their advocacy work within the context of the 30th anniversary of CEDAW.

Following a contextual overview by Mahnaz Afkhami of CEDAW, WLP's work, and the One Million Signatures Campaign, the panel discussed the successes and challenges of women's rights advocacy under CEDAW.

Each speaker acknowledged the complex political and cultural debates that still surround efforts to ratify and lift reservations to CEDAW, but all of the panelists also emphasized its continuing importance as a tool for holding governments accountable and as a framework for approaching women's issues from a universalist point of view.

In particular, Abou Habib and Al-Baharna spoke at length about efforts in the Middle East-Gulf region to reform discriminatory nationality laws under Article 9 of CEDAW, which would allow the husbands and children of women married to foreign nationals to obtain full citizenship and its concomitant political, economic, and social rights. More importantly, however, the campaign to reform nationality laws addresses the fundamentally unequal status of women as "half-citizens."

Abou Habib and Al-Baharna both described local, national, and regional campaigns that, rather than draw attention to more sensational human rights violations, conduct research and fact-finding at the grassroots level, use Internet-based and traditional media outreach, and engage with both national and international decision-making bodies.

Al-Baharna spoke further about efforts to pass family laws in Bahrain that would expand efforts to reform women's legal status to a broader arena that would incorporate expert opinion in other relevant fields in addition to the traditional religious authorities. Khader, noting the recent lifting of Jordan's reservation to Article 15 of CEDAW, which addresses women's right to choose their place of residence and to travel freely, linked this victory to women's political participation at the local level. She argued that giving women a greater voice in defining the practical applications of CEDAW helped them connect the universal values articulated in CEDAW to their daily lives.

Naciri concluded the panel on a hopeful note by sharing the success of the Equality Without Reservation coalition, whose work throughout the Middle East-North Africa region has been bolstered by a series of achievements and reforms, particularly in the Maghreb. The coalition has increased solidarity and optimism, and given women's rights activists more confidence in responding to those opposed to CEDAW and in advocating for the larger concept of women's equality.

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