Speaking at a press conference to launch a pioneering study on the “Status of Arab Women 2005: History of Women Movements in the Arab World” today, UNESCWA Executive Secretary Mervat Tallawy said the road ahead was still long and fraught with difficulty for Arab women. She hoped for a consolidation of the national social efforts in all their aspects as well as international efforts to propel women to continue their path. Tallawy stressed the inaccuracy of saying Arab women are backward as this places the responsibility on them for a backward society.
The press conference was attended by Ms. Najwa Noueiry Ramadan representing the Lebanese First Lady Andrée Lahoud. A host of prominent figures attended the event and participated in the discussions, including Lebanese women parliamentarians and Arab and foreign ambassadors accredited to Lebanon; political, economic and media figures; experts on women’s issues; and representatives of UN and nongovernmental organizations in Lebanon.
In her statement, Tallawy called for the active participation of women’s movements in rectifying basic issues in society even if they have no direct link to women’s issues because women are not only a part of society but one of its basic pillars.
On the study, Tallawy said, “During the past decades, women in Arab countries made formidable progress in education, health and employment. There has been an improvement in literacy rates in the Arab world, yet the gap in literacy between men and women is still around 22%. In fact, around 44 million women over the age of 15 cannot read and write. In terms of employment, despite an increase in the participation of women in the labour force, their participation is still as low as 29% compared to 71% for men.
Women also made advancements in terms of modernizing laws and legislation, especially personal status codes, laws concerning compulsory education, and social security, and the penal codes. They also succeeded in making governments revise laws, issuing new laws and taking new measures such as the adoption of the family code in Morocco and the establishment of a family court in Egypt.
Moreover, women attained their political rights in the majority of Arab countries. Some Arab parliaments adopted the quota system for women. In Iraq, for example, women are represented in the Iraq parliament according to the quota assigned to them. Women have also participated in governments as ministers in 19 Arab countries. They participate in council, upper houses of parliaments and senates in 20 Arab countries, 20 of them by appointment. Women joined the judiciary for the first time in Egypt, for example, while the participation of women therein in Lebanon reached 40%. Yet despite progress made in the political participation of women, it remains one of the lowest rates of participation in the world.”
Tallawy pointed out that women’s movements in the Arab world were comprehensive social movements. They are, at the same time, intellectual movements that have paved the way for social development. Their development is linked to overall social development that is itself conditional on the availability of an enabling intellectual climate. If Arab women movements remained nascent since their inception and throughout the 20th century, they had, nevertheless, made considerable progress, chief of which is the realization of their independence. They are, however, expected to make further strides forward. They are requested to unify their visions and their statements to meet the strategic needs of women from all echelons. They are also required to make an attempt to change the prevailing intellectual and cultural environments that constrain the advancement of women. Most importantly, women should attempt to change the negative image of women in educational curricula and mass media. It is also hoped that the newly attained independence of Arab women movements would not lead them to distance themselves from the various active forces of society, chiefly civil society institutions, nor from interaction with men concerning women issues.
The Report addresses women’s movements in three geographical areas: the Arab Mashreq, the Arab Maghreb and the Gulf. It is predicated on 10 case studies, 8 of which focus on selected countries from the Arab Mashreq, in addition, to two sub-regional papers on the Arab Maghreb countries and the Gulf countries. The Report is primarily composed of two parts. The first discusses Arab women movements in general, while the second focuses on new Arab women movements and tackles the challenges they face and pose.
The First Part examines the origin and scope of Arab women’s movements by choosing the social, political and intellectual milieu as an intersecting background. It goes on to conclude that these movements had passed through four main phases. The Second Part of this Report addresses new Arab women movements, their intellectual terms of reference, their role in society and their features. This new wave of women movements employed a gender-based approach which is a comprehensive development approach that takes into consideration all the constituents and characteristics of society.