Strategic Reflection Meeting on Women’s Human Rights
in the Middle East and North Africa Region
Tunis - TUNISIA, March 27th 2013

CONTEXT

For several years Urgent Action Fund and the Mediterranean Women’s Fund plan to develop collaboration in the Mediterranean region. Last November, the two funds decided to use the opportunity of the World social Forum in Tunisia to organize together a meeting of women activists from the MENA region in order they participate in discussions, exchange experiences and debate strategies.

ORGANISATION OF THE WORKSHOP

The meeting was a precursor to the World Social Forum held on March 26-30 to ensure additional WHRDs can integrate learning from the strategic meeting to the range of debates held at the Forum.
To organize this workshop , the MedWF drew from its network of contacts and the confidence with which it is entrusted in the region. 25 women were invited, finally 14 women activists came to the meeting: 4 from Syria 2 from Iraq, 1 from Lebanon, 2 from Israel/Palestine, 1 from Turkey, 3 from Tunisia and 1 from Algeria.
The workshop program was very simple: most of the time was dedicated to discussion. To facilitate the debates between the activists, all communication was in Arabic or French with English translation.
After a brief presentation of each participant, time was given to the representatives of the feminist funds so that they could present themselves and their mandates.The director of the MedWF, a leading activist in the region, facilitated the workshop: her role was to organize the talks and to reformulate some points in order to be sure that the contribution of each woman was taken into consideration.
The discussions focused on the current state of women’s movements in the Middle East in the aftermath of the revolutions. All the participants took time to share their concerns, difficulties, and what they consider to be the main challenges facing them.

The second half of the day, they concentrated on identifying priority issues and listing the needs of women‘s movement in their country.

KEY REFLECTIONS AND ANALYSES
Fundamentalism and Women’s Roles in Revolutionary Processes

During the post-revolutionary period in Algeria in the 1960s, women who had previously participated as active combatants were expected to return to their traditional roles of wife and mother. Although women were granted several political and social rights in the years following independence, the political ideology of secularism was soon swept aside to unify the nation under Islam. The political gains made by women during the 1960s were partially lost in the decade of the 1990s. Though silenced due to social, cultural and personal circumstances, women have continued to express their frustrations.

More recently, during the revolutions that began in Tunisia in 2010, women across the Arab world took to the streets demanding change beyond the overthrow of despotic regimes, they struggled to make their voices heard amidst the enthusiastic din of perceived revolutionary success. All activists present at the Strategic Meeting recognized the need to take into account the lessons learned from post-civil war Algeria: women must mobilize to secure their rights before, during and after the transition itself. Gender parity is not given; at every stage, it must be asserted. Often times, leaders see the women’s agenda as an obstacle to the national struggle, and feminists are labeled as ‘unpatriotic.’ This theme can certainly be seen across the region and especially in the revolution and post revolution contexts. For most of the countries the work on constitution is critical.

Sexual and bodily rights : a new challenge in the region

Movements of political transformation in the Middle East have always challenged patterns of identity, normativity and authority. The Arab revolutions and the subsequent drafting of new constitutions have brought these issues to the forefront of national conversations. At the Strategic Meeting, representatives from Turkey introduced the need to include LGBT rights into the agenda of democratization.

A majority of the activists in the Meeting concluded that LGBT rights must go hand-in-hand with the women’s rights agenda, and safe shelters need to be accessible in places where LGBT people continue to face threats and harassment. In this way, issues like sexuality, abortion, women’s body, sexual rights are talked about by feminists: even if it is slow, the taboos are falling.

Young Women’s Movements

According to UNICEF, young people between the ages of 15-24 comprise nearly one-fifth of the population of the Middle East and North Africa, representing the largest youth cohort in the history of the region. The youth sparked the Arab spring, wielding online tools to garner support, elude surveillance and cross class lines. Yet the young activists’ idealism has been challenged by the bitter reality of repression, and young people in the region continue to face diminishing opportunities to secure jobs, access housing, and achieve financial independence.

The participants of the Strategic Meeting in Tunis emphasized the need to involve young activists, specifically girls, in all aspects of post-revolutionary processes. They spoke about the demand for youth empowerment trainings, and the need to bridge the gap between younger and older generations.

Needs and priorities

During the workshop, activists established the list of the needs in priorities in their own country. To know more about them, click here.

EVALUATION

The results of the meeting reveal its success. A very interesting debate went on all day long, and lots of information has been shared. Some disagreement on the political analysis regarding the Islamist movement arose and it was interesting to see that it is one of the great debate within the MENA region .
The other positive result was that several young women participated to the workshop. They explained their difficulties to be integrated in the “old” women's movement.
The workshop was a very good representation of the women’s movement in the region, by age, by political stands and also by the links each of the women has with networks of the region.
Despite the danger they face, the troubles they go through, the suffering they carry – especially for Syrian and Iraqi, the women invited are very strong and full of hope and the MedWF is proud to be on their side.

CONCLUSION

Despite some minor problems due to the World Social Forum dates, the meeting was a success: it enabled women to share information and offered them a space to take a time to reflect on the situation in their countries. UAF and MedWF proposed their financial and organisation support to the participants.

For the two funds, this collaborative relationship proved to be excellent.
For UAF, it was a chance to conduct outreach and engage a number of issues pertinent to women’s human rights defenders (WHRDs) in the region. For the MedWF, it provided the opportunity to once again implement its program to reinforce the women's movement by offering women activists a space dedicated to their concerns and to assess the pertinence of the MedWF's concept.
Lastly, for the two funds it was a way to show solidarity between feminist funds and an occasion to get to know and appreciate each other better.