Marking Egyptian Women's Day, 16 March, Dina Ezzat looks into the main obstacles that impede the progress of women in their struggle for empowerment
It takes two wings to fly
Before a new dawn can break over Arab societies, women must rise above decades of injustice
To celebrate Egyptian Women's Day, the National Council for Women held a three-day conference to discuss women's empowerment. The council looks on this as a long-term process with combined political, socio-economic and cultural objectives, deserving of the close coordination of governmental and non- governmental sectors. The participants emphasised economic empowerment, access to education and quality health services as key factors in the improvement of women's status and of the ability of Egyptian women to better participate in the political process.
The obvious findings of three days of deliberations came as a surprise to nobody: despite some progress here and there, far too many women are still stuck in a quagmire of inequality. Girls might have better and easier access to education, but this right is easily interrupted if a family has to choose between the education of a boy and a girl or between marrying the girl off or sending her to university. Women have better access to employment, yet they are still expected to fill the lowest paying jobs and are often trapped in the informal economy with insufficient legal protection, if any at all. Women are more aware of their health rights, but what they are granted in terms of healthcare leaves huge room for improvement.
The removal of such injustices, the conference concluded, was a commitment to be undertaken for generations to come, and until women rise above the injustice with which they have been forced to comply. The struggle towards the elimination of this bias, the conference argued, required much patience and resolve on the part of women. It also required the involvement of women in an ongoing process of political reform that could help grant them more legal rights and place more women in a position where they could actually put these rights into practice.
The conference's conclusions were similar to the much more daring findings on the status of women, not only in Egypt but across the Arab world, provided a little over three months ago by the latest Arab Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
"Towards the rise of women in the Arab world" is very detailed account of the lives of women across the Arab region and the pain, struggle, achievements, hopes and fears they have of the future.
"The situation of women in the Arab world has been changing over time, often for the better, yet many continue to struggle for fair treatment," one of the authors of the report noted.
The report's more than 100 authors, some of them prominent Egyptians, argued that "the rise of Arab women cannot take place in isolation from the rise of their societies", and "requires a complex, comprehensive review of frameworks of thought and behaviour at all levels."
Above all, "the rise of Arab women must go beyond a merely symbolic makeover that permits a few distinguished Arab women to ascend to positions of leadership in state institutions, notwithstanding the value and importance of this. Rather, it must extend to the empowerment of the broad masses of Arab women in their entirety," the report argued.
According to the authors of the 300-plus-page report, women's empowerment is essentially about enabling them to develop their skills and capabilities and consequently make use of these capabilities in their own interests and those of society in general. The report argues that "supporting the advance of Arab women transcends righting wrongs. Directly and indirectly, it concerns the well-being of the entire Arab world."
Active and independent women's movements and societal movements are the "two wings" that the report seems to prescribe for the rise of women.
In other words, women alone cannot achieve this mission; societies have to help them. For both women and societies to be able to follow a path of real emancipation, the report argues, both societies and women need to enjoy authentic political and economic freedom.
So while the report tirelessly emphasises the need for all Arab women to be granted full and genuine opportunities, it also emphasises in no uncertain terms the need for societies themselves to acquire full freedom. "The rise of Arab women cannot take place in isolation from the rise of their societies," it argues.
It is the elimination of the roots of discrimination against women in cultural constructs that the report highlights as being crucial. For the report, in a world where religion, mainly Islam, is and has been used to justify the position set for women in most Arab countries, Islam -- more than any laws or legislation, important as these are -- needs to be properly construed as a source of support for the rise of women. This is perhaps the reason why the call for the re-engagement of ijtihad -- the encouragement of independent scholarship, as the authors phrase it -- is an endless feature of the various sections of the report. "Seeds of discrimination against women in Arab tradition need to be eliminated", and for this to happen the anti-women cultural bias should not feed on prejudicial readings of the holy text of the Quran, the report suggests.
An end to "conflict of authorities" -- international standards on the one hand and religious beliefs as perceived through cultural perspective on another -- is essential for the rise of women, the report argues. It does so, it says, on the assumption that, "there is no real clash between international standards and the lofty objectives of Islamic Sharia as offered by the enlightened scholars whose voice has been subject to negation in the overall contexts of lack of social freedoms in general." The re-opening of the door of independent jurisprudential thinking, its encouragement and affirmation remains a basic demand "if the creative marriage between freedom in its contemporary comprehensive definition and the ultimate intent of Islamic law" that is required for a free society and good governance is to be achieved.
The report proposes that the process of ijtihad should eventually bring about a resistance to stereotyping women, and thus encourage a culture of equality. This objective is to be attained in societal contexts where the positive readings of the holy texts allow for the family, the school, and the media to project women in a better light has been the case so far.
However, such rectification, the report argues, is not sufficient in the absence of the crucial process whereby women can correct their own self-image "since a distorted self-image perpetuates [the] marginalisation" to which women are subjected.
The report insists that the realisation of women's full potential, and indeed aspirations, and the establishment of true gender equality is not a Western agenda, and that indeed it has to be a home-grown product.