By Alex Taylor
BEIRUT: Women’s rights activists from around the region concluded a two-day conference in Beirut Thursday, sharing experiences and strategies for activism from grassroots organizing to influencing constitutions.
“The conference is a gathering of many participants from different Arab countries to discuss the challenges facing Arab women through this transition period, especially with the increasing role of the fundamentalist movements,” said Azza Kamel, president of Appropriate Communication Techniques for Development, an Egyptian NGO focusing on the political development of women, which organized the conference with Oxfam.
“During these two days we’ve exchanged experiences and strategies. How we can benefit from the good practices such as those that have been used in Tunisia and Morocco, and also learning from the bad practices,” said Kamel.
More than 50 participants from Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Yemen, Iraq, Sudan, Morocco, Jordan, Libya and Palestine convened in Beirut to share strategies on utilizing social media, how to set up networks among women’s organizations and to discuss the areas where activists should target their focus: constitutions, grassroots outreach and education systems.
“One of the final results of the conference is to focus on constitutions, to put our demands in the constitution and make sure we have women in constitutional committees. We also need to develop our feminist discourse to reach very poor women, rural women and men by working with local groups and NGOs,” Kamel told The Daily Star.
The highlight for many of the participants was simply the forum to exchange experiences and learn from women who have encountered the same problems in different contexts.
“Even if we’re from different cultures, even if we have different levels of power – we are all here because we want change,” explained Safa Rawieh, one of the conference presenters from Yemen who runs the Youth Leadership Development Foundation in Sanaa. “When you hear how people in Morocco managed to change things or how people in Libya managed to do it, it’s very good because you get ideas,” she said.
One participant from Egypt, Amal Hadi, was especially interested in the experiences of Moroccan women and their political activism. “We were discussing strategies to work with political parties. Political parties are something we never had [in Egypt], so we are learning what to do from scratch,” explained Hadi, representing the Cairo-based New Woman Foundation.
Despite flagging hopes and less-than-democratic trends that have emerged in many countries since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the participants at the conference were largely both optimistic and determined.
“After Tahrir ... there is no turning back .... And women are a part of that. They are using sexual violence against women, virginity tests and sexual harassment when they deal with protesters. Despite this, they [women] are still going out on the street,” Hadi said.