BEIRUT: Women’s rights activists must work to build alliances across all sectors of society in a post-Arab Spring world, panelists at the New Arab Woman Forum said Wednesday.
“Women’s movements are called to rethink their elite discourse, which is far from the experiences of the poor marginalized woman,” said Nabila Hamza, a Tunisian human rights activist who heads the Amman-based Foundation for the Future, during a discussion about women’s gains in post-Arab Spring countries.
The discussion focused on whether women had lost those gains in the post-revolution environment, particularly within the context of the rise of Islamist parties in both Egypt and Tunisia. Another panelist, Libyan human rights activist Dr. Farida Allaghi, said it was important to form alliances with all women, including those who had voted for Islamist parties.
“We have to accept what the people in the street want. We are living in an Arab Muslim society,” Allaghi, who is based in Lebanon, said. “I do not want to deepen the divide between women.”
The solution to ensuring women maintained their gains, she said, “lies in building alliances.”
Allaghi also criticized the conference tradition within the women’s movement. “I think all of us have maybe participated in dozens of conferences, but nothing has happened,” she said.
“The problem is that we usually stick to simple problems in the conferences we attend,” she later added, “while the poorer population has much deeper and more complex concerns.”
Speaking to The Daily Star on the sidelines of the forum, Nadia Abdul-Aziz al-Sakkaf, the editor-in-chief of Yemen Times and a Yemeni activist, agreed on the importance of ensuring that women’s movements are inclusive.
“[It’s important] to find common ground, definitely,” she said. “And that’s what’s happening [in Yemen].” She highlighted the work of Yemen’s Watan coalition, a broad alliance of Yemenis working for women’s rights.
“It was the conservative women, and the very liberal women in the same room, and they wanted the same things,” she said.
NAWF, now in its fifth year, has faced criticism from some quarters for failing to address the concerns of the majority of Arab women.
Speaking to The Daily Star, Farah Kobaissy, a feminist activist and a member of left-leaning Lebanese feminist group Nasawiya, said the forum was inaccessible to most Arab women.
“The forum neglects many particularities of women who cannot afford to attend,” she said. “Many of the people who will be speaking represent the political and economic interests of the status quo.”
This year the lineup, as in previous years, includes several leading businesswomen from the region, although Nadine Abou Zaki, the NAWF’s founder, said the organizers had made specific efforts to include regional activists for this year’s event, which was titled “Women and the Arab Spring.”
Kobaissy also criticized the march organized by the NAWF for Thursday to take place between the Four Seasons hotel and Downtown Beirut, until the title “Sawa, Sawa.”
“What kind of Arab Spring can flourish to affect women’s rights between the Four Seasons and Downtown?” she asked.
However Lamees Dhaif, a Bahraini journalist and activist, said events like NAWF were vital to maintain links in women’s movement across the region.
“It gives us a chance to meet and discuss the obstacles and the challenges that we have and actually though we have from different countries we have the same gains,” she said. “Sometimes we feel like we are alone ... and when we come to these places we realize that we are not the only ones who are suffering from these things.”
Sakkaf, who was attending the NAWF for the first time, also said she felt “less alone” sharing experiences at such events. She acknowledged that the forum may contain a little style over substance, but said that she had taken the decision to come as an ambassador for Yemeni women.
“I’ve heard that it’s a prestigious event, so the people here will remember me” she said. “If one quarter of the people go back knowing something more about Yemen ... then I’m happy.”