Arab Women in Revolution: Reports from the Ground

Part: 7

Arab Women's Forum Presents Revolution 'Lite'

Thursday, February 9, 2012

It was billed as a forum on Arab women and the Arab Spring. But Paola Daher found that the $300 entry free and luxury-hotel ambiance ensured that any truly revolutionary, or even slightly controversial, topics were kept off the agenda.

BEIRUT, Lebanon (WOMENSENEWS)--The New Arab Woman Forum kicked off Feb. 1 under the patronage of Wael Abou Faour, Lebanon's minister of social affairs, and was opened by a speech by Bahiya Hariri, a member of parliament and the sister of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.

It didn't bode well for the content and impact of the forum.

Both personalities represent the Lebanese confessional system, which emphasizes and upholds the political sectarian divide of Lebanon and leaves civil matters such as inheritance, marriage and divorce, among other things, up to clerical authorities. This creates a discriminatory society where citizens, especially women, are not equal before the law.

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Spotlighting these two figures--who represent the system as it is, and not how many Lebanese would like it to become--set the deeply conciliatory and mainstream stance of the New Arab Woman Forum, which was supposed to address the burning and somehow controversial theme of women and the Arab Spring.

The organizers--magazine El Hasnaa and the Iktissad Wal-Amal Group--said the conference would take "full account of the historic dimensions of the ongoing ferment and revolution in the region as it continues to follow up, analyze and discuss leading political and social issues of the hour."

To do justice to the struggles of women in the region, that would have meant taking an in-depth look at the roles of women within the revolutions, their prospects in transitioning democracies and the problems of abuse and harassment women have confronted, and continue to confront, in the revolutions. It would have also meant addressing the gender political dynamics before, during and in the aftermath of the revolutions.

However, such issues attracted superficial, if any, attention.

Irrelevant Topics

Speakers such as Octavia Nasr, a former editor for CNN, and Butheina Kamel, Egypt's first female presidential candidate, discussed topics such as the shifting perception of the "West" vis-a-vis the "East" following the Arab revolutions and the role social media has played, and continues to play, in the uprisings.

These are not the crucial topics for legions of Arab women facing state-sponsored and social violence, economic hardship and limited opportunity for political participation.

Before the meeting took place, Lebanese feminists issued a protest statement that was endorsed by the Lebanese feminist collective Nasawiya, based in Beirut, about all the women who would be excluded and ignored by the gathering. The statement also addressed the forum's content and format, as well as the march organized for the end of the conference.

In a region where the vast majority of women work in the informal economy, with no protection or recognition of their work, where the middle class is slowly diminishing, where women are constantly faced with harassment, activists challenged the organizers' focus on business women and feminine entrepreneurship in the private sector. The speakers who addressed these issues were all CEOs or founders of companies, members of a microscopic privileged percentage of women in the Arab world.

By keeping a safe distance from the real lives of so many real Arab women, organizers ensured that the stated goal of the event would not be reached.

In terms of format, feminist activists also questioned the price tag: $300 for a day and a half.

That fee is more than a simple number. It's a "keep out, no trespassing allowed" sign to all but the wealthy or sufficiently privileged to attend free of charge, such as Lebanese organizations who were invited to attend as the organizers' guests.

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This article reminds me of a documentary "Women Who Make Things Happen" a political film full of life and laughter where you realize that men better get a move on if they want to count for something in tomorrow's world.

To watch documentary online visit Culture Unplugged.


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