Delegates from Tunisia, Syria and Morocco.

BEIRUT (WOMENSENEWS)–The topic of gender research in the Arab region drew about 30 women from countries throughout the region to a three-day conference that ended Wednesday.

But not everyone could make it.

Rania Madi, a specialist in human rights from Palestine who works at United Nations in Geneva, learned that her colleagues inside the Israeli-occupied West Bank had been denied visas for Lebanon despite submitting their applications three months ago.

That’s because Lebanon along with most of the 22-member Arab League–exceptions are Egypt, Jordan and Mauritania–do not recognize the state of Israel and refuse entry to those with Israeli passports or visas with few exceptions.

Madi’s disappointment offered an object lesson in two of the difficulties of studying gender in the Middle East and North Africa: restricted movement and regional politics.

The West Bank has four women’s centers, including one at Bir Zeit University where the barred researchers are from. But Madi said the centers have limited access and mobility.

“Women researchers cannot always leave their own villages. Specialists cannot always go to remote villages,” she said. “As a result of the barrier, Palestinian women have a big problem in attending or remaining at educational institutions.”

Madi told the gathering that while Palestinians are oppressed by the Israeli military occupation women are also oppressed by men in Palestinian society.

“Aggression from the occupation adversely affects women double,” said Madi, who has not been allowed to return to her hometown of Ramallah in the West Bank for 27 years. “Violence against women in conflict zones is often an extension of the gender discrimination that already exists in peace time.”

Challenges Shared

Participants at the conference also discussed the challenges posed by working within male-dominated institutions, societies and legal systems, oppressive governments and religious fundamentalists who portray women’s rights as another Western export being imposed on Arab society.

One of the toughest battles, many participants agreed, was fulfilling Article 9 in the U.N.’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The article, known as the nationality law, requires signatory nations to grant women equal rights with men to acquire, change or retain their nationality. Most Arab signatories to the convention have added a reservation indicating their general disagreement with Article 9.

So far only Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Morocco have laws giving women the right to transfer their citizenship to their children. Only Algeria allows women to transfer nationality to their husbands without any caveats.

The forum–which drew participants from Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Denmark–was held by the Copenhagen-based Danish Center for Information on Women and Gender. It is part of a Danish effort to promote understanding of the Arab world that began before the cartoon crisis in 2005, when a Danish paper incited anger over the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

Conference participants agreed that cultural issues often complicate gender studies. To start with, Arabic lacks a word for the concept of gender. The common phrase used is “social type,” but usage varies across the region. In print, the English word “gender” is often spelled out phonetically in Arabic script.

Women’s Issues Treated as Family

Mona al-Haj Hussain, head of information and public relations for the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs, said that most discussion of women initially falls under the category of family in order to initiate the mainstreaming of gendered language.

“We accept at the beginning to be under the umbrella of family before we can talk about women’s rights in general. It’s bad if we get stuck there,” Hussain said. “If it’s new, society is not ready to accept the idea. The term gender itself is now seen as going against religion.”

While Hussain said the Syrian government is open to discussing women’s rights in Syria, the government is also wary about angering conservatives who follow a patriarchal and strict interpretation of Islam.

While Islamic fundamentalism poses an obstacle to women, Hosn Abboud, a member of the Beirut-based Lebanese Association of Women Researchers, said the often-positive relationship between Islam and women deserved more exploration. She suggested studies of women who recite the call to prayer or practice Islamic arts such as miniature paintings and calligraphy.

Rokhsana Ismail, a professor at the women’s center in Aden, Yemen, emphasized the problem of widespread illiteracy in her country and early marriage. In rural areas Yemeni girls are married off as young as 9 and men across the country have the right to divorce by simply expressing their wish to do so out loud. Women must file a lengthy application in court.

Women have had greater success in the North African countries under more liberal political leadership that have enjoyed greater stability. Morocco has reformed its personal status laws to make it easier for women to obtain a divorce and has banned polygamy. Tunisia has prohibited polygamy since its independence in 1956.

Gender Studies on the Rise

Despite a backlogged agenda of legislative reforms in the region, interest in studying gender is on the rise in the region.

Ismail’s center in Aden has an extensive gender library, in English and Arabic. In 2006 it began offering a post-graduate certificate program in gender and development and is working to establish a master’s program.

The University of Jordan in Amman hosts a Center for Women’s Studies and is the only public university in the Arab world to offer a master’s degree in women’s studies. This year more than 50 students enrolled, including some men. The university also recently approved plans to offer an introductory course on women’s studies as an elective for first-year students.

In 2006, the American University in Cairo, a privately run university with U.S. accreditation, also opened a master’s program in gender studies.

Women’s centers, such as the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World at the Lebanese American University, where the conference was held, can be found in universities from Tunisia to Lebanon. But communication among them remains minimal and their progress depends on the cooperation of their local governments and ability to find funding.

The next step, said Tunisia’s Rahmouni, is for qualified gender studies specialists to exert more pressure on public policy.

“I want research to pave the way for the decision-makers to create a starting point for a change,” she said.

Iman Azzi is a freelance writer based in Beirut.

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